News - OpenInterests.eu: four databases in one
Hi Friedrich. Can you first tell us what you do for a living?
The past year I worked at Spiegel Online in Germany as a technologist through a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellowship. I am also getting some open data communities off the ground in Germany.
Would you say you’re a programmer or a journalist?
Hm… Well, maybe a developer more than a journalist, but let me just say that I don’t like to think in these categories. We shouldn’t put so much emphasis on the distinction between the two. It makes journalists think that they’ll never be able to deal with data without help, or developers that they cannot themselves find a good story out of a dataset, which doesn’t make sense really. It’s sort of like a journalist saying: “I’ll never be a telephone user, because I do all my interviews face-to-face.” Let’s have a more pragmatic approach about it.
You were one of the most enthusiastic DHC participants last year. What do you like about the conference?
I go to a lot of conferences on journalism that maybe have too much of a general focus. What I like about the Dataharvest is that it’s topical. It’s not just a conference about data journalism, but about data journalism in Europe. Europe is such a complex institution, that quality journalism is indispensible to keep society informed. I’m happy that at the Dataharvest I can get together with people who are actually investigating stuff, instead of just recycling AP news.
This year you’ll be bringing a very interesting project that you’ve been working on to Dataharvest+. Can you let us in on it?
I’ve been working on an open data platform, OpenInterests.eu. It is still in an early development stage, but I think it will be interesting to discuss at the conference. The platform basically combines different databases of political and commercial actors related to the European Union into one searchable dataset. The search engine allows you to quickly find information on companies’, people’s and institutions’ activities in a European context.
OpenInterests.eu links four databases: the European lobby register and the register of Expert Group membership (both containing the data of the European Parliament as well as the European Commission), the Commission’s Financial Transparency System keeping track of its expenditures, and the European public procurement journal TED (Tenders Electronic Daily).
On of the things that you can do with a combined dataset like this one is of course check if any people or organisations come up in two or more of the separate databases. We have for example found names of people who are active as lobbyists, but also members of expert groups. It’s likely that those instances can be explained, but in some cases it is at least questionable…
Do you have any idea yet about what you’ll be doing with them at Dataharvest+?
We don’t really know yet in what format we will be tackling OpenInterests.eu at the conference, but it might be similar to the way Farmsubsidy.org has been doing it the past editions. That would mean getting interested people together in a room to discuss and search the data looking for good stories.
What fascinates you about programmers and journalists working together?
I’m really interested in data because they let you look at institutions and governments in a whole new way. The EU is a really technocratic system that is not easy to check. It offers a blank slate in terms of government oversight. This creates a chance to re-design the technical and institutional architecture of how we cover government: what role can technology and data play in this? Without making use of data, checking institutions is like looking at a bunch of footsteps; it doesn’t tell you much if you want to track a route. To turn separate facts into a story, a narrative, you have to take a lot more into account, you have to look at context. Data allows you to do that.
Finally, I’ve been wondering about this since last year… Where does your name ‘pudo’ come from?
That’s just something that my friends called me in high school – it was the name of some singer in Germany – and I decided to stick with it. But I like it: it’s only four letters, which is good, and it stands out. Sort of. (laughs)
By Rafael Njotea