Tuesday, October 26, 2010

oh hey public records law violation.

I recently took another escapade down to Washington, and this time, I was disenchanted.

I met with the police force and records that should be public and easy to access were so much harder than I anticipated.

I understand that certain information should be withheld from the public. That makes sense.

And maybe I've been spoiled working with the Chapel Hill police.

But I was stunned when I saw on the department walls that a single police report costs $5. That's 50 times more than the cost of a Chapel Hill police department.

And to me, it feels like a public records law violation.

Then beyond that, unlike Chapel Hill police reports, you can't simply look through all the reports. Because they have to manually decide on each report whether or not to release all the details when asked for it, you can only get a police report if you know exactly what you're looking for.

I don't understand how you report on police activity given all these restrictions. I just don't understand how you find any information. If the Washington police had something that for some reason they did not want people to know about, it would be far too easy to hide.

I'm not sure where to go forward from here.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Let me build you a fortress you can decorate.

Well, It looks like I'll spend my fall break traveling.

I had two things I really wanted to do over my break: go see The Tempered Machine in concert again and go to the mountains with my family and do nothing but relax and sleep.

I'll be going back to Washington to get the crime reports for the week.

In order to create our product, we're putting crimes reports online into a database. In order to do that, we need to put essential information into a database. I'm really hoping the crime reports are put in electronically. Otherwise I don't know how we could keep information up to date without requiring more reporting resources than the data would be worth.

I'm hoping to see the police enter the information on a computer, not a typewriter or otherwise. I feel like a crime database that journalists put together could be just as helpful for the police as the newspaper.

But to keep it up to date, if there's not a way to do it electronically, would be exhausting. To do so, a journalist would have to go to the Washington police station every, buy copies of each and every police report (which would get expensive after a while, at the the cost of likely $.10 a page) then by hand enter every single relevant field (incident, month, date, year, victim, victim's age, OCA, just to name a few) would be a cost far greater than the benefit.

I'm driving all the way down there (by myself. Lots of quality time with my music.), so I'm trying to think of things to do while in the area.

I'm going to place calls tomorrow and I'm hoping to set up a meeting with the police chief. Hopefully we'll both have the same goal — to inform the public. If we share this goal, my job will be much easier. I'm also planning to meet up with a Couchsurfer host or two, since they're open to meeting people, talking, and hopefully getting me a better idea of some interesting edge users and how they get their information.

There are three couchsurfers that I've found so far, I've got a variety. I hope at least one of them will be able to talk to me. Two women in their fifties, one man in his twenties, all in Washington, and I'm sure all with different stories.

What I was told last time I was there was, from a Washington, D.C., native, was that "Washington's a tough little town."

I hope some of these are Washingtonians originally. I'm very interested if all feel this way.

Any ideas on who else to talk to while down there?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What a way.

So as y'all know, I love me some crime stories. I love breaking news. I love courts. I really love cops reporting. People do some crazy stuff in Chapel Hill.

So I'm pretty excited to be finding and compiling crime reports as my public records for Washington, N.C.

So the natural place to start is the department's website. I was greeted by this friendly Eastern-N.C. face as I log on. Oh hey Mick Reed, I think you can I could be friends!
My first question in what I need to get to be used for journalistic data: What's already there?

I don't see any reports, any blotter, any crime maps, nothing fun like that. What's already there? An address (201 West Third St.) and a communications officer. Great. I thought in such a small town, I could at least avoid some public relations specialists. I should be so lucky. Well the PR hotline is 252.946.1444.

Next question: how does one go about getting crime reports? Sure, it's 1:21 a.m. right now, but they advertise that they're open 24 hours a day. So I call.

The only, only way to get them is to drive to Washington between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. A bit problematic from Chapel Hill.

It's a start, at least.

There are so many interesting fields on any given police report, it's hard to know where to start in terms of organizing them for data.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Effect and Cause

People love crime.

It's true. Anything crime-related always gets a ton of hits on the website. I've talked about the popularity of crime databases before.

There are really practical reasons for this. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice's National Sex Offender database gives moms a reason to worry and check up on the history of piano teachers and whatnot before leaving their child alone with them. It also provides a real economic incentive: if you live near sex offenders, you can find that with a few simple clicks, which can potentially scare away buyers from a piece of property you're trying to sell.

And considering just about every police interaction with the public is required by law to be public record, and at least in Chapel Hill they're typed up in a very formulaic way, there's a lot of good data potential.

But they are something that it's important to keep a close eye on.

Just the other day I was typing up crime reports for The Daily Tar Heel and noticed something odd. It was a break in like any other. Under items stolen, it listed $1,000 cash and a $75 Apple laptop.

There seems to be a very logical explanation for this: the police officer switched the two amounts.

But we don't know that. That's something we'd have to confirm.

So I called the Police Department to see if they could explain it, but of course, the only person who could answer my question left at 5 p.m. So I simply had to replace it with a Carrboro police report.

I've been doing these reports since February, and this stuff happens all the time.

This raises the point: when you've got a $75 laptop and $1,000 in cash stolen, you've either got a good story or bad data.

