This is the first investigation into the assets of more than 50 Colombian Congress members, their companies, family businesses, state contracts, their networks and private interests. We created a web application called Indi$cregram: the indiscreet Instagram of power in Colombia. Inspired by the famous social network, this app informs citizens about whom they voted for in Congress ahead of the 2022 elections. This citizen tool is based on a methodology to collect analyze and cross information from more than 40 public information sources in Colombia and abroad to consolidate more than 2500 nodes of companies and people.
Cuestión Pública sent more than 178 requests for information (FOIA) to Congress members. Thanks to our work to access for information in the public interest, at the end of 2019 Colombian Government finally passed a law which requiring public officials – Congress members- to publish their income tax returns, asset declarations and private interests form. This law was passed during our investigation, and we feel it as our own achievement.
Thanks to our work and the law we opened 84 asset declarations, 73 income tax returns and 52 records of interests of Congress members. Congress members investigated by Cuestión Pública were chosen by our community in an open survey.
After publishing, we have received 17 reactions between letters, press releases, tweets and amendment request from those who we investigated. Traditional medias taken our investigations and put them on the public agenda. Also, 48 people paid a membership to Cuestión Pública during publication time (9 weekends).
The hashtag #SabemosLoQueHiciste was a trending topic every Sunday of publication, and we went from 40,000 followers to 61,000 on Twitter, we had a similar increase in the other networks as Facebook and Instagram. #Indi$cregram is our most visited page in 2020 and the first in our history as media outlet.
We made alliances with one mainstream media to spread investigation findings. ‘El Espectador’, the second most influenced mainstream media in Colombia, published more than 19 videos with the highlighted findings of ours investigations.
After published we have been invited by local media in the regions, which Congress members belongs, to explain our web app and investigation findings.
Also, we have been invited to present our application to NICAR Conference 2021 at the panel ‘Decolonizing Data Journalism’. The project also were presented at The International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) 2020.
With R and Python scripts, Cuestión Pública scraped open government databases 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” 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 tweets regarding our publication (9 weekends), 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 standards as OCCRP and ICIJ.
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, 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 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 ‘We Know What You Did Last Legislature’ succeeded in standardizing Cuestión Pública’s investigative journalism production processes. In this investigative series, for the first time, counter-power investigative journalism could be measured, analyzed, optimized and improved in workflows, investigative processes, editorial, legal, design and development processes. Each Congress member who have been entered to the Indi$cregram application passed through a measured investigative, fact-checking, editorial and legal editing protocol. We have created a user-centric web application – which makes investigative journalism ‘sexy’ – and designed for a mobile experience that would inform citizens who they voted for in Congress ahead of the 2022 elections. Our hashtag was #WeKnowWhatYouDid and our slogan “Stalk your Congress member and discover whom you voted for”. The Indi$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 voters. This is the first time that a citizen chooses who investigative journalist investigate. CP has as its founding purpose to investigate the assets of Congress Members. With this tool we hope that citizens can monitor and demand accountability from their legislators. The leaders behind this investigative series are the founders of CP, who in 2018 thanks to a crowdfunding campaign, which raised about 7,500 USD, were able to investigate for the first time, prior to the congressional election, the wealth and conflicts of interest of 10 Congress members in a pilot project, CP has investigated 64 of them so