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The FOI Advocate is a compendium of ideas, edited story excerpts and other materials from a variety of Web sites, as well as original concepts and analysis. When the information comes directly from another source, it will be attributed and a link will be provided whenever possible. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. We will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

NFOIC Summit: Infrastructure coverage tips

James Shiffer, reporter and editor at the Minneapolis Star Tribune; Tisha Thompson, investigative reporter at WTTG Fox 5 in Washington, D.C.; and Jaimi Dowdell, IRE training director and former computer-assisted reporting editor at St. Louis Post-Dispatch, discussed how to use FOI to inform the public about infrastructure issues. Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, moderated. Here's part two of the notes from their session at the 2009 NFOIC Summit:

Tips for infrastructure coverage:
  • Look at the annual report card put out by the American Society for Civil Engineers each year.
  • Keep the National Bridge Inventory and National Inventory of Dams database handy.
  • Use electronic databases to lead you to paper documents.
  • When looking at infrastructure records, contact state inspectors and civil engineers. They can help you analyze data so you don't make mistakes. If possible, first contact other reporters who have done similar stories in other cities.
  • The smaller the town or jurisdiction, the better chance you'll have of getting data. Bigger cities become savvier.
  • Ask for five years of inspection reports to notice problems that haven't been fixed.
  • Start with bridges and dams stories. River communities should look into levees.
  • Keep a list of those you request records from. Divide them into a naughty and nice list. Send Christmas cards to both. Be creative.
  • Go to your local transportation department and goggle what it has posted.
  • Look at the infrastructure in urban sprawl areas.
  • For a breaking news story, immediately go to the web and take screen shots of everything you can find about the bridge, dam, etc. Chances are that someone will take that info down.
  • When googling something, click on the Google cached link, which Tisha Thompson refers to as the "sexiest thing in the world." It shows you what a Web page looked like on a certain day.
  • You can also use Wayback Machine to find older versions of Web pages. Thompson used this to access the Web site of Eliot Spitzer's call girl after her site was removed. She was able to obtain information about her and her picture. Warning: This site doesn't delve deeply into federal and state government Web sites.
  • Use your stories to highlight the ridiculous excuses given for why information isn't made public.
  • Find the human element. Remind agencies that people have a right to this information. This is the people's money and safety at stake.
  • Find an inspector who cares and convince him/her to provide you with data or the records.
  • Get data any way you can, even if it's in a PDF file. Then, find someone who can figure out how to turn it into something usable.
  • Trick from Jaimi Dowdell: If a government agency says it can't export data because of the system it's using, just say "Well, that's terrible. But I have to give my editor a report back on why I couldn't get this data. What's the name of your software?" Then call that software company and tell them that their client says it can't export the data. Chances are, the software company will say its software can do back flips. It usually contacts the clients and essentially helps you get the data.
  • Conduct advanced searches in Google and search by file type.
  • Fish for data and know what's out there. Agencies can't claim records don't exist that way.
  • Consider looking into highway construction as well as asphalt and concrete contracts.
  • Look into data on electricity grids, fire hydrants, street light outages, pot holes, population growth, water main breaks, road construction, etc. Who's getting stimulus funding?
  • Request videos and photos in your FOI requests.
  • Find more tips here.

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