5 things I learned at #CodaBR, Brazil’s first data journalism conference


A group of data researchers, journalists and students gathered together on Saturday 21st in São Paulo for the #CodaBR – Conferência Brasileira de Jornalismo de Dados, Brazil’s first round of talks and workshops about data journalism.

The event was organized by the School of Data, an organization that offers data training around the world, with the support of the Brazilian Network Information Center (NIC.br), a nonprofit civil entity working on the .br domain in Brazil.

Over 10 hours of events, participants attended workshops on data cleaning with Python, mapping with GIS, statistical analysis, R programming for journalism, data scraping, plus talks on freedom of information, privacy and digital security.

Here are my five takeaways from the #CodaBR:

1) Journalists need to push for open data

Freedom of Information (Lei de Acesso à Informação in Portuguese) is relatively new in Brazil – the first law guaranteeing access to public information to citizens (and the press) has effectively been in place since 2012. The law aimed to bring more transparency by determining that any information of public interest should be made public. It also gave citizens and journalists the power to request any data to public bodies and get it free of charge.

Freedom of Information advocate Fabiano Angélico spoke about how transparency platforms could be accessed more by journalists in Brazil. In a time that newspapers in the country are picking up legal fights with local governments for accessing public data, journalists could go further by using the tools available to monitor power and hold decision makers into account.

Websites such as Dados Abertos, Portal da Transparência and Siga Brasil could work as sources for researching data on public bodies.

By adding pressure to public bodies to release information under the freedom of information law, reporters could push for more open data and transparency.  

For those interested in using freedom of information to request access to data, here is a practical guide by Abraji. 

2) There is a substitute for VLOOKUPs and it’s pretty neat

Everyone who has had to run a VLOOKUP has probably faced at some point a bunch of #N/A and #ERROR results on the spreadsheet. They’ve probably fell into despair when they couldn’t find a reason why the formula was broken. The good news is that apparently there is a formula that does the same as VLOOKUPs – with less drama.

A combination of the formulas Match and Index on Google Sheets work well as a substitute of the hateable VLOOKUP. The tip was given by Marco Tulio Pires, from the School of Data, at the data analysis workshop. The crowd couldn’t hide its excitement.

By using the two formulas, we managed to combine two spreadsheets, getting them to navigate through both sheets and bring us only the data we wanted to have in our analysis. Happiness defined.

A tutorial on how to combine Match and Index is here

3) R is a great tool for visualization, not only for data analysis

Previously, I had a blurred idea of what R was and always thought it was great for extracting and structuring data, plus analysing this information. But R is much, much more!

As David Opoku from the School of Data put it, “R is an environment where you can do all of your data work”. As data journalists we are used to analyse data in Excel and then work on visualizations on third-party platforms – whether it’s CartoDB, Tableau, or something else.

What surprised me is that there are great R packages out there to work with, and these packages allow you to produce powerful visualizations. One that we managed to get a sense of was the JavaScript library Leaflet, useful for interactive maps.

Here is a tutorial for the package on GitHub. 

4) Latin America is doing great in data journalism – we just don’t talk about it

There is great data journalism being done in Latin America – we just spend less time speaking about it. Projects such as TV Globo’s project on the killings by São Paulo police, as well as Ojo Publico’s investigation on political campaign funding in Peru, show the breadth of data narratives in the region.

Such projects show that journalists in Latin America are pushing themselves into telling stories backed by data rather than based on anecdotal evidence only.

Here is a list of projects highlighted at the conference:

  • A Farra do FIES – Estadão Dados uncovered how the government gave billions of reais to private Brazilian universities in order to increase the number of graduates in the country, but failed to do so
  • LGBT-phobia – a project for Huffington Post Brazil highlight the lack of public information on violence against LGBT people
  • Killings by the police – by analysing police records in São Paulo obtained through freedom of information, TV Globo found out that one in every four people murdered in the city was killed by the police
  • #FondosdePapel – an investigation by Ojo Publico in Peru uncovered a network of corruption in the political campaign funding system in the country
  • The real face of desnutrition – Plaza Publica’s investigation showed the real dimension of malnutrition of children in Guatemala and exposed the government’s inaccurate reports on the matter

5) Data journalists need to gather together more

There is a great sense of community in the tech world and it’s no different with the data journalism world. Both reporters interested in getting new skills and programmers willing to help newsrooms with their expertise can do more when they network.

