A new way to investigate state lawmakers

The Sunlight Foundation has a new way to track the activities of legislatures in all 50 states. The database — called Open States — allows users to see bascis facts about each legislative body, including the number of members, geographic districts and committees.

There’s also information about bills that have been recently passed or introduced, and news roundups for some high-profile issues. Plus, each lawmaker has a profile page that includes detailed campaign finance information — a boon for any reporter working in state where those records aren’t available online.

For a user tutorial, click here to watch a short video.

Has your newsroom used Open States? Tell us about your experience in the comment section below.


Featured resource: Health care databases

Did you know that the FDA maintains a public list of medical device failures? Or that you can easily compare health statistics among different states?

These are just two ways to use Watchdog’s collection of health databases. This one measures hospital quality based on patient experience, and this one keeps track of health and safety violations at nursing homes.

The full list also includes resources for each of the New England states.


New database highlights TV political ad spending

Since August, TV stations have been required to make information about political ad spending available online, which has made it possible — although not easy — to identify the organizations that bankrolled all those commercials.

For the last few months, the non-profit investigative journalism group ProPublica has used a combination of crowdsourcing, database knowhow and old-fashioned reporting to make sense of these documents. This story describes some of the things ProPublica’s reporters learned from the files. (It’s also a good summary of the challenges inherent in this kind of project.)

The 2012 campaign was long, so we know it’s tempting to forget all about politics until New Years, but take a few minutes this week check out ProPublica’s work. Here’s a tally  of the top spenders in the Boston-Manchester market. Connecticut reporters might find stories in this roundup of ad buys in New Haven and Hartford.

If you find a local story in these files, let us know in the comments below.

Getting social with FOIA

Need some advice on requesting public documents or overcoming reporting roadblocks? Try Twitter. Many top-notch reporters and transparency advocates routinely tweet about their successes and challenges.

If you want to join the conversation, start by following a few investigative journalists or news organizations you respect. Then try searching for the #FOIA hashtag or join the Sunshine Review’s weekly #FOIAchat, which is held each Friday afternoon. Use those same hashtags to share work or questions of your own.

We’re also curating a list of open-records experts on Twitter. See the full list here or check out some recent tweets below:

Know a journalist or sunshine org not on this list? DM @meg_heckman or leave a comment below.