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  • What’s Evernote for? How about making a vast, searchable archive of all your files

    Evernote turns eight years old this week. But even after all these years, some people have trouble grasping what, exactly, this mystical app is supposed to do. Is it for taking notes? Saving bookmarks? Taking photos? All of the above?

    EvernoteEveryone’s needs are different. But for me, Evernote really shines as a vast, searchable archive that allows you to comb the full-text of every web page, document, photo or note you’ve saved, and find what you need in seconds.

    Here’s how it works. When you type some words in Evernote’s search box, you’re not just searching the titles of your files. You’re not just searching the tags of your photos. You’re searching the entire contents of everything you saved in Evernote. This even applies to anything you take a picture of that has words, such as business cards, thanks to Evernote’s sweet optical character recognition capability.

    For people like journalists who work on deadline, this can be incredibly useful for quickly finding a needle in a haystack.

    Evernote isn’t perfect — its desktop app can get sluggish and I get frustrated with it sometimes. But I realized how powerful this tool could be when I worked on a story about the family history of Johnny Manziel several years ago. I used Evernote to save every article, court record and web page I came across during the course of my reporting. Then, when I was writing the story and had to look up something, I could use Evernote to instantly search the entire text of those files.

    An example: I came across several old news stories about the friendship between Manziel’s great-grandfather, a wildcatter and boxer named Bobby Joe Manziel, and heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey.

    Manziel retired from boxing and moved to East Texas in the 1930s to try his luck in the oil fields as a wildcatter. Almost broke, Manziel asked Dempsey for some money to drill for oil in Gladewater.

    The well was a gusher. Dempsey later said that gamble was the smartest investment he ever made.

    But there were discrepancies in the stories I found about how much Dempsey invested. Some said $400. Others said $700. Well, which was it?

    Enter Evernote. I searched for “Dempsey” and the varying dollar amounts in my Evernote files and all the relevant articles popped up. It didn’t take long to determine that the older, more contemporaneous stories claimed Dempsey invested $400. One article quoted Dempsey directly. Problem solved.

    Now imagine life without Evernote. I would have had to reread a pile of photocopied articles looking for any mention of that investment.

    Is it possible? Sure.

    Was Evernote a useful tool that totally sped up the process?

    Absolutely.

    I wouldn’t upload sensitive files to a cloud-based app like Evernote. But for the vast majority of information you rely upon in your day-to-day life, Evernote can transform those records into a vast archive that’s instantly searchable — and instantly more useful.

  • Insightful FOIA tips from ‘FOIA terrorist’ Jason Leopold at NICAR 2016

    Jason Leopold

    It’s impossible to say enough good things about NICAR 2016, a journalism conference in Denver where more than a thousand attendees honed their data-wrangling skills. NICAR is all about finding good stories in data.

    But what stood out for me was a talk by investigative reporter Jason Leopold of Vice News about using the Freedom of Information Act to get your hands on that data in the first place.

    “The Freedom of Information Act has become a very important tool for me,” said Leopold, who writes about the secretive world of national security where few people are willing to speak on the record.

    To bypass those road blocks, Leopold began relying on FOIA to dig up public records and unearth good stories. Over the years he’s learned about the intricacies and pitfalls of FOIA. He’s been so prolific, a federal bureaucrat referred to him in an email as a FOIA terrorist. Leopold liked it and the nickname stuck.

    “I file FOIA requests probably several times a week,” Leopold told several hundred journalists who packed a conference room at the Denver Marriott City Center on March 10.

    Here’s what Leopold learned about FOIA, a law written nearly a half century ago that has its flaws — but can still be a powerful tool:

    Speed up the FOIA process

    One downside of FOIA is the backlog of open records requests at many federal agencies. It can take months, even years, to get anything.

    It’s crucial for reporters to build a template — a template that describes exactly where you want these agencies to search.”

    To speed up the process, Leopold said it’s important to explicitly explain in your FOIA request not only what you’re looking for, but where it’s located at the agency.

    “It’s crucial for reporters to build a template — a template that describes exactly where you want these agencies to search,” Leopold said.

    Every federal agency has “systems of records” that are usually public and list where they are keeping certain databases and documents in their vast bureaucracy.

