Before you can begin to use computer-assisted reporting on your beat, you need to get the data in hand. Just like dealing with paper documents, getting electronic information from a government agency can be difficult at times, but by following a few strategies and learning the ins and outs of data, it will get
Here are some strategies to follow when you negotiate for electronic databases:
- Know the law. Know how your state treats (or doesn’t treat) electronic information and what the exemptions are.
- Know what information you want. Don’t ask an agency to provide you everything they have. Make sure your request is specific. Also, you don’t always have to ask for the data first. Ask the agency for a list of their databases. Then ask for record layouts for specific databases. Then the data.
- Know how the information is kept. Try to find someone in the information systems department at an agency who knows how the information is kept.
- Know what the appropriate cost should be. This may vary state-to-state. But in most cases, you really should only have to pay duplication costs.
- Know who does the data entry. The best resource to any database is the data entry clerk. They can tell you how things get from paper forms to the database.
- Know who administers the data. The person in charge of the database may be more helpful than the public information person who may not understand the data. Sometimes they can be pretty excited to have someone take an interest in their database. Long before you ever need the data, take a tour of the agency’s data processing center. Get to know the folks who administer the databases.
- Get hard copy summary reports. This will give you a way to check your data.
- Know how many records or pieces of information are in the database. When you get the database make sure you have the right number of records.
- Don’t settle for less. A government agency may claim that certain pieces of information are confidential. Don’t just accept their answer; once you do, you set a precedent.
- Go to local software users group meetings. Government database people often attend those meetings. It’s a good way to do some nerd-bonding.
- Don’t forget about footwork. If you can spot-check your data in real-life examples, do it. For example, if you’re doing a story about bridge inspections, keep in mind that the status of a bridge may change. If you decide to do a story about the 10 most dangerous bridges from your data, go look at them and make sure they haven’t been fixed in the meantime.
Probably two of the biggest issues we face today are privacy and public records for profit. It is increasingly difficult in many states to get any data on individual people – and there’s little public support for access to such data. Be persistent at getting the data while it’s still available and get together with other news organizations to fight closing these databases.
When it comes to government agencies making money from data or hiring outside companies to process their data, you again need to be persistent about paying only reproduction costs. Larger news organizations may just go ahead and pay the price to get the data quicker – but it sets a precedent and hurts all of us.
All of these previous guidelines are dandy, until you actually go to ask for the data. Many times you’ll run into excuses. But keep in mind that nine out of 10 reporters will just go “Oh, OK,” and go away when confronted with these excuses. Often, by just going back to them, you’ll succeed in your request.
- Our computer system can’t do that. This is when you need to talk to the computer people. They’ll know what the system can and can’t do. If they say it can’t be done, ask for the vendor’s contact information so you can ask them.
- It will cost you lots of money. Your first reaction to this should be to ask for an itemized estimate of charges. Three out of four times, this will lower the costs. Check your state law, but you should have to pay only direct copying costs. If they have to do programming, you have to pay only the programming fee, not overhead. If they do programming, ask for a copy of the program or at least have them put in writing that they will save the program in case you need the data again next year. If none of that works, do a records request for the data and see if they have provided it to anyone else for a lower cost.
- The database contains confidential information. They must tell you what pieces are confidential. In some states, they must redact the information and give you the rest. This is the electronic equivalent of a black marker.
- We don’t keep that on computer. Make sure that’s true. If you have seen a computer-generated report, they probably do have it on computer.
- That uses proprietary software. You don’t want the software; you want the data. If they don’t know how to copy to a file or print to a file, find out who their vendor is.
Jennifer LaFleur is the computer-assisted reporting editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she writes, analyzes, edits and coaches her way through data-based stories.