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4 things to know about OSINT for environmental investigations

How two experts use open source intelligence to uncover investigative stories

In our latest Conversations With Data podcast episode, we sat down with Sam Leon from Data Desk and Ben Heubl from Süddeutsche Zeitung. We hear from the two experts about uncovering environmental wrongdoing using Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).

Sam Leon recently cofounded Data Desk, a research consultancy providing insights and analysis on commodities at the heart of the climate crisis. This includes everything from oil, gas, and coal to soy and palm. Data Desk works extensively with journalists and climate think tanks, providing insights on supply chains. Its research combines automation, programming and OSINT to uncover the hidden corners of our energy system. Before this, Leon set up a digital investigations team at Global Witness.

Ben Heubl works for Süddeutsche Zeitung's investigative team. With a background in data journalism and programming, he works with open source intelligence to conduct his environmental investigations. He started his career in journalism in 2014 and broke into investigative journalism by conducting complex data investigations. Prior to this, he worked for various news outlets, including the Financial Times and The Economist.

Below is our roundup of what we learned about OSINT environmental investigations in this episode. Listen to the entire Conversations with Data Episode 57.

1. Developing a mindset for OSINT environmental investigations requires creativity.

When examining environmental wrongdoing, the aim is to put a magnifying glass on a particular set of trades. This could mean investigating fraud, leaks or spills associated with an unreported event. Alternatively, a reporter could investigate a claim that doesn’t add up from a company trying to solve an environmental problem. These are the scenarios where OSINT comes into play for journalists working on environmental investigations. There is no oven-ready data set that can allow a journalist to illustrate this. Instead, it requires creativity and the ability to use alternative data sources that go beyond what is disclosed on the surface. This involves figuring out how the data links to your overall investigation.

2. Methodology matters: show your work and collaborate with local reporters.

More space to explain how we got to the results of an investigation is critical for audiences and journalists. Sharing the methodology of OSINT reporting can spur collaboration and allow other news outlets to replicate an investigation for other regions worldwide. That means involving journalists from countries most affected by climate change, corruption or illegal mining efforts. While it is critical for legacy media in the West to cover these investigations, working with local journalists using open source intelligence could make a significant impact in holding power to account.

3. There is no one path to becoming an OSINT reporter. Learning never stops.

Many journalists and programmers become OSINT experts by learning themselves. This involves playing around with open source data tools to enhance their skills. To find stories, you must answer a research question. This involves working with satellite data, maps or sensors to uncover what is happening. With the field constantly changing, you must stay updated with what is happening in the community and how fellow reporters conduct investigations.

4. Learn from other OSINT news outlets to build your knowledge and skills.

Following fellow publications is vital to staying abreast of OSINT reporting. The organisations Leon and Heubl keep on their radar to stay up to date on OSINT environmental investigations include Bellingcat, Lighthouse Reports, The New York Times, Bloomberg Green, Le Monde, and The Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

Enjoyed this roundup blog? Listen to the full podcast or read the edited Q&A.

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