This paper is from a presentation for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference held in Lillehammer, Norway, in October 2015 as part of the academic track. GIJC 2015, Studies on Data Journalism
Rutas Del Conflicto: Storytelling from Data
Rutas del Conflicto, a project created in 2014 that collected information from more than 700 massacres committed in Colombia, has worked on a methodology that seeks to incorporate citizen journalism based on an exercise of data journalism.
Through a combination of tools including an app for mobile devices, partnerships with radio and television stations in remote areas, and making their publications available on the Internet, the team behind Rutas del Conflicto, which is comprised of a group of students from the University of El Rosario (Bogota) and the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (Santander), created a methodology that has enabled dozens of victims to tell their stories and to participate in confronting the data related to the massacres. Witnesses and relatives of victims have recounted their version of events and how they have survived the displacement.
The preliminary investigation of the facts is based on different sources, but their information is often unclear, as most crimes occurred in remote areas, where there is little presence of the judicial system. In the mass media, the main source of information, there are testimonies of the perpetrators, most of which are demobilized in the process of transitional justice operated by the Colombian government and paramilitary groups.
For these reasons, it was essential to build a channel of communication with affected communities in order to allow their participation in the project.
The research and the mapping data have allowed the team to focus the spread of information in the most affected communities through cross-media production of journalistic products. Most massacre victims have no access to the Internet for different reasons, so the project created a series of alliances with local media and social organizations to disseminate information. More than 300 people have contacted Rutas del Conflicto to verify data, which is then compared by the team of journalists, and to send in their testimonies, which give a human face and story to the statistics.
Keywords:data, journalism, conflict, Colombia, cross-media
Rutas del Conflicto: Storytelling from data.
Use of data journalism and cross-media to explore citizen journalism in Colombian war
More than 300 thousand people have died in Colombia during the last 50 years in a war between communist guerrillas, the Colombian army and paramilitary groups. The latter, a big criminal group that is supported financially by traffickers and dealers and which killed thousands of leftist leaders, signed a treaty with the Colombian government in 2005 where they accept their crimes, reveal the truth and compensate their victims in exchange for having to serve only eight years in prison.
This process of transitional justice was documented by media through traditional formats like news and special reports. Verdadabierta.com, an independent journalistic project that covered the process, wrote more than five thousand texts showing the testimonies of the criminal groups and decided to create a public database with the information related to the massacres, which was given to them by former members of paramilitary groups.
The project received the name ‘Rutas del Conflicto’, and was developed in alliance with the National Center of Historical Memory, a Colombian government agency that produces academic research about the history of the war.
Rutas del Conflicto collected information of more than seven hundred massacres. This is only one third of the total estimate of all massacres committed by all the groups in the war since 1982, according to the National Center of Historical Memory. This exercise of data journalism uses different sources like the testimonies of victimizers, which were obtained through Colombian justices, judgments, academic research and information documented by media.
To organize all the information, the team of the project uses a methodology based on the structural designs of databases from computer engineering to identify, classify and tell. In the first step of the process, it was necessary to identify the basic registers of the database: people (a list of victims of massacres), places (where these crimes were committed) or events (the massacres their selves).
The result of the exercise is a journalistic product so it is very important to keep in mind that all the information is accessible and to consider which data would be relevant for the public. It is very complicated to find the information about all the victims and in some places places in Colombia several massacres were committed, so the team of the project decided to have massacres (events) as the basic register rather than personal or geographic information.
To classify the information, the team chose a couple of criteria directed at showing pertinent information about the reconstruction of the history of the Colombian conflict. The criteria of the group that committed the crimes and in which political division of the territory in Colombia it happened show who were those responsible of the crimes in some areas where there are interests in dispute by the actors of the war, in a specific moment.
According to the theory of the design of databases from computer engineering, since the relationships between massacres and criminal groups are way too many to present directly (a group could committed several massacres and a massacre could be perpetrated by several groups), a scheme with three tables was used: a first table to register the massacres, a second to register the groups, and a third to build a relation between the first two.
Finally, it was very important for the project to have a field that shows details about the events. It is very important in the methodology to keep in mind that the information in this field should not be used to classify information and that its main purpose is to describe, with journalistic criteria, details of the register.
To tell stories, journalist focus their job to search information related to the events of the massacres (when, where and how), the name and profession of the victims, the context of the conflict in the region where the crimes were perpetrated and the confirmed data of the criminal groups that committed the crimes.
The project team published the information on the website Rutasdelconflicto.com and in an app for mobile devices during March of 2014, using several tools to show data like maps and timelines. During the first weeks, Rutas del Conflicto received more than 100 messages with requests to edit and to add information, and with testimonies of survivors of the massacres.
Although the project kept receiving information from victims, after a few months, most of the messages were from academic researchers and from people that just wanted to give their personal opinion about the events documented. Few information came from the victims that suffered the effects of the crimes in the country side, far away from the cities, where the war was harder. Information about the website’s audience from Google analytics confirmed this situation.
