You Are Already an Investigator

So you’re here

You are already an investigator. That is why you are here. You have the curiosity, or the skills, or a problem that needs solving. You need to gather information, or you’ve already found information and you want to know how to use it.

This kit will show you how to move from curiosity to investigation to action.

The content here is being developed collectively by a group of researchers, activists, journalists, developers, artists and others eager to share knowledge on how to conduct investigations using a wide range of skills, tools and techniques. Like you, they are curious and motivated to learn about problems affecting their surroundings and to act on that information.

Using this kit, you will uncover different ways to build knowledge that can help you address an issue or simply to verify information instead of taking it for granted. Whether you are seeking to uncover corruption in local politics, document the manufacturing process of a product you consume, or map the scale of environmental damage in your neighbourhood, here you will find inspiration, useful techniques and important safety tips.

Investigating is like putting a puzzle together. The pieces are scattered around; some of them might be lost. You still want to find out what the big picture looks like, and you don’t need all the pieces for that. That’s what we want to show you here: how to collect relevant pieces, put them together and draw meaning from that incomplete picture.

If you are already familiar with this process, this kit may still offer new ways to investigate, new sources of information and data, new tools to gather, process, verify and analyse that data, and new ways to use it meaningfully.

If you have not yet applied your skills or time for investigative purposes, don’t worry. In this kit you will also find inspiration from real stories about people like you who have transformed from curious observers to skilful investigators tackling important issues. Amateur photographers, trainspotters, artists, coders, activists or kids researching on the internet in their bedroom - many have turned into investigators by chance, even without claiming the title.

Investigation is a mindset

An investigation is a process of collecting and analysing information from different sources and drawing conclusions that address an initial question, problem or assumption. This process allows you to build a body of knowledge about a person of interest, an organisation, a place, an event, a crime… you get the idea.

Investigations serve a clear purpose: it might be seeking the truth, understanding a pattern or creating – or countering – a narrative. The key to fulfilling that purpose is turning a body of knowledge into a body of evidence, an unbreakable proof, by interpreting and giving meaning to that knowledge. The process of setting your purpose, gathering information and extracting meaning is the central structure of any investigation.

An investigation is not a linear process that can be mastered by following a step-by-step guide. Rather, it involves a certain mindset to approach questions from different angles and with various tools and techniques, as you will see throughout this kit.

Investigations are often non-linear, iterative processes. You may need to rethink your strategies to find more information if your current path reaches a dead end. You may consider alternative methods to interpret that information or search elsewhere for additional evidence that refines your understanding of the picture you’re putting together.

Before we continue, let’s get rid of some stereotypes, too. Investigations and evidence collection are not limited to traditional detective-style work or to a path that only investigative journalists can follow.

It is now easier than ever for people to conduct or contribute to investigations thanks to greater access to information and the availability of free and easy research tools. Activists and civil society organisations are conducting investigations to inform campaigns, public debates and policies. Artists are visualising the scale and impact of corruption, human rights abuses or environmental degradation. Programmers are making sense of data that is often manipulated by politicians. Citizen journalists and open-source investigators are breaking ground in digital investigations.

Risks and rewards

As you start investigating you really don’t know what you will find out there, so be cautious and aware. There may be safety concerns, legal risks or unexpected situations, such as facing a dead end and having to simply give up, or encountering problems that go beyond your skills and abilities. Anticipating such challenges is always healthier than having to face the unexpected.

Before diving in, be mindful of your own safety and the risks involved in whatever tools, information sources and techniques you may want to use. Think of whether you need to work alone or collaborate with others, and whether you can find alternative ways of obtaining data if your initial plan seems too risky. Consider the technology and devices you use in the process and be aware of the physical environment you live and work in. Just as traces can be found of events or individuals that you are investigating, your own investigation can leave traces that can put you, your collaborators, your sources or your information at risk.

As you become aware of potential risks, you can plan mitigation strategies and measures to secure yourself and others you are contacting or working with. Of course, you can’t predict everything, and each investigative experience is unique in its own way. But whether you are dealing with a low-tech environment, a restrictive environment or simply the internet, you will be able to assess the risks you might take and identify possible safeguards by following the tips and techniques outlined in this kit.

This kit is yours

At a time when we are all saturated by data and confronted by misinformation, it’s important on a personal and community level for us to be able to identify sources of problems and counter misleading narratives that are not based on facts and evidence. If facts are valuable, then the process of uncovering and documenting them is also valuable.

Unfortunately, you can’t always rely on others to determine the facts. Journalists, civil society organisations and others who investigate for a living are often unable to keep up with the speed at which misinformation and corruption currently spread and affect everyone. Sometimes you need to find out answers for yourself and conduct your own inquiries because you care too much. Luckily, there is now an abundance of information of public interest that can be collected from offline and online resources with accessible tools and techniques. Also, for every technique developed to mislead you these days, there are more and more open-source tools and opportunities to verify or de-bunk.

This kit wants to take advantage of all these opportunities and amplify the investigator’s mindset. Whether you are just starting, or you already have some experience, this resource can help you in many ways.

Here you can explore tools to access websites that have been removed from the internet, content that does not appear in search engines or data from videos and images that would otherwise remain invisible. You will discover ideas on how to approach investigations into companies and public funds or to find out how products you use and consume were made, and what abuses might have happened along the way. You can figure out how to use maps to investigate places and events, or how to prepare for field research. You will get tips about talking to people and observing places, assessing risks, collecting and using information safely and ethically, and making sure that you and others involved can stay out of harm’s way. You will also see how to approach data from unexpected points of entry or discover information resources and tools you didn’t know about.

Case studies and first-person examples from the Kit will help bring these techniques and resources to life, and help you find similarities to issues and problems affecting your community, or even inspire you to start your own investigations.

Investigators are continuous learners. The greater your arsenal of tactics the more you are able to grow and apply your investigative skills beyond what you are already doing.

Most important, this kit is yours - yours to use, adapt, share, localise and contextualise. It is also yours to contribute to if you feel that it’s missing important ideas, topics, tools and methods. We continue to develop it with people and groups from all over the world and from diverse fields of practice, and we’ll add more content on a regular basis. We imagined this kit as an ever-evolving resource that will eventually enable a new community of investigators to emerge and take this work further. Join us.

Published April 2019