Of cops, rooming houses, and city hall data

Originally published in Media Magazine, Fall 1998

One-seventy Langside Street is a white and green, two storey house in the West Broadway neighbourhood in Winnipeg’s inner city.
Today, workers are renovating it to provide housing for a low income family. Last November, there were so many cockroaches in the place that the city health department shut it down, sent the tenants looking for new homes, and posted a sign warning of conditions inside

That house was owned by a cop (he’s sold it since). He was one of at least a dozen  police officers with side businesses running rooming houses in the mean streets of  Winnipeg’s inner city. The houses are home to some of the city’s poorest residents, and  some of its toughest. Other police officers visit the houses regularly to break up fights,  and even investigate murders
The story of police officer landlords was part of a five part series on Winnipeg’s  rooming house explosion that aired on CBC Radio this spring.
How’d I get the stories? I analyzed a database of known rooming houses in  Winnipeg. I was able to identify owners who had amassed the largest number of  properties, figure out that the houses are mostly in poor neighbourhoods and the owners  mostly in rich ones, and, of course, find the police officers.
Identifying the cops meant putting two databases together.I matched the rooming  house database with another database of all the city’s employees. That gave me a list of  matching first and last names. A little basic, shoeleather journalism, and I knew they were  the same people. It became a compelling story because here were people who enforce the  laws in the toughest neighbourhoods, rolling up their sleeves and getting down to business  in the same neighbourhoods.
You might think getting this sort of data would be hard, but it wasn’t
The rooming house database came for free, after a short conversation with the head  of the rooming house branch. He didn’t know very much about databases or computers,  but once he realized I did, he gave his computer gurus the go ahead to release the  material
The employee database took a little more work. The personnel department insisted  I file a freedom of information request. Even with that, I had the disk within a month.
I worked on the series on the side over several months, and at the end was more  convinced than ever that CAR is a perfect fit at city hall.
Cities and towns administer hundreds of bylaws and regulations dealing with tangible, real life things. Whether it’s records listing building permits issued by the  planning department, numbers of fire calls, or the names of pets, the details are likely  stored in a computerized database
But surely you have to months studying computers to learn how to do this. Not  true. With easy-to-use programs such as Microsoft Access or Excel, you can get started  just about right away. Beginners can easily use a spreadsheet to track how many  building permits are issued each month, or a database manager to track votes at city  council. At the end of the year, these simple projects can produce great stories about  construction activity or who’s for and against the mayor.
You can even do that old standby, the pet names story. Just about any decent sized  city has a database of pet licenses that includes the pets’ names. A quick query, and you  have a story about the most popular and the most bizarre names people give their pets.
As your CAR skills develop, you can move on to more sophisticated projects, like our  analysis of rooming houses.
At budget time, a spreadsheet can help you analyze all those figures in a way that’s  really useful to your readers, viewers or listeners.   Remember that budget documents are  often laid out to lead us to certain conclusions. Government officials can and do spin the  numbers.   A spreadsheet lets you un-spin them and back up your conclusions with solid  data
Of course, it’s not all roses in city hall CAR. You’ll certainly run up against the  privacy wall.
Government officials have become increasingly afraid to release any  information that could breach individual privacy. So expect to have to strip personal information such as names from databases. You’ll also run into people who will assure you the data just can’t be provided in a form you can use. The only way to counter that  is to learn more about computers and data so you can counter their arguments with facts
Those things said, city hall is ripe for journalists equipped with computers. Boot ‘em up and go!