This paper was written for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference held in Lillehammer, Norway, in October 2015 as part of the academic track.
Bringing data into journalism: the IndiaSpend project
By Chaitanya Mallapur, Prachi Salve and Saumya Tewari
As the business of the government expands, so does its accountability. India is the largest democracy in the world- with an elected government that governs over 1.2 billion people. The fact that the administration stretches over such large and diverse population, increases the role of the government.
The government has to keep records of data for its working and assessing its own progress. But such records were only filed on paper making them inaccessible for the citizens. It is difficult to achieve transparency in governance if data can’t be open or made easily available.
The United Nations’ Model Law on Electronic Commerce, set guidelines for maintaining records and saving them electronically. The Indian government adopted The Information Technology Act, 2000 (or the IT Act of 2000) (The Gazzette of India, 2000) under these guidelines. Electronic commerce implies electronic documentation of records and data. This provides an alternative to only paper-filing.
This law was devised to maintain electronic filing of documents with government agencies. Access of government documents and reports becomes easy for the netizens if they are available on the web. Online government data is open in the public domain and does increase transparency in day-to-day affairs of the government.
At times the data and reports released by the government are too technical or complicated for all the people to comprehend. IndiaSpend works towards minimizing this information gap. Government data open for public however, may not be reflective of policy issues in itself. IndiaSpend used this data to weave narratives on public policy and reflect on accountability. Also, the introduction of the Right to Information  (RTI) law in 2005 (The Government of India, 2005) and the activism of the civil society movements such as the Anna Hazare movement- all these factors contributed to a more informed public opinion in India. Citizens’ demand for accountability increased with this activism.
These discourses in public opinion gave rise to the idea of IndiaSpend according to its founders. In this paper we examine IndiaSpend, India’s first data journalism initiative and how the organization uses data analytics to report on policy matters using open government data. The fact that government data is available on the web, makes it easy to bring the source out through web links.
In this paper, we will trace the trajectory of IndiaSpend’s growth and reach through analytics. We will also discuss the prospects of data journalism and computer assisted reporting. We will achieve this through interviews and views of the founder of the organization and the editor, while discussing trends in data journalism in India.
The IndiaSpend Case Study
This paper is an attempt to study how public discourses drove the establishment of IndiaSpend and the use of computer assisted tools in reporting through graphic visualizations, that IndiaSpend specializes in. IndiaSpend is among the first data journalism initiatives in India making the organization an ideal choice for the subject of the paper. This chapter will look at the case study of IndiaSpend tracing the growth of data journalism in India.
IndiaSpend is a data dissemination initiative. It is an attempt at highlighting the growing popularity of data driven discourses in an ever expanding digital medium based on quantitative analytical information.
The main cause for the establishment of this organization was the widespread unhappiness about government corruption. It was started in 2011 under the Spending and Policy Research Foundation by Govindraj Ethiraj, a television and print journalist and former Founder Editor-in-Chief of Bloomberg TV India.
During the interview for this study, Ethiraj spoke about his motivations for starting IndiaSpend-
“People in India showed a lot of emotional involvement opposing corruption, demanding better governance and accountability through institutionalisation of Jan Lokpal Bill (Ombudsman Bill)”.
Further he said, “With the enforcement of RTI act, the government in its wisdom at both central and state level was putting out data online in public domain. The supply of information improved in the form of data with increase in demand for accountability and governance.”
IndiaSpend is a non-profit that is primarily funded by grants and donations. Initial start-up funding came from the board of trustees. The organization is a non-profit and was set-up under the Spending and Policy Research Foundation. Since the cause that IndiaSpend sought to fulfil was starting healthier debates related to development and policy, to maintain neutrality in reporting, the organization was kept non-profit. Today, IndiaSpend accepts donations through their website and philanthropic grants, account for most of IndiaSpend’s earnings. They also receive some small revenue from Google ads. To ensure editorial independence, donors have no say in what is published.
