Data Surfer

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capitol.JPGWith Minnesota's Al Franken taking a seat in the U.S. Senate, Democrats in that chamber potentially control 60 votes -- the number needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. That majority is comprised of 58 Democrats and two independents, Joseph Leiberman and Bernard Sanders.

The Senate web site provides a handy reference describing the party composition of the Senate for every Congress going back to the first (1789-1791). Each entry has the numerical breakdown, plus notes on any special circumstances (such as members dying or switching parties). 

Here's a question for history buffs: when was the last time one of the parties held at least 60 seats in the Senate? Answer: the 95th Congress (1977-1979) when the Democrats had 61 (with 38 Republicans and one independent, Harry F. Byrd Jr., who voted with the Democratic caucus). 

Incidentally, there's also a page showing the party division in the U.S. House (1789-present).

Given the state's limping economy and budget problems, it's understandable that Californians continue to be in a sour mood. That's confirmed by the monthly survey conducted by the California Public Policy Institute which tracks opinions about the economic outlook and the "general direction of things" in the state. The PPIC recently updated its two state polls. In June, a survey found 69 percent of adults saying we're in "bad times" economically (24 percent "good times" and 7 percent "don't know"). That negative view has dropped since January when 77 percent cited "bad times" (18 percent "good times" and 5 percent "don't know").

In response to the question about the general direction of things in the state, 70 percent of adults in June said "wrong direction" (19 percent "right direction" and 11 percent "don't know). Likewise the pessimism has fallen since the January poll.

The Bee just reported that officials have found the West Nile virus in a Yolo County chicken. The bird is part of a test flock used to monitor the spread of the disease. The find is significant because it suggests mosquitoes in that area are carrying the virus and could transmit it to humans.

The California Public Health Department, UC Davis and other agencies maintain, a robust web site loaded with information -- data, news, reports, FAQs, links and other resources -- on a disease which has killed 91 people since 2003. A West Nile summary (updated on a weekly) includes county-level statistics on mosquito pools, horses, dead birds, squirrels, monitor chickens, as well as human cases. You can also report a dead bird or squirrel on this site.

The Bee today reported that the percentage of Sacramento County students participating in the school lunch program grew faster this year than in any of the past 15 years. The story is accompanied by an interactive map which displays school lunch rates for every school in the county.

You can look up similar statistics for any county, district or school in the state using the Education Data Partnership's online database. It's a little convoluted to find the school lunch numbers, so here are the steps:

1) Click on the level of report that interests you (state, county, district or school).

2) Select the year, specific county, district and/or school in the drop-down menues.

3) Click on the "Students" tab.

4) Click on "Special Programs".

5) Read the section labelled "Free / Reduced Price Meals" to see the number and percentage of students participating in the program. 


President Obama today signed tough new legislation aimed at curbing cigarette smoking by teenagers. Aside from empowering the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco, the law will ban youth-focused marketing by manufacturers.

Tobacco use by teens has declined, but it's still a health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control:

* 20% of high school students report current cigarette use.

* Every day, about 4,000 U.S. adolescents, aged 12-17, try their first cigarette.

* Fifty percent of high school students have tried cigarette smoking.

* Fourteen percent of high school students have smoked a whole cigarette before age 13.

* Nearly eight percent of high school students (13% of male and 2% of female students) have used smokeless tobacco.


House Democrats today unveiled a new health care reform plan intended to cover the 50 million people in the country who lack medical insurance. (See the 850-page draft bill here.)

The U.S. Census maintains statistics on the uninsured. The latest data (2006-2007) breaks down estimates by age, race, ethnicity, income, family and employment status. There's also a table showing the number and percentage of the uninsured population by state. Approximately 15.5 percent of Americans are without insurance. In California about 6.7 million people --18.5 percent -- are uninsured. That puts California seventh in a ranking of states. Texas is first with 24.8 percent. Massachusetts is last with 7.9 percent.

Passage of the California High School Exit Examination is required of every student earning a diploma. Assembly Democrats are pushing to eliminate the exam, arguing that schools can't meet the mandated standard while struggling with budget cuts.

CAHSEE, authorized by the legislature in 1999, is comprised of math and English/language arts tests (see the brief Q&A). Every high school is required to administer the tests and aggregate test results are available to the public via the Education Department's web site. You can look up an individual school, district or county results (expressed as passage rate), or download bulk data for statewide comparisons and ranking. Information ranges from the 2000-2001 through the 2007-2008 school years. CAHSEE results are broken out by gender, race/ethnicity, income, program (such as English learners, special ed, etc.).

The Bee reported last September that, statewide, nine out of ten high school seniors (90.2 percent) passed the exam by the time their class graduated in Spring 2008.