    Let’s say you’re looking for emails about the German auto manufacturer Volkswagen and how it rigged emissions tests. You send a FOIA request. “The EPA is a large organization, obviously,” Leopold said. “So just sending it to the EPA would not necessarily get you the info you’re seeking in a timely manner.” Leopold said you could speed up the process, potentially trimming off months of delays, if you tell the EPA where to search.

    This tip is also a bit empowering. Once the agency notices you know what you’re doing, it’s harder for it to blow you off.

    For the FOIA analysts handling your requests, “if you’re not telling them what to do, they have to figure it out,” Leopold said.

    Leopold also singled out the FBI.

    “The FBI is the worst agency in the government when it comes to responding to FOIA,” Leopold said. The FBI has a 100 million records, and how it searches those records matters.

    “Whenever you file a request with the FBI, you should always ask them to conduct a cross-reference search,” Leopold said. “That’s a separate filing system. And an ELSUR search — electronic surveillance database search. And oftentimes, the FBI will have documents in cross-reference files.”

    For example, after Maya Angelou died, Leopold filed a FOIA request to see what files the FBI had about her. “They responded by saying, ‘We didn’t find any records.'” Leopold said. “So I appealed and said, ‘You guys did not conduct a cross-reference search.’

    “And they went back, the did a cross-reference search, and the gave me these cross-reference files, which were actually really fascinating because these cross-reference files had to do with an investigation into communist activities in the ’60s. And there was Maya Angelou in this file.

    “So it really sort of helps to get those documents and get that type of material,” Leopold said. “It will really also help, if you’re reporting on a story, to gain a wider knowledge of how the FBI conducts its activities.”

    Appeal everything

    I cannot stress enough how important it is to appeal every response that you get.”

    FOIA has an appeals process, and Leopold uses it all the time.

    “I cannot stress enough how important it is to appeal every response that you get,” Leopold said. “Even if the agency turns over everything you want. There may actually be more. I appeal everything.”

    An example: For a story about the Obama administration scuttling FOIA, Leopold heard rumors about the Federal Trade Commission being involved. He filed a FOIA request and they sent about 30 pages.

    “I appealed it. They said, ‘Oh, we found 900 more pages.'”

    When you appeal, you don’t need to make a compelling legal argument. Simply write, “I appeal the integrity of the search.” It’s also very important to appeal any and all redactions. “You will really be surprised by some of these responses,” Leopold said.

    The meta FOIA

    File a FOIA request for the processing notes to see how the government agency is handling your initial FOIA request. It’s a way to gain a great understanding about how the FOIA process works.

    Leopold said there’s a paper trail from the moment your request lands on an analyst’s desk that shows how your request is being handled. Processing notes sometimes have names of databases that are undisclosed, which could be valuable to your reporting.

    “You get a good understanding of what’s going on behind the scenes,” Leopold said.

    Leopold advised to wait about three or four weeks after receiving your FOIA case number to file this “meta” FOIA request. “I think those processing notes are hugely valuable,” said Leopold, especially for reporters who cover national security where it’s so difficult to obtain information.

    A great resource

    One thing that frustrates Leopold is that many reporters don’t know about a great resource: OGIS, the Office of Government Information Services.

    This office is the “federal FOIA ombudsman” that provides mediation services for citizens dealing with federal bureaucracies. They can help you if an agency is stonewalling.

    “They’re waiting for that phone call,” Leopold said of OGIS. But all too often, journalists aren’t picking up the phone.

    “It’s not used as often as it should be,” Leopold said. “It does not cost anything. I’ve used their services before suing. They’ve actually been able to get documents for me.”

    Expedited processing

    Under FOIA, the burden is on the requester to prove there is a need for the information to be released immediately.

    The easiest office to be granted expedited processing is the Justice Department, even though they suck at FOIA.”

    “Each agency is different with regard to expedited processing,” Leopold said. “The easiest office to be granted expedited processing is the Justice Department, even though they suck at FOIA,” Leopold said.

    It doesn’t always work out the way you want. For one request, Leopold was granted expedited processing but still had to wait two years to receive what he asked for.

    “So much for expedited processing,” Leopold joked. But he said it’s always a good idea to ask for expedited processing and figure out how to make that case. What is that pressing need? How would the public be harmed if that information was not out immediately?

    Do your homework

    FOIA logs: Read them regularly. Most agencies post their FOIA logs of past requests and responses on their website. You can actually see what other people are asking for, get ideas, and save yourself some time.