Having the opportunity to share ideas and to understand each other’s’ capabilities is necessary to strengthen the community. Data journalists in Brazil are certainly looking forward to the next CodaBR, further developing the community and its potential.


What I learnt from Build the News

Our office during the weekend: great atmosphere at Impact Westminster Hub

Our office during the weekend: great atmosphere at Impact Westminster Hub (Credit: Keila Guimaraes)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend Build the News 2, a hackathon promoted by The Times where journalists and programmers have the chance to meet up in order to produce digital journalism projects.

Our MA Interactive Journalism team Formula from City University London got a Special Commendation for a bookmark service we developed. The solution aims to help readers save their spot when reading long articles in a mobile device.

I was thrilled with the achievement. The winner team at the Student Category had two professional journalists and their idea was impressive. They developed an alternative commenting platform designed to engage readers in the editorial decision-making process.

For those considering taking part in the next events, here are some of the lessons I learnt from this experience:

Plan your idea in advance

This is our team in a meeting on a rainy Sunday: hours and hours of conversation

This is our team in a meeting on a rainy Sunday: hours and hours of conversation

My team was just so excited about Build the News that we did lots of meetings. LOTS. There were moments when it felt exhausting to spend hours and hours discussing ideas, but it did helped us.

When the hackathon started, we kind of had a route to follow. It saved us time, different from some teams that only had the opportunity to brainstorm at the event.

Know the problem you are trying to solve

City University Students (teams Formula and Interhacktives) discuss their ideas (Credit: Keila Guimaraes)

Your problem is your compass: focus on what you are trying to solve and this will keep you on track. When the hackathon started, we weren’t sure if our bookmarking idea was strong enough. We then decided to bring new options to the table. That was just a mess!

We were lucky enough though to have been asked at the very beginning by a member of The Times what was the problem we were trying to solve. That was the tip we needed.

As we knew what problem we would like to tackle [people losing their place in a long form article and unable to come back to it later], we could start working on the solution.

Have a simple and feasible idea

First stages

First stages (Credit: Keila Guimarães)

Three days before the hackathon, we had a provocative class about digital journalism projects with Adam Tinworth at City University. The tutor introduced us to the concept of “Agile Digital”, a “build and test” approach for digital projects.

In this sense, a digital project is always beta. It starts small and it evolves according to the learnings from the beta project.

Our main learning here was: don’t try developing the most innovative piece ever or inventing the wheel. Instead, prefer a simple solution for a clear problem.   

Bring together a team whose players have different skills
Team Formula brainstorming (Credit: Mattie TK)

Team Formula brainstorming (Credit: Matt Taylor)

I was lucky enough to be part of a great team. Each player had a unique set of skills that combined were crucial to the development of the project.

Hamza Ali was the creative mind. Krystina Shveda was the one making the hard questions. Ben Jackson had the esthetic eyes. Alison Benjamin, our developer, had the technical skills to bring our idea to life. I was the one trying mediating the conflicts so we could achieve a common result.

If we were all developers, or all creatives, or all designers, our team wouldn’t work.

Find a developer way in advance

Your project won’t go far without a developer as programmers are those with the technical skills to bring an idea to life.

We found Alison Benjamin only one week before Build the News and how glad we are to have her on board with us. Without her, we would showcase a concept, there wouldn’t be any prototype.

Listen, listen, listen

If you are trying solving a problem, it is essential to know what people’s problems are. As a preparatory work for the hackathon, we created a survey to listen to readers. We wanted to know what was the hardest thing when reading long articles in smartphones and tablets.

The inputs collected helped us to be precise in the solution we were prototyping. It has also provided us with solid arguments when pitching our idea and presenting the project.

That is it. If you would like to know how our weekend was, check out our Tumblr http://formulabuildsthenews.tumblr.com. We were updating it live at the hackathon.

And remember: have fun!

A final picture: Ben Jackson on the right, me at the center and Hamza Ali on the left. Oh yeah, we did have fun!

A final picture: Ben Jackson on the right, me at the center and Hamza Ali on the left. Oh yeah, we did have fun!