Catching up with Michigan

Originally published in Media Magazine, Winter 2006 

I recently had one of those dreadful experiences that sometimes befall Canadian  reporters talking CAR with an American colleague.

Brad Heath of the  Detroit News and I were sharing beer and a sandwich before our presentation at the Crossing the 49th conference in Windsor on the weekend of Oct. 22. Brad is a  smart young reporter who specializes in quick turnaround enterprise pieces

 We got around to that perennial topic among CAR types, obtaining government databases

 As it turns out, Brad recently blew the lid off the locations of convicted sex offenders in a  Motor City neighbourhood using an electronic list of offenders’ addresses he got off the  Internet. He layered those locations on a map, and showed which offenders lived closest to schools

 It was a simple little project, knocked off in a few days, one we can only dream of in Canada because of our governments’ obsession with protecting the privacy of criminals

 I felt good that day, because Brad went home smiling.He was finally able to leave a journalism conference feeling good about access to records in Michigan.He’d found a place where it is much worse: Ontario, Canada

 North of 49, the fight continues for such basic data as a copy of the municipal tax assessment roll. Even when we get data, we sometimes have to fight for years to get information that is freely available on the Web in the U.S

We owe the excesses of privcacy a debt of thanks for helping us develop a uniquely Canadian brand of CAR, one that delves into issues involving people, without ever knowing who the people are, at least from the data

 Because of our privacy laws, data here have to be “anonymized,” with any details that would reveal an individual’s identity scrubbed out, ostensibly to protect the individuals, but mostly to protect bureaucrats who might otherwise have to account for the failings in the programs they administer

 This has forced us to be creative

 We analyze the anonymized data for trends, then go looking after the fact for people to put a human face on what we uncover.We’ve become great at stories that reveal big, broken systems. If we can’t find sex offenders, at least we can out the bureaucrats, or the cops or the drug companies

It was our turn at The Hamilton Spectator when we shone a spotlight on Ontario’s Drive  Clean emissions testing program. When it released the testing data to us, after a three-year fight, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment insisted on removing anything that even hinted at individuals, but there was still plenty to examine

Drive Clean is one of those programs that tests your car every couple of years to see if it is a polluter. If it is, you’re supposed to fix it, then try to pass the test again. If you can’t pass, your car can’t get its sticker renewed. In Ontario, the tests are done by private garages for a cut of the profits

But as our analysis showed, there was trouble in paradise. By looking at more than 12-million Drive Clean testing records — every test from the start of the program in 1999 to March, 2004 — we found not only were almost all new cars passing the tests, many polluters were slipping by, too

It was the worst of all worlds. Innocent motorists were being hosed for 35 bucks, plus  taxes, for a test they would almost certainly pass, while owners of old beaters just kept on polluting. Some did it legally by driving through a huge loophole called the conditional pass. It lets cars keep on belching if repairs are too expensive

Other motorists bent or broke the law, by testing their cars over and over until they  passed, or engaging in outright fraud. Our analysis showed that thousands of cars failed  tests, only to pass miraculously just moments later. Our story won the 2004 National  Newspaper Association award in the investigations category

The Ontario government ordered an early review of Drive Clean, and the latest speech  from the throne promised an end to pointless and wasteful tests on newer cars

Meantime, the Ontario Provincial Police cracked down on fraud, laying charges against  several men associated with Drive Clean shops in Scarborough, in the east of Toronto

There is no question that Drive Clean is going to be around in the future, but it is going to be a better program than it is today, more effectively targeted at cars that are the real polluters. The independent review recommended getting rid of the current automatic exemption for cars 20 years or older, and to tighten up the rules on those get-out-of-jail-free cards, the conditional passes

One big, broken system is at least partially fixed because journalists keep fighting for data. Just recently, the Ontario government lost the last of three appeals launched by  The Spectator over the Drive Clean data. The government had been holding out that the vehicle identification numbers of cars constituted the personal information of vehicle owners because for $12, you can look up the name, but not the address, of a vehicle at a transport ministry office. The information and privacy commissioner dismissed that argument, and the VINs are now public along with the rest of the data.

It’s not quite Michigan, but we’ll take what we can get