Why Open Gov Types Should Think More Like Reporters

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Record Editor Charles Duncan Pardo gave a 5-minute lightning talk at CityCamp North Carolina last week. He shares the script for that talk here about why the open government community should think more like reporters. Then he switches it around and challenges news organizations to think more like the open government community.

I cribbed the topic for this lightning talk from a similar talk I saw at the Investigative Reporters and Editors National Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting conference earlier this year.

I want to tell you why you open gov types need to think more like reporters.

So you’ve got all this data. Awesome data, fantastic data. People are making buckets full of money off this data, but what does it actually mean to the people on the ground? To the people paying their taxes to support projects like data.raleighnc.gov?

What do they know about shapefiles for neighborhood boundaries? Unless, of course, you got it wrong by 25 feet.

I’ve talked with the folks working for the city on this open data project and I have a lot of respect for them.

They are thinking about telling stories with their data, but it can’t just sit up on their site. A shiny visualization is great, but people need to click on it.

They need to feel like they’re getting value from it.

The thing about public projects is they need to serve the people who are paying for it in a direct way. And most of those people are not you and they’re not me.

I’m not telling you to go out and write feature stories. I’m not telling you to go out and hire laid off reporters to craft some narratives around these data sets.

(But I do know a couple if any of you are looking.)

power point slide

There are ways that you can use this information to give context and show how important this data is to regular people walking down the street.

I don’t have answers, but I do have some recommendations:

ONE: Localize it! People care about what’s happening next door.

People don’t care about a whole bunch of building permits around the city, but they do care about plans to demo that vacant house down the street, or a permit to build a deck on the noisy bar around the corner.

TWO: Keep it simple!

What about complicated things like budgets? A lot of people care about what’s going on with the city budget. The City of Raleigh, and every other city in this state, is working on its annual budget right now. Raleigh’s general operating budget proposal breaks the $700-million mark for the first time ever this year.

But what’s actually in there? Can you build tools to explain to my grandmother what is in your budget? I know you can, but it goes a step further. Can you get that in front of people who want the information?

THREE: You need to get this stuff into the schools.

What better way to teach statistics or simple data visualization to students than to give them the police and fire data for their neighborhoods?

Then you get the added benefits of teaching the next generations about public data so they will support these projects in twenty or thirty years when we’re all getting old and grumpy.

You need buy in, now and twenty years from now, or this is going to be a blip, a trend, a thing of the past.

Jason Hare with Raleigh’s open data portal told me recently that open data will become a way of life for city government. I really want him to be right. But just because it’s in this year’s budget doesn’t mean it’ll be in next year’s. That doesn’t mean it will survive the next recession.

Okay, let’s flip this around.

The open gov community throws this data out there and says, here you go. They don’t always give context or tell compelling stories.

Reporters do the opposite. They spin the data into a story and tie a nice little bow on top. This industry, my industry, does not traditionally share the data or the primary documents.

The Raleigh Public Record and others–I’m going to throw in a shout-out here for WRAL–are fighting this natural tendency for news organizations to hide that source material in a filing cabinet and forget about it.

We try to put as many documents as possible up and we are committed to making primary data available in our stories.

What if we missed something?

Reporters, this source material matters to people!

How hard is it to put a “download csv” link at the bottom of a graph or embed the documents? How hard is it to upload the emails or whatever you got from that public records request?

We have a tendency to hoard this information. And then we do nothing with it.

Don’t hide this material. You’ve already written your big story. You know you’re never going to go back to it, and if you did want to dig it up, your desk is probably as much of a mess as your folder on the server and you’re never going to find it.

Throw it out there.

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