It was in these circumstances that the project started a second phase in January of 2015, where the team searched for ways to take the information from the website to people related to the events documented. They did this first of all to continue with a process of facts checking and also to tell the stories of survivors that suffered in some way from the effects of the massacres.
Since the beginning of the project in 2013, Rutas del Conflicto worked with university students of journalism from Universidad del Rosario in the process of documentation of the information. For the second part, students of the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana of Bucaramanga, in Santander, a province of Colombia, joined Rutas del Conflicto, lead by Professor Ivonne Marcela Rodriguez.
The development of the second part of the project continued under the direction of the author of the original idea, Oscar Parra, as Professor of Universidad del Rosario in Bogotá, and as director of the foundation Con Lupa, an organization associated to VerdadAbierta.com and the National Center of Historical Memory.
In the first place, the project used maps built with the information documented to identify places where there were more amount of massacres and travelled to these places to show the communities the results of Rutas del Conflicto. In several of these places there where guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups who disputed the control of huge extensions of land planted with coca, which displaced thousands of farmers through the cruelty of massacres.
For example, while mapping this data, the project team found a town in the northwest of Colombia close to the city of Medellin called San Carlos, where paramilitary and guerrilla groups committed more than 30 massacres in less than 15 years.
Journalists of the project contacted victims’ organizations to organize meetings to explain the project and to give them the register of the multiple crimes committed in the zone, printed in posters and small piece of papers.
During these trips, the journalists also created alliances with traditional local media to broadcast the information. TV channels and radio station of popular music made special programs in which reporters told the stories and opened up their phonelines for people to tell their testimonies.
The second part of the process focuses on the collection of information from the people. The interaction with the victims allowed to the team to do two things: do fact-checking of the database and, on the other hand, get invaluable stories that show how the lifes of people changed because of the painful events and how they survived the social indifference.
Most of the information in academic and judicial researchers was told by members of criminal groups that, for different reasons, could be inexact. Also, many of these crimes were committed in very remote places, where the presence of government agencies and members of the judicial system were practically non-existent. For this reason, it has been very important for the project to create channels with direct sources.
Testimonies of the victims also help to show to the audience that there are human stories behind the numbers of a data journalism exercise. By September of 2015, the project had received more than 40 narrations of victims that have been published on the website in different formats: as video footage, as short text chronicles and as audio files. This part of the project has received the name “Yo sobreviví” (I survived) and was published in several local media web sites besides the home page of Rutas del Conflicto and Verdad Abierta.
During the interviews with the victims, journalists ask them to focus their testimonies in four particular points in order to ease the process of journalistic editing: how was their life in the moment when the massacre was committed, their memories about the day of the crimes, how it changed their life, including how it is nowadays, and finally, if they lost a relative, a small description of the person.
In cases where the victim gives information that could endanger their lives because they are still living in places where the actors of war keep committing crimes, or that could affect their dignity, the identities are not published.
In case there is some information corrected by the victims and confirmed by the journalists of the project, it is changed on the website and the app for mobile devices, showing in bold the text edited in the process.
The third part of the process was directed at giving the people some tools to help them produce their own journalistic content from this experience and their knowledge about it. A few months after the first trip, reporters returned to the place to show the videos, texts or audios produced and with a special report with the history of the war in the town and invited the community to keep creating their own content.
During the months between the trips, the journalists researched information about the historical development and the actors of the war to create a web page with exclusive information of the town where they worked in the two first step of the process. This website has a series of interactive tool like infographs, timelines, and maps with the functoin to explain the reports to the community in the easiest way.
In the second trip, the journalist presents the website to the people and gives them two special kinds of workshops. The first one, aimed to victims and leaders of social organizations, shows them how to check and add information to the site, with the goal to keep building a big database of historical memories exclusive to the town.
The second workshop, aimed to students in the last years of high school, aims to teach them some journalistic practices that enables them to keep collecting testimonies of victims of any crime in the town. The idea is to empower students, many of them sons of the victims, with tools to create stories similar to those produced by the journalists months before. They do basic exercises to learn how to interview, to write a text and to make a video or an audio fragment that tells the stories of their relatives and neighbors.
Finally, the journalist explains the people from the town how to put the information on their website. The only restriction to publish it is that it should be confirmed with data related to when, where and how the crimes were comitted and the names of the victims. Any reference to those who commited the murders should be supported by a judicial sentences.
At the end of September of 2015, there are five sites in construction about the towns visited previously, and they will be public on the web at the beginning of October. Rutas del Conflicto has visited more than 20 towns in different regions of Colombia and in each of these cases they applied the same process: to create sites and to share the results of their work with the communities.
The journalists involved in all stages of the process are last year students of the universities of Rosario in Bogota, and Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Bucaramanga, directed by professors Ivonne Rodriguez and Oscar Parra, who have more than five years of experience documenting the war in Colombia. Both universities also provided the technological equipment to record and edit the audiovisual content produced for Rutas del Conflicto.
In the mean time, the data journalism exercise continues with adding the rest of the documentation of the roughly 1.200 massacres to the database.
Download Presentation Storytelling from data