Data Surfer

Sites you need to see


The Prop. 8 ban on same-sex marriage is certainly not the first California initiative to garner huge national attention. Historically many of our ballot measures -- like the 1978 Prop. 13 cap on property taxes and the 1996 Prop. 209 curb on affirmative action in public institutions -- have made a big impact on politics and policy beyond the state.  

The California initiative process was born in 1911 as the result of a special election called by Gov. Hiram Johnson.  Citizens approved the enabling constitutional amendment by a margin of 168,744 to 52,093 votes. "A History of California Initiatives" is a good study that includes a complete list of ballot measures, plus interesting statistics on their subject matter and success/failure. Did you know, for example, that voters approved only 99 of the 1,187 initiatives titled and circulated between 1912 and 2002?  

The Hastings College of Law at UC Berkeley provides comprehensive, searchable databases of information on California initiatives and propositions from 1911 to 2000. These include full-text of ballot measures and accompanying material such as legislative histories and scans of voter pamphlets. You can search by keyword, year, number and pass/fail status. For the full text of newer initiatives (2004-current) see this Attorney General web page. For the full text of newer propositions (1996-current) see this Secretary of State web page




Election Day is just around the corner and campaign strategists are pouring over maps to figure out how their candidate can win the 270 Electoral College votes needed to take the presidency. There are several web sites, including CNN's and the Washington Post's, where you can play politico, modeling your own outcomes and testing them against post-election reality. The Post is even holding a contest, with a prize going to the reader who most accurately predicts the Electoral College result.

My favorite election mapping site is Like the other interactive sites, it lets you manipulate the electoral vote in each of the states. But it also gives you several options for starting your map, like all Republican, all Democrat, all undecided, and 2004 actual and close election result. The most realistic start view is "2008 Swing States," which is based on a composite of current state polling. If the polls strongly suggest a winner, the state is colored red or blue. But if the composite of polls falls within plus-or-minus five percent, the state is considered "swing." The website will keep track of the total electoral vote as the user changes the swing states from neutral to one of the candidates. As the 2008 campaign draws to a close, polls give more states to Barack Obama and leave fewer contested states. Incidentally, also provides Electoral College maps for presidential races going back to 1789, when the non-partisan George Washington beat the Federalist John Adams. 

And speaking of historical sources, there's a terrific web site for past voting data and maps.  The Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections has information on presidential, gubernatorial and senatorial races, including both primary and general elections. The presidential data goes back to 1789, and for more recent elections, you can view maps broken out by county. Look at the 2000 and 2004 county maps and you can see a general pattern. Democratic candidates tend to win in urban areas, Republicans win rural ones. In California, Democrats do better in the urban coastal counties, Republicans in the rural interior ones.

October 27, 2008
Long-term gas price data

GASPRICE.JPGNationally, the average price of regular gas tumbled nearly 53 cents in the past two weeks, hitting $2.78 on Friday, according to the latest Lundberg Survey. On Monday the average price dropped to $2.98 in the Sacramento region, though the $3 barrier had been broken at many service stations for several days.

AAA provides price data going back a year for the nation, state and metro areas. Included are charts showing the average price of retail and wholesale gas, as well as of crude oil. You can find 24-month charts of gasoline and diesel prices for the nation and multi-state regions on the web site of the federal Energy Information Administration, a rich source of statistics on all types of energy. The EIA also has data comparing the retail cost of gasoline in United States with other industrialized countries for the period 1990-2007.

Closer to home, there are two good online places to find the cheapest gas in your neighborhood: AAA Gas Price Finder and Gas Buddy . Both let you search by zip code and will display a map pointing to individual service stations. Sacto Gas Prices lists the best prices in the region for the various grades of gasoline. 

During this political season presidential candidates have made a lot of claims and assertions that bounce around the media and the Internet.  Whether originating in speeches, interviews, political ads, or viral emails, voters are bombarded with a ton of information that is misleading -- if not plain wrong.  That's where credible fact-checking is so helpful. 

Peggy Garvin of Garvin Information Consulting surveyed some of the of the prominent political fact-checking websites in a recent article.   She explains that such sites try to quickly analyze the accuracy of statements while they are still hot. 

Take for example,, a service of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which dissects election advertising and speeches in a blog-like format.  The Sept. 25 entry summarizes "The Whoppers of 2008," a list of "twisted facts, misleading claims and outright falsehoods" promulgated by both the Obama and McCain campaigns.  Among the campaign statements debunked are the oft-repeated charges that Obama favors higher taxes, or that McCain wants to cut Social Security benefits.  