    You can also check a website called FOIA online, which allows you to conduct keyword searches of multiple agencies and read any documents that were released.

    It’s OK to sue

    Leopold said there’s a myth that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to sue the government to resolve a FOIA dispute.

    “If you are looking for a highly classified document, yes, be prepared for a fight that’s going to take many years,” he said. But otherwise, it’s not so bad. You or your news organization file a suit, and then life gets better. The litigation helps speed up the FOIA process if the agency is dragging its feet.

    It’s a sad reality about FOIA. It remains broken. We’re left having to litigate for documents that belong to the public.”

    “Basically what happens after filing a lawsuit, you kind of go to the top of the pile,” Leopold said. “You end up working with a government attorney, and you come up with a production schedule.”

    Leopold said FOIA litigation doesn’t cost as much as some people might think.

    “The costs are really minimal,” he said. “I mean, four digits. It’s a sad reality about FOIA. It remains broken. We’re left having to litigate for documents that belong to the public.”

    Fee waivers

    To save money in open records costs, you need to ask for a fee waiver and make an argument as to why you’re entitled to it. You can write: “I’m a reporter. I publish regularly. I am going to use these documents to write a news story about this issue. I should be entitled to a fee waiver because it is in the public interest.”

    When writing your request, be sure to use the phrase “any and all records relating or referring to …” That’s very important language, Leopold said. Don’t say you want documents “about” something. Agencies can deny your request, claiming they don’t know what you mean.

    By law, every agency also has to provide you with an estimated date of completion. You can request that, and if they fail to provide it, that can help your cause if you need to later appeal or file a lawsuit.

    Keeping track of it all

    You know, I’m not patting myself on the back here. I’m really successful.”

    “I have more than a thousand outstanding (FOIA) requests,” Leopold said. He makes sense of the chaos by using a “very simple” spreadsheet that includes the date of the request and when responses are due.

    What’s Leopold’s success rate?

    “You know, I’m not patting myself on the back here,” Leopold said. “I’m really successful. I turn all of this into news.”

    What’s amazing about getting records through FOIA, Leopold said, is that sources are suddenly willing to talk once documents are unclassified and released publicly. It’s tedious work — but it pays off.

    “It has become a very important tool for me,” Leopold said. “But yeah, I have a very good success rate.”

  • How to check safety inspections for any elevator or escalator in Texas

    The view from the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The view from the top of the Tower of the Americas, the tallest structure in San Antonio.

    The elevators at the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio look like something out of the Jetsons. Yet every once in a while, the futuristic contraptions get stuck, stranding people hundreds of feet in the air.

    Last week it happened again. Firefighters rescued 14 people, including two children, who were trapped inside a stalled elevator. This time they were only 50 feet high. But on a hot summer day they had no air conditioning for part of their two-hour ordeal.

    Tower of the Americas in San Antonio
    The Tower of the Americas and a stalled elevator, Dec. 28, 2012
    If all these incidents are making you wonder about the safety record of elevators at the tower or your office building, there’s a quick way to find answers in Texas.

    An obscure state agency, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, oversees a hodgepodge of industries such as barbers, boilermakers and tow-truck companies to name a few.

    Elevators and escalators are also under TDLR’s purview. State law requires elevator and escalator owners to hire a licensed inspector annually to check the machinery. Many owners also hire contractors to conduct routine maintenance and repairs.

    The results of the annual inspections are sent to TDLR, which has been posting them all online since 2001. The first time I worked on a story about a stuck elevator at the Tower of the Americas in 2006, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that TDLR offered a quick way access those annual inspection reports and other documents online.

    Not every agency makes this kind of thing so easy, even in 2015.

    Searching for records

    On the search page, you can type parameters such as owner name or building address:

    TDLR's elevator inspection search page

    Click on the search result you want — in this case, the Tower of the Americas — and the next page shows how many elevators and escalators are in the building. Clicking on the “show documents” button takes you to a list of downloadable inspection reports and correspondence.

    Elevator inspection page on TDLR's website

    It’s a timely, useful resource. But it’s not perfect.

    Past tragedy

    While TDLR offers easy access to individual inspection reports, the agency doesn’t plug in the results of those inspections into any kind of database that could be analyzed and show just how often major problems are found.

    And a tragedy at the Crockett Hotel in San Antonio revealed weaknesses in Texas’ regulatory system on Dec. 28, 2011, when a 65-year-old housekeeper named Gloria Rodriguez fell six stories to her death down an elevator shaft.