We got some bad data.

Where do we go from here?

This was an easy one to sport. But how often does this happen where it's not so obvious? When we just go by reports, how often do we insert fact errors and never, ever know it?

Well, we won't ever know it. No one's going to send us a correction for switching the values of the two different bicycles when one's $120 and one's $130. But it's still a fact error, even if it seems insignificant.

But there are ways this could seriously confuse people. What if police mix up the location of the incident, saying it's "Smith Street" instead of "Smith Avenue"? If we put that on a crime map, those people on Smith Street could get really scared over something miles away. But it's exactly what the police told us.

If we get something wrong in a police report, as long as it doesn't libel someone, we don't normally get corrections and we never know. It passes onto the next day's reports and people forget about it.

But with things like databases, that's preserved forever. And we use it for trends. Trends that could be false.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The things he carried

I love a good read through The Slammer.

It's hilarious. People take such funny mug shots, right? And it's the best when you see people you know in it. I don't often read it, but I've seen at least 3 people I know inside it on the rare occasions I skim it. I'm friends with very high quality people, I know.

But seriously: these are some of the very useful products that come out of the North Carolina Public Records Law.

The Slammer is the press, in one way or another.

So I'm pretty happy that though mugshots aren't explicitely included in the public records law, they're understood as part of it.

I'm learning about public records right now, and ran across this really helpful (and colorful!) graphic from the Sunlight Foundation:

I like to start with lawmakers and go counterclockwise, but it really works most ways. I've heard it said that if journalists and policy makers truly had the same goal their lives would only get easier, that goal being to inform the public. And I think this graphic shows: journalists are a crucial part of the policy cycle, journalists of all kinds.

Through the public records law, you can usually get information that is two essential things: raw and complete.

But rarely can you get data that is search-able, which is what the organization is striving for.

The issue came up tonight at the DTH office, after we made a recent public records request and literally recieved more than 6,000 pages of data that were completely unsearchable. I made the comment to my editor about how much easier it would be were this data available online.

She said they couldn't be made available online because of the particular nature of the information.

After all the reading and experimentation I've done recently with excel, I'm not certain I agree. All fields she spoke of could be assigned attributes, such as person, means, etc.

This would take a very long time. This is not efficient for our particular need for this data.

But if the agency we requested this from were to just do it itself, it would make its records more readable for their personal uses, for other journalists seeking the same information, and it would make them overall more transparent. Unfortunately, transparency is not often enough a goal of public agencies.

But the efficiency would make such an incredible difference in journalism!

Another editor made the comment tonight: people are tired. people are stressed. people don't have time (But in my opinion, no one ever has time for anything, so this is hardly relevant). But when there's breaking news, we all work together and often produce some incredible stuff. But when it requires things like finding out what kind of information we need, who has it, how to get it, how to organize it, how to sift through what can be 6,000 pages and then find the news in it, we say no. We say it's too hard or don't have time.

But this is the kind of investigative journalism that can make the biggest difference.

Reporting is a dying industry, partially because of this efficiency.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

data data data

I was asked to evaluate the data section of a newspaper I'd love to work for.

Naturally I went for that sentimental value and went to the News and Observer. First problem: took me about 10 full minutes to find the darn thing. I don't know if that's my fault or not, but I feel like the typical user wouldn't spend that much time looking for it. I looked through all the sections before I found Data Central.

But once I found it, I was really impressed.

Mostly because as someone who doesn't know what they're looking for out of data, it was super easy to navigate and really well organized. There were four really easy categories: government, agriculture, crime, and business/unemployment. Through this, I got a really good idea of what the audience for data is and what at least some of the main uses are for it.

So there were two sections (agriculture and business) that are obviously aimed at edge users, such as farmers or entrepreneurs or those looking for a job.

Crime and government though, it seemed to me could be the very useful for the typical reader. The government section, with useful features like various salary and pension information, allow me to look up the salaries of all my professors.

But I don't know how useful this is after all.

It worked searching some of my professors, but I can't find my Spanish professor. Shouldn't this be public record? Shouldn't this be easy to find? I know I've got her name right. Is there another way to find it? probably. Am I realistically going to? No. Because that's not my job. That's the job of the journalists.

there was one database I found particularly interesting: the "Find a strawberry farm" database. Is there this much of a demand for this? How totally random. But, I have to say, if I needed to find a strawberry farm, my needs would completely be met. I guess there must be a lot of Triangle soccer moms out there who are looking for this sort of thing.

I'm also very curious as to why they have an N.C. Inmate search, a Durham County Inmate Search, but no Wake County inmate search — theoretically isn't that their main market? To say that they're not a real market for crime information but Durham is, seems a tiny bit...racist. And I feel like I would know a lot of my high school and middle school classmates who lived there who might be kinda upset toward this, at least without an explanation.

And there's also a price book. Whoever makes dinner and coupon clippers like my mom love that stuff. Interesting, you can also contribute to it. I really like that it has an easy how to use it section with it, too.

This is mad cool. All really useful stuff. All of this really useful tools for journalists, too. Let's get them public records online, y'all.