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Monday, April 4, 2011
FOI Toolbox

Post public data online - free and easy

By David Cuillier

After struggling to get public data out of government agencies, why let it sit on a hard drive? Share it with the world! Now anyone can post data on websites or blogs for people to view as sortable tables, charts and maps. The options are limitless: city budgets, school district salaries, medicinal marijuana dispensary locations, dangerous intersections, reported dog bites, and on and on. It’s easy and in many cases free. Here’s how anyone can create an online community data center:

1. GET THE DATA

You can either create your own databases or acquire them from government agencies. Local and state government databases are treated like any other public record, subject to state freedom of information laws. If there is legally exempt material in the data, such as Social Security numbers, the agency can easily delete the information and provide you the rest.

2. PUT THE DATA IN MICROSOFT EXCEL

This program is easy to use, and almost everyone has it on their computers. It’s also highly compatible with online data-posting programs. If you want to map the data, such as locations of dangerous intersections, make sure to have a field in the database that includes a full address, with city, state and ZIP code.

3. GO FUSION

A great new free program available to post data online is Google Fusion Tables (google.com/fusiontables). You have to create an account so you can manage the data online, but it’s free. Under the “New table” pull-down menu, select “Import table.” Find your data file and upload it. If it’s an Excel file, it can’t be bigger than 1 megabyte, but if you save the file as a comma-separated (.csv) file, you can upload up to 100 megabytes. Now your database is online and you can share it with others or embed it on your own news organization’s website or personal blog.

4. VISUALIZE THIS!

Google Fusion Tables lets you post the data as a table, allowing people to sort each column, such as names in alphabetical order or numbers from highest to lowest. Or, if you have an address field, you can map out your data under the “Visualize” menu. See the “Fusion Tables Example Gallery” for dozens of examples of how media and government have provided data maps online. You can also take simple data to create charts and timelines, which you can embed on your own website. Another free program similar to Google Fusion Tables is Socrata, used by the White House and some media organizations. Even better, you can go to socrata.com and search for tables that others have posted online from your community.

5. GO DEEP

If you want more flexibility and have a computer whiz at hand, you might consider some programs that come at a price. Tablesorter (tablesorter.com) requests a donation and provides a more professional look, although you need to know HTML to use it well. Caspio (caspio.com) has a nice point-and-click interface and some awesome features — used by a lot by journalism organizations. The downside is it can be expensive — from $39 to $1,499 per month, depending on your needs. Django (djangoproject.com) is a high-powered program that requires Python programming language. It appears to be growing more popular among news organizations. Other programs you can use include DataGrid, DataTables, Tableau Public, Simile Exhibit and Tablesetter (open-source software created by ProPublica).

6. TELL THE PUBLIC

When you produce a story based on a database, post that data and then tell your readers or viewers. Explain where you got the information, what’s in it and how people can sort it. People will appreciate their new public data center!

David Cuillier is the SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chairman. He teaches journalism at the University of Arizona and co-authored "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records." Reach him at cuillier@email.arizona.edu.

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