    Past inspections for the elevator looked relatively benign. But after the fatal accident, TDLR’s chief inspector, Lawrence Taylor, scrutinized the elevator and found a litany of problems. In tests, Taylor saw the elevator car stop at a landing, then move upward of its own accord with no signal to run.

    Taylor called that a “matter of grave concern.”

    No one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem”

    “Someone with special knowledge of the elevator control system knew that there was a problem with the brake and intentionally installed a jumper and moved wires in an attempt to overcome the problem(s),” Taylor wrote in his report. “However, no one actually did anything meaningful or effective to uncover the real problem(s) and embark on a course of action that would have solved the problem and prevented this tragic event.

    “This tragedy was preventable,” Taylor wrote, “and was a direct result of the failure to have the elevator inspected as required and inadequate maintenance.”

    TDLR fined the owner of the Crockett Hotel and its contractor, Otis Elevator Co., nearly $86,000 for Rodriguez’s death.

    Over the years I’ve spoken with TDLR employees about the valuable service the agency provides by making so much information available on its website for so many years. But given the tragedy at the Crockett Hotel, just how reliable are the state-mandated annual inspections?

    “When you consider how many elevators there are in the state and that they’re working every day, I think overall they are effective,” said Susan Stanford, a spokeswoman for TDLR.

    Customers can help keep each other safe by checking certificates that are supposed to be posted near every elevator and see whether it’s overdue for an annual inspection, Stanford said. And she emphasized that elevator accidents are rare. Even at the Tower of the Americas, where elevators routinely get stuck, the incidents are usually a sign that safety mechanisms worked.

    “Instances involving a major violation don’t happen often, but they do happen,” Stanford added in an email she sent me today. “Inspectors identifying ‘reportable conditions’ are required to notify TDLR and must request the owner’s cooperation in shutting down the equipment until it is repaired or brought into compliance.”

    Escalator danger

    While it’s unnerving to be trapped inside an elevator at the 622-foot-tall tower, mundane escalators harm more people. Escalator and elevator owners have to report injuries to TDLR, and in San Antonio the injuries usually stem from escalator accidents. In 2010, a 3-year-old child trying to go up an escalator at Rolling Oaks Mall fell and got two fingers stuck. They were amputated.

    I didn’t find much fodder in the most recent elevator inspection records posted for the Tower of the Americas. But after an earlier incident at the tower on Dec. 28, 2012, the search was more productive and led to this news story:

    All three elevators at the Tower of the Americas, where several employees were trapped early Friday in one of the cars about 400 feet in the air, were behind schedule on state-mandated annual inspections, records show.

    The Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation sent notices in May to Landry’s Inc., the company that operates the city-owned landmark, warning that inspections due in April were late. The licensing department oversees elevator safety.

    Landry’s later told the agency it completed the inspections in September and October. But the company hasn’t yet filed the results of the inspections for at least one of the elevators, according to a Dec. 27 notice the agency sent to Landry’s.

    Past inspections at the Tower of the Americas uncovered rusted brackets that came loose from the tower structure. Inspectors also recommended adjusting safety mechanisms for all three elevators. The mechanisms, called “governors,” control speed. One of the elevators flunked a safety test for its governor.

    So these inspection reports can be interesting reading. Just remember the Crockett Hotel and keep in mind you might not be seeing a complete picture of an elevator’s safety record.


  • Review: Go back in time with Cogi to record fleeting moments

    When we watched the State of the Union address with our kids a few weeks ago, 3-year-old Sophie Sue was amazed at how members of Congress were sitting still and listening. They weren’t fidgeting, looking around or running off to play with Legos.

    “Wow, they’re doing a good job, right?” said the little Tedesco munchkin.

    It was one of those cute family moments when I wished I could go back in time and hit the record button.

    So I did.

    I tapped the screen of my smartphone and the Cogi Android app captured the last 15 seconds of our conversation. Cogi kept on recording until I tapped the screen again. And I repeated the process through the whole speech, capturing only the highlights of what our kids said.

    This is the genius behind Cogi — you only record what you want. And Cogi lets you jump back in time to capture that fleeting moment. Because by the time you realize you want to record something, it’s usually too late.

