In the last couple of years, the Star Tribune and Pioneer Press have performed a real service by formatting, aggregating or linking to public-information databases. Each has created a treasure trove that the public can easily search.
Wednesday, the Pioneer Press re-launched its version, DataPlanet. According to computer-assisted reporting editor MaryJo Webster, the two-year-old DataPlanet now automatically updates Ramsey County Jail bookings every morning. The site has also refreshed an extensive public employees salaries database that includes all state employees; MnSCU and the U; the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul; Anoka, Hennepin, Ramsey, Washington and Dakota counties; and the Met Council.
DataPlanet also features new links to external databases, including Twin Cities Compass, a nonprofit that measures the region’s well-being.
Sure enough, with only a last name, I was able to find my college professor pal Linda’s salary easily. (You’re underpaid!) Is this prurient? Sure, somewhat. But these are taxpayer dollars, and prudes may find more value in legislators’ pay (including per diems), school performance data (much easier to read and search than the state’s site) and medical mistakes.
The Strib’s InfoCenter is also powerful; I spent a few minutes clicking around a newly discovered dangerous dog map. While there’s a fair amount of duplication, the newspaper sites offer their own advantages. For example, it’s far easier to find public salaries via the PiPress, but the Strib more frequently updates Ramsey County jail bookings.
[Update: It may just be that the Strib updates later in the morning, not more frequently. On Thursday, the Minneapolis paper listed folks booked through 7:18 a.m.; the PiPress’ update was through 11:58 p.m. Wednesday.]
Even where there’s overlap, each site will provide different information. They both deserve your bookmark.
At least on the PiPress side, the databases are not a huge traffic driver most of the time, according to senior online editor Chris Clonts. He estimates they account for about 1 to 2 percent of page views, but there are peaks. Boy, are there peaks.
“In July of ’08, when we released the [public employees salary database] along with accompanying stories about some things we found, we were consistently getting an average of 250,000 page views a day to it,” Clonts says. “Single-day record traffic was 350,000-plus.”
He notes that jail bookings account about for around 2,000 page views a day, though traffic predictably spikes during Gopher football games and last year’s Republican National Convention.
The most flak comes from public workers who aren’t fond that their pay is so easily gleaned. “Though we do get complaints from people who think their privacy has been invaded, this update is by far the most requested data feature,” Clonts says. “We’ve been getting calls since fall of 2008 from people wondering when we’d be updating.”
It’s not all bad news for workers. “Some callers and e-mailers have credited the database for allowing them to — with a strong hand to play — ask for raises to address pay disparities they didn’t know they were experiencing,” Clonts says.
On the flip side, “We’ve gotten calls from managers, too, saying it has made their lives more difficult since their employees can see each others’ cards.”
The newsrooms don’t publish all the data they have, including voter registration files that include phone numbers. Other purchased databases have contractual limits on republishing.
The trick in compiling the info is making it automatic, which requires working with governments and other originators. That’s why the PiPress, which more freely reports crime details than the Strib, hasn’t done mug shots, a la the renowned (and reviled) Tampa Bay Mug Shots. Ramsey County doesn’t have electronic photo files, and the paper doesn’t want to scan them individually.
Again, the dbases are not all debasing. The PiPress lists drug company payments to doctors; the Strib, bridge safety ratings. We new-media fatheads sometimes complain the old media doesn’t take full advantage of the web, but in this case, the newspapers’ editors, reporters and programmers deserve kudos.