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention The Bee's own "AdWatch" feature which evaluates TV advertising used in state races and ballot initiatives.  Search on the word "adwatch" in the archive to call up the latest installments.

CDC_logo.jpgCynthia Hubert's recent story on elder suicide reported the sobering statistic that older people, 65 and older, have the highest rate of suicide of any age group.

The Centers for Disease Control compiles national data on mortality and leading causes of death, including suicide. Should you need to track the number of suicides by such factors as place, age, gender, race, Hispanic origin and suicide method, the CDC provides an interactive web database for customizing queries for this information. All leading causes of death are covered so you can compare various illnesses with intentional and unintentional deaths. Plus the database has annual figures (1999-2005) for each state and the country as a whole.

Overall, is there a difference between men and women regarding method of suicide?  If you search the CDC database by gender (all ages, all races), firearms emerge as the leading method for males (followed by suffocation, poisoning and cutting/piercing). That's in contrast to poisoning (followed by firearms, suffocation and cutting/piercing) as the top method for females. 

Phillip Reese, the Bee's principal data cruncher, has researched long-term crime trends in the six-county Sacramento region. He's compiled the data in two sets of charts that will be housed permanently on the Investigations Page. The first set, posted today, tracks violent crime rates from 1985-2007, as reported by the city and county law enforcement agencies. The second, posting Tuesday morning, does the same for property crime in the region.

To prepare the crime trend charts, Reese used data from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), the annual series of statistics provided by nearly 17,000 law enforcement agencies across the nation. Crime in the United States, 2007 is the latest compilation of reported crime. Aside from the data on offenses, the publication includes data about the age, gender and race of arrestees, as well as data about police employees (sworn officers and civilian workers).

The Bureau of Justice Statistics provides a handy web-searchable database for extracting UCR crime data for specific places across multiple years (back to 1985). You can search by single offense type (homicide, rape, etc.) or aggregated crime category (violent and property crime). The resulting table shows the number of offenses, population and the calculated crime rate (per 100,000 persons). 

Thumbnail image for stockmarket.JPGThe current financial slump is a complicated mess to understand. Derivatives, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, toxic assets -- it's a mind-boggling collection of dominoes falling into one another. You have to wonder who or what is to blame?

But step back a bit, and you see one thing lurking at every level of the crisis. As former Business Week financial editor Wight Martindale observed, "The problem is that we all have too much debt." Individual, corporate and government debt -- debt that can't be repaid.

So collectively, how much does the nation actually owe, if you include all the private and public indebtedness out there? The Federal Reserve tracks total debt for the country. This chart shows outstanding debt broken out by household, business, government and financial sectors starting back in 1974. The figures aren't adjusted for inflation, but you still get a picture of the explosive growth in debt. In 1974, the total outstanding debt was $2.1 trillion. As of second quarter 2008, it was $32.4 trillion. Adjusted for inflation, the total U.S. debt has grown about 350 percent since 1974.   


October 19, 2008
California election stats

Register2Vote.jpgTomorrow is the last day Californians can register to vote in the November 4th general election. So, it's an opportune moment to spotlight the wealth of election-related statistics available from the Secretary of State


There are two types of data on the site: voter registration/participation figures and election results. On the registration side, you'll find periodic reports on the number of registered voters and their party preferences. These cover the following geographies: state, county, city, supervisorial district, board of equalization district, state assembly and senate districts, and U.S. congressional district. Each report shows the number of people eligible to vote as well as those actually registered. Certainly political wonks are always interested in tracking party affiliation, but that's been stymied by the increase in independents over time. 


Now for a quiz. Which California county has the biggest percentage of GOP voters (as of Sept. 15)? Placer? Nope. Modoc (50.09 percent) recently surpassed Placer (49.68) as the most Republican county. How about the most Democratic county? San Francisco? Wrong again. It's Alameda (57.21). San Francisco ends up with the most "declined to state" voters (29.03).


After each election the Secretary of State issues the "Statement of Vote," the official published tally of votes in primary and general elections. Election results are available online back to November 1990. (And you can find older data at the Sacramento Public Library.)  In addition to election results for ballot measures and state and national races, the SOV shows voter participation, expressed as the percent of eligible and registered voters who actually voted in that election. So which California county boasts the most eligibles voting in the last presidential election? It's Marin County with 78.37 percent.


The Bee's Phillip Reese recently wrote about the voter regislation status of people displaced by foreclosure. In some states, that could mean the loss of the right to vote (see the New York Times story, "As homes are lost, fears that votes will be, too"). Fortunately, in California the Secretary of State said that foreclosed voters can still vote at their old precincts. In his story, Reese calculated the party affiliation of 2,000 people who lost their home to foreclosure in September (Democrat, 44 percent; Republican, 32 percent; decline to state, 23 percent; other,1 percent).


