FOIA doesn’t have to be dry, particularly if you get creative with your requests and how you put the data to work. This week, some great examples of using government data from the New York Times and CityLab, plus a report on a questionable new way to skirt the law via the Tri-City Herald.
Getting past the headlines with FOIA
Matt Tait has a good Twitter thread about how reading primary documents can help humanize key figures in the news, while also shedding light on the tone and tenor of events that can often be hard to parse amid all the spin:
One of the cool things about going through FOIAs is you really get a sense for the backstory and personalities of the people behind the headlines— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) January 7, 2018
Our story starts on a cold Wednesday morning. Wednesday 25th Feb, 2015 to be precise. And Andy's wife sends him an email. pic.twitter.com/t222Bzu9Ja— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) January 7, 2018
The official announcement doesn't happen until 11 March, 2015. And when it does, Andy schedules a meeting with the Office of Integrity and Compliance and GC Baker at FBI to register the conflict of interest, which occurs on April 29. pic.twitter.com/ZL5b9OGrGT— Pwn All The Things (@pwnallthethings) January 7, 2018
Exactly how Fast and Furious?
Anupam B. Jena, Aakash Jain, and Tanner R. Hicks have a good piece with the New York Times’ Upshot examining whether the release of a new movie in the Fast and Furious franchise correlates with a spike in speeding.
Short answer: Looks like it, and you better buckle up come 2020 when the ninth installment arrives.
Using detailed traffic violation data from Montgomery County, Md., we were able to examine all speeding tickets there from 2012 to 2017. This length of time allowed us to investigate the effect of three movies in the “Fast and Furious” series. Looking at the 192,892 speeding tickets recorded, we analyzed the average miles per hour over the speed limit that drivers were charged with going on a given day. We found a large increase in the average speed of drivers who received speeding tickets on the weekends after “Fast and Furious” releases. Comparing the three weekends before each movie’s release with the three weekends after, we found that the speeds people were given tickets for increased almost 20 percent, to an average of 19 miles per hour over the speed limit, from 16 miles per hour.
We also found that rates of extreme speeding increased. For example, the percentage of drivers charged with driving more than 40 miles per hour above the speed limit nearly doubled (though it remained a tiny proportion of the total), to 2 percent of all violations.
The analysis was made possible by open data from Montgomery County, Maryland, but it could be replicated in many other places with either similar data portals or requesters savvy enough to get the data with a well-placed request.
Where to get more for your subway money
CityLab has a good piece comparing price tags for various subway systems and trying to examine the underlying causes of why we spend so much more, and often get so much less, in the U.S. versus other countries.
The data comes from a variety of sources, including compiled news reports, as Alon Levy writes:
In the United States, most recent and in-progress light-rail lines cost more than $100 million per mile. Two light-rail extensions in Minneapolis, the Blue Line Extension and the Southwest LRT, cost $120 million and $130 million per mile, respectively. Dallas’ Orange Line light rail, 14 miles long, cost somewhere between $1.3 billion and $1.8 billion. Portland’s Orange Line cost about $200 million per mile. Houston’s Green and Purple Lines together cost $1.3 billion for about 10 miles of light rail.
Comparative public records projects are a great way to tackle questions like these, and with a network of MuckRock-like sites around the world, those projects don’t even have to be limited to the United States.
A new exemption appears in Washington
Sarah Schilling at Tri-City Herald looks at a creative new exemption the troubled Trios Health in Kennewick, Washington is trying to use: Bankruptcy.
As Schilling reports:
The public hospital district, which filed for bankruptcy last summer, has stopped fulfilling public records requests while it works through the process. An automatic stay granted as part of the bankruptcy means it doesn’t have to, said the hospital’s bankruptcy attorney. “We’re not saying we won’t (provide the records), but we’re saying if you have a request, it has to go to the bankruptcy judge” for a determination, said Jack Cullen of Foster Pepper, who’s representing Trios.
It’s an unusual way to reject requests, as the Washington Coalition for Open Government found:
BTW, we used an email list to ask #opengov advocates nationwide if they had ever heard of a public agency denying records requests while under bankruptcy protection. Nobody has so far. @nfoic https://t.co/PWvgRjUd8K— WashingtonCOG (@WashingtonCOG) January 29, 2018
And Schiller does a good job outlining the cost of that delayed access, including all the things people can’t access:
Documents related to the firing of a public employee who breached more than 1,600 private health records. A contract between a publicly owned hospital and the consulting firm hired to help it navigate difficult financial waters. Both are types of documents typically open to the public under Washington law. They’re public records.
Image via Universal Pictures