Open Records

  • Wrong-way crashes on San Antonio highways happen more often than you might think

    Wrong-way crashes in San Antonio flew under the radar

    A few months ago, my boss, Express-News Projects Editor David Sheppard, asked me to see what we could find out about wrong-way crashes on highways. It seemed like there were a lot of these deadly accidents in the news lately, and local officials had recently unveiled a $500,000 pilot project to install flashing wrong-way signs and radar on a 15-mile segment of U.S. 281.

    I wrapped up what I was working on and teamed up with reporter Vianna Davila, who covers transportation. We had to answer two deceptively simple questions. How often do wrong-way crashes happen? And how does Bexar County compare to other counties?

    We turned to a giant database maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation called the Crash Records Information System. It’s derived from accident reports filled out by law enforcement officers, and it tracks hundreds of details about every accident in Texas — including wrong-way crashes.

    But we soon learned there was no quick and easy way to filter the data for the specific wrong-way accidents we were looking for — crashes on major divided highways with exit and entrance ramps.

    The database had a “road type” field, with categories that included interstates, tollways and U.S. and state highways. So far, so good. But some state highways are actually busy roads, such as Bandera Road. The wrong-way crashes on those boulevards are different from the type of accident we were examining. We weren’t writing about distracted drivers who cross a center line into oncoming traffic. We were writing about drivers who head up exit ramps and into oncoming traffic on busy highways and interstates.

    We ended up selecting the five Texas counties with the largest populations, mapped the wrong-way accidents with Google Fusion Tables, and then eyeballed each location to make sure it actually occurred on a major highway. Here’s how the finished product looked for Bexar County:

    It took hours of work but the result was a set of specific crashes we were looking for. And the final numbers were surprising — Bexar County ranked high in wrong-way accidents for the years 2007-2011. It even had more crashes than Dallas County, which is more densely populated and has more traffic. To our knowledge, no one has done this kind of comparison in recent years.

    If you work for a news organization and you’re jumping into data journalism (and you should be), it’s a good idea to share your methodology and findings with the government employees who oversee the data. You don’t want to be surprised by an error they catch after the story is published. And it gives the agency a chance to respond if your findings cast the agency in a harsh light.

    It was certainly surprising to learn Bexar County ranked so high. The other surprise was how long the deadly problem flew under the radar. Despite several high-profile, deadly wrong-way crashes, local officials didn’t start talking about ways to prevent them until the summer of 2010.

    To learn more, check out our two-part series about wrong-way crashes. And check back here when we see how the pilot program is working to stop wrong-way drivers.


  • Nickel and dimed: Find out which gas stations have faulty pumps that overcharge motorists

    Valero Station in San Antonio

    If you’ve ever suspected your neighborhood gas station is stiffing you at the pump, you might already know you can file a complaint with the Weights and Measures Program at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The agency’s inspectors verify the accuracy of gas pumps.

    But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?

    The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.

    So Express-News Data Editor Joe Yerardi downloaded a publicly available copy of the inspection data and took a look at it for himself.

    The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.

    Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.

    Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.

    Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.

    “It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”

    Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.

    These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?

    Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.

    “If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.

    (Photo credit: Derrich on Flickr)

  • Check out every insurance claim filed against the city of San Antonio

    What happens when you’re hit by a city vehicle and file an insurance claim against San Antonio? Now you can find out by searching a database that tracks every claim filed against the city in the past decade.

    I stumbled across this story by using Google’s advanced search options. Google lets you search specific websites for specific files and specific terms. So a way to find little-known databases and interesting stories is to search a government website for spreadsheets, pdf’s, and other type of documents.

    For example, let’s say you want to focus on the city of San Antonio. In Google’s search box, you’d type site:sanantonio.gov, to limit the results to pages from the city’s website. Then use “filetype” to focus on specific types of files. The term filetype:xls searches for spreadsheets. Filetype:doc searches for Microsoft Word documents. Filetype:pdf searches for … you guessed it, pdf files.