    “I don’t want to record everything,” said Mark Cromack, president and chief technology officer of Santa Barbara-based Cogi Inc. “But by the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

    The app’s name is about capturing the “cogent idea” and it’s like a DVR for your life. Cogi could help anyone who attends long meetings, school lectures or court hearings. You can also get creative with it. I’ve started to use Cogi during car rides with the kids when they’re being funny. Cromack said bird watchers use it to record bird calls. Lifehacker called it one of the best recording apps for Android.

    Mark Cromack
    Cromack
    I interviewed Cromack last week to ask how the company came up with the clever idea for Cogi, discuss a couple things I see as limitations, and learn what new features are on the horizon. Cromack is an avid Cogi evangelist who said he, his co-founder and his son thought of the idea years ago before anyone knew how useful smartphones would become.

    “Imagine a world where you got, let’s say, a lapel pin,” Cromack said. “You could just tap it that moment when something interesting happens. Or better yet, it just magically knew that something was cogent to you.

    “Well, that’s an interesting dream. Roll that back to some degree of reality. What could we achieve nowadays?”

    Then smartphones became a thing. Today, the Cogi app is available on iTunes and Google Play. Here’s how the app works:

    You open Cogi and a button on the screen says “start session.”

    Cogi Start Session Screen

    Tap on that and start a new session. A session is when Cogi is listening but not actively recording. The button now says “tap to highlight.”

    Cogi Tap to Highlight Screen

    When you hear something you want to keep, tap the highlight button. Cogi then starts to actively record, and it goes back in time to record the previous audio it was listening to before you hit the button. You have the option to go back five, 15, 30 or 45 seconds in time.

    Cogi Capturing Screen

    You can repeat this process as often as you like. When you’re done with the session, hold down the button. Cogi lets you add notes, tags and photos to each session. You can upload sessions or audio clips to services such as Evernote.

    That’s all free. Cogi makes money by offering a monthly membership service that allows you to record phone calls and receive transcripts of recordings for a fee.

    While you could use it to record an entire interview and soak up every word, Cogi really shines when you only want to capture the highlights of long conversations or events.

    One problem with Cogi is that it only records in Windows .wav files. The quality is great but the large files hog memory. Cromack said Cogi will soon add options to record in other formats.

    “That’s coming out within probably the next public release,” he said. “It has to.” Cromack said the company knows users want that option but it’s one item on a long list of improvements the company is working on.

    “We’ve known about it,” he said. “The issue was just one of, ‘Let’s get something out there that works and it’s solid and has that cool experience.’”

    Another quibble: When the screen is off or when you’re using other apps, Cogi no longer passively listens during a session. (If you’re actively recording, Cogi will still capture audio.) The screen dims after awhile to save battery life. But if I’m taking notes or something I don’t want to accidentally brush the screen and screw something up. Or maybe I’ll need to use another app during a session.

    By the time I realize I do want to record something, I do need to back up a bit. That’s the cool part.”

    Cromack sounded receptive to that critique but declined to discuss details about whether it will be addressed in upcoming updates, or whether Cogi will branch out beyond audio into the world of video. He later sent me an email saying the company is developing a version of the app that lets users record sessions even when the screen is off.

    “Based on your input and questions, we already have implemented a private version of the app that continues to record/monitor when the screen is off,” he wrote. “Control is passed to the volume keys and feedback to the LEDs (on Android). This not only provides a more subtle way of triggering Cogi, but it dramatically improves power savings achieved as compared to the current dim screen feature. As such, we’ll be delivering this ‘power user feature,’ no pun intended, in a future release (soon). We still have some things to work out with this feature, as this proof of concept version was to just see how it *might* work.”

    Cromack said that later this year Cogi will offer cloud services to members. This would enable users to share highlights, notes and photos with others who could view that material in a web browser.

    “All of that is part of Cogi cloud services,” Cromack said. “It’s not available today but it’s going to be out.”

    If demand increases for Cogi’s transcription services for members, Cromack said the company plans to include other languages and translation services. Cogi is also going to be updated to support enhancements for larger devices, such as tablets and iPads. “There’s a long laundry list of really exciting capabilities,” he said.

    For me, Cogi offers a way to capture fleeting moments not only for news stories, but for the times with my kids when they say something funny or insightful. Parents think they’ll remember every moment of their children growing up. Cogi can help make that happen — even for the moments we miss. Just hit that highlight button, upload your session, and make a family journal.

