Meet Your New Best Friend: Hackers Aid Digital Journalists

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Miguel Paz (standing) guides journalists in the art of hacking

Hackers are journalists’ new best friends. They source, scrape, and program data – so reporters can uncover stories that might not otherwise be revealed. And slowly, they’re carving out a place in the assembly line of journalism, according to Miguel Paz, a journalist and founder of Poderopedia, a websitethat exposes the relationships between the business and political world in Chile using publicly available data.

Hackers and computer geeks have to be your best friend he said, because they “know how to do things that you don’t know…You need that person and he needs you because you as a journalist….have good questions. Of course I know how to scrape and get the data out but what do I do with it? That’s where you come in.”

A Knight Fellow with the International Center for Journalists, Paz is one of the facilitators of the 2013 Global Investigative Journalism Conference’s “Hack In Rio,” a day-long hacking event bringing together journalists and computer programmers to use data to tell stories about corruption through online projects.

Paz pointed to Decada Votada as a prime example. Born out of a Hack-a-thon in Buenos Aires, this site shows the voting records of Argentine politicians using data visualizations.

“It organizes [the information] in a way that is consumable by regular people and not data porn addicts that are addicted to political stuff,” he said. “A dashboard like that organizes a bunch of information in an easy to understand way. We are in the business of explaining how things work and why, in one way or another. So if you make that part of your project, you have a tool that can be used by anyone.”

The way we do journalism is changing, Paz said, and so should the way we think about the format and how we present information to our audiences. Specifically, he says media organizations need to think about the online platform with hackers and computer geeks in mind.

“In a television station, any journalist cannot work without a cameraman. In a newspaper, you cannot think about doing a newspaper without a copy editor, designer or person who is going to print the paper,” so why are hackers not part of the online reporting team, Paz asked.

Even I got help from the Hack In Rio hackers, who showed me how to use a free application called Tabula to extract data from clunky PDF files into much more manageable spreadsheets.

“How much did it take to explain that and how many hours have you spent struggling to figure out how to solve that? If you had that friend before you, could have solved it already,” said Paz.

Now, I have a new best friend.

IACC YJRyan Hicks reports on this event as part of the IACC Young Journalists Initiative, a network reporting on corruption around the globe.

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