The question of neutrality was also addressed by the editor of IndiaSpend, Samar Harlankar-
“In IndiaSpend we maintain neutrality by ensuring not bringing in any kind of emotion into our stories. We do not even use adjectives or words like ‘sharp rise’, rather we say rise of so much per cent and let the reader decide. We take as much effort as we can to keep the tone neutral. The choice of topic and interpretation of data cannot remain entirely value neutral, we try as much as possible to present the facts and let the data speak for itself.”
IndiaSpend also looks at new NGO reports, social media trends, or current events to find subjects that are in need of further data or exploration. As a result, IndiaSpend is not a breaking news site, but rather an in-depth, data-driven news outlet focusing on national and local issues in India. Data sources they use include government websites, multilateral organization reports, and Right to Information requests (RTIs).
In 2013, a sister website fachchecker.in was set up. This site, specializes in political fact checking of claims made by politicians by using data.
With 5,055 followers on Facebook and 9,888 on Twitter; IndiaSpend also has a daily and weekly newsletter that includes all the articles from the week.
A note on IndiaSpend’s promotional and engagement efforts in different communication modes- these include social media, print and digital news. One can gauge the productiveness of IndiaSpend’s efforts by the growth achieved in different mediums.
India has a population of over 420 million Hindi-speaking people. In March 2015, IndiaSpend launched the beta version of its Hindi website for reaching out to a larger number. The website carries the reports translated into Hindi.
Data Partners of IndiaSpend include organizations such as Janagraha and Praja. Based in Bangalore and Mumbai respectively, these are policy think tanks researching on civic issues. Some international partners include the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), based in Washington and Action Aid India. Collaboration with them has facilitates the mutual sharing of data and reports.
In the year 2014 IndiaSpend become an associate member of two reputed international groupings – Poynter Institute and the Global Investigative Journalism Network.
IndiaSpend primarily started working with the available government data. Initially, the reports were based on the spending data put out by government about its key flagship schemes and budgets- and that is where the organization got its name from.
Data released by the government was raw and complicated. IndiaSpend facilitated interpretation of this data for the readers and used visual aids such as simple bar and line charts to display trends in various policies. The target readers are not only informed citizens, but also policy practitioners and younger, educated, social media savvy audience.
Other than the open government data, there are a number of NGOs, such as the UN and its agencies, Save the Children or Indian NGOs such as Janaagraha or Praja that release data in various reports from time-to-time that IndiaSpend reports about and cites in analysing public policy issues. Similar reports and data by think tanks, industry reports, academia and other research organizations form the data sources for IndiaSpend to carry out their policy research. IndiaSpend both makes the primary information more accessible, and also presents it in a way that is visually appealing.
There has been an increasing interest in data led stories in popular media as well. This can be seen by the widespread use of content of the IndiaSpend by the mainstream media. Every day, around 15-20 mainline dailies carry IndiaSpend reports on their web portals. Important ones include, Hindustan Times, Business Standard, Times of India, Dow Jones Wires, Yahoo News and India Asian News Service (IANS). Television news channels like, Rajya Sabha TV, CNN-IBN also use IndiaSpend’s data analyses in their news reporting.
Another stream through which IndiaSpend reaches out to people is through social media. Among the thousands and growing followers on various social media platforms are politicians, public policy professionals and senior journalists and academicians. With these people engaging in a discussion on IndiaSpend’s reports on the social media, the reach multiplies in their circle. For their reach, IndiaSpend aims to reach not the maximum number of people but the “right people” (as mentioned above, public policy professionals, activists, analysts and media savvy youth) , according to Ethiraj.
Factchecker, IndiaSpend’s sister website does data checks on public comments made by politicians and other public officials in speeches or other statements. At times, only the data related to claims made by the government is actually reverse or partly true or misleading. Factcheck reports investigate such claims and these reports have led to an increase in the interest in data-led stories as they are quick at questioning accountability.
All the efforts of IndiaSpend are dependent on philanthropy. The founder Mr Ethiraj feels that commercial model may have harmed the cause of non-emotional reporting. But in the long run, Harlankar, feels that IndiaSpend may have to move to a revenue generation model for sustenance.