Again, the deadline for registering to vote in the upcoming presidential election is tomorrow.  If you want to vote, check out these instructions for obtaining and filing the required forms.  

As an addendum to my previous post about online campaign finance databases, I ought to mention a clever election web site maintained by the Huffington PostFundRace 2008 is a "mashup" of federal campaign contribution information with a Google interactive map. 

The FundRace site starts out with a map of the entire nation color-coded with points representing donations to the presidential candidates and their political parties. You can zoom in on states, cities and neighborhoods to get a closeup view of individuals' contributions. The system displays the total amount given in the election cycle, plus the donor's name, address, occupation and employer. Besides browsing for donations by zooming around the interactive map, you can also search by specific name, address, city, zip, occupation or employer.

FundRace 2008 is a dandy way to snoop on your friends' and neighbors' political leanings, but it's not a comprehensive list of their campaign contributions. That's because it relies on information from the Federal Election Commission which only reports donations if an individual gives $200 or more during an election cycle.

FEC.jpgThe November general election is only 19 days away, but it's not too late to review some essential election-related information sources that are readily available on the Internet.

Probably no type of data is more important in investigating candidates and elected officials than campaign contribution records. Money is the trail that links politicians to influential people and special interests. In the past, all researchers had were paper records housed in agency offices. It was a laborious process to copy and add up all the donations from Contributor A to Candidate B.

Fortunately, the digital revolution made campaign finance data accessible to every citizen with an Internet connection. Websites exist that let users search for donations by specific criteria. They also allow downloading of bulk data, so you can massage a large amount of information with your own computer and spreadsheet or database management software.

On the national level, the Federal Election Commission collects campaign finance reports and compiles the figures in a searchable database.  You can view the candidates' filings and search for donations by individual candidate or candidate committee, as well as individual donor or donor committee.  The FEC site also links to the Internal Revenue Service where you can search for or download financial disclosures (forms 8871, 8872 and 990) filed by "527" political organizations. These filings reveal such things as the organization's address, officers, revenues, expenditures and election donations.  

The California Secretary of State maintains a similar campaign finance database for state elections on its Cal-Access website. There you'll find contribution information for elections of Assembly members, state constitutional officers and committees that support or oppose ballot initiatives.  You can search the donations by individual or committee donor/recipient. Cal-Access allows you to download the resulting list of contributions in Microsoft Excel format.

It's rare for municipalities to provide online campaign finance information, but the City of Sacramento does.  With the Public Portal for Campaign Disclosure, you can call up PDF versions of candidate reports.  And you can search a database of contributions by candidate name, committee, donor name, even the donor's occupation and employer. The results can be downloaded as an Excel file.  An impressive system for a city.

October 14, 2008
What's this blog about?

It's all about information -- statistics, documents and data of all types that help us understand the world, make informed decisions and monitor government. It's about empowering citizens with tools and sources so they can conduct their own investigative research. This blog is a place to discuss information that's available on the Internet. What's relevant, useful, valid and accurate -- and what's not.

I-Tool Tips is also concerned with public access to government information. Open records should be a concern of everyone -- not just journalists. That's because government and other public agencies can't be held accountable unless their activities are made transparent through public scrutiny of their documents and data.

We know the Sacramento region is home to knowledgeable people who use online information in their respective fields. We want to hear from you. Please tell us what you think of the data we use in stories and post on The Bee's website. And share tips about online resources you think are valuable to this blog's readers. Post comments on this blog or contact me directly at

A little about me: I've worked as a newspaper librarian/researcher for about 26 years and currently serve as The Bee's Director of Editorial Research.  My staff and I routinely ferret out a variety of information bits (news stories, public records, statistics, etc.) to assist in the reporting of stories for the paper.  We rely a lot on commercial services, such as LexisNexis, as well as government, academic and other credible sources of free data on the World Wide Web (some of which I'll review here).  

About Data Surfer

It's all about information -- statistics, documents and data of all types that help us understand the world, make informed decisions and monitor government. It's about empowering citizens with tools and sources so they can conduct their own investigative research. This blog is a place to discuss information that's available on the Internet. What's relevant, useful, valid and accurate -- and what's not.

We know the Sacramento region is home to knowledgeable people who use online information in their respective fields. We want to hear from you. Please tell us what you think of the data we use in stories and post on The Bee's website. And share tips about online resources you think are valuable to this blog's readers. Post comments on this blog or contact Pete Basofin directly at

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