Fact-checking every Declaration of Assets and Incomes of the Spanish MPs

Fact-checking every Declaration of Assets and Incomes of the Spanish MPs

Organisation: El Mundo (Spain)

Publication Date: 04/04/2017

Size of team/newsroom:large

Categories:

Description

The assets and incomes of MPs are a common subject of investigation for the media in many countries. These reports are based on the records disclosed by Parliaments and, generally, give for granted that the information made public through each Chamber’s regulation is truthful and accurate. But how to rigorously report on the assets and incomes of Spanish MPs when you know that their declarations and records contain multiple inaccuracies, errors and omissions? This is the problem El Mundo Data Desk addressed for this investigation. Our research faced three main obstacles: 1) Neither Congress or Senate exercise an efficient control of the truthfulness and accuracy of the the information that the MPs disclose because, as they argue, the “lack the tools” to enforce it. 2) These records are published in .pdf format, unfriendly to work with. 3) The Spanish Parliament deletes all this records from its website when a new legislature begins, making it unavailable for public access El Mundo Data analysed 1,345 Declarations of Assets and Incomes of the Spanish MPs during the 11th and 12th legislatures (from 2015 to 2017). In these records, MPs must disclose their earned income and honoraria, their assets and unearned income (real estate, stocks, bonds, savings accounts), properties (houses, vehicles, etc), holdings and debts. When we identified the first inaccuracies, errors and omissions in these declarations, we decided to contact by e-mail with 282 deputies and 243 senators to clarify, in the interests of transparency and accountability, every inconsistency or gap in their declaration. We also gave MPs the opportunity to a add "extra" information that was not mandatory to disclose but we consider relevant, such as which companies do legislators own stocks of. Our investigation exposes which MPs answered to our information requests and which not. About 60% of the members of Congress contacted and 40% in the case of the Senate collaborated and provided to El Mundo Data with new information on the assets and income that had never been disclosed before to the Parliament. We collected all the information and the new data available and presented it in a web application that enables enhance and custom searches so the reader can sort and filter the data in a personalized way for each legislature. Moreover, it prevents the data from disappearing, making these records always available and accessible in our site. It makes really easy and intuitive to explore this huge amount of data to a general audience, but also aims to engage the increasing readers interested in politics, transparency and public accountability. This fact-checked records provide a more accurate and truthful information that the one provided by our public institutions. In sum, journalism for a public service.

What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?

This investigation is an innovation itself in the context of our own newsroom. El Mundo Data, a unit of 4 people, was created in 2015, and this is the first major data based-investigation carried out in the company. It took 8 months. The feedback gathered have been very positive, and hopefully will renew the bet of the newsroom for this kind of works. We built an app that could also be useful for the whole newsroom, so that every other journalist could quickly search for details -including the exclusive information collected by El Mundo Data- when covering the MPs activities. It is easy to update with new data at the beginning of a new period and has become an evergreen source of reference about parliamentary activities. For the Senate, we set parameterized urls so that the application can load a particular senator profile by default and allows its reuse by others reporting about specific representatives. The automatic data collection was challenging: the content of the declarations of assets and income had never before been released in an open formats in Spain, similar to what La Nacion Data did with the “declaraciones juradas”. This information is public since 2011, but the documents were poorly accessible. We dived into both chamber’s sites and collected all the data available to fact-check it afterwards. And before these records are deleted at the end of the legislative period. We exposed how Congress is not monitoring the truthfulness and accuracy of our representatives, and we strongly believe that reports like these can help to drive changes towards a real accountability. Some MPs have recognized that they make their declaration “fast and running”, carelessly. We also covered new information about the “privileges” -a dedicated cell phone, tablet, car or taxi cards- of senators. And the coverage received by national tier-one media to our finding was extensively positive and contribute to a broader public debate based on evidences.

Technologies used for this project:

The frontend design is mainly build using html, css, bootstrap, javascript, jquery and datatables. We have also used select2 (based on jquery) for the autocomplete search engine for the MPs profiles. Regarding the backend, we used PHP to convert .csv data to .json: one file for each MP (view 'By senator') and one file for each type of assets and legislature (view 'All'), which are the files that the frontend uses to show the data. Many of the basic data of our representatives and their tasks in the Parliament have been scrapped from the web using the PHP Simple HTML DOM Parser library. To obtain the data of their activities outside the Parliament, the following process was performed in an automated way using PHP: Download pdfs of senators activities, convert .pdf to .txt using the pdftotext program and process these .txt to obtain the activities of each senator from patterns in the text. These data were then manually cleaned and supplemented.
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