ConfiscatiBene: From a little map to a Europe-wide data journalism project
How a team of data driven individuals conducted an exhaustive investigation into criminal investments seized by EU Countries.
Two years ago, in March 2014, a map of confiscations was built during an open data hackathon in Italy. Data had previously been trapped inside the National Agency For Goods Seized and Confiscated website, but was liberated via the tricks of scraping. This map was the first act of ConfiscatiBene (literally “Well Confiscated” [Goods]) - a project that ended up having a powerful impact on the fight against criminals in Italy and Europe.
A communitarian framework to kickstart the project
A couple of weeks after the first confiscation map was produced, my italian data driven team Dataninja.it joined the project and helped it to evolve as a community-based data exercise. Dataninja.it had already conducted a number of crossborder investigations, like #MigrantsFiles (together with Jplusplus.org), and from these experiences we understood the value of applying an open, collaborative approach to data driven work. Indeed, if your aim is to unearth data in different countries, with respect to their national laws and legal frameworks, as well as monitoring a topic on a continental and local scale, it is beneficial to draw on a wide array of skillsets.
A timeline of the project
- March 2014 - The first map of confiscations was developed at the “Spaghetti Open Data” hackathon.
- June 2014 - The project’s website www.confiscatibene.it was launched.
- September 2014 - We released an investigation into goods confiscated from the mafia by Italian regions. This investigation was released in partnership with l’Espresso/GeLocal, who had published all the regional chapters in their network of 18 local newspapers.
- November 2014 - The project received a research grant from JournalismFund.eu to develop a European chapter that would investigate the value of confiscations across Europe and the impact of the EU Council Framework for Confiscations.
- January 2015 - We began to bring together a European working team to investigate the value of confiscations in single countries and how each national government approached these orders. Building this team was one of the biggest challenges we faced - there was a high staff turnover, making it difficult to advance our investigation. Luckily, JournalismFund helped us form a strong team through its network of journos.
- June 2015 - We partnered with Libera, the first Italian NGO to work against the mafia, to leverage their expertise and expand the project’s scope.
- December 2015 - We published the European chapter’s investigation on December 16 in partnership with Liberation, France3, El Confidencial, Stern, l’Espresso. From this investigation, we discovered that the value of confiscations in Europe amounts to 4 Billion euros per year and that collaboration between countries is very weak.
- January 2016 - We’re working together with Libera to build a bigger project involving a network of volunteers all around Italy.
Main findings: billions of dark money
How many goods were confiscated? Where and when? We’ve extracted the figures to explain the situation in Europe - more than 4 Billion Euro in assets were confiscated per year. Moreover, tthe management of goods is very complex and individual countries do not coordinate or share information. For instance, we discovered a French villa that had been seized was still advertised for rent on AirBnb. We shared this finding with some of our French colleagues and they looked deeper into the issue, conducting further research and interviews.
Not only writing, but also training
We’ve also done a lot of work training other journalists to conduct similar investigations. To this end, we’ve held of workshops explaining our methods, workflow, and skills. This last point helps to answer another awful question of journalism: do data driven investigations have economic sustainability? In this case, it did, not only through writing successful stories but also through running our training courses. By explaining your tricks, more journalists are able to work with data independently, creating more efficient workflows in the future. Have a look at our “making of” published by the International Journalism Network for more information on this.
The project becomes a node and data becomes the edges
Two years from the project’s first map at the Spaghetti Open Data Hackathon, ConfiscatiBene is strong enough to fuel further projects and engage our team of focused workers with additional investigations. Throughout ConfiscatiBene, the team has developed an innovative way to investigate a topic, with its web project as one of the main nodes. Data projects can quickly engage a growing community of skilled people, especially if they are all focused on a single topic - each member may read, discuss, and discover new information, data, and sources as the project progresses. From a storytelling perspective, this singular focus can be expressed by telling a story “deeply”. I’m referring to NewsDeeply, for instance, a US startup that develops one-topic journalistic websites.
Five points I’ve learned since I’ve started to work for ConfiscatiBene
- Work on topics with longevity - these allow you to investigate piece by piece in order to build the story’s momentum.
- Imagine your team as a little community - what’s the story worth for them? In what way do they uniquely contribute to the project’s goal?
- Make a project website under an open license with all of your resources available as you’re going about each element. This will allow your readers to fact-check your findings, reuse them, and contribute to the overall project.
- Don’t be jealous of who finds data and draws conclusions. Share your findings and data with others and at most ask for a nondisclosure agreement until you’ve published.
- Don’t work alone. You are not the best domain expert. Find out who is and ask for their help.
About the author
Andrea Nelson Mauro is a data journalist, and founder of Dataninja.it and Confiscatibene.it. Andrea’s work has received recognition from the Data Journalism Awards and European Press Prize. Follow on Twitter: @nelsonmau.
Explore the full investigation here.