I’m Celeste LeCompte, and today I work on the business team at ProPublica in New York. But nearly 25 years ago, I was a tweenager living in Monticello, in central Illinois. My hometown had recently started offering curbside recycling pickup, and I wanted to know: Where did it end up?
So, I called City Hall. And then I called the companies who the city told me had the contracts, and I called the companies those companies told me they worked with. Eventually, I lost the trail in the Carolinas. But more important than answering that question was the fact that I could even ask it. I — a 12-year-old, with no more reason than my curiosity! — could ask my local government officials a question, and they had to tell me how things worked in my community.
It was one of my first experiences with public information requests — and it was an important, empowering experience for me. (My colleague Sandhya Kambhampati recently wrote a guide on how you can get answers to your questions from public agencies, too!)
Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s not always so easy to get the data you want from public agencies. My ProPublica colleagues aren’t easily deterred when they want to get public records, especially when the data they want has important implications for child welfare, economic inequality or civil rights.
This week, reporter Mick Dumke wrote about information he’s been trying get: whom law enforcement officers in Illinois deem to be gang members and why. At least four databases are in use across the state, and as Mick’s gotten access to these files, he’s found that the data is often “riddled with dubious entries, discrepancies and outright errors.”
We released the first of these databases for free through the ProPublica Data Store in April, and it’s been downloaded more than 125 times so far. This week, we added two more — one kept by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, the other by the Illinois State Police. Already, the first set of data has been analyzed in a report from the University of Illinois at Chicago and cited in a federal civil rights lawsuit.
That’s why we work to make the data that we get from public agencies available. The ProPublica Data Store — where nearly all of the data can be downloaded for free — includes more than 75 data sets, including five from the ProPublica Illinois team, and we’ll be adding more in the weeks and months ahead.
Go ahead and download some data yourself. I’m always happy to answer questions you may have about the data, and I would love to hear more about how you’re using it in your own life, whether it’s to hold officials accountable or answer your own burning questions about trash.