Data Surfer

Sites you need to see

JSt.JPGAfter my last blog on the fabulous Life Magazine image database, I ought to at least mention two fine online collections of Sacramento and California-related photographs.

The Online Archive of California pulls together historic materials from many institutions in the state, including museums, historical societies and archives. The OAC gives you access to over 120,000 images (photos, paintings and other illustrations), as well as 50,000 pages of documents, letters, and oral histories. An image search page lets you browse by broad category (places, people, history, etc.) or enter a keyword for a more targeted search. A quick hunt for "earthquake 1906" retrieves dozens of disturbing photographs of San Francisco destruction.

On the local level, Sacramento History Online provides web access to a collection of photographs, maps, technical drawings, manuscripts, posters, postcards, book and periodical illustrations. SHO contains material contributed by the California State Library's California History Section, the California State Railroad Museum Library, the Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center, and the Sacramento Public Library's Sacramento Room. The emphasis is on transportation and agriculture (1840-1939), but these themes encompass a variety of views of the city. (Photo caption: Looking east on J St., Sacramento, showing bank buildings. © Sacramento Archives and Museum Collection Center.) 

Thumbnail image for animal.jpgA photograph -- especially an historic one -- is "information" as much as any statistic. So it's worth mentioning the recent debut of Google's database of Life Magazine images. Throughout it's history Life was famous for publishing iconic images of celebrities (movie stars, world leaders, athletes, etc.), as well as everyday people doing interesting and extraordinary things. Browsing the database takes you on a trip through America's wars, depression, prosperity and cultural upheavals.

Google has so far scanned and archived about 20 percent of the 10 million images owned by the magazine (many never published). Most of the collection was shot by Life staff photographers, but some images go back as far as the 1750s. It's as easy to call up a picture as it is searching for a web page using the familar Google search box. A quick search of "Sacramento," for example, brings up a few dozen photos that were shot for an April 1952 feature on an "animal lending library" located in the city. You see photos of fascinated children interacting with live animals: skunks, snakes, goats, porcupines and other creatures. (Photo credit: Carl Mydans. Copyright: Time Inc.)

grocery.JPGIt's counterintuitive. Just as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is reporting a record monthly drop in the Consumer Price Index, The Bee's Jim Downing writes that groceries for Thanksgiving dinner will cost cooks 5.6 percent more over last year. But such is the roller coaster nature of the current U.S. economy.

The CPI, the government's index of inflation, fell a whole percentage point from September to October. (Analysts expected a 0.8 percent decline driven by a decrease in energy prices.) That monthly drop is the biggest since publication of these statistics began in February 1947. You can see the complete monthly percent change chart (1947-date) on the BLS web site.

So guess which month shows the biggest hike in the CPI. Did you think sometime in 1973, when the nation reeled from the Middle East energy crisis? Good call. The 1.8 percent leap in August 1973 ties with February 1951 for the top monthly change.

Bee data guru Phillip Reese just posted a new interactive map showing home price trends in the Sacramento area communities from 2003-2008. The map is color-coded to indicate how much median home prices have fallen in the past year (red -- 35 percent or more, yellow -- 20-24 percent, green -- 20 percent or less). Generally speaking, the neighborhoods closest to downtown had the biggest annual drop.

If you're curious to see how home prices in our region fared historically in comparison to other California places, check out the market data available on the California Association of Realtors web site. There you'll find monthly median sales prices (Jan. 2002 to Sept. 2008) for all the cities and counties in the state. Out of curiousity, I checked which city had the biggest gain and the biggest loss during the seven year period. Not unexpectedly Santa Monica led with a percent change of 127.7 percent ($379,000 to $863,000). And poor Richmond showed the biggest drop, -20.0 percent ($225,000 to $180,000). Sacramento city had a nominal decline of -1.64 percent ($162,500 to $160,000). Of course, most home prices rose to an amazing height around 2006 only to fall precipitously when the bubble burst.

November 20, 2008
How many people still smoke?

stopsmoking.jpgToday is the 33rd Great American Smokeout, the American Cancer Society's annual effort to encourage smokers to quit for a day. The ACS says it's never been a better time to stop smoking because of all the resources and help available. That includes the Quitline (1-800-227-2345), a free telephone service where smokers can get confidential counseling from trained advisers.

Just how many smokers are there in the country? According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, about 43.4 million (or one in five) adults currently smoke. The CDC provides a detailed statistical portrait of smokers broken down by gender, age, race, education and poverty status. The agency also reports that smoking and exposure to tobacco smoke result in about 443,000 premature deaths in the United States every year. Check out this sobering table showing annual deaths attributed to a variety of smoking-related diseases. It also shows years of potential life lost and the economic productivity lost for each of the diseases. 

