Category Archives: DataBank

“Public employees’ salaries are public records”

Update Continuing a chain-wide push, the Gannett paper in Lansing, Mich., is also publishing salaries of state employees. The search could be better, but the data set is clear and easy to use. The newsroom is getting thousands of page views and drawing praise and scorn. Samples:

this is such an invasion of privacy. It wouldn’t be o.k. to just list the titles
and the salary range?? You people have gone too far.

and

Way to go LSJ!! There is nothing wrong with sharing this
information with the public – it’s their legal right to know. Besides, I love
reading the State employees’ replies – priceless.

The paper published an opinion piece defending the data release. The author, Jane Briggs-Bunting, is a media law expert and herself a state employee:

It remains vitally important the citizens of this state know down to the
penny what we are paying all of our employees. We are still a government of the
people, by the people and for the people. It’s not the state of Michigan, Inc.
Every taxpayer in the state is a shareholder.

Bottom line: State employees, including me (an MSU faculty member), all work
for the people of Michigan. Any member of the public should be able to walk in
the door of any state, county, city, village, township, university or school
district office during regular business hours and ask for this very same
information and receive it.

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act requires this information be public, as
it should be. Too bad we need a law to ensure the people get to see at least
some of the people’s business, but we do – or this information would never have
been released.

Original post The Washington Post has joined the Houston Chronicle and The Washington Examiner in publishing salary data for public school employees (see example, from Janney Elementary School). It’s all part of a school scorecard (which, aside from salaries, is similar in some ways to the Philadelphia Inquirer School Report Card). Eventually, every local news organization will make all this data public as a matter of routine. For now, it still draws some complaints. Here is how Deborah Howell, the Post ombudsman, reacts to the issue:

But some teachers are upset that their salaries were disclosed; some
said the salary figures are wrong. Dan Goldfarb, a teacher at Banneker
Academic High School, said publishing the figures is "offensive,"
invades his privacy and "is totally unnecessary."

While that
anger is understandable, there is a higher good to be served here —
accountability. There is no way to assess how each school is doing
without looking specifically at what is spent. If the names are veiled,
it is harder to hold individuals as well as the District accountable.

Public
employees’ salaries are public records. When someone is paid with
taxpayers’ money, that salary is liable to be made public whether
you’re the president of the United States
or the county dogcatcher. (It’s possible I’m inured to this from being
married to a longtime educator whose salary was frequently published.)

The
Post regularly prints the salaries of others whose records are public,
such as highly compensated executives of publicly traded companies —
obtained from the Securities and Exchange Commission — and the salaries of executives of nonprofit organizations, which must file tax records to keep that status.

The
compensation figures are what the school district budgeted for each
staffer, and many include 15 percent added for benefits; that was added
to the Web graphic Monday. Those who see inaccuracies should e-mail dc-schools@washpost.com
so the graphic can be amended. The map invites readers’ help. Readers
already have alerted The Post about issues to follow in later reporting.

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The importance of data

OnlineJournalismReview interviewed Gary Kebbel, journalism program officer for the Knight Foundation, about the new Knight Grants. Here’s a highlight on the grant to EveryBlock:

OJR:Adrian Holovaty won $1.1 million for his open-source software
idea. What stood out about his project?

Kebbel: First of all, it’s an extension of his current
ChicagoCrime.org, but it’s Chicagocrime.org on steroids. It’s going to take
every possible public database that makes sense–whether that’s global or
regional or national–and combine it in a way where you type in your address and
you find out everything going on on your street or in your neighborhood. You can
find out where there’s a new school proposal, or where a restaurant is going to
be shut down, or if the city has decided to change trash pickup regulations.

Key phrase: every possible public database. That’s prime territory for newspapers and their affiliated websites. Newspapers have reporters and data experts who already know where those databases are, how to obtain them, and which ones have the best information. They know the pitfalls and they know how to move efficiently to make the most of these crime datasets (as crime maps, for example), teacher salary datasets, home sales datasets, and more. If newspapers are slow to act, others will grab that space, just as Craig Newmark grabbed the free classified space. The Knight Foundation is helping point the way, but smart newsrooms are already moving rapidly in the right direction.

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Right to Know

If a news organization is gong to collect and make available data sets of information from public sources, one important step is to support a strong right-to-know law. Pennsylvania now has what is widely considered one of the worst laws and compliance with even that law is spotty. Agencies that do studies on their own problems, from the police to schools to the Department of Human Services, often fail to release those studies to the public, hiding their problems instead of helping increase public pressure to solve them.

