In the less than a week, the massive document leak known as the "Panama Papers" has resulted in the apparent resignation of Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, uncomfortable questions for British Prime Minister David Cameron and denials from Moscow and Beijing. Outside of the global political ramifications, many are curious about how 370 journalists from 80 countries successfully collaborated on the project in secret for nearly a year.
Pulitzer Center grantee Uri Blau was part of the investigation and recently lifted the veil on his experiences for NiemanReports:
A key factor—and an incredible challenge—was how to conduct searches in such a massive amount of information: 2.6 terabytes of data reaching back 40 years. ICIJ put tremendous effort in making such explorations as easy as possible, even for the less technologically savvy among the reporters.
In the following months, the number of journalists participating in the project constantly grew. Partners and vetted colleagues were granted access to an internal secure site that enabled a Google-style search within all the files.
ICIJ also developed a tool that enabled journalists to discover beneficial owners from scratch or review names identified by others. After three journalists identified the same beneficial owner in the same document, the name was added to the “beneficial owners” list. Eventually ICIJ managed to construct a list of shareholders, directors, beneficial owners and clients (those who listed the companies) for each country.
No less significant was a classified forum platform that enabled journalists, sometimes sitting thousands of miles away from each other, to communicate, share leads, findings, and stories. It was sort of our own private Facebook: each reporter had a personal profile. An internal messenger option was built. Groups and forums were created to discuss dozens of topics under investigation. Files of all sorts were uploaded and shared on this platform, which became the center of the universe for many of the data-deep journalists involved.