    Now you’ll never forget that time your daughter watched the State of the Union address.


  • Up in Flames: Flares wasting natural gas in the Eagle Ford Shale

    If you drive through the bustling oil patch of the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio, it won’t take long to find the surreal sight of flares burning natural gas like perpetual bonfires.

    Natural gas is cheap. Pipelines are expensive. So instead of collecting the fossil fuel, many oil and gas operators build tall, metallic spires called flare stacks to burn the gas and release it into the Texas sky.

    Natural gas flareFor years, no one could say with any certainty how much natural gas was going to waste. Everyone knew flaring in shale country was a problem. But officials at the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state agency that oversees the oil and gas industry, had never released figures showing how much was being burned in the Eagle Ford.

    Instead, the agency released only statewide figures showing the overall volume of flaring was low compared to overall production — about one percent.

    Whenever a government agency touts rosy statistics, there’s probably a database behind those numbers. And if you obtain that raw data, you might be able to figure out what’s really going on.

    Today’s Express-News story about flares burning 20 billion cubic feet of natural gas so far in 2014 is a good reminder of the value of public databases — and why journalists need to get their hands on them to analyze the records for themselves.

    There’s no question analyzing data can be a lot of work. We filed an open records request with the Railroad Commission for a copy of the flaring data in the spring of 2013. It’s a huge database of monthly reports showing how much oil and gas is produced in Texas and where those hydrocarbons go. Flaring and venting are one of the “disposition” categories in the data.

    I drove to the agency’s Austin headquarters with a flash drive that could handle the enormous database. It was a beast — more than 25 gigabytes of 85 million records. All that summer we used software to convert the Railroad Commission’s archaic data to CSV files, a format we could use in the newsroom. After that, it took weeks to crunch the numbers and uncover the hidden pitfalls.

    Why go through the hassle? Why should frazzled journalists take the time to learn how to analyze data? Don’t we have enough to do?

    The answers is, journalists need to know a lot of skills — how to interview people, how to write clearly, how to find information. Analyzing public data should be a part of that skill set. It opens doors to stories that couldn’t otherwise be told. This is what journalism is all about.

    When we were finished reviewing the flaring data, our analysis showed that the volume of flared gas in Texas had increased by 400 percent since 2009. And most of that gas came from the Eagle Ford Shale near San Antonio. This chart essentially told the story of flaring in the shale that no one had figured out — not even state officials:

    Quantifying the volume of flared gas opened up new questions and possibilities. When Projects Editor David Sheppard asked how much air pollution was created by all this flaring, we found out there was a way to calculate an estimate. We obtained emails from the state’s environmental agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, that showed how to estimate levels of air pollution created by gas flares. Those formulas were based on the volume of flared gas – which we had. So we plugged those numbers into Excel spreadsheets to come up with the amounts of sulfur, volatile organic compounds and other pollutants that came from flaring in the region.

    In August, the Express-News published the results of our investigation, Up in Flames. The total volume of wasted gas in the shale from 2009 to 2012 was almost 39 billion cubic feet — enough to meet the annual heating and cooking needs for all 335,700 residential customers who relied on gas last year in CPS Energy’s service area, which includes San Antonio.

    Sunday’s story is based on a fresh batch of flaring figures obtained by Express-News Data Editor Joseph Kokenge, who scraped the data directly from the Railroad Commission’s website.

    The new numbers for 2013 and 2014 show that flares burned and wasted even more of the fossil fuel. In the first seven months of 2014, more than 20 billion cubic feet of gas went up in smoke — enough to fuel CPS Energy’s 800 megawatt Rio Nogales power plant during the same time frame.

  • New search tips for 2014 from Google research scientist Daniel Russell

    I couldn’t attend the 2014 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco this year. But thankfully, Google researcher Daniel Russell was there. He gave another excellent presentation about search-engine strategies and posted his advice online.

    Daniel Russell, research scientist for GoogleAs the Uber Tech Lead at Google, Dan studies how people search the web. He started sharing little-known search techniques three years ago at the IRE conference in Boston. Since then he’s annually offered tips at IRE that can help everyone — not just reporters — find exactly what they’re searching for online.

    Here are some of Dan’s new strategies and tools for 2014, and a recap of the most useful tips from his past presentations that I’ve used myself. You can check out posts about his other talks here and here.

    Go back in time

    One of the coolest new tools offered by Google this year allows you to jump in a time machine in Google Maps’ Street View.

