JSK team launches Venezuela Decoded to help make sense of conflicting accounts

A group led by current and former Knight Fellows has launched Venezuela Decoded, an online platform to help people make sense of conflicting accounts about that country’s ongoing civil unrest that have been flooding social media.

The idea began in February, when three Venezuelan journalists currently living in Silicon Valley were frustrated with trying to find out what was really happening back home. A student protest had quickly spiraled into violence and a full-on clash between government and opposition forces. With the government blocking any attempt at independent journalism, Twitter had become the last independent channel for information and everyone was using it — the government, the opposition officials, journalists and citizens. Tweets were flying at the rate of 1,000 per hour, their contradictory reports parrying on cell phone screens. Who could keep up? Which tweeters could one believe?

Mary Aviles, a 2013 Knight Fellow, wondered if there was a way to  make it easier to sort through the chaotic and contradictory streams of information coming out of her home country. Meanwhile, current Knight Fellow Ana María Carrano was tossing around that same question with her husband, Douglas Gómez, who is also a journalist, and another fellow, Martin Quiroga, a computer systems architect originally from Bolivia.  When Aviles emailed another Knight alumni seeking advice, he suggested she talk with Quiroga.  Soon, Aviles, Carrano, Gómez and Quiroga went to the white boards that cover the walls of the Knight Garage, a gathering space fellows use for brainstorming, and came away with an initial concept and plan. Over a few intense weeks, they recruited some additional team members with skills needed to get Venezuela Decoded rapidly built and launched.

Aviles, Carrano and Gómez pulled together lists of sources they trusted in Venezuela. Quiroga, Carrano and Aviles mapped out the digital structure. They found open-source tools to build their site. Quiroga used Twitter’s API (application programming interface) to create a customized timeline of selected Twitter accounts, and TimelineJS to build a timeline of events.

The platform is a reported and curated website that provides daily summaries of events, a timeline, photos and Twitter feeds, in English and Spanish, from journalists, human rights activists and NGOs, as well as government and opposition leaders. News summaries are checked against incoming news reports and the trusted sources — in government and elsewhere — of the Venezuelan team members.

The power of the JSK network 

“Spontaneous collaboration among our alumni like this is the kind of thing we want to have happen,” said Knight Fellowships director James Bettinger. “Here we have Knight Fellows and affiliates from several classes quickly coming together to create something that we couldn’t even have seen the need for a few months ago. It shows the power of the JSK network.”

Coincidentally, the Venezuela Decoded platform launched just as another group of JSK alumni was running a hackathon in Mexico City to work on immigration data projects. Migrahack brought together about 100 journalists, programers, nonprofits and community members who produced 15 projects over a weekend. Migrahack was started by 2012 Knight Fellow Claudia Nuñéz and is now affiliated with the Institute for Justice & Journalism, an Oakland-based nonprofit led by Phuong Ly, a 2011 Knight Fellow. And two 2013 Knight Fellows — Nuno Vargas of Portugal and Wilson Liévano of New York City — went to Mexico City to be part of Nunez’s team. The event followed earlier hackathons in Chicago and Los Angles and was the largest Migrahack to date.

The Venezuela Decoded team has big hopes and ambitions for its project.

“What I hope for Venezuela Decoded is to became a reference site for international audience and media about the Venezuelan conflict, a kind of a landing page,” Aviles said. “ At the same time, the idea is to create a methodology (decoding) that allows journalists to create single topics sites in no time combining crowdsourcing and open-source tools with journalistic skills, a mix between technology and journalism. I believe we can contribute leveraging the power of social media in journalism.”

Carrano said they are intent on not becoming advocates — other than for information and transparency.

“We realized that it was necessary to listen all the parts of the conflict in order to offer basic and deeper understanding to Venezuelan crisis,’’ she said. “That is why we decided to include sources not only from journalists, NGO’s and human rights activists, but also from the opposition and government leaders directly related to this conflict. To track the development of the crisis, we produced a timeline with verified facts.”

Not their own focus

The Knight Fellows working on Venezuela Decoded also are continuing to pursue the innovation proposals they have been pursuing throughout their time at Stanford.

Carrano, formerly editorial products manager at Cadena Capriles, is working on a way to collect and share full (unedited) audio recordings of journalists’ interviews.

Quiroga, who was a systems architect at Jana Inc. in San Francisco, is at Stanford to develop a collaborative platform for news that filters for accuracy and authenticity. He says developing Venezuela Decoded has provided useful lessons for that work.

“The Venezuelan conflict provides an extreme use-case for filtering out a credible signal from noisy social media channels,’’ he said. “ One of the most significant lessons has been, that in the absence of impartial accounts one can still extract meaning from divergent voices by allowing them to co-exist together in a single interface. Our journalistic task in this case has not been to verify the facts, but to clearly represent the relevant actors and their motivating affiliations.”

Aviles, who was a U.S.-based editor for Spain’s EFE News Services before her fellowship, used her time at Stanford to research an app to help Spanish-speaking audiences aggregate and curate news from multiple sources and formats. The chaos in Venezuela was not new to her: She was 15 during a 1989 uprising and had witnessed government censorship in the blank spaces in the newspapers the family read.

Another Knight Fellow, Eric Ortiz, has helped team members translate Spanish posts and tweets into English, while continuing to work on his primary fellowship project — a mobile reporting tool for live sports coverage. And Quiroga recruited UX/Product designer Martha Olmos, a Bolivian now living in Berlin, to work on developing the site with him.

More to come

The team is working now to improve the site and its ability to scale up, said Quiroga. “We want to make it more dynamic.”

An immediate goal is to make venezueladecoded visible on mobile. They also plan to enable searches by words and dates and go back in time to include tweets leading up to the crisis. A Who’s Who section with profiles of government and opposition leaders is also on their list of upgrades.

Inspired by Syria Deeply, an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists, Quiroga wants to add a map that offers “something more than points where things happen.”

The team recently applied for a Knight Foundation News Challenge grant to help fund their efforts. You can see their proposal here.