Exploring technology and data project learnings in Latin America

Paola Mosso

Lee este post en español.

The promotion of transparency, accountability and strengthening of democracy in Latin America is a complex and constantly evolving issue. We have more and more data, but corruption networks and power structures continually generate new strategies to maintain the status quo.

Against this backdrop, the strategic use of data and technology allows us to explore new approaches and find creative ways to face challenges. In recent years, the region’s civil society sector has promoted initiatives and projects that take advantage of data and technology to denounce corruption schemes, to articulate collective action and to demand accountability.

With the intention of supporting these efforts by creating spaces for reflection and learning, a few months ago we launched a new project to test assumptions, iterate on approaches and measure impact. While this collaboration is between organizations and individuals that have already participated in our previous meetings, we’re keen to share ideas and lessons learned as we go along the process.

Reflections on the first community call

We started the conversation with two talks from relevant projects in the region. Yosune Chamizo presented La Estafa Maestra, an Animal Político investigation that uncovered a large diversion of public funds by the federal government in Mexico, and Súchit Chávez shared Guatebala, a Plaza Pública project about the private security industry and arms and ammunition trade in Guatemala. We began a discussion centred around project methods by reflecting on the technical, human and political challenges often associated with technology and data projects.  Below are some of the key learnings we touched upon in our conversation.

Build systems with flexibility

On many occasions, the information we use for our projects is manually obtained, through multiple requests for information or different databases that we track in the process. It is important to systematize the information in a database that is flexible enough to evolve along with the project but that also keeps the information organised.

Teamwork and partnerships are key

It is necessary to build a common language between journalists and developers in order to ensure everyone shares an understanding of the work, data and goals. In the case of Guatebala, seventeen thousand contracts were analyzed by a team short on resources. Although roles vary across projects–information designer, programmer, digitiser–teamwork and clear communication is crucial. Forging partnerships with organisations and individuals that have expertise in the subject are also essential parts of understanding the nuances of a topic.

Don’t wait until you have all the data to start

It seems intuitive to wait until all the information is collected before diving into a project, but one of the most important lessons we discussed was not to wait to have all the data. Instead, it is necessary to debug the data, understand its structure and plan for future data collection efforts–what do we have? What are we missing? Along the way, using information design processes may be useful. They can be a tool not only for the visualisation stage but for the duration of the project.

Document the process in stages

Finally, project documentation allows future iterations to be better. Though many projects might include writing reports to satisfy a necessary administrative function, like financial reporting, documentation should be a fundamental stage of all projects. Keeping a record and filling it out during each stage of the process (as a logbook, for example) can facilitate reflection and identification of learnings.

You can read the complete notes of the call here.

What’s next?

In the coming months, we will continue exploring the challenges and learnings of organisations in the region through a second community call and a learning process with three organisations from the region. We will continue to publish lessons and new ideas that arise from the project and we will share them through our blog, Twitter and newsletter.

If you have any questions or want to learn more about our process, write to paola@theengineroom.org

Photo credit: Christelle BOURGEOIS on Unsplash

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