Citizen Data Reporters
Large newsrooms are not the only ones that can work on data-powered stories. The same skills that are useful for data journalists can also help citizens reporters access data about their locality, and turn them into stories.
This was the primary motivation of the citizen media project Friends of Januária, in Brazil, which received a grant from Rising Voices, the outreach arm of Global Voices Online, and additional support from the organization Article 19. Between September and October 2011, a group of young residents of a small town located in north of the state of Minas Gerais, which is one of the poorest regions of Brazil, were trained in basic journalism techniques and budget monitoring. They also learned how to make Freedom of Information requests and access publicly available information from official databases on the Internet.
Januária, a town of approximately 65,000 residents, is also renowned for the failure of its local politicians. In three four-year terms, it had seven different mayors. Almost all of them were removed from office due to wrongdoing in their public administrations, including charges of corruption.
Small towns like Januária often fail to attract attention from the Brazilian media, which tends to focus on larger cities and state capitals. However, there is an opportunity for residents of small towns to become a potential ally in the monitoring of the public administration because they know the daily challenges facing their local communities better than anyone. With the Internet as another important ally, residents can now better access information such as budget and other local data.
After taking part in twelve workshops, some of the new citizen reporters from Januária began to demonstrate how this concept of accessing publicly available data in small towns can be put into practice. For example, Soraia Amorim, a 22 year-old citizen journalist, wrote a story about the number of doctors that are on the city payroll according to Federal Government data. However, she found that the official number did not correspond with the situation in the town. To write this piece, Soraia had access to health data, which is available online at the website of the SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde or Unique Health System), a federal program that provides free medical assistance to the Brazilian population. According to SUS data, Januária should have 71 doctors in various health specialities.
The number of doctors indicated by SUS data did not match what Soraia knew about doctors in the area: residents were always complaining about the lack of doctors and some patients had to travel to neighbouring towns to see one. Later, she interviewed a woman that had recently been in a motorcycle accident and could not find medical assistance at Januária’s hospital because no doctor was available. She also talked to the town’s Health Secretary, who admitted that there were less doctors in town than the number published by SUS.
These initial findings raise many questions about reasons for this difference between the official information published online and the town’s reality. One of them is that the federal data may be wrong, which would mean that there is an important lack of health information in Brazil. Another possibility may be that Januária is incorrectly reporting the information to SUS. Both of these possibilities should lead to a deeper investigation to find the definitive answer. However, Soraia’s story is an important part of this chain because it highlights an inconsistency and may also encourage others to look more closely about this issue.
“I used to live in the countryside, and finished high school with a lot of difficulty”, says Soraia. “When people asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I always told them that I wanted to be a journalist. But I imagined that it was almost impossible due to the world I lived in.” After taking part in the Friends of Januária training, Soraia believes that access to data is an important tool to change the reality of her town. “I feel able to help to change my town, my country, the world”, she adds.
Another citizen journalist from the project is 20 year old Alysson Montiériton, who also used data for an article. It was during the project’s first class, when the citizen reporters walked around the city to look for subjects that could become stories, that Alysson decided to write about a broken traffic light located in a very important intersection, which had remained broken since the beginning of the year. After learning how to look for data on the Internet, he searched for the number of vehicles that exists in town and the amount of taxes paid by those who own cars. He wrote:
The situation in Januária gets worse because of the high number of vehicles in town. According to IBGE (the most important statistics research institute in Brazil), Januária had 13,771 vehicles (among which 7,979 were motorcycles) in 2010. … The town’s residents believe that the delay in fixing the traffic light is not a result of lack of resources. According to the Treasury Secretary of Minas Gerais state, the town received 470 thousand reais in vehicle taxes in 2010.
By having access to data, Alysson was able to show that Januária has many vehicles (almost one for every five residents) and that a broken traffic light could put a lot of people in danger. Furthermore, he was able to tell his audience the amount of funds received by the town from taxes paid by vehicle owners and, based on that, to question whether this money would not be enough to repair the traffic light to provide safe conditions to drivers and pedestrians.
Although these two stories, written by Soraia and Alysson, are very simple, they show that data can be used by citizen reporters. You don’t need to be in a large newsroom with a lot of specialists to use data in your articles. After twelve workshops, Soraia and Alysson, neither of whom have a background in journalism, were able to work on data powered stories and write interesting pieces about their local situation. In addition, their articles show that data itself can be useful even on a small scale. In other words, that there is also valuable information in small datasets and tables — not only in huge databases.