Thumbnail image for foreclosure.JPGThe mortgage crisis affects more than homeowners. Renters also suffer when they are unexpectedly evicted from foreclosed properties. Across the country, state and local governments are trying to legislate some protection for families caught in the middle of a loan default. The California Assembly, for instance, recently passed SB 1137, which includes a provision giving renters 60 days notice prior to eviction from a foreclosed residence.

There is also a web-based database that renters can use to get advance warning if a property is in default/foreclosure. is a free service that lets you check the status of a specific address. The site doesn't provide information beyond flagging the property, but at least it alerts you to investigate further. If you are a renter facing foreclosure, the California Bar has some advice and links for you. 

The state Medical Board licenses and regulates some 125,000 doctors and surgeons in California. It's also charged with disclosing facts about physician malpractice and disciplinary action to the public. Is the board doing an adequate job in this regard?

The California Research Bureau doesn't think so. In its recent report, "Physician Misconduct and Public Disclosure Practices at the Medical Board of California," the CRB concludes that state regulators could be doing much more to inform the public. Consumers would greatly benefit, say the authors, by knowing more details of disciplinary actions (citiations, fines and enforcement actions), as well as malpractice payout histories (judgments, arbitration awards and settlements). The CRB recommends that MBC significantly expand the professional profiles contained in its searchable database of licensed physicians.

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The U.S. plan to address the crisis in the credit industry is shrouded in too much secrecy. So says a coalition of groups dedicated to transparency in government. 

"Any credible solution to today's economic crisis must address one of the crisis' fundamental causes - corruption and other abuses of power sustained by secrecy. Unfortunately, thus far the government has been slow to let the public know how it is using taxpayer money to help out ailing financial markets," asserts, which opposes provisions in the bailout legislation allowing the Treasury Department to withhold details of the plan. has set up a clearinghouse of information on the effort to bring transparency to the bailout process. The web page includes links to resources, news and the latest actions by the coalition.

Listed among the 74 member organizations are Common Cause, American Library Association, People for the American Way, Public Citizen, American Society of Newspaper Editors, League of Women Voters and Society of Professional Journalists. 

Unemployment hit a national 14-year high of 6.5 percent in October. The rate last rose to that level in March 1994. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is the source for historic U.S. employment data back to 1948.

The jobless rate in California surged to 7.7 percent in September (latest data available). The last time it was that high was in March 1996. Likewise, Sacramento County's unemployment hit 7.7 percent in September. The last time it got, that high was in January 1994, when it peaked at 8.4 percent. The California Department of Emploment Development web site provides a searchable database of historic labor force data for the state and its counties (1976 to current).

Three days after the election, the Prop. 8 battle rages on with opponents vowing to challenge the gay marriage ban in the state Supreme Court. (The Bee recently posted a slick interactive map breaking down the Prop. 8 vote by Sacramento-area neighborhood.)

The approval of this constitutional amendment prompts the question: how many gay and lesbian couples are there? The U.S. Census Bureau provides rough estimates in its 2007 American Community Survey. The Bureau doesn't directly ask the sexual orientation of individuals, but it does track the number of households that include an unmarried same-sex partner. (The Census defines an unmarried partner as having a "close personal relationship" with the householder -- they are not just roommates.) Below is a table of estimates of the number of gay and lesbian households in the nation, state, region and Sacramento city areas. Bear in mind these figures do not count same-sex couples who are not living together.


Household type (2007)

United States


Sacramento MSA

Sacramento city

Total households -- all types





Male householder and male partner





Female householder and female partner





Total same sex households





Thumbnail image for GreatValleyLogo.jpg"Youth in the Central Valley are less likely to be enrolled in preschool, less likely to take classes required for CSU/UC enrollment, less likely to take college entrance exams, and more likely to live in poverty than the rest of the state."  These are some of the conclusions in the recently released study on the condition of children and the state of education in the state's interior counties. This online publication summarizes a wealth of statistics on child health, maltreatment, foster care, families, poverty, preschools, teacher quality, truancy, dropouts, college preparation and other factors. It also includes a section focusing on the specific challenges faced by Latino children.  

Assessing the Region Via Indicators: Education and Youth Preparedness is one of a series of data-heavy studies published by the Great Valley Center, a non-profit research organization dedicated to the economic, social and environmental well-being of the 19 counties comprising the Central Valley. GVC interests include agriculture, resources, energy, infrastructure, community design, economic development and technology.

