CHECK OUT FIVE federal databases that you can download for free, pull into Microsoft Excel, and analyze to identify trends and problems in your community. Start with these easily obtainable databases and then use your FOI skills to request more public data specific to your beat.
1 TRAIN WRECKS
Find the most dangerous train crossings in your community by looking at Federal Railroad Administration data going back to 1975. Click on the "Download Accident Data" link and under the "Table name" pull-down menu, choose "Railroad Casualties." Then choose a year, your state and a format, such as Excel, then click "Generate File." Sort by county, city and highway to identify trouble spots (find your state in the STCNTY field). Check out the "TOTKLD" column for fatalities, and the "GXID" column to identify specific crossings. Download the past five years to spot trends.
2 AGRICULTURAL TRENDS
The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides statistics about all sorts of agricultural commodities by state, county orZIP code. You can look at trends going back to 1 997 in farm production to identify what is on the rise and decline in your area. The data retrieval site is a little complicated and clunky, but with a little experimentation you should be able to get what you need.
3 DETERIORATING BRIDGES
You'd be surprised how many bridges, including overpasses, are falling apart. Click on "Download NBI ASCII files," then "Recording and Coding Guide" to save a PDF to your desktop. You'll need this because the data are heavily coded. Go back and click on "Record Format" and then File "Save As." Save this Web page to the desktop. Click on "2012 Data" then your state, then "Proceed to data." Go to File and then Save As a text file to …