In a world saturated in information, good information can be surprisingly hard to find.
As I cruised Monroe’s Facebook pages a couple of weeks ago, I engaged in a conversation about the police levy that will be decided this week. There had been some questions about how the department is funded that I dug into the archives to research, and during the exchange online, one Monroe woman said it would be good to know about crime trends year over year.
I said I would consider it an assignment.
I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal to track down crime stats by zip code. It’s one of the most important pieces of information about a community, and usually people are out there falling all over themselves to supply the internet with such sought-after data.
I started working on it Saturday evening, and by midway through Sunday afternoon I realized the project was quickly gobbling my day. It was a bit like pearl-diving; a whole lot of effort for a handful of gems.
It turns out that finding good crime data is really tricky. Some is reported by zip code and some by city limits and some by police department. Some is woefully out of date. Some is based on police reports, and others on convictions. If you’re not careful, you can cross them up and really give readers some wrong impressions.
I finally had to use two sets of data. One was from the U.S. Department of Justice, which had very useful data collected by police departments and based on police reports, but which only was current through 2011.
To that, I added data from crimemapping.com, which also gathers information by police department and is based on reports, but which only shows data for the most recent six months.
That left a frustrating 14-month gap in the data, but I hope the two pieces of information together give a pretty good overview of how Monroe stacks up year after year and how it fares against national statistics.
Once I compiled the data into a table, it didn’t look like a lot of yield for the time it had taken, so I decided to round up some other interesting statistics on Monroe and present them all together.
My Google-fu was put to the test. It turns out that finding quality, trustworthy recent data on anything but real estate is a whopper challenge. Census data is three years old now, and unemployment figures are a constantly moving target.
I completely gave up on month-to-month temperature averages for 2013 for Monroe; the closest weather station gathering that kind of data is in Everett and I didn’t have time to generate my own averages from the daily data available elsewhere.
School data is relatively easy to find, but it comes in great heaping doses that require some sifting. I’ve done far more in-depth reporting on 2012′s results recently, so I just included the most relevant statistic; that of how many kids are passing the most important of the state tests (that is, those required to graduate), and how they fare next to state averages.
For the small amount of space the resulting story took up, it sure took up the lion’s share of the time; I easily spent as many hours collecting that data as I did writing the rest of the content for this issue.
That got me thinking: We’ve been talking about ways to make our website more valuable to residents. I have considered that, since information is our business, perhaps we should offer links to all the important information about the valley, from registered sex offenders to river volumes.
The problem, it seemed, was that anyone could easily go track all that stuff down without having to go through us.
Now I’m thinking we might do well to compile a list of links to the best sites and sources on the web for things like hunting and fishing rules, tax information, political precincts and the thousand other hyper-local things a resident might wish to learn.
It could save people a lot of time and frustration. And those people might well include me.