Saturday, January 28, 2012

Using Caspio's Searchable Databases for Newsy Stories, Big Web Traffic Boosts

Caspio's databases are great if you're hoping to immediately and drastically raise page views on your news website. There's a bit of a learning curve, but once you've figured out how to turn an Excel spreadsheet into a searchable database, you'll see instant results. And here's the cool thing -- a lot of times those databases can turn into pretty good news stories, so this isn't simply a traffic play.

An example: About six months ago I sent a public records request to the Merced County Library, asking for an Excel document showing the names and amounts associated with all outstanding library fines in the county. The library had some privacy concerns, of course, but once the lawyers determined this information did, in fact, constitute a public record, the Excel spreadsheet was emailed to me and it took 10 or 15 minutes to massage that data into a searchable database. And that's when I discovered that Merced County library patrons owed more than $135,000 in fines and fees and that there was little being done about it.

We've also used Caspio's searchable databases to track the county's home sales, government salaries and Census data. We even had one allowing users to check if the IRS owed them money.

And sometimes, the data is already on the Web in database form. If it's on a government website, it's pretty safe to collect that information and present it as your own -- appropriately attributed, of course. That's what we did with a recent restaurant inspection database. Merced County's environmental health department has a frequently updated public database of restaurant inspection data, so I was able to simply scrape all that information for our news site. My hope is that one day we'll be able to combine the searchable database with user reviews and food content.

You can do a lot more with Caspio if you've got the time and training, but most small operations don't have such luxuries. Fortunately there's so much data out there just waiting to be reported you may never need to worry about adding the bells and whistles. The key is to think about what kind of data is being collected by the agencies you cover and simply file the request. Are school districts tracking absences? Is the local court system keeping data about jury duty? Does the fire department log addresses with false alarms? Chances are there will be some concerns about privacy, but it doesn't hurt to make the request. A denial is the worst that'll happen, and then you'll have to decide if it's worth proceeding through legal channels. One tip: Make sure you ask for specific information. Don't expect the government agencies to volunteer information you didn't request.

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