inewsource is taking part in Sunshine Week, an annual weeklong celebration that highlights open government and access to public information. Reporter Jill Castellano shared her take on requesting public records and some of her favorite sources for finding open information.

A recent story that drew from public records

During the election season last year, I decided I wanted to figure out how much money San Diego County’s political parties were spending on local candidates. This was much harder than I thought it was going to be. I knew I could find the information I was looking for in filings kept by the California Secretary of State’s Office, because that’s where political parties send information about their finances. But on the secretary of state’s website, all I could access were PDFs of the financial reports, which were not easy to work with or turn into a dataset that I could analyze.

So I contacted the state office to see if they would give me the electronic versions of the filings. I talked to the public information officer for a while to explain exactly what I was looking for and why I didn’t want to just download the PDFs from the site. He said he would look into my request, and then … never responded to my follow-up emails or calls.

But I decided I wouldn’t let bad file formats stop me on my quest. I downloaded more than 120 financial reports, extracted information on which candidates the county Democratic and Republican parties spent money on dating back to 2011, compiled everything into a single spreadsheet of more than 3,000 transactions, cleaned the data, classified each transaction into a type of spending and looked for trends.

It took weeks of work, but it was worth it to keep the public informed.

My favorite sources for public information

1. The portals where you can access campaign finance data for the city and county of San Diego, the state of California and the federal government.

2. Detailed voter registration data from the county registrar’s office.

3. Form 700s – the forms government officials fill out about their economic interests.

4. Census data from American FactFinder.

5. PACER to look up federal court cases.

Best rejection for public records

I used to work at The Desert Sun in Palm Springs where I reported frequently for USA TODAY. I was working on a story about the Trump administration’s border wall prototypes, which were built in San Diego. I asked the Department of Homeland Security for all emails sent to the email address they set up for contractors who were bidding on the proposal to build the prototypes. After weeks and weeks of waiting, they told me they couldn’t respond to my request because there were “no responsive records” – meaning there were no emails sent to that email address.

I knew there was no way that was possible, considering how much interest there was from contractors on this big project worth millions of dollars. I appealed my request, and lo and behold, they sent me 200 pages of records in a PDF.

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Jill Castellano is a former investigative data coordinator for inewsource. When she's not deep in a spreadsheet or holed up reporting and writing her next story, she's probably hiking, running or rock climbing. She also loves playing board games and discussing the latest chapters with her book club....