Making sense of data collection during conflict

Conversations with Data: #94

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Welcome to the latest Conversations with Data newsletter!

Before we kick off today's issue, our colleagues from Structured Credit Investor are still hiring! They're looking for an excellent writer with a background in finance to join their firm as a reporter. You'll be writing real-time stories about the European and US CLO markets and tracking new issue news, deal pricing and secondary market trading activity. Interested in applying for this role? Be sure to send your cover letter and CV to the attention of Mark Pelham at [email protected].

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Now on to the newsletter!

Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine War, journalists have witnessed, verified and reported on atrocities across the country, remotely and in the field. But for data journalists looking to delve deeper into the data and find new sources, understanding data collection and where it comes from is essential.

To help journalists meet the challenge, we spoke with guests from data journalism and the humanitarian field with experience using data to cover the war:

  • Peter Bodnar, data journalist at
  • Dada Lyndell, data journalist at The Insider
  • Karina Shedrofsky, head of research at OCCRP
  • Claudia Manili, senior data analyst from

This conversation is an edited recording from our event in June 2022 with guest host Marianne Bouchart, the executive director of The Sigma Awards. Listen to the podcast on Spotify, SoundCloud, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Alternatively, read the edited Q&A with the panel below.

What we asked

Could you talk to us about the start of the war? How did you anticipate it beginning?

Dada: When the war began, I was still in Moscow. I didn't want to leave the country until the very end. Every day before the war started, we discussed at The Insider whether or not it would eventually begin. We collected and used data to analyse what was happening and spoke to our sources to determine if or when it would happen. We participated in the research made mainly by a Central Intelligence team, a group of Russian OSINT investigators. They told us that Russia had been bringing troops and weaponry to the borders since November 2021. On February 24th, it was only a matter of several hours before we understood it would begin then.

Peter: Our team at has been writing about Russia waging war against Ukraine for the last eight years. I was a part of it for the past five years. The full-scale invasion wasn't such a big surprise for us. We expected it one way or another. We started understanding that something was going to happen at the beginning of this year when first reports showed Russian troops concentrating around the Ukrainian borders. This was when we decided to create a project tracking the amount of military equipment in Russian military bases around the Ukrainian border.

Conversations With Data 4

What action did you take to protect your digital and physical security?

Dada: I always speak to people about digital and physical security because I'm kind of paranoid. I started working not only with the newsrooms that I know in Russia but with all the activists preoccupied with their digital security. This was the time to advise people about digital security, what to do with no Internet connection or if the police take our phones.

Several days after the war began, they made new Russian legislation preventing you from calling it a war. They also said you would be accused of state treason if you collected data about the Russian military. This meant that newsrooms that did investigative journalism, specifically from inside Russia, had to leave the country because it was very, very dangerous for us to stay there. As a result, most journalists in Russia had to leave as many were afraid for their lives and their freedom.

Peter: The start of the war was very messy and unexpected. Even though we had plans and understood that something like that could happen, not everything went according to plan. The first thing we did was move most of our critical digital infrastructure into the remote cloud because we had some computing and data storage on our local computers in our office. We also ensured the digital protection for our computers and accounts, access to databases, and everything we needed for our work, which is critical for us.

We also created a plan about how can our team members evacuate from here. We are working from Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. We also had some backup plans on what to do and where to go in case the internet connection and mobile connection disappeared entirely. Thankfully, the internet connection was stable throughout the last four months.

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Could you talk us through some examples of your work from the war?

Peter: We published an article tracking military bases around the Ukrainian border. We used satellites with active radar to identify the area covered by metal objects on the territory of Russian military bases around Ukrainian borders. We also published a piece describing what a battalion tactical group is -- a basic unit comprising the Russian army in this invasion. Overall, our work involves classifying, storing, and making information useful for the public. We also welcome our work to be reused by other teams.

Dada: At The Insider, the team created a YouTube channel from a small ad-hoc studio. One of our first videos went viral with millions of views. We felt this channel could help show what is happening in Ukraine given half of Russians don't believe this is a war.

Karina: At OCCRP, we have taken a different approach to the general news cycle for the Ukraine war. We have created the Russian Asset Tracker, a project to track down and catalogue the vast wealth held outside Russia by oligarchs and key figures close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is an ongoing project with a fact-checked database of these assets. We've recently added another section on reported assets that haven't necessarily been verified or fact-checked. More than 50 news organisations from all over the world have participated and will continue to participate in this project.

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Could you tell us more about the Russian Asset Tracker? How does this project mirror what OCCRP has done in the past?

Karina: The Russian Asset Tracker is similar to other work OCCRP has done in the past. For instance, following the money, getting public records around the world and trying to uncover assets that are quite difficult to uncover. One distinction is the sense of urgency we all faced after Russia invaded Ukraine. Within two weeks, we managed to uncover billions of dollars of assets, working endless hours, barely sleeping, to get this information out. In terms of all of the other leaks that have been released since the war began, we don't know the agenda of who is actually leaking this information. We are trying to go through this with that lens and decide what is worth looking into and covering. And it's just vast, vast amounts of data.

Tell us about and its datasets covering Ukraine.

Claudia: comprises analysts and data collectors active in the humanitarian sector. Our scope covers natural disaster response or conflicts. What we try to do is to inform the humanitarian community about what is happening in specific situations. We have teams around the world that are focussing on crises. We have one team in Ukraine and one focusing on global analysis. I am a senior data analyst of our global team, but I was helping with data collection for the Ukraine data sets. We have been collecting data about Ukraine since late March. At that moment, we decided to build two data sets -- one covering the civilian infrastructure damages and the other covering humanitarian access events. For the data on civilian infrastructure damages, what we track is pretty clear -- any damages related to civilian infrastructure. Meanwhile, the humanitarian access data set is more related to how humanitarian actors can access a specific place.

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What are the missing data narratives that the media hasn't yet covered?

Peter: In my opinion, the humanitarian impact of the war hasn't been covered. We aren't showing the impact on a local basis in specific Ukrainian cities. We aren't seeing stories explaining the problems with access to fresh water, infrastructure damage and how the daily life of ordinary people has changed during the war.

Claudia: One of the narratives missing for us is how humanitarian access improves. It is quite easy to report on the damaged infrastructure of a bridge if destroyed, but it is not so easy to track when things have improved.

Finally, what tips and advice can you give data journalists new to covering this conflict with data?

Dada: Be sure to triple-check everything and always check where your data source has come from. Many newsrooms still don't know how to use satellite imagery and need to learn how to do this and verify videos and images using OSINT skills. It has also become very difficult to maintain objectivity. Many people report on stories that involve picking out certain information to confirm a particular point of view. Always try to be objective if you consider yourself a journalist.

Peter: Try to familiarise yourself with local, historical and cultural contexts when covering any conflict. This can help your data storytelling and ensure your reporting is relevant and doesn't misrepresent what is happening on the ground.

With summer here, there’s no better time to close the laptop and catch up on your reading. Our data journalism team has cherry-picked a collection of books that will refresh your expertise and reignite your passion for the field. Read the blog here.

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With summer here, there’s no better time to close the laptop and catch up on your reading. Our data journalism team has cherry-picked a collection of books that will refresh your expertise and reignite your passion for the field. Read the blog here.

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Want to be on the podcast or have an idea for an episode? We want to hear from you. Don't forget to join our Discord data journalism server for the latest in the field. You can also read all of our past newsletter editions or subscribe here.


Tara from the EJC data team,

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