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.

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