Nancy Barnes: New feature puts raw information into readers' hands

  • Article by: NANCY BARNES , Star Tribune Editor
  • Updated: July 20, 2008 - 10:30 AM

Online service lets the public browse the same data that reporters and editors use when they are researching stories.

An amazing collection of news and information makes its way into the newsroom in any given day, week, year -- crime statistics, home sales records, public salaries, voting records, school test scores and so on. We distill the data down to a publishable form or use it to report stories, and then file it away for use on another day.

With the advent of the personal computer, most newspapers started building databases that would help us collect, store and search this information. But for the most part, only our reporters and editors had access to it.

Part of our mission as a public-service oriented news organization, however, is to arm our residents and citizens with the information they need to make smart decisions about everyday life -- from the best schools for their children to where to shop, and how to exercise their right to vote. And so, some time ago, we decided that we wanted to find a way to share as much of that raw information with the public as possible.

We put together a team of editors, a Web developer and a designer and started gathering our existing databases and building new ones. This can be tedious work, gathering the information from state and local departments, cleaning up the data, and then designing it in a form that is easy to search. Much of this hard work was done by John Stefany, our data editor, and Glenn Howatt, our computer-assisted reporting editor.

In the first stages of this project, Howatt said, some agencies tried to assert that some of the data we were asking for was not public. "Fortunately, the data practices act is very clear on what is and is not public," Howatt said. For example, the state statute dictates that the following information on public employees be available:

1. name; employee identification number, which must not be the employee's Social Security number; actual gross salary; salary range; contract fees; actual gross pension; the value and nature of employer-paid fringe benefits; and the basis for and the amount of any added remuneration, including expense reimbursement, in addition to salary;

2. job title and bargaining unit; job description; education and training background; and previous work experience;

3. date of first and last employment, etc.

Once we collected all that data, along with all the rest, we had to analyze it, make sure it made sense and was constructed properly.

The result, this week, is infoCenter, a new service at StarTribune.com/infocenter for our readers and users. It's an ambitious data project that will allow the public access to some of the same public information that we use to report our stories.

What can you find at infoCenter? I logged on first thing Wednesday to see what homes were selling for in my neighborhood -- I was curious to see how much the housing crisis had affected my community. I found out how my child's schools had done in the latest rounds of tests, and then searched the activity calendar to see if there were any family-oriented events. You can also see what many public employees make, and how publicly traded companies pay their executives and even where to find a farmer's market. How you use the service depends entirely on your own personal information needs.

In most cases, except one, we put all the raw data online. In the case of the database of public employees and their salaries, we published the salaries of department heads, publicly-elected or appointed officials, management leaders and anyone making over $100,000. We will, before long, add lower-paid employees.

In the first 48 hours, the infoCenter drew more than 300,000 page views. We plan to expand this site as we gather more data on other public information and make it available to the community.

We hope that our readers will find value in having this information at their fingertips every day. It's not exactly the type of public service work that earns major journalism awards, but we see it as core to our mission of helping to inform the public. We believe that information powers, and empowers, a free society.

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