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CAR in Latin America
Kara Morrison
When Carlos Subero decided to attend last year's advanced computer-assisted reporting seminar in Chapel Hill, he was already an experienced political reporter in Caracas, Venezuela.

But the knowledge he came home with led to projects no one else in his country had tried. The projects included an analysis of all 257 members of Venezuela's Congress using SPSS software, and a global study of the increasing number of women in high political offices. Subero did both analyses for his newspaper, El Universal, using databases he built from his own research.

"My first important project in CAR was very profitable," said Subero, who says he is still the only professional journalist practicing CAR in Venezuela. But he says the idea is spreading.

Lise Olsen, managing director of Periodistas de Investigacion, IRE's counterpart in Mexico City, said Subero is one of several Latin American journalists now embracing the computer as a powerful reporting tool.

PI trains 40-60 journalists each month in computer-assisted reporting workshops. Olsen says two main factors are fueling the trend, the first of which is an increase in online information.

"It has become fashionable for government offices to have Web sites," she explained. This has made retrieving government records easier than having to request databases from government public relations offices that often do not know such information exists.

The second main factor is that other journalists have been encouraged by watching some of their colleagues complete successful computer-assisted reporting projects.

"I think more and more people are trying [CAR], showing people who are doubtful that it can be done," Olsen said.

Jose Roberto de Toledo is a Brazilian journalist who has done just that, completing numerous CAR projects for his newspaper, Folha, in Sao Paulo. After finding numbers compiled by a Brazilian congressman, Toledo used Excel to analyze public works projects in the country by state, department and type of expense. He then calculated the amounts spent on each and compared the amounts to expenditures from previous years.

Toledo also used data from Sao Paulos Pro-Aim institute to analyze the causes of death in the city.

He was able to link many homicides to alcohol abuse. Finally, Toledo used INS data to track Brazilian emigrants.

He found the five American states that were their most popular destinations Massachusetts, New Jersey, Florida, New York and California and profiled several Brazilians there. Toledo said each project took about a week.

"The most difficult part," Toledo said, "is always to find the source of good and reliable data."

Olsen said most computer-assisted projects in Latin America are still done using spreadsheets and Internet sources, rather than more complex databases and statistical analyses.

Francisco Vidal, a reporter with Milenio magazine in Mexico City and formerly with the newspaper Reforma's investigative team, has done several such projects.

Vidal analyzed the economics of Mexican soccer teams using data he compiled.

He was able to estimate how profitable each team was.

Another project Vidal did was a spreadsheet analysis of cancer rates among Mexican women.

He found the rates were higher in some Northern Mexican states, and that women in other states were dying less frequently largely because they had detected cancer earlier.

Olsen said another reporter, Claudia Fernandez of El Universal in Mexico City, recently downloaded data from the National Security Archives Web site.

With this, Fernandez was able to decode some information about Cold War KGB activities with a code sheet that she also downloaded from the Web site. She was then able to identify a journalist, a former politician and other former KGB agents living in Mexico, one of whom was still alive. She then interviewed him and the family members of others for a riveting story.

While Olsen admits Latin American journalists have more problems gaining access to as much computerized information as American reporters do, she says they do have one advantage. Olsen said journalists there do not have to deal as often with translating old 9-track government tapes, since most government offices in Latin America use PCs.

And so far, she says, laws in Mexico at least have not made any distinctions between electronic and print records.

Olsen also said sharing information helps reporters get started with CAR projects, since some ideas, like exploring campaign finance, analyzing budgets and comparing crime rates, can be done in almost any country.

"Information sharing is just as important internationally as nationally," she said.

Subero for one doesn't plan to stop learning about and using computer-assisted reporting. He is currently working with the Venzuela electoral institution Consejo Supremo Electoral to ensure campaign finance data is compiled there.

"I have no experience with Access, Paradox or Mapinfo, but it is my plan to do it soon."

Subero said Phil Meyer has agreed to travel to Caracas next November to teach CAR courses. "This will give you an idea about the importance that El Universal sees in CAR."

Toledo also said his experience has taught him much and has given him an edge in a market still new to computer-assisted reporting. "Besides the conclusions of the articles themselves, I learned a lot of things doing this job from operating the software to finding good sources of data," Toledo said.

"More than that, I learned that the computer is the best friend of the reporter. Unfortunately, I believe that CAR is still almost unknown in Brazil I believe this is going to change in the next [few] years. Until then, I and a few others will continue to use CAR techniques to be ahead of the competitors."

Kara Morrison can be reached at (573) 882-0684, or send e-mail to kara@nicar.org.