Want to search for hidden connections between companies? Meet Sinapsis

December 11, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Fact-checkers in Latin America have always struggled to deal with public databases when they have to investigate connections between company owners and other powerful people.

From Mexico to Argentina, it is quite common to see fact-checkers drowning in hundreds of spreadsheets and reports regarding the companies they are investigating, besides having a terrible time keeping track of all the information they find.

Animal Politico, the largest fact-checking organization in Mexico, launched Sinapsis on Monday to try to simplify these procedures. The new tool is available in Spanish and is being translated into Portuguese.

“Our own journalistic work has made it clear that, to process and analyze large amounts of documents and data, human’s capacity is not always sufficient,” said Yosune Chamizo, information designer at Animal Politico. “We needed a tool to help us simplify processes, avoid mistakes and save not only hours of work but also human resources.”

The idea of developing Sinapsis, an open source free tool that is being funded by the Ford Foundation, came up in 2017, when Animal Politico broke an investigation showing that 400 fake companies were being used in the state of Veracruz to deviate 415 million pesos (about $21.5 million) from the local budget.

It then became even stronger a few months later, when the Mexican team started to work on a series of articles called Estafa Maestra and showed how the national government had paid 7.67 million pesos (about $400,000) to 186 companies. A total of 128 of them didn’t really exist nor had the legal capacity to execute the contract signed with the government.

In both cases, Animal Politico managed an enormous amount of data extracted from hundreds of company’s acts, governmental contracts and public bidding results.

“We saw repeated names, partners that appeared as owners in different companies, the involvement of high level officials … Since we didn’t have Synapse, the analysis of these data took us a lot of time and involved several members of our staff,”  said Daniel Moreno, Animal Politico’s director.

“Synapse is, in that sense, the answer to a need,” added Chamizo. “It helps us detect alliances and ‘coincidences’ (in large databases), the kind of information that is usually essential to reach conclusions.”

Users can build a database from scratch, upload files in .csv or .sinapsis format, generate a node map to visualize connections between companies and more.

“With Sinapsis, fact-checkers can detect, for example, the participation of companies, partners, politicians and legal representatives in corruption cases,” said Moreno.

Animal Politico has created a public Telegram group to be connected to Sinapsis users. Moreno said anyone can reach them either to ask questions about how to extract and read data from the tool or just to submit improvement suggestions.

It took eight months and the work of more than 25 people to get Sinapsis working. Now Moreno and Chamizo want to have not only fact-checkers but also media outlets and organizations in Latin America dive into the tool and start cross checking information.

Sinapsis data that is uploaded to the tool is not kept in Animal Politico’s server, but in the user computer. This way all projects are confidential and can’t be shared.

Right now, Animal Politico is using the tool to investigate corruption in the northern state of Baja California.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.