Data are available in plenty for reporting. The government as we have seen, under the constant demand for transparency, have started releasing data in every sphere. Also, various research agencies lay out data in their studies. But the real challenge is the quality of data. The two problems that are faced by data journalists are- first, collection methodologies that include sampling and survey techniques, size of survey, and quality of survey designs. And second challenge is in the sense of fudging of data by the government to cover its lacunae in policy implementation.
IndiaSpend cross examines data from various source. Such reporting of data leads to improvement in the quality of data or at least leads to realization in the public discourse. In March, 2015, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), published IndiaSpend’s report titled ‘Lies & Statistics: Fudging Data in India’s Most Populous State’  (Bhandari, 2015). This report highlighted the need for investigating data.
While Indian media is deeply criticized for being sensationalist, IndiaSpend as we have seen in our discussion with the editor, maintains an even tone in reporting. It is simple- he avoids use of adjectives such as “sharp rise”, instead reports it as “70% rise” and lets the numbers speak for themselves. IndiaSpend also puts prescription for policy in context in the articles.
We have seen in the case of IndiaSpend that the not-for profit model is able to maintain this even tone in reporting and neutrality. Mr Ethiraj said, “Knowing a larger cause, which could not have been supported by traditional model (advertisements and subscriptions). The traditional model would have threatened the cause if we would have gone with the commercial model. The only option was to go non-profit supported by philanthropy.” He further added that “We have been able to change their mindset and they have changed as well. Our donors too had same issues in mind which led to foundation of IndiaSpend.”
Harlankar also reiterates and further observes that there has been a change in the mindset of the donors – “The philanthropists have come to the conclusion that IndiaSpend is on to a very good thing and that we are doing something right, unique, having a meaningful role to play as India transforms. There is no question that the philanthropy in India are more amenable then they were–one or two years ago and primarily because we have used data journalism in specific high priority areas and utilised it to interpret India for Indians.”
 The Information Technology Act, 2000, The Gazette of India, Web link-http://www.dot.gov.in/sites/default/files/itbill2000_0.pdf (last accessed, 2015, September 22)
 The Right to Information Act, 2005, Government of India, Web link- http://www.righttoinformation.gov.in/rti-act.pdf (last accessed, 2015, September 22)
 Lies & Statistics: Fudging Data in India’s Most Populous State, Global Investigative Journalism Network, Bhandari A, IndiaSpend, 2015, March 19, Web link- http://gijn.org/2015/03/19/lies-statistics-fudging-data-in-indias-most-populous-state/ (last accessed, 2015 September 27)
About the authors
Chaitanya Mallapur, email@example.com Policy Analyst/Research Writer at IndiaSpend: Has a Master of Arts (Hons) in Politics, University of Mumbai (2014) and a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from Wilson College, Mumbai (2012). He represented University of Mumbai in the 43rd parliamentary course (Commonwealth Parliamentary Association) at Vidhan Bhavan, Nagpur in December 2013. His broad areas of interest are International Relations, Defence and Strategic studies with a specific interest in Foreign Policy, International Trade, Maritime Security and Internal Security.
Prachi Salve, firstname.lastname@example.org Senior Policy Analyst/Writer at IndiaSpend: Has two masters degrees. The first one was in Economics from Mumbai University and the second one was in Development Studies from the University of Sussex, UK. Prachi has done her Bachelors in Economics from St Xaviers College in Mumbai. She has been a research assistant at Institute of Development Studies (UK) and the Young Foundation (UK). Prachi has also worked for Greenpeace India in the fund raising division.
Saumya Tewari, email@example.com Policy Analyst/Writer at IndiaSpend : Saumya has done her Masters in Political Science from the University of Lucknow (2008) and has worked as faculty in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the Kumaun University in Nainital during 2010-2011. She holds a PG Diploma in Governance, Democratisation and Public Policy from the Institute of Social Studies, The Hague, Netherlands (2012) and is pursuing a PhD in Development Studies from the Tata Institue of Social Sciences, Mumbai.