    You can do broad searches or get creative and add words you think might lead to interesting stuff. Check out this search with the term “injuries.”

    Advanced Google search results for the city of San Antonio

    One of the top results is a form for a vehicle accident report that is filled out by city employees whenever they’re involved in an accident. All the entries and check boxes in the form suggest this information is typed into a database of some kind. And if that’s the case, that means you can request the data, analyze it yourself, and see if there’s a story lurking in those numbers.

    Using the Texas Public Information Act, I asked for any database the city had that tracked insurance claims from vehicle accidents. The process took awhile and there was a lot of back and forth. At first, the city’s Risk Management Office only sent me a pdf with two categories of information: case numbers and dates. The format and info was worthless.

    But eventually they sent more complete spreadsheets that tracked the dollar amount of the claim, whether it was denied, and a brief description about what happened. It was interesting reading.

    No one outside City Hall had ever looked at this data before. Thanks to a nifty Google search, now everybody can.




  • Attorney General Greg Abbott sues the Texas Highway Patrol Museum in San Antonio

    The Texas attorney general’s office announced yesterday that it has sued the Texas Highway Patrol Museum, a nonprofit telemarketing organization based in San Antonio that raises millions of dollars in the name of helping state troopers.

    Texas Highway Patrol MuseumI had always been curious about the museum, which is housed in a brick building at St. Mary’s and Alamo streets but attracts few visitors. In October, we examined the museum’s tax records and found that only a fraction of the nearly $12 million in revenue raised by the museum’s telemarketers actually went towards the charitable causes it touted. For every dollar raised, less than a penny was spent on Department of Public Safety troopers and their families.

    Attorney General Greg Abbott’s lawsuit reveals new details about what, exactly, donors’ money was spent on. State investigators obtained financial information and credit card statements from the museum, and found employees had paid for cigars, liquor, vacations, meals and “exorbitant” vet bills for an “office cat.” The lawsuit describes an organization with few controls over how money was spent, and an absentee board that seldom asked questions.

    Here’s an annotated copy of the lawsuit:


    In our last story, I interviewed Scott Henson at the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast, who had received a telemarketing call from the museum in August. Scott wasn’t happy that the caller initially claimed to be with the Texas Highway Patrol — as if the caller were really with the Department of Public Safety. “This group is about as much about helping troopers as buzzards are about helping roadkill,” Scott wrote at the time. He called yesterday’s lawsuit “way past time.”

    The museum’s assets have been frozen and it’s been closed since Friday. Its lawyer, Kim Brown, called the lawsuit “heavy handed” and said the expenses were justified.

    What about the cigars?

    Prizes for telemarketers, he said.

    Liquor?

    Drinks for office parties.

    The office cat?

    The vet bills for the cat were unavoidable.

    The lawsuit lays out more expenses for trips, meals and cars that the state describes as wasteful spending. But Brown said the museum is hardly a fly-by-night organization that defrauds people. The small museum has operated in San Antonio for years, he said, and while it has high overhead costs, it does spend money on charitable causes.

    The attorney general is seeking to dissolve the nonprofit museum and its related entities. The next step is a hearing for a temporary injunction that has yet to be scheduled.

    Here’s a searchable library of all primary documents we’ve obtained about the museum. If you’ve had any experiences with the museum or its telemarketers, feel free to contact us.


  • More retaining wall problems discovered in a San Antonio subdivision

    After a towering retaining wall collapsed and threatened scores of homes last year in the San Antonio neighborhood of Rivermist, an obvious question arose: How safe were the untold number of other residential retaining walls in the city?

    Under city code, walls in San Antonio over four feet tall were supposed to go through a permitting process. But until Rivermist, that permitting process rarely happened in new subdivisions — despite the widespread use of large walls to sculpt hillsides in the rapidly growing Texas Hill Country.

    In other words, no one at the city could vouch for the safety of other retaining walls, many of which are 20 feet high or taller.

    After the collapse at Rivermist, the city announced that all tall residential walls built in the last three years had to be verified as safe by an engineer and permitted. So far, most walls have passed muster.