    Let’s say you’re walking around downtown San Antonio and you’re curious about the site of a historic building on Commerce Street across from Main Plaza. An inferno destroyed the building a few years ago and now there’s nothing but a vacant lot:

    Commerce street without the Wolfson Building in Google Maps

    In Google Street View, click on the clock symbol in the corner of the screen to check out how that spot looked over the years. In this case, you can look at what the Wolfson Building looked like before the catastrophic fire:

    Google map image of the Wolfson Building in downtown San Antonio

    The Wall Street Journal used this time-machine effect to illustrate dramatic growth in Brooklyn.

    The cool thing about this is how you can pan around and get different perspectives of the sites you’re interested in.

    Gallery of Google Map Mashups

    The Google Maps Gallery allows organizations to mesh their data with Google maps. All these mashups are searchable, and Google links to the original sources if you want to download the information yourself.

    Let’s say you’re curious about which counties in the United States are prone to tornado strikes. A search of “tornado” in the Google Maps Gallery shows a map based on federal data showing tornado strikes, total property damage, injuries and deaths by county:

    tornado map

    Wildcards in Google Maps

    Type an asterisk in the search bar of Google Maps and it will show you every business and significant, named place it knows about in the area you’re viewing.

    If you plan on using any of this information in a news story, you’ll want to take steps to confirm what you’re seeing in the map. But this is a really quick way to get a sense of what’s in the area.

    For example, if you’re writing about the Wolfson Building fire and want to get a quick idea of what businesses were nearby, in Google Maps, focus on the site on Commerce Street and try the wildcard search:

    Force Google to search for certain words

    By far the most common search function I use in Google is “intext,” which Russell discussed at his first presentation in Boston.

    Sometimes Google tries to be too helpful. It changes your search terms and uses words it thinks you’re searching for– not the words you’re actually searching for.

    And sometimes the websites in Google’s search results don’t include all your search terms because Google decided those pages might still be relevant.

    That might be OK for general searches. But it’s not very helpful if you’re looking for pages with specific terms or words with unusual spellings. How do you make Google search for those exact words?

    Typing intext:[keyword] (with no space on either side of the colon) might be Google’s least-known search operations, but it’s one of Dan’s favorites. It forces the search term to be in the body of the website.

    If you’re researching the story of the Wolfson Building, for example, you’ll probably want to make sure that Google always includes that unique name in the search results. Typing intext:Wolfson San Antonio will force Google to include the term “Wolfson.”

    Intext also works with phrases in quotes. So typing intext:”Wolfson Building” will strong-arm Google into showing you that exact phrase.

    To learn more details about Google’s search operators, check out my post about his talk in Boston where he gave us a treasure-trove of advice.

    Customized site searches

    Google’s site search let’s you search for information on a particular website. Typing site:mysanantonio.com “Wolfson Building” would show pages with that phrase that were published by the San Antonio Express-News. But what if you wanted to regularly check what other local news outlets published in the San Antonio area?

    Google can focus on multiple websites with its custom search engine. You tell Google which websites to search, save your settings and Google creates a link to the custom search page. Now you can search those specific websites any time.

    This technique is handy for anyone interested in a particular beat or issue. I created this customized search of San Antonio media and blogs to quickly see how news organizations are covering a story. You can also sort the results by time or relevance, and conduct an image search with the terms you want on those websites.

    Control F is your friend

    Not everyone knows this so it’s worth repeating: Type “Control F” in Windows or “Command F” on a Mac to launch the “find” function in your browser to locate a specific word or phrase on any web page. It’s faster than reading the whole page if you’re looking for something in particular. “If you don’t know this, you’re roughly 12 percent slower in your searches,” Dan said at the IRE conference in Boston.

    This year, Dan said useful Chrome extensions expand the usefulness of the “find” function. Let’s say you want to find more than one word. You could type an expression such as Wolfson|Building|Fire to highlight all those words. Handy.

    Dan regularly blogs about search strategies by challenging readers with puzzles. It’s a good way to stay in practice. And practice, Dan says, is the best way to hone your search skills.

  • Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

    Sarah Brasse
    Sarah Brasse

    In February 2009, an 8-year-old girl from Schertz died, alone, of acute appendicitis — a disease that could have easily been treated if caught in time.

