Propublica.org's "Eye on the Stimulus" online database. Photo taken by Laura Nelson.

As you know, I’m writing this blog on assignment for my Reinventing the News class at Northeastern University.  Part of the new era of the media requires up-and-coming journalists to be familiar and comfortable with using online databases to gather information.  Thus, here are my reviews of three online databases … and a few hypothetical story ideas from what I found on these sites:

For information on Massachusetts and the greater Boston area, what better website to turn to than Boston.com?  The site, an information hub for all things Massachusetts, features MassFacts – a useful database with a section entitled “Your Town” that can numerically or visually represent everything from state salaries to the number of Hybrid cars per 1,000 residents in any Massachusetts town.

One of the “Your Town” presentations that caught my eye was “High School grads to 4-year-colleges, ’08-’09.” The statistics are presented with an interactive graph that shows the percentage of seniors attending four-year colleges in each Massachusetts town.  Additionally, the right-hand side of the page enables readers to give feedback on their personal experience, asking a poll question that reads: “Have budget cuts hurt the quality of education in your community?”

The plus of this presentation is that it offers data I can interact with.  However, I think this online database, and Boston.com in general, could benefit from providing its readers with links to articles on the subject being presented.  Although I was given a visual representation of the information I was looking for, I wasn’t able to directly access information on what’s being done about graduation rates and college attendance in my community.

Moreover, I also found many of the topics of MassFacts’ Your Town database to only graze the type of information I was seeking as a reader.  We’re in a recession, and college students with degrees all over the country are taking to their parents’ basements after paying for four years of education.  I not only want to know how many people are attending college in my town, but also how many of those students with degrees are currently unemployed compared to rates ten years ago.  In my opinion, the MassFacts database could benefit from providing even more detailed information related to the times we’re in. Additionally, links to helpful information would not only help readers, but also help the website’s traffic.

Next on my list of databases is Eye on the Stimulus, an online database from ProPublica.org that enables people to find stimulus projects in their hometown.  In the search queue, I looked up Harris County, Texas, and searched for stimulus projects in my neck of the woods.

The page for Harris County displays the total amount of recovery funding for the US, and then the total amount for Texas and Harris County.  This information helps the surfer decipher what percentage of recovery funding their county is receiving, and where that money is going.

At first glance, I am intrigued by the $331,351,664 that Harris County gave to its Energy Department in October, 2010.  By clicking on the amount of money allocated, I found out exactly how much money was given to each energy company in the area, and the reasons for doing so.  Personally, I was struck by how much funding is going towards environmental conservation efforts in a state and county that is notorious for holding such concerns in rather low regard. Hypothetically, if I were an editor of a newspaper, I would consider taking these individual stimulus packages and seeing what kind of environmental conservation efforts they are actually producing – what kind of conservation efforts are being produced by this funding, and how these efforts really benefiting us in the long-term?  These are the kinds of questions I have as a reader, and the kinds of questions I would answer as a reporter.

The final website I looked into was the New York Times’ Toxic Waters database.  This site enabled me to find water polluters in my home town using either my zip code or state.  I checked out the water polluters in Harris County, Texas, and found that most of the violators in the area surrounding my house had not been out of compliance in about five years.  However, the City of Houston and Memorial Villages Water Authority had both reportedly “been out of regulatory compliance” 3 or 4 times out of the past 12 quarters. A detailed analysis of the Memorial Villages Water Authority violations, enabled by the Toxic Waters database, displayed the amount of chemicals and solids that were discovered at the location and caused violations.  As an editor for a local paper, I would investigate and find out if these chemicals are related to any prominent heath issues in the neighborhoods’ surrounding the violating locations.

Online databases are essential tools in the new media landscape – I have found that navigating them is a user-friendly process in most cases, and, with any luck, they may make becoming the next Erin Brockovich a little less time consuming.

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