How France’s Linkurious helped reporters use data visualization to make sense of the Panama Papers

Apr 7, 2016
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The release of the Panama Papers this week marks one of the largest data leaks journalists have ever received. It turns out a small French company played a crucial role in helping a massive consortium of journalists conduct their investigation. 

Linkurious, based in Paris, is a startup developing a solution that helps organizations visualize and understand large amounts of data through an intuitive interface. They already helped organizations like NASA, the French Ministry of Finances or various Fortune 500 companies in fraud detection, network management, cyber-security or medical research.

The company also happens to partner with the ICIJ (International Consortium of Investigation Journalists), which was leading the investigation into the Panama Papers. The leak has exposed hundreds of thousands of shady offshore structures related to well-known personalities, including 140 politicians from 50 differents countries according to ICIJ, and a full list of companies is due to be released in early May 2016.

Back in 2014, an anonymous source offered the leak to a journalist at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung journalist: 11.5 million encrypted documents coming from a Panamanian legal company called Mossack Fonseca. These documents represented 2.6 Terabytes of raw data, composed of more than 4 million emails, 3 million database formats and 2 million PDFs.

But making sense of this treasure trove wasn’t easy. The ICIJ’s first challenge was to treat the collected data to make it machine readable, indexable and connect the documents together using their metadata. Once this initial work was done, all the information was compiled using graph database technology from Linkurious’ partner Neo4J. But despite their massive data treatment  work to make the documents exploitable, ICIJ still needed to make the data-exploration accessible to non-tech savvy journalists, with a simple, visual, collaborative and secure interface.

This is where the French startup Linkurious comes in. They provided their tool to the 370 independent journalists, carrying out their investigation on the Panama Papers, coming from more than 100 media partners in over 80 countries. Linkurious enabled the journalists to find and investigate connections between the different entities and documents represented in the Neo4j graph database that would have been difficult to see otherwise, making this huge amount of data explorable and understandable. Using Linkurious, they were able to shed light on the connections between people and complex offshore structures, slowly connecting the dots together and tracing their assets back up to their real owners.

Linkurious also played a role in the publication of the journalists’ results, allowing them to directly create and embed graph visualizations into their articles, showing the readers the connections between people and these offshore companies. Sometimes a graph is worth a thousand words.

This example, for instance, shows the links between the Icelandic Prime Minister and his offshore company Wintris.

Another priority for Linkurious was to provide constant software support and advanced security features to guarantee no unauthorized users could access the data journalists were investigating. This was particularly  relevant to journalists who are exposing politically powerful figures, in countries that are not defending freedom of the press. Special measures were taken for the occasion. All the communications between the ICIJ and Linkurious were encrypted and another security layer was added to the standard security functions offered by Linkurious in terms of access and user right management. At no time could Linkurious access the ICIJ’s data and they did not know the nature of the investigations being carried out until the information was made public.

That is an important symbol for this young startup, in a country where freedom of the press goes back to the 19th century. The huge amount of data analyzed to make this whole investigation possible clearly shows that a new type of journalism is emerging, and cutting-edge technology is at its heart.