Friday, August 14, 2009

Fun with Open Records requests for Journos/Bloggers

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Government records can yield some awesome features for your community and news-you-can-use data for your Web site that people will love. Here are 11 of my favorites:


1. INVENTORS
Look at U.S. patent records to find wacky inventions in your area. Go to patft.uspto.gov and search for “inventor state” and then narrow to your city for all patents issued since 1790. Amid the industrial and scientific patents you’ll find home-brew ideas and garage entrepreneurs. For example, in Tucson, I found 7,432 patents, including pickup truck accessories and a rifle dust cover.


2. PET PROJECTS

Request pet license data to find the most common name and breed in your area. Also note the creative names people call their dogs, and interview the person who has the most licensed pets. Similarly, request a database of all babies born in your state (first names only) to find out the most popular and unique names in your town.


3. FEEDING FROM THE TROUGH

Examine expense reports from your local officials to see what food they eat at meetings and while traveling. Citizen activist Tina Renna of New Jersey used records to show how county leaders had a sweet tooth for cheese cake and apple pie (see tinyurl.com/llaulv).


4. CHANGING DEMOGRAPHICS

Use census data to show how your community is changing, including race, age, income and even commute time. Go to www.census.gov, click on American FactFinder, then choose your city and state. Compare to other cities and compare over time to previous counts.


5. BEE KEEPERS AND MAPLE SYRUP

Check the U.S. Department of Agriculture census (www.agcensus.usda.gov) to identify trends in your county for such categories as bee keepers, mink and maple syrup. The census is conducted every five years, the last one in 2007.


6. RESTAURANT INSPECTIONS

Request restaurant inspection data from your local health department and find the places that fail. Post the data online if the government agency doesn’t.


7. BAD NEIGHBORS

Examine code enforcement violations in your town to find particularly bad neighbors (running chain saws at 3 a.m., letting 23 junk cars pile up in the front yard, etc.). Highlight tips for being a good neighbor.


8. PEACOCKS OF FURY

Peruse claims and civil lawsuits against your local governments to expose oddball mishaps. For example, I examined claims against the city of Boise to find a renegade peacock attacking children at the city zoo.


9. STORE SCANNERS

Request store pricing scanner inspection data from your state office of weights and measures to find the stores in your community that have the most inaccurate scanners. Also ask for gas-pump inspection data.


10. LOTTERY WINNERS

Acquire a database of all past major lottery winners to find out the luckiest place in the state, the luckiest stores and multiple winners. This should be public information to prevent officials from awarding winning tickets to friends and relatives.


11. PARKING SCOFFLAWS

Analyze your city or university parking ticket data to find the most ticketed folks who don’t pay their tickets. Feature the officer who gives out the most tickets, the places where vehicles are ticketed most and who gets their tickets waived.