Quick access to data helps on deadline

endless file cabinets with drawers open (Depositphotos)

By Kimberly Cataudella

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Yanqi Xu didn’t know much about North Carolina political figures when she began her job as a courts and law reporter at NC Policy Watch in December 2020. But Xu, who had been a data fellow at the Investigative Reporting Workshop for 17 months, knew about a resource that would give her a hand: The Accountability Project

She used the open-source databases to get more information about big-time political figures, learning more about their salaries and past campaign spending. The Accountability Project helped her write stories on tight deadlines, adding facts and details to both breaking news and longer-form pieces. 

The Accountability Project, which is the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s free, open-source database launched in 2019, houses 1.4 billion records. These records include (but are definitely not limited to) campaign finance, Paycheck Protection Program loans and public employee salaries. 

The Accountability Project, known as TAP, is a one-stop shop for anyone wanting to search across a wide array of data that often has been acquired using open-records laws or obtained directly from agency sites. That data is then verified, cleaned and standardized. The data is published to our website, where it is searchable and usable for research and reporting. 

Data fellows and interns — current and former — recently reflected on their work on TAP, sharing what they did, what they learned and how TAP continues to be a useful resource for the work they do now. 

Xu used the tool when reporting that the director of the North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts forced top senior employees to resign with only a few hours’ notice and replaced them with Republican loyalists. Xu found information about the director’s political donation history in TAP, and she was able to quickly bring important details into the breaking news piece. 

TAP’s vast collection of databases also helped Xu avoid delaying another story because, without the IRW databases, she would have been required to file an open-records request. When news broke that an appeals court judge was disciplined for condoning workplace sexual harassment, Xu wanted to learn his aide’s salary, which she was able to quickly grab from TAP. 

“The Accountability Project is especially useful for newsrooms with limited resources, such as those without full-time researchers,” Xu said. “TAP’s background tools are really handy.” 

Marisa Iati, a Washington Post general assignment reporter who was an IRW intern two years ago while completing her master’s degree at American University, worked on voter registration data. She sent out dozens of public-records requests for each state’s voter registration databases. 

She remembers receiving datasets that cost anywhere from $25 to a bit more than $1,000. 

“The IRW folks did that work so you wouldn’t have to, and then we made the records available to all,” Iati said. 

She said her time working on TAP taught her how to use myriad resources in her work at the Post. 

Kiernan Nicholls, a data fellow at IRW, said the open-source nature of both the data and the code written to obtain the data helps journalists – and researchers, scholars or anyone interested – do collaborative work, and it could inspire other publications to make their content public. 

“If we’re going to publish our datasets to be used in high-stakes reporting, we should publish the code as well,” Nicholls said. “You want to make sure the data on the site is the most responsible version, so putting the verbatim code helps with accuracy.”

Open-sourcing the code helps other newsrooms replicate IRW’s work, Nicholls said. 

“I write code that can get data – for myself and people in the future – with one click of a button,” he said.

The TAP team, made up of professional journalists, fellows and interns, acquires data from public sources via public records requests or from government websites. Every database is reviewed, standardized and indexed by someone on the team and each dataset includes processing notes. TAP is searchable by name, organization and address. Nonprofits also are searchable by their federal ID numbers.

While all data is free to search, some datasets, such as voter and property data, require a logon and password. Visit the Accountability Project to request a free logon.

This site is a project of The Investigative Reporting Workshop and has been made possible through a grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation.

This story has been updated to reflect that Xu wanted to learn the judge’s aide’s salary, and that she worked at IRW for 17 months.