Newspapers Making Public Data More Understandable for Readers

BY Sandi Fox  March 5, 2010 at 3:24 PM EDT

For many citizens, public data often have been difficult to find and decipher. Last year, Data.Gov was launched with the stated purpose of increasing “public access to high-value, machine-readable datasets,” part of a wider effort to make government more transparent.

But a growing number of newspaper Web sites have beaten the government to the punch by making difficult-to-understand data more user-friendly.

Case in point: The American Society of News Editors’ Freedom of Information Committee’s survey of more than 130 newspapers sites and their use of public records. A recent report on the findings, “The Fascinating World of Forgotten Information,” highlights notable sites culling and disseminating data. These newspaper sites allow readers to uncover information about their communities and connect them to data on a variety of topics such as crime, schools, real estate and government officials.

The ASNE report noted that the results revealed some inconsistencies:

The survey found enormous variations among media Web sites. On some sites, we were unable to locate a single database feature utilizing a public record or any other database presence. But many are doing highly innovative and exciting work, putting up database pages that offer scores of information searches that could be enormously helpful, intellectually satisfying, and sometimes just plain fun.

Here are a few examples from the report on local media and their public data efforts:

The Rundown will continue to track efforts to give public documents and data a wider audience in an occasional series. Keep an eye out for the “Primary Sources” tag.