by Monica Salazar
When Argentina closed its borders in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of Argentines struggled to get back home. In response, the data journalism team at La Nación, one of Argentina’s most recognized news publications, launched Stranded Abroad collecting information and sharing stories via La Nación’s website and print edition including social media on those trapped in foreign countries trying to get home. Keeping in touch using WhatsApp and email, the team assessed who had the greatest needs or who were most at risk, published their stories and acted as government watchdogs.
Project Goals: The main goal of the project was to help stranded Argentines return home by collecting geographical and health related data that helped pinpoint and prioritize the most vulnerable cases.
Tools and Technology: La Nación used Google Forms to get initial information on subjects regarding age, location and vulnerability. Then the team utilized their Instagram and WhatsApp accounts to directly message and keep in touch with those stranded abroad making specific chats for Argentines trapped in the same location.
Impact: La Nación’s Stranded Abroad project catalogued over 2,000 cases and published over 140 stories of the over 20,000 Argentines trying to get back into the country. La Nación called the country’s Ministry of External Relations press office daily to get more information about cases. Additionally, the team saw people stranded in the same location using Instagram direct messaging to keep in touch.
Organization Background: Founded in 1870, La Nación is a privately owned, Argentine print and online daily newspaper serving the Argentine community. According to Google Analytics, the website had roughly 46 million users per month in 2020. The website is open access, but they still have a subscription model available with about 350,000 paid subscribers.
Project Resources: Stranded Abroad was funded all by internal resources at La Nación.
Here’s How it Happened
When Argentina closed its borders in March due to COVID-19, La Nación decided to focus on gathering the stories of those struggling to reenter the country. Florencia Coelho, a member of La Nación’s data team, launched a web page on the newspaper’s homepage and on their social media channels that linked to a Google Form where people could input their information.
After getting several responses, Coelho and her team searched Instagram to find individuals posting about their experience being stranded and found entire Instagram accounts dedicated to Argentines stranded in a country. After sending the Instagram accounts DMs asking people in the group to fill out the GoogleForm, the team began talking to individuals directly using WhatsApp and email.
With the data they collected, the team started publishing stories, infographics, maps, and video testimonies while also speaking daily with the Consulate of External Relations’ press office sharing some of their most vulnerable cases. As more stories came out, more pressure was put on the government to ease their rigid border closure to allow Argentines to return home.
Here’s What Worked
1. Shedding light on the people being affected
At the time, the Ministry of Health had created travel restrictions so strict that Argentines could not return home. “Planes were returning empty because the government wouldn’t let people come back,” says Coelho. The Stranded Abroad project shed light on the real-time effects on individuals made by government mismanagement of the early stages of the pandemic.
2. Managing information to help the most vulnerable
With the hundreds of stories flooding in, the team was able to effectively prioritize the most extreme cases by collecting data about individual’s risk factors such as age and other diseases or conditions so that those individuals most susceptible to COVID-19 could be attended to first.
3. Connect individuals through Instagram and WhatsApp
Using familiar platforms like Google Forms, Instagram and WhatsApp meant reaching more people and gathering more information. These platforms are also free, making the project’s cost low. Despite these platform’s familiarity and accessibility, the longer people were stranded the more difficult it was to keep in touch. Coelho mentioned one case of an individual selling their phone because they ran out of money and noted a case in which families were being charged high rates to use Wifi.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Rotating responsibilities
Of the 2,000 cases recorded by La Nación, there were only 2 people in charge of maintaining communication via WhatsApp, Instagram and Email. Coelho was one of the two people managing communication and said, “it was emotionally taxing to hear some of these stories— people sleeping on the streets, getting robbed and suffering.” Coelho suggested a mandatory 2 days off a week so team members could rest and recuperate mentally, mental health services to help process all of the emotional stories she was hearing.
2. Providing a separate device to manage accounts and communication rather than a personal one
Coelho noted how it was also overwhelming to have her personal phone constantly buzzing. For the sake of the journalist, future projects requiring such consistent and ongoing communication online should have a separate phone to better address a work-life balance.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
La Nación’s Stranded Abroad project shows how leveraging social media can strengthen the efficiency and effectiveness of data journalism getting more help to people in need.
- Building Bridges – Stranded Abroad connected more than just stranded Argentines. Some people who saw the project offered their home and supplies to Argentines who were stranded in their country.
- The Power of Social Media – Although the Google Forms posted on La Nación’s homepage was the initial way to gather individual cases, they found a majority of the cases through Instagram, searching specific hashtags. Social media is a powerful, largely accessible, tool to help journalists get in touch with individuals.
To learn more about this project, send Florenica Coelho a message on Twitter.