The International Consortium of Investigative journalists (ICIJ) responsible for the Offshore Leaks has today released a web app that allows Internet users to sort through the leaked financial information themselves. And fish out more tax evaders.
Euronews interviewed by email La Nación’s Matthew Caruana Galizia, journalist-developer and data-specialist, to know more about the web app, how it was built, how it works and how he got to work on it.
“For two years, I had been working on web applications at the Financial Times , [ at the FT Labs – the emerging web technologies team at the Financial Times]” Caruana Galizia explains. “Through my participation in a technology and journalism conference in London, I got to know the journalists involved in this project”. The Maltese journalist would soon leave the FT and move to Costa Rica, where most of the work on the database was being done, “kindly sponsored by La Nacion.”
Visualising the financial connections
While the amount of data leaked is unprecedented – four databases plus half a million files of various formats for a total of 260 gigabytes – so is the work of ICIJ team: the Offshore Project saw 86 investigative journalists from 46 countries working together, which represents, according to the ICIJ website “one of the biggest cross-border investigative partnerships in journalism history.” The work on the technical side, to map and analyse the data, is equally impressive.
Of course it also includes the web app, of whose Caruana Galiza is the tech lead. “The app allows anyone to search and explore the entire database of companies, people and places we built out of original leaked cache of files,” he told euronews.
“This is the kind of work that consultancies would typically charge millions of dollars for,” he adds. “Taking big, very poorly constructed databases and refining them into what’s called a graph database, where every person, company or place contained within is stored along with direct pointers to the other things it’s connected to.”
Offshore Leaks web app to crowdsource the data search
“What could be better than exploring the data yourself?” Caruana Galizia asks. After the stories about presidents, senators, dictators, ministers and prime ministers, “we should fry the remaining large fish but also medium-sized fish too,” because “there’s a shedload of corruption at that level.”
The Offshore Leaks’ network sought to be broad enough to reach citizens from all over the world so that they can dig for names they recognise, pleads the journalist and notes: “It’s impossible to do this without widening the network of people looking at the data (…) this kind of scale can only be achieved with the web.”
The web app is the gift that keeps on giving, according to Caruana Galizia. “The idea is that even after the original raft of stories involving politicians and high profile individuals, it will become another important resource for investigative journalists.” He see the usefulness of the web app on the longer term: “Years down the line you might be working on an investigation into a company or individual that you later find in the database. Leads like that are extremely useful.”
The web app, a citizen tool to fight financial crimes
Could the web app be the last step of the Offshore Project? It is up to all of us now, according to the Maltese: “I’m sure more stories will keep coming out of the data, especially now that it’s publicly browsable. Even if it doesn’t produce any more stories directly, it will remain relevant as a reference.”
The app will make it very easy for people to dig, explore and discuss their findings. “Every company, person and address in the database has its own page with its own URL. People will keep linking back to it from blog posts and articles all over the web.”
Furthermore, if the app is not embeddable, “the underlying database is freely downloadable in different formats. This is potentially useful to anyone interested in academic study of the data, as it can be analysed independently using an application like Gephi. You can also use it to produce your online visualizations.”
Caruana Galizia sees the web app as a citizen tool to fight financial crimes. “There are already people accusing us of conducting a witch hunt. But unlike witchery, fraud and embezzlement of public funds actually exist,” he concludes, “and, as it stands, it is one of the few tools that we, as citizens, have to fight it.”
_Full disclosure: Matthew Caruana Galizia and the author of this article studied together during their Master’s Degree in Journalism _