The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Gustavo Faleiros, founder of InfoAmazonia, a journalism initiative focusing on conserving the Amazon, and coordinator of the Earth Journalism Network, a nonprofit that promotes environmental journalism. Faleiros discussed how data visualizations can make stories about conservation more impactful in ways that text-based journalism cannot, as well as well as why he thinks inaccessible data sources would bring powerful new insights into conservation efforts in the Amazon.
This interview has been edited.
Joshua New: You call InfoAmazonia “geojournalism” and you produce a lot of highly detailed, interactive maps to bring attention to issues facing the Amazon. Why do you think this approach would be more effective than traditional, more text-focused journalism?
Gustavo Faleiros: Our idea with InfoAmazonia and geojournalism was to combine data and stories to guarantee that data provides context to stories and stories make data more relevant. We said a lot in the beginning that geojournalism was combining what satellites see from the space and reporters tell on the ground. Now, saying that journalists are doing ground verification—the so called “ground truth”—is nothing new. As journalists, our mission is the same. What is new for us is the scale that data and data visualization allows us to focus on. While telling a story in a text format, I would be limited in how I could represent the scale of Amazonian issues. With maps, I can represent these issues in full screen and permanently. For example, recently we worked with Mark Mulligan from the Geography Department of King´s College London who has developed a model called Costing Nature that predicts the pace of destruction of the Amazonian forests based on land use, road conditions, and so on. In order to explain the variables and the pace of deforestation, we created a timeline that animates the loss of vegetation over the next 250 years. The result is a visual impact that is really effective at explaining and alerting people to the gravity of the problem.
New: InfoAmazonia makes all of the data used in its maps and reports publicly available, but where do you get all this geospatial data?
Faleiros: The data so far is secondary and open. It is a mix between data collected and generated by governments, academia, non governmental organizations (NGOs), and other research institutes. We have, for example, four data sources for deforestation: from the Brazilian government, a Brazilian NGO called Imazon, a multilateral project called Terra-i, and also now the Global Forest Change data produced by the University of Maryland. The data that covers infrastructure in Amazonian countries comes mainly from the Amazon Georeferenced Socio-Information Network (RAISG), a consortium of eleven institutions in eight South American countries. From these sources, we aggregate data for all protected areas, indigenous territories, mining and oil concessions, roads, and hydroelectric power plants. We also work with data from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on forest fires and hope to eventually incorporate data on carbon and aerosols.
New: You launched a project sponsored by Google to provide volunteers in Amazon communities with water quality sensors to help collect data on drinking water. What have you learned so far? Or is it too early to tell?
Faleiros: This is the first project ever where we are taking a position as data creators. So it will take time until we collect a meaningful amount of data, deeper analysis, and hopefully some research partnerships. Right now our main lessons learned relate to the process of creating a water quality sensor connected to a mobile network in the Brazilian Amazon. Together with a start up at the University of São Paulo called Dev Tecnologia, we created “Mãe d´Água,” (“Water´s Mother”) a low cost sensor to measure the basic parameters of water quality. This device will alert communities in the region of the Tapajós river, in the state of Pará, about possible contamination in their water sources. It will be installed in catchments or reservoirs.
Hardware is a new frontier for InfoAmazonia and has proven to be worth the effort even with all the difficulties. As in other projects, we are applying the philosophy of open knowledge and data to create the sensor and share the information. I believe that in the coming years the potential of community monitoring will be unleashed with the help of more developers and researchers.
New: InfoAmazonia’s website allows the public to submit their own stories and create their own customized maps. Have you learned anything interesting from this user-contributed data?
Faleiros: We learned that we can create extraordinary partnerships by aggregating and geotagging other people’s stories. Our main partners are journalists or researchers eager to share their stories and data. The audience that contributes with stories or uses our interactive maps is very small. But I believe they are very qualified, and they see us as a group that can help provide data visualizations to their stories. We have helped investigative journalists in Peru, from Ojo Público, or in Brazil, from a Pública, to create maps or features. In some cases, we partner for deeper investigations, like one on the Brazilian development bank’s spending on large construction projects in the Amazon.
New: Is there any data out there that you think needs to be seen, but that you cannot access?
These data sources would allow us to better cross-reference satellite observation of deforestation and environmental crimes. In terms of law enforcement and improving the economy of the Amazon, this is key data which needs to open to researchers and data journalists. The same concept applies to the city level. Georeferenced property information in the cities is often proprietary or closed even at government level. The potential of combining granular data about households with income, taxes, energy consumption, urban equipments, health access, and crime is just unimaginable. The patterns and trends that could be revealed would be intriguing and sometimes revolting. For those moments, we will depend on journalists to explain what is really going on behind the scenes, and geojournalists would be even better.