    But one subdivision with 14 retaining walls is still having problems.

    It’s called the Heights of Crownridge, located on the far North Side by the Crownridge Canyon Natural Area. Jen found out about it after a concerned resident emailed her photos of a long vertical crack in a huge wall in the middle of the subdivision.

    Jennifer and I had written a bunch of stories about the problems with retaining walls in San Antonio. After Jen got the tip, we drove to Crownridge over the weekend with baby Sophie sleeping in the car. The subdivision was unfinished — streets were completed but only a handful of homes had been built. There were no lawns. Just sun-baked dirt and rock.

    And there are a lot of tall retaining walls. The one the tipster alerted Jen to is huge:

    Retaining wall at the Heights of Crownridge in San Antonio

    And sure enough, there was a long, very noticeable crack on the northern section. This is part of the crack:

    Cracked retaining wall at the Heights of Crownridge in San Antonio

    Jen sent an open records request to the city for more information about what was going on at the Heights of Crownridge. A couple weeks ago we sat down in an office of the city’s Planning and Development Services Department to read a stack of letters and engineering plans related to all the retaining walls in the unfinished subdivision.

    No engineering plans had yet been received for the big wall we checked out. (I later interviewed Scott Rozier, the owner of Rosch Co., which built the wall with the crack. He stood by his work.)

    But there were problems with other walls. Going through the documents, Jen and I had a case of deja vu. It turned out some of the same people involved with the wall at Rivermist also designed and built a wall that later cracked at the Heights of Crownridge.

    Engineer Russell Leavens designed the Rivermist wall, and it was built by Gravity Walls Ltd. They also designed and built a different wall at Crownridge that suffered from a large crack and was deemed unsafe. This wall was on the southeast corner of the subdivision, which we hadn’t known about. Engineer Tim Theis determined that the wall had not been built according to plans.


    At Rivermist, city officials had also claimed that Gravity Walls Ltd. did not build the wall according to engineering plans.

    Theis mentioned problems with the particular type of retaining wall used in both subdivisions. Gravity walls rely on their sheer mass to remain stable. But once they’re built, it’s difficult for inspectors to make sure the walls were constructed right. That problem was noted at Rivermist and also at Crownridge.

    As we reviewed the documents, a city engineer who was handling the case came by the office. It turned out construction had been on hold at some lots for months as the concerns about the retaining walls were being sorted out.

    The pile of documents included maps showing the location of each retaining wall and who built it. Coupled with the info we learned from other documents and interviews, the maps helped me build this interactive feature that showed readers what was going on in the subdivision:


    View Retaining wall problems at the Heights of Crownridge in a larger map

    We could have cranked this story out faster if Jen hadn’t made the open records request. But the documents gave us details that we might not have otherwise known, such as the connection to Gravity Walls Ltd.

    It simply pays to dig up pertinent records … even if it slows you down.

  • How two Pulitzer finalists used public data and the Internet to connect with readers

    Anyone who cares about journalism should read Al Tompkins’ post examining the innovative storytelling techniques that empowered the Las Vegas Sun series “Do No Harm,” a project by reporters Marshall Allen and Alex Richards. The reporters analyzed 2.9 million hospital records that revealed systematic, preventable errors at the local healthcare system. They found more than 300 patients who died from mistakes in 2008 and 2009 that could have been prevented.

    Pulitzer finalist  Do No Harm  from Las Vegas Sun   YouTubeRather than rely on anecdotal sob stories that would be dismissed as scare-mongering by hospitals, the reporters used reader-friendly multimedia presentations to make the data come alive and show, in a powerful way, the scope and human toll of the problem. Thanks to the project, Tompkins writes, six pieces of legislation have been filed in the Nevada Legislature to reform and bring more transparency to the hospital system.

