Organizing documents? Tag, categorize into an Excel file

by July 30, 2012

Kate Willson, Vlad Lavrov, Martina Keller, Thomas Maier and Gerard Ryle were part of a collaborative team that helped produce the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ four-part series on human tissue.

The series looks closely at the legal and illegal side of human tissue used for transplants and to make medical and dental products. They found that donor agreements don’t just apply to hearts, lungs and internal organs, but also bones, skin, tendons and heart valves. They also found it’s a lucrative endeavor: “A single, disease-free body can spin off cash flows of $80,000 to $200,000,” they write.

The reporting for this series took eight months and spanned 11 countries. The team of reporters came from the United States, the Ukraine, Germany, Spain, South Korea, Slovakia and Bulgaria.

Kate Willson

Kate says she filed more than three hundred records requests for the project. To provide access to thousands of documents, they used Box, an online content management system that allowed them to upload large files. They also used a listserv to share information and ask questions.

But before Kate even uploaded files, she did something that we organizationally challenged people envy: She tagged and categorized information from every document in an Excel spreadsheet, she says.

“Trying to remember what documents you have is a challenge,” she says. “Every time I get a report, I tag it with content, speaker, source and source type.”

She also footnoted information to make fact checking easier.

To create a visualization showing industry relationships, the team relied on Palantir, whose software allows users to analyze big data sets and social networks. The company donated the software to ICIJ.

Another challenge the nonprofit organization faced was funding, Kate says. They relied on a shoestring budget that often didn’t include money for hotels. Doctors at one hospital provided a bed for a reporter while she waited for them to complete a procedure, Kate says.