Revolutionizing investigative journalism with open data

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is a global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.

Founded in 1997 by the respected American journalist Chuck Lewis, ICIJ was launched as a project of the Center for Public Integrity to extend the Center’s style of watchdog journalism, focusing on issues that do not stop at national frontiers: cross-border crime, corruption, and the accountability of power.
The need for such an organization has never been greater. Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government.
The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams.
Reconstruct a database of 2.6 TB of data and 11.5 million documents
On May 2015, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) obtained from German newspaper S?ddeutsche Zeitung an encrypted hard drive with leaked data from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The total size of documents received would end up being 2.6 TB and 11.5 million files. The ICIJ Data and Research Unit, with staff in four countries in two continents, started looking at how to process and analyze the data. The main challenges were dealing with dozens of
data formats, putting them into a consistent and visual database, and then making all this data available to journalists worldwide. It immediately became clear that inside the leaked records were files of Mossack Fonseca’s client database, with information of who was secretly using the offshore world. The final challenge was to reverse engineer and reconstruct that database so that journalists - and ultimately the public – could use it.
The challenges of sifting through an enormous amount of data and coordinating hundreds of journalists required building a digital system that fostered team collaboration and reporting. ICIJ adapted open source tools to create a virtual newsroom where reporters could securely communicate with each other and visualize the complex networks of offshore company ownership. Reporters and researchers filled ICIJ’s secure communications platform, the Global I-Hub, with tens of thousands of messages detailing their findings and advising each other on the most effective research strategies. At the same time, ICIJ’s data and digital teams explored how to present this information in a such way that readers could develop an understanding of the complexity of the offshore world.
Why Talend?
ICIJ used Talend Big Data to easily integrate all the information with Mossack Fonseca’s internal database and have each step documented, so it could later be reproduced or checked by any other member of the remote team. Such work would’ve been painful and difficult to do without such a tool. The complex database reconstruction process and the quality assessment of the project was simplified by using Talend allowing ICIJ to quickly start the investigation with 400 journalists in 80 countries.
By September 2015, ICIJ transformed over 3 million database files into a SQL database, which was then transformed using Talend into Neo4j. The results were then graphically visualized using Linkurious, so the journalists could easily find people and stories that they would’ve missed otherwise.
ICIJ knew from the beginning that they ultimately wanted to make the database open to the public, so they started working on a public-facing solution. The data quality requirements were raised, since millions of people would see the information and a mistake could be catastrophic for ICIJ in terms of reputation and lawsuits. Talend was key for the ICIJ’s data team to efficiently work remotely across two continents and have each step of the preparation process documented.
A cross-border investigation to expose how the offshore economy works
On April 3, 2016 more than 100 media organizations published the results of the year-long investigation. Included in the list of over 210,000 companies across 21 jurisdictions were activities from the ongoing Syrian war, the looting of resources in Africa, and individual offshore transactions from billionaires, sports players and other celebrities. The report also linked company relationships with,140 politicians in more than 50 different countries – including 12 current or former world leaders. Many of the stories were told visually in ICIJ’s The Power Players interactive, translated into five languages and published by more than a dozen media outlets.
The political reaction came almost immediately. Iceland’s prime minister resigned two days after the revelations, France put Panama back on its tax haven list, and U.S. President Barack Obama called for international tax reform. Tax agencies and prosecutors from dozens of countries started investigating the data from the ICIJ and its partners. A member of FIFA’s ethics committee was forced to resign after it was found he was the accountant for other, now former, FIFA officials indicted by the FBI.
The head of Transparency International in Chile, who was found to be linked to five secret offshore companies, also resigned. Swiss police conducted two raids, including one on the headquarters of
UEFA, the body that oversees professional soccer in Europe. Large public protests took place in Iceland and outside the home of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who came under intense pressure after revelations that he was linked to the offshore world through his father, the late Ian Cameron. In an unprecedented move, Cameron later released six years of his tax records in an attempt to quell public outrage.
At least 150 inquiries, audits or investigations have been announced in 79 countries around the world.
Five weeks after the first stories were published, ICIJ launched a searchable online database that featured shareholder and intermediary information for offshore companies in the Panama Papers data
The Panama Papers investigation has found an extraordinary global audience, which was unprecedented for ICIJ and their media partners. Within two months of publication, ICIJ’s digital products received more than 70 million page views from countries all around the world, including nearly 25 million page views on the Panama Papers microsite, and more than 38 million page views on the searchable Offshore Leaks database since it launched in May. The network of more than 100 media partners who published more than 4,700 stories in collaboration with ICIJ reached an audience that likely numbers in the hundreds of millions across digital, print and broadcast. A recent 25-country poll by global marketing firm Ipsos found that about four in 10 people surveyed knew of the Panama Papers; 80 percent agreed the Panama Papers showed there are “two sets of rules in the world - one for rich people, and one for everybody else.”
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