“Always be filing.”
This advice from Michael, first shared upon my arrival at MuckRock, is always top of mind, even if I don’t find myself filing nearly as much as I thought I would by now. One reason why I haven’t filed as much yet is that I’m still working to answer two crucial questions: “What am I filing?” and “Why am I filing?”
Prior experience and a continuing exploration of a mission have led me to craft a good response to the first question, though I’m still attempting to fumble my way through the second one.
When it comes to why the requests should be filed, The Marshall Project’s Keri Blakinger, author of the memoir Corrections in Ink, answers that question quite clearly in this installment of Requester’s Voice from her time at the Houston Chronicle. I’d boil down a few of her insights to one thing: behind every data point (and the management of that information) is a person. The ability to remember that throughout your projects and experiences is paramount to how this data is able to help you answer questions of importance for those you’re serving.
I got a chance to share my practiced response to the first question recently via Twitter as Simon Galperin, founding director of the Community Information Cooperative in New Jersey, looked for input about the establishment of a new news coverage beat:
I have a question to for framing purposes: What's currently available that you don't have to file for? What gaps aren't answered by that data? That's the starting point for the requests.— André Natta (@acnatta) June 1, 2022
What’s desired and whether it’s available (or needed) is dependent on the needs of your community. It doesn’t mean it’s always possible to identify the usefulness of the request before it’s made. Even when those filing requests tell me they don’t know what they’re looking for or why, there’s generally a reason why they find themselves filing some requests like clockwork. Here are three suggestions for requests to file regularly, along with a way to think about how the information received could be used:
Salaries. Keeping track of wages for public officials seems like an obvious place to start, and it is a data point we often see, like in this recent request to the Westminster Police Department in Maryland by Amelia McDonell-Parry or this request to the state of Arkansas filed by University of Michigan doctoral student Ben Goehring. These requests provide an opportunity to understand how responsibly local funds are being used, and by whom. Exploring these records can also lead to uncovering the unexpected. Al Tompkins for Poynter in 2011 explains one of those instances - how the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 when they investigated why Bell, California, paid some of the highest public salaries in the nation.
Parking and speeding tickets. Data related to parking and speeding tickets are interesting to many who find themselves on the road, especially if you’re trying to avoid one or both of them. It can give you an understanding of where people in your community may most likely receive a ticket and when it may make sense to appeal one. Jason Paladino’s request to the Berkeley Police Department provides a framework to consider when making these types of requests. It may also be helpful to think about how the fines and fees collected from these tickets are used by the city in their operating budgets.
Asset forfeiture. I’ll be honest: I never would’ve thought about asset forfeiture as something I’d regularly file requests about until I started doing research for this column. That’s when I was pointed to The Markup’s Todd Feathers and The Serve and Protection Racket project:
“In most jurisdictions, when police conduct a lawful search of a person or their property, officers can seize any money or other physical property they believe to be involved in criminal activity. Usually, this involves drugs or guns, but it can extend to assets such as cars, yachts, and houses.”
Why does this matter? This additional excerpt from the project page holds the key. “If the property is forfeited, its value is split between the law enforcement and prosecutorial agencies involved in the seizure and a general fund for either the state or federal government.” This makes these types of requests another valuable avenue to hold law enforcement and government officials accountable.
Note, you really can’t talk about answering “What?” without tackling “Why?” at the same time. It’s hard if you don’t ask them in tandem and it could lead to you spinning your wheels for a while if your requests are successful.
What public records requests do you file on a regular basis? Why do you find this request a useful one to replicate? Write me and let me know (email@example.com) and we’ll share some of your responses so others can benefit from them.