Everything You Need to Know, Without Leaving Your Laptop

Taking a brief intermission from the exciting world of entrepreneurs, today’s post will focus on websites like Boston.com’s Mass.Facts and other websites that compile public information into databases. Mass.Facts allows public records and other public information, like corporate filings, property value and even the number of Dunkin Donuts vs. Starbucks in towns throughout Massachusetts to be easily accessible via the Web, allowing individuals to become better informed citizens. No longer is it necessary to trek down to the Statehouse to find out how many graduates from your high school are heading to college this year—you can access the information right from your home computer.

However, a vital (at least, I think of as vital) piece of information that is unavailable on Mass.Facts is the number of public restrooms in each town. Think about it—how many times have you been walking around Boston, exploring a new area, or shopping at your local town square or strip mall when you realize that you really have to go? And maybe you don’t want to stop at Starbucks and buy a coffee just so you can use a restroom—the coffee will just make you have to stop somewhere else again soon. So I think a breakdown of public restrooms throughout each town in Massachusetts would not only be interesting to see—it would also be really, really useful in certain circumstances.

If the number of public restrooms in each town is exceptionally high, the breakdown could be number of restrooms per 10,000 people. Included in the digital map of public restrooms could be a specification of where the public restroom is located, whether it be a convenience store, a gas station, ect. That way, individuals will know what kind of venue they will be encountering when they visit that restroom, or it will be easy to see if the town is providing a public restroom unaffiliated with a venue for its public.

ProPublica.org includes an “Eye on the Stimulus” feature, where individuals can find out information on stimulus projects. A stimulus project near my hometown of Westwood, New Jersey is the funding allocated to the Education Department. I thought this would make a good investigation as well as newspaper story because recently, Governor Christie cut funding for schools, causing many teachers to lose their once-stable positions. The reduced funding also threatens to eliminate pension plans for teachers who refuse to retire.

From ProPublica.org, I can find that New Jersey received $10,382,172,910 in funding from the Education Department, while the total allocated throughout the U.S. was $429,936,120,742. I can also see the breakdown of the allotment to each county in New Jersey. It is interesting to see that Mercer County received $6,514,502,735, while Sussex County received a meager $24,852,333.

If I were the editor of a local New Jersey newspaper, I think it would be interesting to compare the amount of Education Department funding allocated to each county with the number of education jobs recently cut, to show just how necessary — or perhaps unnecessary — these job cuts are. I also think it would be a good idea to look at why some counties are receiving a much larger amount than others, and how they plan to use these funds.

A third website that allows the average individual with access to a computer to look up public records without leaving their house is the New York Times’ Toxic Waters database. By simply plugging in a zip code, one can view “polluters” throughout different zip codes. By plugging in my hometown zip code “07675” I can see that the Haworth Water Treatment Plant in Ridgewood, New Jersey is a “polluter.”

This may not be interesting by itself, however, the Haworth Water Treatment Plant is right next to the Oradell Reservoir, where much of the drinking water comes from in Bergen County. The database lists that the last inspection was held in July of 2002, and that the Plant has had 28 violations in the past.

The fact that this “polluter” is so close to the reservoir, combined with the overwhelming number violations, would be something to investigate to see if the “polluter” is in any way damaging the reservoir. As a newspaper editor, I would look into this as well as whether or not the Plant should be shut down since it has caused 28 violations in the past.

Though perhaps no concrete or breaking-news stories may come from this information, the fact that this information is readily available on the Internet and in reach of all journalists just goes to show the advantages the Internet holds for journalists and reporters.

Photo Credit to Maiak.info via Creative Commons.

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