Alumni Q&A: Panama’s New Government Information Database

In 2015, Panamanian media outlets suffered from a serious deficit of publicly available data. Newsrooms didn’t have data analysis teams and access to public data was a challenge. But a media innovation project is ushering in a new culture of data journalism in the country.

As one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, and also one that ranks high on corruption according to Transparency International, Panamanian journalists could seriously benefit from exploring the government’s databases to uncover meaningful stories across many beats.

Ana Mendez, a Columbia Journalism School graduate and a Brown Institute Magic Grant recipient, along with her partners Alfonso Grimaldo and Gaspar Garcia de Paredes, created a platform to address the data deficit in Panama through El Tabulario by Nueva Nacion.

El Tabulario will be the first truly accessible public data repository in the country. Mendez and her partners believe that access to public information is essential. Their goal is to bring together the government’s data to understand the range of information that’s available to the public. They are also exploring the data sets that remain to be collected in order to drive more transparency.

El Tabulario will be unveiled at events in Panama City on Friday, May 26 and Saturday, May 27 and will offer Panamanian journalists a first look at the platform.

Mendez spoke with us about the project’s trajectory and what she hopes to achieve.

“Everything on there will help citizens and reporters get a better picture and a more thorough understanding of Panama.”

How did you get the idea for El Tabulario? What kind of change do you hope it will bring for Panamanian journalists and Panamanian society?

El Tabulario was born out of frustration. As a journalist working at a big newspaper in Panama, I often couldn’t find very basic information -- for instance, how many public schools exist in the country? Nine out of 10 times I would hit a wall. The information was never easy to find. I'd either have to spend hours reading hundreds of pages of government reports in PDF files to find a single number, or I would have to physically go to the comptroller's office to find what I needed. So, I figured, if the government isn't going to make this easy for us, why don't I create the tool that makes finding this information easier for others?

Transparency is never bad -- it's always good. It helps journalists hold those in power accountable. It provides citizens with the information they need to understand the state of their country, and it helps shape policy. Data also helps guide policy so why not foster access to the data that will inform the reporters’ stories?

In light of all this, I partnered with Alfonso Grimaldo, another Panamanian journalist, and with Panamanian designer, Gaspar García de Paredes to cook up this idea. Once we had it figured out, we brought it to the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia Journalism School, and they were incredibly generous with their funding, guidance and supporting the creation of the platform. At the end of the day, we want to contribute to constructive, innovative, impactful journalism, and we hope that the platform will open up the country, make transparency a central piece of the country's value-system.  Ultimately, we hope this platform helps usher a culture of data reporting among Panamanian journalists.

El Tabulario is a 2015-16 Magic Grant project. Describe your experience leading a magic grant project for a year? What are some of the challenges and opportunities available through the program? 

The Brown Institute's Magic Grant is really a unique grant. When you're awarded the grant you become part of the Brown Institute family and you're quickly introduced to a network of experts that will help you along the way. Leading a project of this magnitude could've been extremely difficult because there are so many moving pieces, but Mark Hansen (Brown Institute director) and Michael Krisch (deputy director), were invaluable in helping us set quarterly milestones and made time for feedback sessions to keep us on track. They advised us on anything and everything -- from product design, to data-acquisition strategies -- both Mark and Michael were there every step of the way and willing to give us a hand whenever we needed it.

The Magic Grant also has this sort of built-in accountability system. You’re required to attend what the institute calls All-Hands meetings, where you have to present detailed project updates in front of a lot of people.  It’s great because then those people give you feedback on how to move forward or tweak your project or your process to be more efficient. You’re constantly privy to the words and advice of inspiring people who've made significant changes to the media landscape -- be it design, technology, or reporting -- and you always have access to various media resources simply by working out of the Brown Institute space.

So all those things in unison make the project execution process a lot easier and less daunting. In terms of challenges, it was difficult to deal with a project that relies in part on government cooperation. We were lucky in that we really thought about the potential roadblocks we would hit ahead of time, but every day there was a new uphill battle with a new government official. I guess you can see it as a good lesson in relentlessness.

How many people make up the team leading this initiative? How did you come together and how do you balance each other's experience and skills?

Alfonso Grimaldo, Gaspar Garcia de Paredes, and I were part of the original team. Alfonso and I met through mutual friends in Panama and we ended up working side-by-side in one of Panama's biggest newspapers. At the paper, we often spoke about how we felt like the paper, and by extension our work, was not up to speed with the new journalism trends in the US, or even in places like Argentina. It was at the paper that we first started talking about ways we could change the journalism landscape in our country, and eventually we realized that we weren't going to be able to change the things we wanted to change from within a mainstream news organization. We knew we had to start our own thing. Neither of us had much tech or design experience, but Alfonso had this friend, Gaspar, who did. So, we asked Gaspar and he decided to join us. As we were in talks to nail down exactly what we wanted to do, I decided to pursue an M.S. at the Columbia Journalism School, and from the moment I stepped foot in the door, I knew the Brown Institute was where I wanted to be in order to create this new journalism product for Panama. Given the nature of his background, Gaspar never intended to be full-time on this project, so now it's only Alfonso and me, and we continue to receive support from the Brown Institute. 

What kind of public data will be available through El Tabulario? How do journalists in Panama access this type of data now?

The sorts of public datasets available through El Tabulario will be varied, but everything on there will help citizens and reporters get a more thorough understanding of Panama. We have everything -- from detailed government budget and spending, to a list of public schools in Panama, to earthquake data, to -- my favorite of all -- the first historic compendium of the government's payroll data. Incredibly, the government posts this month's payroll and, next month, it will take it down and re-post a new one, so there's no way of knowing if there was an increase or a decrease unless there's a press release, or unless a person takes the time to collect it each month. So, what we've done is, we've collected that data for almost two years, every month, and will continue to do so, and we'll post it on El Tabulario so that everyone can know who's getting hired by the government and how much they're getting paid.

Historically, if journalists have wanted access to the more general data, like the lists of schools, they've usually acquired it by contacting government press offices or by reading through really big, bulky government reports that nobody wants to read, or by physically going to government offices. But that acquisition is usually treated as a one-off, for a specific story, and the number is never consolidated or recorded somewhere that is available to others or for posterity. It's just slapped on to the story and then discarded. So, in that sense, El Tabulario will be people's one-stop-shop for finding data and archiving our country's numbers. 

What are the steps that journalists in Panama need to take in order to access El Tabulario?

It will be super easy! After May 27, anybody in the world, but especially Panamanians, can type in their browser and that's it! There's a search bar, and the information will be organized in catalogues by government institution. We wanted to make it as seamless as possible for people to be able to explore and find what they need. 

How do you ensure the data on the platform is standardized and clean for reporting purposes?

We definitely can't control what sort of data the government produces, but as journalists, we can make sure that what we're collecting makes sense. For instance, one time we received a data set form the Ministry of Economy and Finance and the numbers were clearly wrong. We went back to them and told them what we had found and they admitted that there was a mistake. This turned into an almost month-long back and forth about what had gone wrong with that data set, but we were able to get them to pay attention to their error and do something about it. It's this sort of process that we don't mind engaging in that will help our platform stay as clean and true to form as possible. Beyond that, making sure that our platform systems are adequate is key. In terms of the ethics of this, a cornerstone aspect is to make sure that future funding sources are as neutral as possible. One of the very best things of working with the Brown Institute is that they don't meddle with content, with the heart of the work. They're as independent as can be. We hope that if we get any other funders, they're as respectful and honest as the folks at Brown, to make sure everything stays independent and honest -- and transparent.