Convention notes: Requesting information is part of the job

ImageBy Bryan Bastible, Shorthorn copy desk chief

“From Grubbies to the Web: How to acquire government data and post it online,” presented by Dave Cullier, University of Arizona and the SPJ national treasurer

Cullier is the director and associate professor at the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he teaches computer-assisted reporting, public affairs reporting and access to public records.

He co-authored The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records. He also has a blog.

Tips:

  • Having access to new data allows you to respond/engage readers online.
  • You should be able to take data and have it posted online within three minutes
  • Remember that anything in a database form has a paper file, don’t be afraid to ask.
  • Know the law (guide here) and your rights.
  • Carry a flash drive with you. It keeps people from using the excuse of having to print things off. All they need to do is throw it onto your flash drive.
  • Take an hour a week to submit a FOIA. It keeps you constantly reporting things. He said if you find one story a week from the FOIAs, then that’s 52 stories a year that you didn’t know about before.
  • Avoid PDF forms. When you fill out an FOIA, give plenty of options like email, CD, envelopes, etc.
  • When filling out a FOIA, provide a CD with a self-addressed envelope. It’s completely free to them then, and it’s one less excuse they can use for getting it to you ASAP.

Don’t know how to post things online? Here are some programs to look at for posting things/databases, etc.

www.google.com/fusiontables/

www.socrata.com

tablesorter.com

caspio.com

djangoproject.com

Things The Shorthorn can do:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for documents, even if a FOIA is required. Filing a FOIA can seem scary at first and might prevent some people from filing it. However, it’s just part of our job, and it’s a resource we can use to go beyond surface reporting.
  • Know the laws. Sometimes, we’re afraid to ask for certain things because we don’t really know if it’s our right or where our boundaries are (myself included.) If we know what our boundaries are, what kinds of meetings we can and can’t go to, (which ones are closed to the public and why, etc.) then we are fully doing our job. An example could be the Student Service Advisory Council meeting that is coming up. It closed its meetings to The Shorthorn. Can it do that?

Excellent question, Bryan. Which others do you wonder about? Be sure to post and comment your ideas and questions about this post.

Look for more convention notes to come.

-BFC

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One thought on “Convention notes: Requesting information is part of the job

  1. Pingback: In defence of frivolous requests: FOIA and political accountability. | Politics, Statesmanship, Philosophy

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