CNNhologram.jpgThe days following a presidential vote is the time for media watchers to critique election night coverage. TV and online news organizations laid out a veritable smorgasbord of cool technology for viewers: live blogging, email alerts, twitter feeds, big board computer displays and even a Star Wars-type hologram. It was all pretty overwhelming.

As a data guy, I want to give kudos to the New York Times -- which may not have had its own Princess Leia -- but did compile a large number of national and state election results into an easy-to-use table and interactive map. (Both of these are still on their web site.) The NYT electoral college chart was simple and elegant. 

Presidential votes were displayed in five columns: states expected to be won easily or narrowly by one or the other candidate, plus battle ground states. At any time during the night, you could see the current state vote tallies, as well as electoral vote projections by about a dozen news outlets. The NYT's interactive map was equally impressive. It allowed the user to zoom in on a state and see each county color-coded red or blue. Put your cursor on a county and up popped the current vote count and percent. That feature let you easily see how well a candidate was doing in the rural and urban areas of a given battle ground state. Nice job. 

What feels like the longest presidential election in history is finally coming to an end. Pundits and journalists anticipate a huge voter turnout. Will it break recent state and national records? We won't know until the official results are tallied. But we can look at previous elections to see what 2008 is up against.

At the national level, participation in presidential elections has dropped steadily since 1960, when 63.1 percent of eligible citizens cast a ballot. The low point occurred in 1996 (49.1 percent), but bounced up in 2000 (51.3 percent) and 2004 (55.3 percent). In California, voter turnout generally has fallen since 1960 (68.8 percent), bottoming in 2000 (51.9 percent) with an uptick in 2004 (57 percent).

Stay tuned. is the most robust and web sites for tracking presidential polls I've seen this election season. Like other sites, it looks at all the major state polls and comes up with an aggregate result which best predicts the electoral college outcome. But FiveThirtyEight goes a step further and weighs each poll by its size, currency and the historic track record of the pollster. It also does some fancy statistical analysis to account for outlier polls and to take in consideration past voting patterns for the state. The current projection is 340.2 electoral votes for Barack Obama with him getting 51.5 percent of the popular vote.

In addition to the commonly-seen color-coded electoral map, FiveThirtyEight has a "Super Tracker" line chart that plots weekly polls to reveal a trend line from January 2008 to the present. That shows the last time John McCain lead in the national polls was Sept. 11. After that, Obama's lead grew to eight percent before dropping to 5.8 today.

If you're interested in U.S. Senate polling, FiveThirtyEight has projections for all the current Senate races. According to its numbers, Democrats will pick up some seats, but their chances of getting the filibuster-proof 60 seats have fallen.

Ever wonder how much of your Congress member's campaign funding comes from outside your district? It might surprise you (it did me) that 92 representatives got at least 90 percent of their funds from sources located outside their districts. And that all 92 representatives got at least 70 percent of donations from outside their states. A new online report and searchable database lets you easily rank U.S. House members by the amount and percentage of campaign money coming from non-constituents (2005-2007). Maps show from where most of the donations come for each member and for the House as a whole. Not unexpectedly, much of the out-of-district funding comes from Washington, D.C. lobbyists.

In California, Pete Stark led his House colleagues, with 99.6 percent of his $737,089 in contributions coming from outside his Bay Area district. Locally, Doris Matsui got 86.2 percent of her money from out-of -district; John Doolittle, 62.1 percent; Mike Thompson, 67.5 percent; Wally Herger, 83.6.

The "Remote Control" database is maintained by MapLight, a non-partisan, non-profit web site that "illuminates the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes." In addition to compiling campaign finances for each representative, MapLight analyzes the donations by interest group (lawyers, doctors, insurance, labor unions, etc.) and lets you check how he/she voted on related legislation.

AD10.jpgThe upcoming election offers citizens a chance to take from state lawmakers the authority to draw up boundaries of their own districts. Prop. 11 would shift the job of redrawing Assembly, Senate and Board of Equalization districts from legislators to a citizens commission. The Bee published a helpful graphic explanation of the measure as part of our "Ballot Watch" series.

So, are California's legislative and congressional district boundaries drawn to protect incumbents of both parties? You be the judge. Take a look at detailed district maps provided by the California Voter Foundation. My candidates for most oddly shaped are the 10th congressional and 10th Assembly districts. What are yours?

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

June 2010

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