The California First Amendment Coalition and, which sued the Legislative Counsel's Office to obtain a comprehensive electronic database of legislative votes, have settled their case with the state. Up to this point, vote data was only available online for individual bills. Now the data is downloadable for whole years. You can access that information here. will use the votes database to create a new government website: California. The site will provide the public with a "Money and Votes" resource that will show the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes. California will aggregate money given to members of the legislature with how each politician votes on every bill -- revealing patterns of money and influence.

California's K-12 schools will soon launch two new data collection systems to supplement the Department of Education's existing statistical databases. The initiatives will track individual student and teacher data longitudinally to see how the numbers change over time.

The California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System (CALPADS) will compile information on a student's demographic, achievment, enrollment, discipline, and participation in special programs. The California Longitudinal Teacher Integrated Data Education System (CALTIDES) will aggregate school employee stats, such as the job classification (teacher, administrator, counselor, etc.), gender, race, ethnicity, years of service, degrees, credentials and courses taught. By tracking individual pupils and teachers over time, these data systems will give researchers to get a much better picture of a school's performance.

CALPADS is scheduled to launch in the 2009-10 school year. CALTIDES will begin in the fall of 2011.


jobless2.jpgThe Bee recently posted a collection of photos illustrating economic challenges in 20 northern California cities with the highest average jobless rate (as measured from November through April). Phillip Reese derived the list from data collected by the state Employment Development Department. If you're interested in delving more into unemployment statistics, check out the EDD's Labor Market Info site. There you'll find current and historical jobless rates for the state, counties, metropolitan regions and cities.


If you're a Facebook user, there's a new application that allows you to follow campaign contributions given to your U.S. Senators and Congress member. All you have to do is enter your ZIP code in the FB app and you'll get an updated list of names and amounts of top donors for each politician.  
The creator of this resource is the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks the role of money in politics. CRP's web site contains a robust database of campaign finance information going back to 1997. The data is not only searchable by candidate and donor, but it's also analyzed to show the relative influence of specific industries and interest groups on the recipient.

Another sign of the economic times: personal bankruptcy filings for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2009 are up 32.4 percent from 12-month period ending March 31, 2008 (1,153,412 up from 871,186 filings). That's according to the U.S. Courts web site, where you can find a load of bankruptcy stats broken out by region and chapter.

A new study of personal bankruptcies in 2007 by the American Journal of Medicine found that medical debts contributed to 62.1 percent of all filings. About 92 percent of these medical debtors owed over $5,000 in medical billls (or 10 percent of pretax family income). The study looks at the survey data in terms of age, income, family size, insurance status and other factors.

While reporting his story on public employee unions, Bee staff writer Jon Ortiz found a rich source of labor union statistics maintained by a Georgia State University professor. UnionStats compiles data collected the federal government and slices and dices it into a series of accessible spreadsheets. With these you're able to find and sort union membership and union coverage figures broken out by location (state and metro region), sector (private or public), industry and occupation.

Overall, California ranks sixth in the percentage of workers who belong to a union with 18.4 percent. New York leads the states with 24.9 percent. Looking at metro areas within California, the Sacramento MSA is seventh in membership with 25.1 percent. Vallejo-Fairfield is tops with 33.8.

beaches.jpgThe California State Library has a new exhibit, "California Calls You: The Art of Promoting the Golden State, 1870-1940." It showcases colorful posters, booklets, brochures, postcards and other materials that once promoted the state to prospective travelers and residents. The collection may be viewed at the Mead B. Kibbey Gallery, located in the rotunda outside the California History Room, Room 200, 900 N Street, Sacramento. Hours are Monday-Friday, 9:00 a.m.- 4:00 p.m.

To get a flavor of the exhibit, check out the historic posters displayed on the State Library's Facebook page.




(A lightning bolt hits the ground near the 15 and 215 freeways in San Bernardino, Calif. Wednesday afternoon. AP Photo/ Mike Meadows)

Two people were killed and seven others injured in lightning strikes that accompanied storms around the state last night. Locally, a woman carrying an umbrella was struck by lightning in Plumas County.

Ironically, National Lightning Safety Week is two weeks off (June 22-28). The event is sponsored by the National Weather Service, which also collects statistics on lightning fatalities and injuries. To date, six people have been killed by strikes in 2009. 28 have died and hundreds were permanently injured in 2008. You can get a summary of each death (including name, age, location and activity) that occurred from 2006 to the present.

Historically, there were 3,885 lightning deaths in the United States between 1959 and 2008. Florida led the way with 455 fatalities. Washington had the least with five. California had 28.

The California Demographics Unit (the state equivalent of the U.S. Census) recently updated its state and county estimates of population broken out by gender, race and age. These 2007 figures are especially valuable because they reveal the number of people in each minority group for each year of life (0 to 100 years old). That allows you to compile any data range -- say the number of black females, aged 55-58, in Plumas County. The data comes in an Excel spreadsheet format and is available year-by-year back to 2000. The Demographics Unit also provides similar gender/race/age population data projected out year-by-year to 2050. Projections like these are terrific for forecasting the need for local schools and senior services pretty far into the future.

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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