Making Public Information Public

VPR Web Developer Sara Simon created @dirtywatervt to help bring information about sewage spills to the public.
VPR Web Developer Sara Simon created @dirtywatervt to help bring information about sewage spills to the public.

As digital reporter for Vermont Public Radio, one of the things I spend my time doing is checking a number of government websites for new story leads. It’s generally not rewarding work but on the occasions there’s something new to be found, it can make for some good scoops that don’t require well-placed sources or anonymous tips.

Vermont hospitals, for example, are inspected by the state of Vermont to ensure compliance with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services standards, and inspection reports are released online at the website of the relatively obscure Division of Licensing and Protection (within the Department of Disabilities, Aging & Independent Living within the Agency of Human Services).

Those reports can contain important information, like the fact that a patient was killed by an accidental, nurse-administered ketamine overdose at the state’s largest hospital and the hospital took seven weeks to change problematic drug administration practices.

That story could’ve been written in the spring soon after the inspection report was posted online, but I wrote it in July because that’s when I happened to have time to check the website that keeps track of those reports. If you’ve been a reporter for any length of time, you probably have or have had a few favorite obscure government websites where you hunt for story leads or new filings.

But given that news reporters in Vermont (and in general) don’t tend to have much free time, it’s not good for our audience to have public information that depends on being “found” in order to become truly public.

It’s 2015. Let’s fix that.

Another site I frequently check is the state’s website that tracks sewage spills reported to environmental officials. Our web developer, Sara Simon, created a Twitter bot that checks that site twice per day and tweets about any new spills that have been reported. (Here’s her code.) I was interested in the tool as a reporter, because Twitter easily allows me to set up push notifications for any user I follow. With the bot, I know I don’t find out about a sewage spill more than half a day after it was reported.

The state-run page that shows Vermonters information about sewage spills is five links from the homepage of the Agency of Natural Resources, which runs it. If you think that doesn’t sound too deeply buried, I encourage you to try to find recently reported sewage spills by clicking from the homepage. (Go ahead. This page won’t get lost.)

The agency is required by law to post public notice of sewage spills, but a public notice is only worth anything if the public notices. Now, instead of actively seeking out information that is difficult to find and only sometimes new, people can simply follow a Twitter account that only provides information if it’s new.

But you don’t have to code a public-information-spewing bot in order to free up buried information. Just keep in mind that most people probably don’t spend their days looking for the things we spend our days looking for, and it’s easier than it’s ever been to share those things with the public and other reporters.

When I was checking through the hospital inspection report website earlier this month and saw that a small hospital had received one violation

Last week, I saw this story from VTDigger that mentioned that same report in its lede. Reporter Erin Mansfield wrote a story that put the report in the context of a statewide issue, including interviews with top officials and links for deeper reading (VTDigger has been doing a great job covering the state’s mental health system this summer). The story did a great job using public information as a launch point for a wider story – it provided a great example of public service journalism that uses public documents in context to make it both more powerful and more informative for the public.

I tweeted the story, and shortly after got a nice note from Erin (who told me I could share it here):

Wanted to let you know that I found that report based on your tweet. I didn’t end up citing you because I couldn’t find an article on VPR to link to.

Erin didn’t link to VPR’s coverage of the report because there wasn’t any – beyond my single tweet. VPR got scooped on a good story because of my tweet, and that’s great.

Erin’s story was well-done with a bunch of new information and reporting, and it found a far wider audience than my tweet and the obscure state website the report was. VPR didn’t publish the story, sure, but the public still knows about the issue. The contribution from our newsroom was minor but important: a lead. (Not a lede. That was Erin’s.)

On pledge drives, I often talk about how peculiar the public media business model is: “We give it away and hope people value it enough to support us.”

We can be more creative about what the “it” of that sentence really is. It doesn’t have to be fully digested stories, it doesn’t have to be at our website and it doesn’t have to be coming out of a broadcast tower. It is information. This doesn’t mean we should start ignoring journalism or journalistic principles by tweeting PDFs all day without doing interviews or going into the field, but it might mean reporters being more generous about favorite obscure website for story leads, or making Twitter bots that make the information on your favorite obscure website for story leads less… obscure.

The point is: We’re working towards a more informed public. There are more members of the public and more sources of public information online than ever before. The problem isn’t that the information is lacking, it’s that there’s no facilitator bringing it to the public where they are. Serving in that role doesn’t always have to be traditional journalism, but it’s almost always a journalistic act.