Interview fellowship Latin America news labs Hacks/Hackers Meet Mariano Blejman

All about his work as a 2013 Knight International Journalism Fellow

In the third of our Knight International Journalism Fellow profiles, Mariano Blejman talks about his upcoming projects.

Blejman is an editor and media entrepreneur specializing in data-driven journalism with 16 years of experience in journalism at Argentina’s Página 12 newspaper. He is also a co-founder of Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires, the second biggest chapter of this organization that aims to bring journalist and technologist together to redefine the future of journalism and improve reporting and storytelling using technology. In addition to his Mapa76 project, Blejman will expand the Hacks/Hackers community in the region to build networks of journalist and developers; organize bootcamps and hackathons to use data and increase transparency and accountability; and organize the second annual version of MediaParty in August 2013.

Charting the Fellowship

Q. How did you decide on the projects you’re working on during the fellowship?

Since co-founding Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires in April 2011, I expected to see innovation from emerging journalists and developers in my city and in the region. But the business models in the media are declining and owners are not innovating as expected—and there is also a lack of tools in our languages (Spanish, Portuguese). Only a few media organizations are innovating in Latin America, and building interactive newsrooms is not yet a must. As a volunteer organization Hacks/Hackers, has a problem which is always spreading value but also creating. Journalists and hackers will have to work together to increase the value of the digital content. Having said that, HHBA meetup has 1750 subscribed, and a base of 300 hyper-active members.

In terms of my own projects, I’m building Mapa76/Analice.me. Mapa76 is an investigative journalism web platform for automatic data extraction, semantic analysis, and structuring of gathered information to show relationships in visual and interactive ways, such as through timelines and interactive maps. This tool will allow the researcher to select and compare data from various sources to generate stories (projects), and identify relationships that would be difficult to find or understand through traditional data gathering methods.

The first functional version of Mapa76 extracts, analyzes, and visualizes documents. It processes data from different formats (PDFs, GDocs, ODT, etc.) in a way that permits the extraction of names, organizations, addresses, actions and dates. This information can then be visualized in automatic timelines and on geo-referenced or conceptual maps. We also are able to check names on existing lists, associate similar names—correlation—and compare documents. The prototype also lets the user save facts validated in the same system so they can understand relationships in the future.

The platform was initially designed to analyze documents and compare information that was produced as part of a trial for the crimes against humanity that occurred during the last dictatorship in Argentina (1976-1983). The Mapa76 platform has been thought out from a journalistic approach, born from a need that was and is real.

With the Mapa76 platform, we aimed to identify potential new witnesses for cases, inquire about the criteria used to assess evidence over time by the same court or by different courts, track possible destination of disappeared people, and so on. Despite its initial intentions, the platform can be used for any kind of investigative journalism that involves large volumes of documents and data. The concept emerged from 20 years of investigative research at Página/12, a newspaper that investigates and reports on human rights violations, and several brainstorming sessions that occurred in the earliest days of Hacks/Hackers Buenos Aires.

Plans for Fellowship projects

Q. Could you give us a behind-the-scenes tour of the project?

We will create aggregated value in actual news organizations or new ventures—and promote open standards, accelerate transparency process, and bridge the gap with more developed countries in the use and development of new technologies in the news world, and to create and use new tools for news consumption, audience engagement and business models.

  1. Community Engagement: We will increase the network of journalists, developers, designers, and data activists in the region through meetings, hackathons, and workshops with the presence of local, regional, and international guests. We’ll hold HHBA Media Parties and regional conferences with a productive spirit, and increase the scope of the Hacks/Hackers network.
  2. Data Hub: We will create a data repository to systematically save data sets with information coming from the whole region. We expect scale up the open data movement in this region and create value for Hacks/Hackers chapters throughout Latin America. (This is a project that we’re building with Miguel Paz.)
  3. HackDash: We have a tool to track ideas and people through hackathons, that we developed at @HacksHackersBA, that will be the standard also to fund new ideas. It is a “hackathon as a service” platform.
  4. Data Market: We are making a platform to track jobs and project opportunities.
  5. Grant Fund: We will accelerate prototypes developed through productive meetups or provided by independent work related to media. We will fund prototypes to be finished and create assistance services and data journalism labs to accelerate the creation of data journalism teams.
  6. News Accelerator / HackLab: We are building a News Accelerator for regional media outlets, and a related HackLab for Latin America. All this is part of the process of the News Challenge for Latin America.

In terms of Mapa76, the software has been developed collaboratively by dozens of developers and journalists during 2011 and 2012. We’ve faced different challenges, but now we’re working on top of the Freeling semantic library, the framework is on Ruby on Rails, and we’ve developed some visualization tools on JavaScript, Coffee Script, etc.

Looking ahead

Q. What major challenges are you facing? And how will you know you’ve succeeded?

The challenge of this ambitious program for the fellowship is to accelerate innovation in the media in Latin America with the support of an organization that I’ve been working with for two years, in specific ways. As we see the lack of media innovation around the region and a lot of problems with second steps (after the “prototype moment”), we need to push innovation in the media while also creating value for Hacks/Hackers as a communities in a long term way. The challenge is to build the ecosystem for the long term.

A successful outcome will be transferring value between journalists and hackers, accelerating innovation in the regional media, creating value for media organizations, empowering of editors-in-chief in data journalism, and achieving scale.

One way to measure results for Mapa76, once we are finished with the current version, will be to see journalists from the whole country working with the platform—and once it is open to the general public with a new name, we expect international user participation thanks to our network of connections. (We also expect to conduct and write about focus groups and their conclusions during this grant.)

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