    The project took two years — an eternity in journalism time. But it still offers important lessons for journalists. We’re no longer chained to simply telling a story with an 80-inch news article and a few pictures and graphics. We can use the Internet to let readers look over our shoulders and check out the raw documentation and data and videos for themselves. One of the most creative things the Sun did was make it incredibly easy for readers to offer feedback:

    When the stories started running, the paper’s phones rang off the hook. Rather than let the calls fall into the digital abyss, the team edited some and provide a sampling of the public’s reaction. They also posted reader reaction to the website, allowing people to share their personal experiences with Vegas-area hospitals.

    Marshall Allen invited readers to share their stories using an easy online form.

    Because of these storytelling techniques, the project was impossible to ignore. It could prompt change — and save lives.

  • Telling stories with data: Police chases and drug smugglers on the Texas-Mexico border

    After the Express-News and the Texas Tribune collaborated last month on a story about concealed handgun permits, Brandi, Matt and I were jazzed about the results and started talking about what to work on next. Here’s what we came up with: An analysis of nearly 5,000 vehicle-pursuit reports kept by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

    Drug runners drive into Rio Grande River
    Drug runners crash into the Rio Grande River (Source: Texas DPS)
    Until recently, I had no idea this DPS database existed. But I stumbled across it a few months earlier when I was working on this article about pursuits in San Antonio. SAPD keeps a database packed with details about each chase — the weather and road conditions, the pursuit speeds and durations, the injuries and fatalities. Since SAPD had this data, I figured other law enforcement agencies in Texas probably kept similar records. I asked around and sure enough, DPS was one of the agencies that collects details about pursuits.

    Why is that a big deal? Well, when you find a previously unknown database with information about an important public safety issue and analyze those digital records, you’ll probably discover fresh, interesting information for your readers. Public databases empower journalists to do their own research and find surprising answers.

    Brandi asked for a copy of the data and we received it from DPS with little trouble. It was a big spreadsheet documenting nearly 5,000 pursuits from 2005 to July 2010.

    One detail jumped out at us: Hidalgo County, by far, had the most pursuits over the past five years — 656. Several other border counties also ranked high, suggesting smugglers were often fleeing DPS troopers. The database told us all kinds of things about these pursuits — how often people were injured, how often motorists escaped, and how they got away.

    When reporters dive into data-heavy topics, it’s important to find the real people behind the numbers. We asked DPS early in the reporting process to go on a ride-along with a trooper in Hidalgo County. Brandi and photographer Callie Richmond visited McAllen and went on a ride along with DPS Trooper Johnny Hernandez. Their experience became the lede of our story. Brandi had some great interviews with Hernandez and other troopers in Hidalgo County, who openly talked about their continual struggles to catch smugglers from Mexico. The visit provided rich material for photos and an awesome online video that Callie produced.

    Brandi wrote a big chunk of the article on the drive back from McAllen. We finished writing and editing the story in a Google Document, which really beats sending e-mails back and forth and losing track of differing versions of the story. Google Docs lets you see what each collaborator is adding to the document as they write. It’s like the Big Brother version of Microsoft Word, but less evil. It’s a useful tool for collaborating with people, especially if they work in a different organization in a different city. Plus, Google gives you a chat window in the document, which is nice if you want to mock the typing skills of your colleagues.

    Why bother teaming with the Tribune? I blogged earlier about how I’m warming up to the touchy feely trend of collaboration in journalism — how it helps overworked reporters tackle stories, and broadens their reach with a wider audience when the final product is published. When our story ran Sunday, it was published in the Express-News, the Texas Tribune, the Houston Chronicle and the New York Times.

    The collaboration also helped us post online goodies for readers hungry for more information. Matt Stiles made an interactive county map of Texas. I used DocumentCloud to post this annotated copy of a pursuit report that offered context from the pursuit data. Callie’s YouTube video was a very cool mini-documentary that explained the issue. We also posted the data online, allowing readers to learn about pursuits in their own counties.

    There were some interesting reactions to the story. Scott Henson at Grits for Breakfast was surprised so many suspects got away: “I would not have guessed that the number of chases ending with the suspect successfully eluding troopers on foot would have been so high, nor that the proportion who stop and surrender would be so low.”

