Letters to the Presidents

 How this project began

At La Nación Data we are always aware of those areas of government which produce public interest information and, however, are not well known.

If we look at the flow chart of the Government Administration, we found that there was an area named Dirección de Documentación Presidencial (Presidential Document Department). We searched for its creation regulation to see the responsibilities and we found that said department was in charge of receiving all the letters, mails and oral requests addressed to the President of the Nation.

Said department has not any website to show statistics or any information regarding their functions. That is why, we prepared a request for access to public information to access the material concerned: the letters to the President.

Request for access to information

This request took the teamwork of LA NACIÓN Data almost one week, since letters include personal data and we had to be careful enough to avoid the release of such type of information and focus, instead, on the content of the document sent to said department. 

This particular request aimed at the letters addressed to Cristina Fernández in 2015 (the last year of her term of office) and those letters written to Mauricio Macri on his first year of term of office.

The formal request to the department included:

·        Detailed list of requests/thank you letters/claims or any other kind of oral or written request received by the Presidential Document Department. Period: from January 2015 to the last available data entered on public registries. When I refer to a “detailed list”, I ask for a specification of the request/requirement or any other type of request received, date of reception, type of classification applied by the department, etc.

·        Number of requests addressed to the President of the Nation from January 2015 to the last available data included in public registries. If possible, it was asked to send data monthly separated.

·        Number of requests to which the Presidential Document Department gave an answer. It was required to mention the detail of the request and the answer given.

·        Net salary as of November 2016 of each one of the persons working on said Department. It was required to send the list with details of first and last name of each public officer.

The request was submitted on December 2, 2016 at the Department of Letters and Notices of the Nation.

How the information was received

After two months, the Department sent a CD with two pdf format files. The first file contained more than 950 pages and the second one, more than 700. The information was organized in three columns: when the letter was presented/the request/appreciation and destination of the information, that is to say, what was the use of said letter: was it resent to any other department to address it? Was it filed? Was it derived to the President’s Office?

Below there is a screenshot of one of the more than 1600 pages sent.

Normalization and database cleaning:

We first used Nitro 10, a software that executes an Optical Character Recognition (OCR) process to convert pdf files into editable text and then be able to analyze the information contained in a spreadsheet.

After executing the software for the other two pdf files (one of them referred to the letters received by Cristina Kirchner and the other one referred to the letters received by Mauricio Macri), we mixed the information in a single spreadsheet.

But our work has not finished yet. When we began applying filters to the columns, we were aware that the categories were not correctly normalized. There were spaces between words, many of them referred to a same item but they were differently written. As regards departments, there appeared names which were not in use any longer or the use of abbreviations instead, as it follows:

In order to improve the quality of the information and be able to analyze it, we carried out a first data cleaning of the xls file and then we migrated the file to Open Refine to speed up the task:

By using different options of Cluster and Edit, we speeded up normalization times and data base curation for further analysis:

The analysis

We focused the analysis on two main subjects: those subjects that appear most on letters and the destination of said letters: to what departments were resent.

Once the analysis was made, we compared both administrations:

The result of the analysis made: findings

In 2015 and 2016, the subjects most mentioned on letters were employment, social assistance and housing.

The last year of the term of office of Cristina Fernández was the year where most letters were received through the Presidential Document Department. In 2015, 13.000 letters were received more than in 2016.

The database also shows some of the behaviors of the administration of Cristina Fernández. During her term of office, the relationship with press media was always highlighted by tensions and she was a President very reluctant to meet with journalists. On this regard, data showed the reception of more than 1.000 public audiences requests.

Also, dataset found many curious facts: requests from citizens to enter the State Intelligence Service, insults, inconsistencies, requests for presidential Godfathership and for assistance to high school graduation travels, among other subjects.

The visualization

The Design area of LA NACIÓN made a visualization that presented the ranking of subjects contained in the letters during the two years analyzed and the total amount of letters on each case.

The article was published on March 1, 2017 on the printed version of the newspaper and online.

This article was presented in PM, the news channel of LN+.