During the past year journalists, citizens and even some government officials have focused on the need to replenish the diminishing amount of investigative reporting done nationally and at statehouses. But there hasn’t been as much concern expressed about the reduction of public accountability journalism in cities and suburbs, rural areas, and counties. And when this topic is discussed, few viable solutions are emerging at a time when metro and local papers struggle to simply cover breaking news and essential beats. There are hyperlocal and online citizen efforts, but they too need more resources and tools.

Digital media’s capabilities might provide ways to hold public agencies accountable while expanding journalists’ role as community watchdogs. This potential comes from several sources:

  • Ever increasing streams of information—including public record databases—are now available online from local public agencies.
  • A drive to create digital tools capable of shaping and channeling those streams so they can be better understood and more easily analyzed.
  • Collaboration between journalists, computer programmers, and information scientists helps journalists and citizens use these tools more effectively.

Mining Public Data

While local government agencies often deny traditional requests for information and documents, the levees they built—and maintain—to restrict access are broken. Much digital information that the public has a right to see now tumbles over and flows around those restrictive practices. So our challenge resides in collecting and channeling what can be massive amounts of data so they can be understood.

Our goal is to build online tools that people can easily use to enhance their ability as watchdogs—whether they are citizens or journalists. To do this, computer programmers are creating and journalists are using digital tools to make visible data and documents so that people can analyze and share the information they find, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has been a key player in this area, especially through its challenge programs.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where I teach investigative journalism, I am working with a small team of programmers at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications to develop an easy-to-use mashup of analysis and visualization programs for public documents. Our organizing principle is that journalists and citizens will use this mashup ability to do retrospective and real-time comparisons of what the public is concerned about and how the government is responding—or not responding—to their concerns.

At the same time, I’m learning about work being done in the Community Informatics Initiative at the university’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. (Informatics encompasses the study of information science, information technology, algorithms and social science.) Part of the initiative’s mission is to partner with citizens to develop information technologies and to create access to those technologies through community networks.

I am discovering a lot of common ground between journalism and informatics, especially as I work on a Champaign-Urbana Citizen Access project to look at local poverty issues. Those involved with informatics often do their work in a low-income or isolated community. They find out what the pressing issues are and use digital tools to help community members enhance their knowledge about the problems and strategize ways to solve them.

Part of their approach relies on text-mining tools that can reveal key words and clusters of words. By applying these digital tools—many of which are open source programs—to the realms of government documents and public comments, we can visualize where the interests of constituents and public officials diverge (and, on occasion, converge). For example, comments made about particular issues at public meetings, neighborhood gatherings, in blogs, and on Twitter or Facebook are easily searchable. Along with this information are data and documents produced by local government officials that address the same issues. These can be found in agendas and minutes of meetings and hearings, in press releases and reports about regulatory actions, and in the budgets and databases of public agencies.

Linking Complaints With Action

Digital techniques either exist or are being developed to collate and analyze this kind of information to find patterns, to map the information geographically, to learn what social networks are involved, and to visualize this information over time. So far, however, neither journalists nor citizens are extensively using these tools. Sometimes this is because the software isn’t easy to learn and manage. And programs that more sharply contrast public concern and the government’s response and activity still need to be developed.

For example, with the right mix of programs in place, citizens would complain about flooding in their neighborhood in public hearings, on a Web site, in social networks, blogs or letters to local media. Diligent text mining of that public comment could show who and where it is coming from and whether comments and frustration have increased over time. By text-mining public officials’ comments, public documents, news articles and blogs, a comparison could show whether and how well the city responded to the neighborhood’s concerns—and it could also discover the public officials’ excuses. With this approach, residents could see for themselves what else was happening when city officials ignored their complaints or stalled in taking action. They could easily find out what project or neighborhood the city’s resources are going to. Could it be one in which the residents are wealthier and thus have more influence with local officials?

Contrasts and disparities could be visualized on a computer screen or mobile device in numerous ways. It might be shown as two bar charts—one a measurement of frequency and intensity and even emotional depth of citizen concern and one showing the paucity of official comment and action. Or it could be two fever lines displayed over time—with the citizen line soaring on the graph while the official line stays low or dips. Maps could be created using data analysis of budgets and information about proposed and completed projects to show neighborhoods that are receiving little or no attention and the ones that are.

The social network of citizen activity—snapshots of who is connected to whom—also could be visualized by connecting the dots between the public officials and their political connections and friends. Again, each of these analyses and contrasts could be visualized over time. In addition, Web crawlers can be developed that would go after various documents and download them into a central cloud computing location on the Web. Then the mashup of analytical tools, guided by a journalist or citizen—using keywords and clusters of words—could go to work on mining the information. The result would be a host of visualizations.

Collaborative Approach

What is needed is a dashboard from which a journalist or citizen could drive their inquiries, choosing their routes to come up with findings and creating information and datasets on their neighborhoods and issues. Once topics are chosen, data flows and alerts could be set up to enable people to stay current on comments and actions by automatically creating updates.

All of this is good in theory but what is then needed is to get the tools to the journalists and particularly to the people in the communities. That’s where journalistic collaboration with those in informatics can take the effort to another level. Through fieldwork and research, experts in informatics gain a deep understanding of community issues; using computer training centers, they push to make technology available in underserved neighborhoods.

With computer programmers, informatics experts, and journalists working together, government accountability can be strengthened on a local level beyond what it’s been when reporters have been on their own as watchdogs. Now what targeted digital searches by local residents reveal can launch a totally new realm of story ideas and once a story is told, readers can be directed to explanatory data through online links. And all of this can be done at a cost that even an upstart, hyperlocal Web site can afford.

Brant Houston holds the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting in the journalism department in the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the previous decade he served as the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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