A double stabbing with no suspect.
A home explosion that left one person dead.
An Oxycontin-dealing mailman.
These were some of my reporting subjects as I raced around Massachusetts in my Volkswagen Beetle after college as an intern for The Boston Globe, with notebook in hand and a pair of grungy sneakers on my feet (because let's be serious, you can’t walk around a crime scene in heels).
After leaving the internship in September, I interned for six months as a data reporter with ProPublica, a leading investigative reporting nonprofit in New York. I traded the notebook and Beetle for federal databases and records requests, and my understanding of what reporting can look like completely changed. Now, in my new job at The Bay Citizen, I spend my days analyzing complex government data, filling in the missing pieces or waiting for alarm bells to go off in my head to let me know I’m onto something.
Some people don’t get it. Why give up full-time street reporting for data work? But anyone interested in CAR, or computer-assisted reporting, will tell you that data mining is reporting. My sources just require a different kind of coaxing to get information out of them. Instead of schmoozing and interrogating, I design queries and hit “run.” Without CAR, you can’t track worker deaths in the oil industry or see how the unemployment rate affects political races or check out how many bike accidents happen on your street. It’s that quantitative answer that helps ground a story in the kind of fact you can’t get from a quote. And it has required some of the most fascinating reporting I’ve ever done.
Don’t get me wrong, people drive data stories. Without them, who cares about some number? But weaving data findings with people’s lived experiences can produce doubly powerful stories. Data-driven reporting is especially useful for promoting change: It’s tough to deny there’s a problem when the numbers are staring you in the face.
There is a catch, however: Without serious government transparency, I can’t do my job. I can’t analyze a database if the government won’t hand it over. Without transparency, the public can’t hold government accountable for its actions, because those very actions — and the databases I like so much — are hidden from our sight.
I’m interested in evaluating the transparency of California and Bay Area governments. Having just moved here from the East Coast, I’ll be familiarizing myself with the open-records landscape and sharing it with Sandbox readers as I go.