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Fighting for open records in Spain

By Hilary Niles

Spain is an “information black hole,” journalist Mar Cabra said during the Against All -Spanish- Odds. She and software developer David Cabo are taking suggestions on how to fix that. 

Among the European countries with a population more than 1 million, Cabra said, Spain is the only one not to have freedom of information laws. On the technical side, David Cabo described what this looks like for people working with data (if they can get it):

  1. Administrations love PDF files and generally refuse to hand over raw data, text or Excel files
  2. There is little consistency in the reporting protocols of the three levels of government your data may come from (EU, Spanish central government, and 17 regional governments)
  3. Formatting fluctuates willy-nilly in most documentation from these three levels — and even in documents within the same agency.

Great care is needed to not double-count certain data. An EU report might list all the subsidies for the fishing industry from 2005 to 2009, for example, but the central government might report the same data from 2007 to 2010.

Also — and this is an important note for anyone covering EU subsidies, Mar said — the EU may grant funds to a jurisdiction, but that money isn’t paid out until a program is completed. Different jurisdictions have different ways of accounting for this lag, meaning that any data analysis or conversion tool cannot be applied wholecloth.

Google Refine has become a treasured tool, Cabo said.

But the challenges are more than technical. Cabra explained the cultural and legal environments in which journalists work.

First, Cabra said, there is no word in the Spanish language for “accountability.” It’s not in the lexicon or the mentality even of journalists — much less citizens — to ask questions like, “Where did that money come from?” or “Who got the contracts?” As a result, little to no investigative journalism is even attempted within the borders.

Cabra said the “worst enemy” is the country’s strict data protection laws stemming from a deep sense of privacy. So deep, in fact, that the concept of the “right to forget” is now being argued in a lawsuit. The country’s data protection agency is trying to get Google to stop indexing its official bulletin.

Cabra, David and others have looked to tools and trends around the world as models to help them overcome these odds. ProPublica’s tutorial based on the Dollars for Docs reporting has been very helpful, and they’ve started their own crowd-sourced open-records request site a la and It’s called (Your Right to Know).

Their goal is to put pressure on the new prime minister to enact the open records law that has been promised for eight years. He said three times in his campaign that he would do it in the first 100 days, David said. He’s got 33 days left.


Mar Cabra got her master’s in journalism from Columbia University and now works for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, for whom she reported Looting the Seas II last year. She has partnered with David Cabo, a software developer who’s turned his focus on journalism. The two are starting a foundation called Civio Fundacion Ciudadana to focus on transparency.

Hilary Niles is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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