- A journalistic investigation into access to medicines around the world - A journalistic investigation into access to medicines around the world

Organisation: Civio Foundation (Spain)

Publication Date: 03/17/2016


Size of team/newsroom:small


Medicamentalia is a field research and data journalism investigation from Civio Foundation, a Spanish not-for-profit news organization. The goal was to report on the global access to medicines by allowing comparison of drug prices and its affordability among different countries. Investigating the current pharmaceutical patent and R&D systems, how prices are marked and its impact on the population as well, we also aimed to foster a public debate on the current model based on facts and evidence. The project goes beyond traditional journalism and combines data journalism techniques (to display all the information visually and drawing the key conclusions), traditional reporting (in order to understand and explain how the figures treated actually impact the daily live of citizens), and scientific/comparative analyses of different health systems and the impact of patents on access to medicines. For the main story, we put together, filled the gaps, cleaned, restructured and checked a database with over 45.000 fields of information on medicine prices and 14.500 fields on affordability. The differences in price of 14 drugs analysed in 61 countries were very pronounced even when looking at generics. And salaries did not compensate the variance. This means that a citizen of a developing country has to work much harder to afford the same treatment. For instance, in Nigeria or Congo, buying a box of 30 omeprazole pills costs 13 days’ wages, while it’s between one and two hours of wages in Spain, Germany and Italy. To report on the causes and consequences of these price differences, we travelled to Ghana to investigate counterfeit malarial medicines, as well as to Brazil, to learn about its compulsory licensing system, introduced in 2007. We wanted to know, years later, if this alternative to patents had worked. This research examined one of the major debates on access to medicines: is the patent system the best way to compensate for investments in the drug’s development, and, at the same time, ensure access to medicines for everyone? It proved that the costs of creating a new drug are not transparent. We found that although the pharmaceutical industry acknowledges the benefits of some alternative models to intellectual property in very particular cases, the patent system is non-negotiable. We also found out that the 2007 approval of compulsory licensing in Brazil didn’t make drug companies abandon the country, as was augured by certain companies and governments. Quite the opposite, both foreign investment and the number of patents have kept growing since then. Medicamentalia reached a broad audience thanks to the media partners that have publish its stories and findings: 20 Minutos (Spain), Cadena Ser (Spain), Correct!v (Germany), La Nación (Argentina) and Knack (Belgium).

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

Medicamentalia puts together a main data-visualization feature that allows users to dive into over 45.000 fields of information on medicine prices and 14.500 fields on affordability. A guided-tour with nine highlights helps the audience understand our key findings and familiarize themselves with the data in a clear and direct way. This project takes a very complex social issue, analyzing highly-technical information usually reserved for the scientific-community or health-specialists and successfully engages a general audience with a debate generating investigation. The reader can self-explore the information, check the methodology and access the raw database. The guided-tour infographic was adapted to be fully embeddable by any news organization, as La Nación (Argentina) did. Medicamentalia is also a crowd-sourced investigation with an evergreen approach. International media have been interested not only in re-publishing the articles but also in providing new data from their countries that, after verified, we have added to our database. Journalists from Germany, Argentina and Belgium have provided new key data about their countries, and more are soon to be added. This is only the first stage still expanding (currently to vaccines, with field reporting from Guatemala, El Salvador and India). Organizations working on access to essential medicines are benefiting from the data and bringing real-world outcomes. An alliance of Spanish civil organizations is campaigning to promote a better global access to medicines, relying on Medicamentalia among other sources to raise awareness, advocate for evidence-based policies and more transparent negotiations between the laboratories and governments. Doctors Without Borders, IS Global and other key players have also expressed their interest to use the data.

Technologies used for this project:

The database of medicine prices in developing countries created by HAI is a great source, but it was available only in their website, as a set of web pages with complex navigation. We scraped the data using Ruby and Nokogiri, and released both the code and the resulting data as CSV. We then analysed the data, calculated trends and detected outliers using both Excel and PostgreSQL. We also added new countries (Argentina, Germany, Italy and Spain) using data we collected manually via FOI requests and web research, since our goal was to compare prices in developed vs developing countries. About the resulting web site, where we show the results of our work, it uses Wordpress at its core, with a custom theme developed by us on top of Sage, based on Bootstrap. We paid particular attention to the UX (providing context to the reader when reading the long articles), to the mobile experience (the data visualizations, the illustrations and the videos, all adapt to the browser width) and to accessibility (the videos are fully subtitled in both English and Spanish). The visualization -custom developed in D3.js- is a core part of the project, and allows reader to explore the full dataset, comparing countries using different filters and criteria. But we are aware of the importance of leveraging data visualization as a storytelling tool: that’s why we initially guide readers through the chart, highlighting different findings and insights as they scroll down. Similarly, the illustrations -created specifically for the project to explain how counterfeit drugs are smuggled into Africa and how the patent process works- are not static: instead, the SVG drawings, created by a professional illustrator, are animated as the reader scrolls down to better explain the story. Finally, to encourage reuse and increase the impact of the story, we published our work as Creative Commons and made our charts embeddable (with or without the storytelling), so it could be reused by other media.


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