By Laura Krantz
Gatehouse Media

This summer I attended my first IRE conference, in Boston. I really wanted to learn Microsoft Excel skills and I did, thanks to patient IRE staff. But more importantly, I was inspired by all the ruthless journalists using creative ways to mine for data and writing compelling stories.

I left itching to try it myself. Since June, I have been poking for data in the towns I cover but hit several roadblocks. Thanks to IRE colleagues, I’ve overcome all of them.

First, I wanted to get payroll data, but the town treasurer said it wasn’t possible to have the data in a spreadsheet. It would cost $800, she said, and be printed on 1,500 pages for a town employee database of about 400 people.

So I called Jaimi at IRE and she had a crafty solution. I called technical support for the municipal payroll software, learned how to use it myself, and (politely) educated the town treasurer. She was a little indignant but it turns out she didn’t know how to use the software herself, and when I explained it, I had my data with in 20 minutes.

As a result, I learned that police department overtime was out of control. The police chief told me about some internal problems that were contributing to the extra overtime, which gave me a story I would never have had without the data.

After seeing data mapping stories at the IRE conference, I wanted to try mapping my data, too. I requested crash data from my state’s Department of Transportation, but couldn’t figure out how to put it on a map. I called a journalist in Wisconsin whom I met at the conference, who pointed me to a journalist in California. I also asked an IRE member in Washington D.C., who referred me to one in Seattle. In the end I also talked to Jaimi as well as a data journalist at another Massachusetts paper. They all gave me advice on how to narrow my project and visualize it. Everyone was eager to help and very encouraging.

The project was my first attempt at data and while the findings weren’t ground-breaking, I am now much more comfortable with Excel and know basic mapping skills in QGIS and Google Fusion.

Now I’m looking for new data, angles and stories. My towns are getting used to me requesting data and documents and more comfortable giving them to me. I have found that I can ask better questions and find better stories when I know how to base it on data. People are more compelled to tell the truth.

Laura Krantz is a reporter for Gatehouse Media’s MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, Mass.