Rome hacks for improved disaster and crisis reporting

Top Italian media innovators gathered to devise new and ingenious ways of covering natural disasters. What ensued were two days of intense work for the hackathon hosted by Gruppo L’Espresso in Rome at the end of which the winning prototype was crowned for its particularly sharp approach to crisis coverage.

On 24–25 February 2017, the Global Editors Network and Gruppo L’Espresso, with the support of the Google News Lab, gathered some of the best Italian media innovators—journalists, developers, designers—in Rome for an Editors Lab focused on crisis and disaster reporting. This hackathon marked the six-month anniversary of the August 2016 central Italy earthquake.

Step 1: Learn from the experts

Editors Lab participants, learning about NHK’s disaster prevention work using big data

The event gathered ten teams from different Italian newsrooms: Agi Agenzia Italia, Corriere della Sera, L’Eco di Bergamo, Finegil, OnData, RaiNews24, La Repubblica, La Stampa, Umbria24 and VareseNews.

To inspire the participants, introduce them to useful available tools and showcase what had already being done, speakers Paolo Rosso (Esri Italia), Marco Laudonio (Italian Ministry for the Economy and Finance), Garrett Goodman (Wochit) and Elisabetta Tola (Google News Lab) gave workshops at the hackathon. The room also enjoyed remote presentations from Tetsu Imai, director of the data journalism unit at Japan’s NHK and Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza from Rappler in the Philippines.

NHK presentation of their data analysis tool

Tetsu Imai presentation of the NHK emergency setup

In March 2011 an earthquake closely followed by the tsunami struck the East Coast of Japan, taking the lives of more than twenty thousand people. Testu Imai, director of the data journalism unit at NHK, shared with us some of the details of the broadcaster emergency coverage setup.

The basic procedure of the disaster alert system which foremost priority is to save lives, is the following: Whenever the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) records a significant earthquake, data is transmitted instantly to NHK. The broadcaster can automatically display the alerts urging the population to go to safety only seconds after the first piece of data is received. Those messages are transmitted in different languages across the country.

After the earthquake of 2011, NHK used big data to visualise the scale of the disaster and to better understand how the evacuations went. By analysing the data from cell phone towers and GPS chips, NHK for instance managed to visualise the huge traffic jams in coastline city generated by the evacuation (1.4 million cars) and could see when people started coming back to the flooded areas after the tsunami. Testu Imai called this new kind of reporting “data-driven” disaster coverage. Learn more about NHK’s data-driven coverage in by watching Tetsu’s workshop below.

Screenshot for Tetsu Imai’s presentation, mentioning the usefulness of data-driven coverage after a disaster.

This data-driven coverage proved itself to be useful to understand the mechanism of certain types of damages. Tetsu Imai referred to fires breaking out hours after the earthquake of 1996. By picking up two sets of data, NHK managed to link the fires with the restoration of electrical power in households. Those “energisation fires” were prevented in recent earthquake after the population was advised to cut the power to their breaker boxes before evacuation. The authorities believe it prevented the outbreak of fires, potentially saving lives.

Tetsu Imai final words of the presentation

Project Agos

The participants also had a presentation of Project Agos by Gemma Bagayaua-Mendoza (Rappler). Project Agos is a collaborative disaster reporting platform, where anyone can publish either an alert, an information or a call for rescue on a real-time map. The video below explains how it works:

Step 2: Think out of the box and make it work

Each of the ten teams produced a different prototype in less than two days, and presented it—five-minute startup pitch style—in front of the room and a jury composed of GEN’s Sarah Toporoff, Marco Laudonio (Italian Ministry for the Economy and Finance), and Maurizio Galluzzo (Emergenza24).

The prototypes were diverse and had different objectives, different approaches to disaster/crisis situations: browser extensions, dedicated homepage, mobile app, audio feed, etc. While some of them focused on the problem of how to fact check unreliable information shared during a natural disaster or terrorist attack, others were focused on a more useful and practical organisation of the information available either for journalists or citizens: monitoring tools, geolocated timelines, etc.

After a quick deliberation, the jury came back with the winning prototype’s name: NewsLight, by the team from Italian newspaper La Stampa.

In the words of the Information Designer of the team, Nicolas Lozito:

“NewsLight is a browser extension designed to help users identify lies and ‘fake news’ during an emergency. For instance, tweets and Facebook posts will display a red block when our newsroom identified this as false, green if we manage to fact-check it, or if the source is considered as reliable. Yellow blocks are displayed next to social posts when the news is waiting to be verified. We also use grey blocks for ‘unverifiable’ news: You will be able to request the verification of a post by our newsroom.”
Check La Stampa team’s presentation here

Jury member Marco Laudonio, Italian Ministry for the Economy and Finance:

“For me, La Stampa’s project was the best proposal submitted during this hackathon. The jury liked it because it was not only a civic app (that can be used for emergencies politics, and economics matter), but also because the verification process is a very simple one: verification by journalists. It makes the app very easy to develop and very easy to eventually implement in the newsroom.”

Quoted by La Stampa, event co-organiser Andrea Iannuzzi of the Espresso Group’s Visual Lab:

“It was a pleasure to host this hackathon, we believe in innovative journalism and the level seen here during these two days was really high: for journalists to work closely with developers and graphic designers should be the norm in the newsroom.”
Marco Laudonio (right), after the winning team announcement. From left to right: jury member: Sarah Toporoff, La Stampa team: Nicolas Lozito, Jonathan Albrieux, Davide Lassi; jury members: Maurizio Galluzo, Marco Laudonio


Learn more about the winning prototype: NewsLight

Full list of projects

All the photos of the event can be found here.