Project: Informative Rights for Journalists

I have followed the NSA leaks very closely from the beginning. When the leaks started and Snowden firstly revealed himself I had been in Berlin and some tech-savy people involved in the Bitcoin scene told me about the leaks. Following the leaks closely, watching Snowdens first video and the upcoming revelations have definitely influenced me. I curiosly read Glenn Greenwalds book and watched the Laura Poitras movie “Citizenfour” soon after they were available.

In the summer of 2014 I got the possibility of creating a tool which, in my opinion, was a reasonable and necessary step in the direction of making the supervision of authorities more accessible. The german organization netzwerk recherche is a journalists association with a focus on investigative journalism. German journalists have certain extended rights to question official institutions (such as secret services) on data which has been saved about them. This is meant to strengthen their journalistic role within a democracy. These rights, however, are seldomly invoked. Concerning the secret services, a reason could be that there are actually 20 (sic!) intelligence agencies/secret services in Germany — one for each state and four for the entire country. Each service has different requirements for answering requests — one might e.g. require a copy of the passport while another might demand other documents. Additionaly each service has a different address, which is not always easy to find. So to ease these hurdles the idea came about of developing a simple PDF generator, where one could just click the agencies one wants to inquire. A PDF containing the necessary inquiry text, attachment information and the address would then be generated.

A special requirement for such a tool was that the PDF document generation had to happen on the client-side — no server should hold any state. It must not be possible for any person having access to the server to monitor who wants to take use of ones informative rights. Also one should not have to trust the organization, instead one should have the possibility of downloading and deploying the generator himself. Making the source code available (as free software) was a natural conclusion.

I have created this tool and it has now been deployd since July or so. I just didn’t get around to do a proper writeup.
The public instance is available at the netzwerkrecherche.org website. The source code is available via GitHub (under the MIT license).

Das netzwerk recherche ruft Journalisten auf, bei den Geheimdiensten anzufragen, ob diese Daten über sie gespeichert haben. Um das zu vereinfachen, stellen wir einen Generator für die entsprechenden Anträge bereit.

Ziel dieses Projektes ist, in Zeiten der zunehmenden Massenüberwachung den Diensten zu zeigen, dass ihr Handeln von der Öffentlichkeit kritisch beobachtet wird. Die Aufmerksamkeit für das Problemfeld Geheimdienste im demokratischen Rechtsstaat muss erhöht werden.

Insbesondere für investigativ recherchierende Journalisten ist eine Überwachung durch Geheimdienste und eine damit einhergehende Ausforschung ihrer Informanten und Kontakte nicht hinnehmbar.

Anlass des Projektes ist der Fall Andrea Röpke. Beim niedersächsischen Verfassungsschutz wurden offensichtlich rechtswidrig Daten über sie gesammelt. Als sie einen Antrag auf Aktenauskunft stellte, vernichtete die Behörde ihre Akte und behauptete, es gäbe keine Akte über sie. Erst ein Machtwechsel in Hannover offenbarte die Vertuschung – die politische Aufarbeitung läuft bis heute.

Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF)


The Institute of Distributed Systems at the University Ulm runs the course “Practical IT-Secutiry” this semester. To me this was especially interesting because of the examination modalities: one does not have to take an exam, instead each student has to prepare and hold a lecture and accompanying assignments on a certain topic. I decided to dive deeper into Web Security and chose for Cross-Site Request Forgery (CSRF) attacks.

The presentation can be found online here. The preparation document for students was distributed one week in advance to the two-hour assignments (pdf). Assignments were based on the Metasploitable framework, the Damn Vulnerable Web App and TWiki. Additionally, I wrote some intentionally vulnerable PHP scripts with increasing levels of security.

All of this material (*.tex, *.html, *.pdf, etc.) and solutions for the assignments can be found in my talks GitHub repository as well.


Exploring the ZEIT ONLINE API

The german weekly newspaper “DIE ZEIT” has an API available. This means it is easily possible for developers to use a lot of their data. Since they have made access to the data of nearly 400.000 articles since 1945 possible this is quite interesting (access to full texts is sadly missing, but a lot of other stuff is available). This post is about some of the interesting things I found whilst exploring the API.

My initial idea was to visualize how the ratio of articles with anglicisms evolved over time. At the moment this is too complex a project, due to the fact that getting the necessary data via the current API is difficult. However, I made some other interesting findings along the way.

The Wiktionary project provides a list of anglicisms (around 960 words) which I parsed out and used to search for articles concerning these words. This gave a list of how many matching articles on this word had been written each year since 1945. I also made an empty search to find out how many articles were created in total each year. These numbers could then be used to calculate the percentage of articles with anglicisms in each year.

Not all of the words provided interesting results but here is selection of some interesting ones. Please be aware that the statistics show a zoomed-in range. This is not a scale of 0-100%!

