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Journalists share data projects you can try anywhere

By Jinghong Chen

During a session at the 2016 CAR Conference, Kevin Crowe of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Jamie Grey of KOMU-Columbia shared tips and data projects that journalists everywhere can try.

1. Infrastructure

Crowe said that people in lots of places, especially aging cities, are worried about potholes, water main breaks and pavement quality.

The basic information needed for this kind of reporting includes locations, date reported, date repaired, political district and census tract. Crowe also recommended keeping an eye on data from surrounding areas and benchmarks, such as how fast city thinks it should repair potholes and how often it meets this goal.

You can get basic information from a city’s public works department. For pavement quality data, go to your city, county or state and ask for a database with grades for each section of the street.

2. Delinquent taxes

The panelists suggested looking into people and organizations and whether or not they still owe taxes. For example, does the state have people on its payroll who owe the government money?

  • Property taxes:
  • This can be a huge issue in any city or county stuck in a recession.
  • How good is the government is about collecting taxes?
  • Municipal court:
  • Check out who’s getting fined for what.
  • What happens if people don’t pay?
  • Use ordinance violation fines to track down potential slumlords.

3. Airport usage

Ask if your local airport is being used as much as the Chamber of Commerce says it is. If there’s talk of expansion, ask if it’s practical or a necessity. You can get data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s bureau of transportation statistics.

4. Schools: Cafeteria inspections and standardized tests

Do your schools have dirty cafeterias? Are they being inspected? Panelists suggested checking with your state’s health department.

For standardized tests, look into whether or not students or teachers are cheating. You can get standardized test discrepancy data from the U.S. Department of Education.

5. Snow days

How often do you school officials cancel classes? Is that number going up or down? You can compare the snow days in your school district with National Weather Service data about snowfall.

6. Claims and lawsuits

Look for the forms people have to file with the government before they can sue. You can also get claims, lawsuits and expense data. The data can be found at your city’s risk management division, which is usually housed under the finance department.

7. Other ideas:

  • Car allowances for politicians
  • Furniture budgets
  • TSA complaints at airports
  • Untested rape kits (State Police)


Jinghong Chen is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism focusing on data and international journalism.

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