How a small news site built an innovative data project to visualise the impact of climate change on Uruguay's capital
La ciudad sumergida (The submerged city), an investigation produced by Uruguayan science and technology news site Amenaza Roboto, is one of the winners of this year’s Sigma Awards for data journalism. The project uses maps of the country’s capital, Montevideo, to create impressive visualisations of the impact sea level rises are predicted to have on the city and its infrastructure. The project is a first of its kind for Uruguay, a small South American country in which data journalism is still a novelty. It is also a good example of a way news outlets can investigate and communicate the disastrous effects of climate change in local communities.
I spoke to Miguel Dobrich, a journalist, educator and digital entrepreneur who worked on the project together with colleagues Gabriel Farías, Natalie Aubet and Nahuel Lamas, to find out what lessons other outlets can take from this project and from Amenaza Roboto’s experiments with analysing public data, collaborating with scientists, and keeping the focus on their communities.
Dobrich is the CEO of Dobcast, a network of podcasts and premium content for the Spanish-speaking world. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of Amenaza Roboto, which is operated by Dobcast Media, and a member of the second cohort of our Oxford Climate Journalism Network.
Q. Describe La ciudad sumergida in a few words.
A. For the first time in Uruguay’s history, a team of scientists and journalists analysed different databases on the flood line and its impact on the population and fundamental facilities on the coastline of Montevideo, the capital. The investigation found that the country’s critical infrastructures, the most vulnerable neighbourhoods and the wealthiest ones are at risk of being flooded if the effects of climate change are not curbed. Amenaza Roboto’s team developed a data analysis methodology that uncovered relevant information for citizens hidden in public documents of the Uruguayan State.
Q. What techniques did you use in your investigation?
A. One of the goals of the investigation was to calculate the population exposed to flood hazards due to sea level rise in Montevideo. We used data downloaded from the National Environmental Observatory, the National Institute of Statistics, the Ministry of Social Development, and the Municipality of Montevideo. Flood surfaces were extracted from the National Adaptation Plan for climate change and variability of coastal zones in Uruguay (2021). The investigation was conducted in four stages: (1) data acquisition, (2) development of an integrated database, (3) generation of thematic maps, and (4) narrative.
Q. This was your first project for the Amenaza Roboto vertical: what were some of the challenges you faced?
A. Many of the databases were not standardised. They were in different formats. There were also contradictions between government agencies. For example, one government entity considered that some datasets weren't supposed to be public because they considered that they had sensitive data. But when you went to other government agencies, you could access them and they were open data and public. So we had to navigate that bureaucratic maze. In some cases we needed to ask for information [through a freedom of information request system], in others there was this amazing website and the data was there. Although Uruguay has this open data policy, it's not working in the best way possible.
There's no data journalism culture in Uruguay because it is expensive. That's why we needed to talk with colleagues from Spain, the US, Chile and Argentina. As data journalism is not prevalent in Uruguay, we needed to come up with an international team. We worked with two geologists: Nathalie from Uruguay and Nahuel from Argentina. The designer who we worked with is from Mexico. So it was a beautiful multicultural experience. And it was a pretty large group of people for us because we were seven or eight people working on this investigation for a couple of months.
Q. How was working as a team of journalists and scientists? What advice would you offer about collaborating with scientists?
A. We try to navigate through the differences with humour. So we try to spend lots of time explaining to each other the challenges that we have. And we are students in this field. We try to be open with the people we interview, we try to be open with scientists. So there's always this feedback loop between us and them. There's no us and them really. We work as a team. We speak a lot on the phone. We have Zoom calls. We gather to grab a pizza. We try to spend as much time as possible together before we start the investigation, during the investigation, and also after the investigation.
When you run a small newsroom, you always have to be in beta mode. So you must try, measure, and iterate. So it's always like this feedback loop to try to better serve the communities that we're trying to serve.
Q. How did you promote your investigation once published to make sure it had as wide a reach as possible?
A. We always try to plan. So when we think about the investigation, we think about how we can have a better reach. So we did presentations at universities and we shared our investigation with colleagues, and that's why our investigation ended up being cited in newspapers, TV shows, radio shows, and different journalistic entities. I was also part of the second cohort of the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. We embrace sharing open data. So we created this open database so other journalists and scientists can go beyond our work and also can share their knowledge, and proofread our data.
Q. What’s next for Amenaza Roboto?
A. After this investigation, we got the Pulitzer grant. So we are currently working on a labour and climate investigation, which is way more complex than the one we did for La ciudad sumergida. I'm happy but stressed as well because it's a story that goes from the southeast of Uruguay to the southwest. We are focusing on artisanal fishermen that fish shrimp and how they were affected by the droughts this year. In San Jose, we're focusing on school teachers that work in zones that are projected to be underwater. And workers that work in chemical plants are also going to be affected. So this is way more complex than the first story that was only in Montevideo.
We're also using technology that we've never used before, like photogrammetry and LiDAR, so we're using drones. It is super complex. So we always try to learn as fast as we can and start with building the best team possible. And we have an amazing team. And that's what La ciudad sumergida left us, we got the chance to build an amazing group with scientists, and we are still working with them in this new, more complex investigation.
Q. You say your focus is to serve communities, how are you working with them after the publication of your investigations?
A. We have a plan to present the results and explain them to them. For example, with the artisanal fishermen in our next story, we're going to go to Valizas in Rocha, which is three hours and a half away from Montevideo by car, to explain what we've learned, because we have lots of knowledge that's linked to their practice.
We want to share the scientific knowledge because their livelihood is going to be affected not only by droughts but also by El Niño which is projected to be in South America by November. Droughts and floods are really harmful to their livelihood. So we're going to try to explain all that together, to share time with them. The same with teachers, many of them didn't know that their schools were in zones that were projected to be flooded, which is crazy.
One of our objectives with the investigations that we do is to empower these communities so we can change the current policies. Climate change affects women, kids, and elderly people. We need to have better policies.
And one of the greatest satisfactions of this investigation is that one of the juries at the Sigma Awards told us that she's already sharing our methodology in the Philippines. And we got a call from a laboratório cívico in Brazil, Visão Coop: they were inspired by our work and they're going to produce investigations that focus on how climate change will affect critical infrastructures of their cities. So we built this Signal group that's called Amenaça Roboto Brasil, and we’re going to have a call with them.