Chicago pinpoints public data

February 4, 2013 01:30

Public information is available in mass quantities, covering everything from population demographics and court proceedings, to government programs and tax-dollar expenditures. Without some kind of nozzle on the fire hose, the sheer volume of data would be overwhelming. Now, with the tools of technology, journalists have a growing role in harnessing and utilizing that data, and more importantly, providing context for listeners, viewers and readers.

One interesting new example is a project undertaken by the Chicago Tribune to present a decade of crime statistics from the Chicago Police Department. As first reported on, visitors to a special website maintained by the Tribune can search for statistics since 2002. The site is updated monthly, as new statistics are released. Not only can residents examine crime trends in a broad overview, they can zero in on their own city ward, and look for specific crimes reported literally day by day, complete with ward maps and graphs to display trends. Different types of crime can be viewed separately.

The site's authors caution that the site is based only on crimes reported to police and cannot track the many unreported crimes in the area. But the data from the police files is deep and substantive. It is readily apparent which wards have the highest and lowest crime rates. Quick glances at the graphics tell the story of what times of day, week, month or year crime picks up and slows down. Clicking to a more detailed page of a ward's statistics even includes contact information for the Alderman who represents the area.

Before you think this kind of project would be too ambitious for your newsroom, take heart. One big piece of heavy lifting is already done: The site's creators are making the code used to build it available to anyone. That gives you a tremendous head start, to which you could add data from your own market. Keep it simple to start, perhaps comparing data county-by-county if you cover a large area. Maybe use only one year's worth of data at first, and add to it as time and resources permit. Building even a simple collection of data could make for a great story and could draw positive attention from your local authorities, who may not have seen the information from your area complied in that way and could act on it.

A distinct advantage of displaying public information in this way is that it provides depth and context that goes beyond horse race-style coverage. It's one thing to say, "crime is up" or "violent crime is down." Providing a detailed resource on your station's website can take the numbers to a more practical, useful level for your audience, and be a potential source for stories throughout the year. It's a new tool to make public data a public benefit.

Has your station posted public data on your website in an innovative way to boost your coverage and add context to your reporting? Tell us about it in the comments below.