One should be very careful to interpret reasons for the peak just by looking at the visual representation. A potential reason might be the Gulf War in 1990–91 (the german translation is: “Golfkrieg”). Other causes worth investigating could be successes of german golf athletes or events around the VW Golf automobile.

Potential reasons for the peaks could be: in 1985 the Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, in 1995 the Brent Spar protests and in 2010 the Deepwater Horizon.

The peak in 1987 could relate to the increased media coverage on aids. Also in 1987 the Institute for German Language (Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache) chose “aids” has as the word of the year.

The peak in 1970 is most interesting to me, a potential cause could be the movement of 1968.

I have made the code used to gather the data and build the visualizations available under the MIT license via GitHub.

GTFS Visualizations

GTFS is an abbreviation for General Transit Feed Specification, a standard which “defines a common format for public transportation schedules and associated geographic information”. Basically this is a possibility for public transport agencies — like the Stadtwerke Ulm/Neu-Ulm (SWU) for example — to release their data to the public in a proper manner. Fortunately some agencies have done so (here’s a list). In Germany the agencies in Ulm and Berlin have released their schedule data under a free license as GTFS. In both cases this process was pushed forward by local Open Data enthusiasts who were involved in this process. Together with some friends from the UlmAPI group, I was involved within the efforts here in Ulm and it has since tempted me to create something from this data.

So basically I wrote a program which visualizes GTFS. The program draws the routes which transportation entities take and emphasizes the ones which are frequented more often by painting them thicker and in a stronger opacity. Since many agencies have released their schedule as GTFS it is easily possible to reuse the program as a mean to visualize different transportation systems in different cities.

So here are the renderings for some GTFS feeds! Just click on the thumbnails to get a larger image. The color coding is: red=busses, green=subway/metro, blue=tram.


GTFS data: Empresa Municipal de Transportes.
Download: PNG (1.4 MB) | PDF (0.4 MB)

GTFS data: Miami Dade Transit.
Download: PNG (0.3 MB) | PDF (0.8 MB)

San Diego
GTFS data: San Diego Metropolitan Transit System.
Download: PNG (0.5 MB) | PDF (0.6 MB)

GTFS data: Stadtwerke Ulm/Neu-Ulm.
Download: PNG (0.4 MB) | PDF (0.12 MB)

Washington DC
GTFS data: DC Circulator & MET.
Download: PNG (1.2 MB)

Los Angeles
GTFS data: Metro Los Angeles.
Download: PNG (0.9 MB)

San Francisco
GTFS data: San Francisco Transportation Agency.
Download: PNG (1 MB) | PDF (1.1 MB)

I am very satisfied with the resulting images, which in my opinion look really beautiful. I have rendered some of the cities as PDFs as well. With the momentary program, this is a very time consuming process and for some cities — due to performance or memory issues — not even possible on my (quite sophisticated) pc. This is due to the enormous transportation schedule (> 300 MB, ASCII) of some cities. But my program can surely be heavily optimized.

Please note: These visualizations would not exist without Open Data. This project was only possible because of transport agencies releasing their data under a free license. One should not forget that the existence of projects like this is a major benefit of Open Data.

Also one should not forget that standardized formats in the Open Data scene have proven to be a major benefit. Existing applications can easily be re-deployed like in the case of Mapnificent, OpenSpending or, well, in mine.

The best thing to do with your data will be thought of by someone else.

License & Code
The images are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license (CC-BY 4.0). Feel free to print, remix and use them! The source code is available via GitHub under the MIT license. Please note that it definitely has to be properly refactored since it wasn’t designed, but rather grew. That’s also the reason for using two different technologies (node.js and processing) within the project. I had a different thing in mind when I started coding.

Preventing misunderstandings
To prevent misunderstandings: The visualizations show only the data released by the according agencies! So in the case of e.g. Madrid there exists a metro line which is not shown in the visualization above. This is due to a different agency — who has not yet released their data as GTFS — operating the metro line. I hope that more agencies start to make their data freely available after seeing which unexpected and beautiful results they might get.

Another misunderstanding which I want to directly address: The exact GTFS feed is visualized. This means that when looking closely at the resulting PDF you may find some lines which are very close to another and might even overlap in part. This is no bug, but the way the shapes are defined in the feed.

If you want to print the visualizations: I have created two posters (DIN A0). The graphics within them are properly generated PDFs in CMYK. So be aware that the colors will look different on your screen than when printed.

(click on image to enlarge)

Madrid (PDF, 11 MB)

(click on image to enlarge)

Madrid, Ulm, Washington, San Diego (PDF, 81 MB)


About Me

I am a 29 year old techno-creative enthusiast who lives and works in Berlin. In a previous life I studied computer science (more specifically Media Informatics) at the Ulm University in Germany.

I care about exploring ideas and developing new things. I like creating great stuff that I am passionate about.


All content is licensed under CC-BY 4.0 International (if not explicitly noted otherwise).
I would be happy to hear if my work gets used! Just drop me a mail.
The CC license above applies to all content on this site created by me. It does not apply to linked and sourced material.