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Docs! Docs! Docs!

By Rebecca Lai

Journalists love and hate documents. It's a pain to sift through thousands of pages of documents, but it's also what makes for great stories. Based on complaints from reporters and problems in newsrooms, some folks in the NICAR community developed easy-to-use tools to help you file, index and search various types of documents.

FOIA Machine is a tool that automates and tracks public record request. The application is a guided wizard that helps you fill out requests, select agency contacts and create boilerplate texts. Email exchanges are archived on FOIA Machine to help you keep track of requests and responses from agencies. Within FOIA Machine, you can link requests to other people, add tags and curate documents for archiving purposes. The application solves the problem of keeping track of all requests and exchanges so  reporters in newsroom can update variables in old requests and send them out again.

Large quantities of documents pile up, take up a ton of space and become tedious to search. Document Cloud provides a digital filing cabinet that puts documents online for everyone to access. Journalists can upload, search, take notes on and publish documents alongside stories. This make for more powerful and engaging reporting since journalists can point directly to the original documents. For example, The New York Times recently used Document Cloud to display New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's email documents about the Fort Lee lane closure scandal.

For dealing with PDF documents, Tabula provides a way to extract information into a more readable format. PDF is a print format in which every character is positioned separately for consistent presentation across devices. Tabula provides a way for journalists to do something with data in PDFs by translating them to .csv or .tsv format. A recent ProPublica project, Dollars for Doctors used Tabula to translate loads of text-based documents into readable formats.

For finding connections within large document sets, Overview helps comprehend multiple files by automatically sorting documents into groups. It reads the text of each document, finds documents that are similar and groups them for quick reviews. Newsday recently reviewed 1707 bills to seek out police privacy laws that cover up misconduct. Overview helped them dig through topics by searching keywords and sorting through folders.


Rebecca Lai is an aspiring visual journalist and student at Northwestern University Knight Lab. She is a former Texas Tribune News Apps Intern and a 2014 CAR Conference Knight Scholar.

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