A hearing in Harrisburg on Monday considered these questions. I talked about the babies who died in DHS care while the department and the city of Philadelphia refused to make public their own reviews that pointed out the egregious flaws in department policies and procedures. Only after The Inquirer did a series of investigatory articles did the city start to make more of this information public.

Ron Barber and Teri Henning talked about the most fundamental problem with the current law — it presumes public records are private. Ron read a powerful preamble from the West Virginia Freedom of Information law. We heard Graham Spanier of Penn State say that his university should be exempt.

When it was over, a prime sponsor of a bill to revise the law announced he agreed with us that the presumption should be in favor of a record being public. It’s an important step that can pave the way to more access to more information and better government operations.

The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association has more, including many links to more resources. And a new FOI Coallition is providing a place for more discussion.

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Simple database applications

"Develop simple database applications with photos and maps to let your users
actually find what they’re looking for, or partner with a good third-party
vertical who can."
— That’s from Invisible Inkling and his 10 obvious things about the future of newspapers. All 10 are worthwhile. This is No. 2" "It’s not Craig’s fault."

Inkling (Ryan Sholin) is talking about Craig Newmark and classified ads, but the same point applies to data sets (public teacher salaries, crime stats, guide to golf courses). Hattip to Jeff Jarvis, and his very active Facebook page, for the tip about Ryan.

The Morning Call seems to get it. Evidence: The Morning Call posted 20,000 kennel inspection reports with a story about puppy mills and lax government oversight. More evidence: Chris Krewson was circulating this help-wanted post the other week:

Looking for a data-head with an interest in journalism. The
job’s "Data Editor," a slight rethinking of our old Computer Assisted
Reporting Editor job.

We want someone to acquire and analyze locally relevant data and mash it up.

This person will also build and maintain databases to enhance our news report,
from computer-assisted investigative projects to consumer-focused community
topics. And also participate in news planning meetings to generate ideas for
data.

The ideal candidate would have solid news judgment and some experience as a
computer-assisted reporter or editor. The database editor also would be
responsible to maintain and update the newsroom Intranet, and would train and
assist staff in computer-assisted reporting skills and the Intranet.

This editor needs to be a self-starter and have the ability to juggle both
long-term and short-term projects. Knowledge of computer platforms, PC
applications, Excel and Access and an understanding of networking are required,
as is familiarity with ASP.net and SQL server. Knowledge of HTML and XML is
required. Experience with PHP/My SQL is preferred. A bachelor’s degree, not
necessarily in computer science, is required, a master’s would be a plus.

If you’re interested, send a resume, work samples or links to your databases to
Terry Rang, deputy managing editor, The Morning Call,

101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA 18105,
or e-mail them to terry.rang@mcall.com.

The Knight Foundation and Medill seem to get it, too. That’s why there is now a scholarship program to teach journalism to computer students. (Click for more on the Knight grants.)

Ryan, keep posting. There are people who are thinking about the future, with much the same mindset. Thanks for the succinct list.

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Filed under Business models, DataBank, Web/Tech

A model golf guide

In Chicago, Crain’s does it. It’s an interactive guide to golf courses and readers can search by state, by city (Crown Point, Ind., for example) or town, or by other characteristics (by par). How much use will it get, how hard is it to build? It seems friendly to users and a good foundation of layering on extra information, including golfer comments.

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Filed under DataBank, Hyper-local, Search

Some Philadelphia examples

CRIME The Inquirer now has an interactive homicide map for 2007 (year to date) as a companion to the homicide map for 2006. There are shooting maps for both time periods, too (shootings 2007, year to date) (shootings 2006).
BUSINESS  The new Inquirer business news blog, PhillyInc, is updated several times a day. It includes this post on campaign donations by employer and an entry on post-graduation plans of college students, by college.

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Filed under DataBank, Weblogs

Salaries for public workers

BusinessWeek looks at data banks and in particular at Gannett’s offerings: "A big hit at Gannett’s Asbury Park Press‘ app.com is its DataUniverse.
There users can while away the hours dredging all manner of state and local
databases: home sales, crime statistics, school district SAT scores, inmate
records. If this sounds sleep-inducing, know that DataUniverse has notched over
4 million page views since its December launch."
Here’s what the Asbury Park Press is offering, in their own words: "New Jersey public employees of colleges, authorities and local, county and state
governments for 2006. The searchable list shows locations, base salaries, salary
groups and those with three or more government jobs."
If you ask for public employees making at least $125,000 a year, you get this list. The basic search form is right here.

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