    KXXV TV localized the story by looking at the high number of pursuits in McLennan County.

    That’s the great thing about news stories based on public data — people can take the information you found, talk about it, and look at the data themselves.

  • Google Refine: A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data

    Google unveiled a free tool for journalists who are interested in analyzing public data. Google Refine is a “power tool for working with messy data.” It helps import information and clean up data-entry problems that lurk in many government databases.

    Google Refine  A tool for journalists looking for great stories in data   John TedescoIt’s open to everyone but it looks like Google created this tool with an eye on computer-assisted reporting. Google’s introductory video touts “Dollars for Docs,” a data-driven story by ProPublica that showed how drug companies paid doctors to promote their products.

    Analyzing databases is a niche skill in newsrooms. Not all reporters are comfortable doing queries in Microsoft Access or sifting through thousands of computerized records, but those skills can really empower reporters who are trying to make sense of a complicated world. Columbia Journalism Review published a great profile of Daniel Gilbert, a reporter for the Bristol Herald Courier who came across a potential blockbuster of a story about unpaid royalties from mineral rights. But the issue was so complex he didn’t know how to unlock it.

    His editor persuaded the newspaper’s publisher to pay for Gilbert to attend a database boot camp at Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Gilbert learned skills that helped him piece together the gas royalties puzzle. The result: “Underfoot, out of reach“, a series of stories that showed how millions of dollars owed to landowners had been tied up in an “an opaque state-run escrow fund, where it has accumulated with scant oversight for nearly 20 years.” Gilbert won the Pulitzer Prize.

    I haven’t played around with Google Refine yet, but I hope it encourages more journalists to take the plunge into computer-assisted reporting. There are some amazing, data-driven stories to be told out there. We just need more people to tell them.

    (h/t: Jennifer Peebles)

  • From surgeon to bank robber: What caused Dr. John Christian Gunn’s fall from grace?

    Story about Dr. John Christian Gunn in the San Antonio Express-NewsA few months ago, the Texas Medical Board sent out a routine public notice listing doctors who have been disciplined. One name in the list stood out to Express-News Medical Writer Don Finley: A San Antonio surgeon, Dr. John Christian Gunn, had lost his medical license after being convicted of a felony.

    Finley checked it out and discovered Gunn — a Yale-educated surgeon — had robbed a bank in Austin.

    “I’ve been watching doctors do lots of bizarre things for many years, but robbing a bank was new,” Finley told me. “It seemed like a very, very strange and tragic thing.”

    The spark of curiosity about Gunn led to weeks of reporting by Finley, who talked to dozens of people and dug up public documents to piece together a story about the little-known doctor. Some of the best news stories are born this way: Simply asking, “Why?”

    “To me, it’s the perfect narrative,” Finley said. “Why would a well educated surgeon rob a bank?”

    Finley is a skinny, graying veteran of the newsroom best known for his deadpan wisecracks and his gift for writing about complicated topics. To really understand Gunn’s story, Finley read every public record he could get his hands on. At one point, he flew to Kentucky, where Gunn had once worked, to dig up court records. He found a medical consultant’s report that described Gunn’s track record as a doctor. There was also a bankruptcy case in Texas and other documents Finley obtained at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

    Don Finley, medical writer for the San Antonio Express-News
    Finley
    Finley’s story ran last week and it has some striking quotes about Gunn. “He in my opinion was not a very good physician. Honestly, I think he did not have much sympathy or empathy for patients and their families,” said Dr. Joseph Miller of Arkansas.

    But it took a lot of work to get people to open up.

    “Almost nobody wanted to talk about this guy,” Finley said. Most potential sources were afraid of Gunn’s temper.

    But the weeks of reporting paid off. To me, this is why journalism is so cool — you get paid to find stuff out, satisfy your curiosity, and learn something interesting about the world that no one else knows.

    And then you get to share it on the front page of the Sunday paper with thousands of your closest friends.




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