inewsource is taking part in Sunshine Week, an annual weeklong celebration that highlights open government and access to public information. Director of Data and Visuals Brandon Quester shared his take on requesting public records and some of his favorite sources for finding open information.
A recent story that drew from public records
One of my favorite stories that relied on public records was a piece I collaborated on with former inewsource healthcare reporter Cheryl Clark. The topic was a bit morbid – a rise in diabetes-related amputations in California – but it also had not been previously reported or identified as a growing trend.
Clark has covered healthcare topics for longer than I’ve been a reporter. Her deep knowledge of complex health systems, including a long list of sources to rely on during reporting, were key to this successful records request and the resulting story.
What we identified was a “shocking” trend that clinicians across California – and San Diego in particular – were amputating limbs of patients with diabetes at an alarming rate. Over the course of six years, these types of amputations grew by more than 30 percent in California. In San Diego County, the increase was 66 percent.
To do this reporting, we needed data from the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, the agency responsible for collecting information about patients discharged from California hospitals. Clark requested more than 100 separate billing codes, by body part and procedure from 2010 to 2016. This data detailed the number of amputation procedures done on diabetes patients across the state.
The challenge wasn’t just getting the data. We had to understand what the data could and could not tell us, and how we could use it to inform our reporting.
Because there’s no data that tracks the total number of patients with diabetes in the state, we had to find a way to compare the statistics from one county to another. We used California Department of Finance population projections to calculate a rate of occurrence for diabetes-related amputations, or the number of amputations per 100,000 residents.
Diabetes experts across California didn’t have an answer as to why the increase was happening. But because of Clark’s detailed reporting, a state lawmaker cited the data in his effort to get more money for diabetes prevention.
The lesson here is know the type of information you need and where to get it. And that there are often important trends hidden between columns and rows if you know how to look for them.
My favorite sources for public information
1. San Diego Open Data Portal
This well-maintained open data portal has a wealth of information. Users can search datasets, view samples of data layouts and access the documentation about what each field represents. The city staff who run it are also very responsive to requests and questions. You can find everything from pothole repair requests to parking meter transactions to the number of fire incidents.
This website is a terrific source of geographic data. It could be boundaries of voting districts to property parcels to earthquake faults. You’ll need to create a user account to access this data warehouse, but it’s free. inewsource has used SanGIS for our election maps, our graphics on Mello-Roos taxes, and other detailed maps and data that you can find on data.inewsource.org.
3. U.S. Census
Whether you’re looking for hyper-local data on demographics or educational attainment, or trying to understand statistics at the state or national level, the U.S. Census Bureau is one of my favorite places for data. The interface on the website can be a bit cumbersome, but organizations such as censusreporter.org have a much more user-friendly interface.
4. Bureaus of…
Tons of federal agencies collect and maintain data, much of which we refine to report at the local level. Some of my favorites start with “Bureau of…”
- Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Bureau of Economic Analysis
- Bureau of Transportation Statistics
Data.World is a relatively new company that compiles, hosts and shares data from sources across the U.S. and world. You can find information from local health departments to national statistics to international data repositories. You can also download the data or ask questions of it through a slick online interface. Hint: inewsource uses this to post specific databases publicly, such as our data behind the America’s Wall project, which you can find here.
Best rejection for public records
My favorite records request rejection was from a county recorder when I was working in Arizona. It was funny in a sad kind of way, but it ended up working out in my favor. Here’s what happened:
I was working on a story about rejected ballots from the 2012 election, trying to find out why a high number of ballots cast had been rejected, and what that meant for Arizona’s voters and the people who managed elections.
I requested the number of and reasons for rejected ballots from every county in the state. I asked for those to be produced in a database format, to include all rejected ballots, broken down by type of ballot. Most county recorders complied with my request, but one didn’t.
In an accidental email (cc’ing me in addition to every county recorder in Arizona), the records clerk said, “We aren’t giving him anything … nobody else is either.”
The employee went on to say, “The other counties aren’t giving up more than the (statement of vote) either I think so he’ll probably just go away.”
The employee was wrong. I didn’t go away.
I reminded the employee that if Arizona’s public records law is not followed it can result in a felony conviction. For good measure, I drove to that recorder’s office a few days later, about four hours away, and asked the same employee for additional records. It worked.
We'll let you know when big things happen.