Six Public Data Resources You Don't Know About, But Should

Reporters' resources for people who aren't reporters

Aug 16, 2013 at 1:27 pm

Members of the media are, unsurprisingly, pretty tapped into places on the web where we can find all sorts of useless and not-so-useless information, depending on whether or not we're complementing our BuzzFeed time on lunch break or looking for something worthy long-form investigative coverage.

The fact is there are way more sources of useful information to be dug up on the Internet than even we know of or have time for, even when it's our job to dig it up. If you're into sometimes digging things up for yourself — or verifying claims you hear on the news (always smart) — it's a good idea to be tapped into those kinds of resources; you never know when they might come in handy.

Listed below is a sort of starter kit to get you interested in (perfectly legal) snooping online.

1. - Even if you're not a politics nerd, is a resource you should keep in mind particularly around election season, when politicians are making boastful claims that can sometimes are nearly impossible for the average human being to verify. Run by the Center for Responsive Politics, is the result of the group's research into how money is spent among U.S. politicians and its effects on elections and policy. You can learn where politicians are getting the bulk of their campaign contributions, which can be incredibly telling when interpreting a candidate's platform or assessing his or her morality for yourself. You won't always like what you learn, but, well, it's better to learn it.

2. - If you've ever filled out a job application and experienced mega-stress over the "desired salary" box trying to decide whether high-balling it will hurt or help your chances, can be useful in figuring out what some realistic salary expectations are, whether you're looking to shift fields or just move up the ladder a little. The salaries are submitted by actual current or former employees, so the numbers are much more accurate than a Princeton Review-type database that might give you median salaries for a certain field. Employees can also submit anonymous, detailed company reviews, so you can have an idea of what you're getting into before you say "yes" when you get the offer.

3. EPA Toxic Release Inventory - A database that tracks the management of toxic chemicals facilities release into the air that threaten human health or the environment. It's a little difficult to master at first if you don't browse over the tutorials — there's a lot of complex information to digest — so be sure to do that first. But when you get the hang of it, you can find out what industries are releasing dangerous chemicals in your community — what kind, how much. If you want some broader information on polluters around your neighborhood, enter your zip code at for an easy-to-read overview of your county's top polluters and how it stacks up compared to pollution and toxic chemical emission rates across the U.S.

4. Clandestine Lab Registry - This is where you can basically find out whether or not you've ever had (or will have) neighbors that were found out to be running a secret meth lab or any other illegal drug operation. The findings date back to 2000; if you're thinking of moving or buying a house, it might be wise to see if the neighborhood (or even your prospective place) was home to a meth lab in the past — the stuff leaves poisonous residue that's sometimes not totally removed by the DEA. Eek.

5. Ohio Prison Census - Find comprehensive statistics about Ohio's incarcerated population, including aggregated data sorted by gender, race/ethnicity, age, felony committed, length of sentence, etc.

6. - Stands for Public Access to Electronic Court Records. Once you make an account — which takes a little bit of time to be verified — you have access to case and docket information from an array of courts, including federal appellate, district and bankruptcy courts. Accessing court documents is 10 cents per page, but if you don't rack up more than $15 in a quarter, the fees are waived. Some people criticize PACER for charging and being difficult to use — so much, in fact, that the spinoff RECAP was launched to make it easier for non-lawyer types to access court records online and for free.

And, of course, you can request all kinds of other random bits of information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Familiarize yourself with Ohio's Sunshine Laws to learn about what kind of government records you can and can't access. And here's the city of Cincinnati's guide to submitting a public records request yourself.