2.2. Looking up paper trails

More information in a database may come from paper trails – you identify documents you need to support your hypothesis and develop a strategy to access them. The process involves using one document which leads to the next relevant document. Then, look for links between your findings.

Jot down everything in these starting documents that you think may be relevant. This could, for example, include a person’s CV that says he was a security officer for a mining company in an area affected by civil war involving conflict diamonds. It could be that his resume does not document this individual’s gaps in employment. This is where basic numeracy skills come in. By adding the number of years worked at various jobs, and the total years reflected in the employment record to see if there is any undocumented time. You may find work or company records that indicate whether a person left a position suddenly. This would lead you to look for more documents about that person’s work history. You might find that the human resources department recorded a complaint of theft or fraud against the person. You could follow that bit of the trail to look for police, court or prison records about that person, and so on. In other words, you use one document to lead you to another and provide evidence.

Once you have discerned the relevant documents, put yourself in the subject’s shoes: What might he have done? How would she benefit if she took up option A or B, and which is the more likely path between the two? This will help you avoid wild-goose chases. Do not underestimate the tedium of relying on libraries or archives for your information. If the information has been digitised, entering a name will pull up just as many relevant results as there are irrelevant ones. And if you are in a country where public records are still primarily physical documents, you might have to negotiate with the library’s gatekeeper to gain access to the room and figure how such records are organised.

Very often, searching for public record documents, such as birth certificates or driver’s licences seems like the best way to start. But these can be time-consuming affairs that reap few rewards, especially if information is available online. Dig through the online archives of the local newspapers, scour an individual’s blog or social media accounts, and look up the website of his workplace to find out what you can. If you have a full, real name, you might also find the person of interest popping up in court cases or other official documents, which could yield interesting titbits, such as the university he went to or his connection to other source. News articles also contain massive amounts of data that can set you on your paper trail hunt, like details on local buildings (e.g., banks, companies, government offices), paid legal notices (e.g. wills, name changes, marriages, funerals, foreclosures, auctions, tenders, unclaimed properties), arrests or convictions. Each of these fragments provides a piece of the jigsaw puzzle you are trying to solve.

To sum up, you follow a paper trail by:

  • >   Web-searching, visiting archives and persuading sources to speak with you until you have assembled whatever documents you can find about the person.
  • >   Mapping these documents using the data-mapping techniques and looking for gaps, contradictions and inconsistencies.
  • >   Thinking about what documents could fill the gaps or resolve the contradictions – and investigating these.