    In the hours leading up to her death, people concerned about the girl — including officers from the Schertz Police Department — had warned the Texas Department of Child Protective Services that she was a victim of neglect.

    CPS didn’t act. And on Feb. 5, 2009, authorities found the girl’s body in a soiled bed.

    Her name was Sarah Brasse.

    It wasn’t so long ago in Texas that you would have had a tough time learning any of those tragic details.

    In fact, according to the state officials in charge of protecting children from abusive adults, you would have had no legal right to even know Brasse’s name.

    And you certainly wouldn’t be able to know the agency missed opportunities to help Brasse.

    But a decade of diligent reporting by three Express-News journalists shined a spotlight of transparency on tragedies involving Brasse and scores of other children in San Antonio, helping the public understand the unfathomable.
    (more…)

  • More awesome search tips from Google expert Daniel Russell, with real-world examples

    Daniel Russell, research master at Google
    Daniel Russell, research master at Google

    When a research scientist at Google offers to show you how to unlock the full potential of the powerful search engine, you pay attention.

    Last year Daniel Russell spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Boston. Dan showed us search techniques that can make anyone a better researcher. Some tips I already knew. Others I thought I understood but didn’t. And some I had no idea existed.

    I thought Dan’s talk was eye-opening — and others had the same reaction. My post about his presentation last year was widely shared, so there’s enormous interest to learn more about how Google works and how to use it effectively.

    You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance. This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    Since that conference a year ago, Dan began offering online classes. I’ve had a year to practice many of these techniques. And about a week ago, Dan spoke again at the IRE conference in San Antonio with even more advice.

    “You gotta know a little bit about how to make Google dance,” Dan said at his panel, Digging in with Google. “This is all mother’s milk for investigative reporters.”

    I thought it’d be a good idea to compile some of the interesting new techniques, and revisit tips Dan discussed last year with some real-world examples of how journalists used them in actual news stories. Many of these methods also work on other search engines, such as Yahoo! and Bing.

    These tips are for journalists, researchers, librarians and anyone else who wants to learn new ways to find information. Google will never replace the importance of shoe-leather reporting — knocking on doors and talking to real people. But Google can help reporters find the right doors to knock on and reveal surprising details about the people you’re talking to. Knowing how to find obscure information on the Internet is a vital skill for any journalist.

    (more…)

  • Live-blogging the IRE 2013 Conference in San Antonio: Resources that will help you be a better journalist

    IRE Conference 2013

    Check out some of my favorite research tips, strategies and resources from this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where about 1,100 incredibly talented journalists are meeting in San Antonio. These conferences are geared for journalists, but really anyone who’s interested in research tools will find many of these tips handy.
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  • How to make stunning time-lapse videos: Q&A with photojournalist Tamir Kalifa

    Freelance photojournalist Tamir Kalifa spent two days working on this stunning time-lapse video of the Texas Legislature’s opening day for the 83rd legislative session. Lawmakers convene in Austin every two years and the event is widely covered by the media. But Kalifa, an intern at the Texas Tribune, captured the energy of the day in a unique, compelling way. I called him to ask how he did it.

    Q: This is actually the second time the Texas Tribune has done a time lapse of the opening day of the Texas Legislature.

    A: Yeah, that’s correct.

    What were you trying to convey in this particular video and how does time lapse help you do that?

    Tamir Kalifa
    Kalifa
    Well, I think that during the off year, the Texas government is sort of hibernating and waiting for this huge burst of energy that happens in the first few months of the year. So really what I wanted to show was the Legislature sort of waking up and coming to life and the excitement that everybody — from the legislators to the lobbyists to the lawyers to everyone’s families — I wanted to get across how people are hugely involved. I just thought doing a time lapse was the most efficient way to show the enormous scale of it. There were thousands and thousands of people swarming around the Capitol. There was an enormous line waiting to get into the House chamber to hear Joe Straus, to see him sworn in again.

    It was amazing. I’m a musician in Austin. Free Week is just coming to a close now. You had all these free shows and everybody is clamoring to get in. It’s one in, one out when it gets to capacity. I realized, as I was desperately trying to get into the House to just get a little glimpse of it, there are a lot of Texans who get that kind of enjoyment and excitement out of the government. And that’s awesome. I really wanted to show that and kind of show the grandeur of it. There aren’t that many things in Texas that are as old as the capital. So it’s also cool to showcase it in that way.
    (more…)

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