This is the 1st web application revealing the assets, business & network of more than 75 Congress members, chosen by the audience on two open surveys. We exposed their companies, family businesses, state contracts, their networks, and private interests to improve citizens’ decision-making. Indi$cregram: the indiscreet Instagram of power in Colombia. Inspired by the social network, this app informs citizens about really whom they voted for in Congress ahead of the 2022 elections. This tool is based on a methodology to collect, analyze and cross information from 40 public information sources in Colombia and abroad to consolidate around 3500 entities.
Due to Juan Diego Gómez’ investigation published on Indi$cregram, the current president of the Senate, sued Claudia Báez and Diana Salinas, co-founders of Cuestión Pública criminally in the Attorney General’s Office, alleging slander. Two judges have previously ruled in our favor in two legal actions undertaken by the senator. Cuestión Pública was judicially harassed by two of the congress members under investigation, and we got many reactions by them regarding our revelations on social media.
Mainstream medias taken our investigations and put them on the public agenda, also local media republished them regarding their representatives. Three Congress members were forced to launched press released after publication (S1,S2), one of them is a recognized presidential candidate (Petro).
Also, 48 people paid membership during publication time (1S), and we increased the membership rate to 10% during the second season.
#Indi$cregram is our most visited page in CP history with 261.336 unique pageviews.
The project was presented as one of the benchmarks in data journalism at NICAR21, the continent’s most important data and research conference organized by IRE in the United States. Indi$cregram was taken as a model to explain what data teams in the U.S. and Europe can learn to do inclusive data journalism.
We sent more than 198 (FOIA) to Congress members (two seasons). Thanks to our work to access information (started 2018), at the end of 2019 Colombian Government finally passed a law requiring public officials – Congress members- to publish their income tax returns, asset declarations, and private interests form. We feel it as our own achievement.
Thanks to our work and the law we opened, so far, 122 asset declarations, 109 income tax returns, and 76 records of interests of Congress members.
Cuestión Pública scraped open government databases, through R and Python scripts, for the massive extraction of contracting information, campaigns funding, and laws to then cross-reference this information and identify connections on suspected relationships between congressional representatives in its networks and findings on looting public procurement and other irregularities. All the data were consolidated in Google Sheets for easy information visualization and integration with the web platform.
“We know what you did last legislature period” databases were built in Google Sheets files which connect with a test environment page where we made all the changes and updates before migrated it to the public web app page. This is possible thanks to a script written within Google Apps Script environment that works like a custom API for the data. Also, we created an application ‘made to order’ to cross our list of references with procurement Colombian system API.
As we were under a pandemic crisis all the communications and team operation were managed trough Slack platform, and we shared files also and resources in Google Drive There we consolidated huge databases in order to improve investigation journalism operation processes.
What was the hardest part of this project?
The hardest part to carry out this project was to handle the judicial harassment during publication from the Congress members and its network. Due to reveals that linked Congress members with criminal networks, ‘narcos’, clientelism and nepotism practices, we received a lot of letters, amendment requests and agressive tweets regarding our publication, our legal team responded accordingly.
Due to the high harassment received, we make our methodology stronger in the fact-checking process to avoid unjustified replies to our work. Today, our fact-checking method reach high international standards.
In the other side, the learning curve to acquire our innovative investigation methodology takes time, because we investigate each Congress member under the same methodology through eight approaches: 1) ownership of real state assets, 2) family business, 3) business partners, 4) campaign contributors and family members which contract with the State, 5) Court electronic records, 6) conflict of interest in legislative activity, 7) Congress member network, and 8) transparency.
Due to the huge numbers of technical tools, digital investigation shortcuts, cross-reference databases that we use, and the time constraint to the release, training new journalists in digital forensics techniques, investigation, and data journalism made the project getting longer to finish its first season.
Also, as we are a small newsroom, we had to deal with a large interdisciplinary team composed by employees part-time and full time due to a narrow budget assigned to it. Coordinating those schedules was hard to match heading to date of publication.
Finally, it is a challenge to release such a huge bunch of data and facts, using understandable language, safeguarding the investigation from a legal point of view, and showing citizens how political power works in Colombia.
What can others learn from this project?
The project succeeded in standardizing Cuestión Pública’s investigative and data-journalism production processes. In this investigative series, investigative journalism could be measured, analyzed, optimized, and improved in workflows, investigative processes, editorial, legal, design, and development processes. Each Congress member who has been entered to the Indi$cregram application passed through an investigative, a fact-checking, an editorial, and a legal editing protocol measured.
We have created a user-centric web application – which makes investigative journalism ‘sexy’. It was designed for a mobile experience that would inform citizens who they voted for in Congress ahead of the 2022 elections. Indi$cregram app hacked consume habits of the audience (scroll down on Social Media) and replace the content with public interest information. The hashtag was #SabemosLoQueHiciste and our slogan was “Stalk your Congress member and discover whom you really voted for”.
The Indi$cregram considered several stages of publication: 1) journalistic research with data collection through open-source, reporting, data journalism techniques, and digital forensic journalism; 2) information verification to shield investigation with evidence; 3) editorial stage; 4) legal editing and proofreading.
Cuestión Pública (CP) managed to standardize the investigation processes and create a unique, sophisticated, evolving, replicable, measurable, scalable, and deep methodology.
The Congress members investigated -from all political strands-were chosen by our community in an open poll with 522 (S1) and 215 voters (S2). This is the first time that a citizen decides who journalists investigate.