Data Surfer

Sites you need to see

In case you're really bored this day after Thanksgiving, try out a free online tool for posting and visualizing your own data sets. Many Eyes is IBM's experimental web site intended to help the public easily share, analyze and illustrate statistics. The data ranges widely in topic and seriousness. You'll find everything from football, song lyrics and restaurant ratings to homicide rates, layoffs and global oil consumption.

If you have information to share, just register as a Many Eyes member and upload your data in a tabular form. Once uploaded, your dataset can be "visualized" in one of several interactive formats, such as bar or pie charts, maps, scatterplots or word clouds. As an example, I posted recent California county poverty rates illustrated as a bar chart.

Speaking of word clouds, there's another free site that allows users to transform text into a visualization that displays the relative prominence of individual words. Like Many Eyes, Wordle contributions range from the silly to the serious. To create your "wordle," just paste the text into this box and click "Go". (No registration is necessary.) Check out this word cloud derived from the the Governor's 2009-2010 California Budget Summary.

Weinstocks.jpg The Library of Congress and the National Endowment of the Humanities co-sponsor an effort to preserve electronically historic U.S. newspapers housed in the LOC. The National Digital Newspaper Program has scanned over 1 million pages and makes many of them them accessible to the public through the "Chronicling America" web site. So far the online collection includes only newspapers from 15 states that were published between 1880 and 1922. (Titles after 1922 are generally protected by copyright.) The material is full-text searchable, so visitors to the site are able to retrieve pages by entering words and phrases into a search function.  

Several California papers are among the digitized newspapers, including the San Francisco Morning Call, the Amador Ledger and the San Mateo Item. The only ones representing Sacramento are the Daily Record-Union (1875-1991) and Record-Union (1891-1903), predecessors of the modern Sacramento Union which ended daily publication in 1994.

[Weinstock's advertisement appeared in the Nov. 24, 1887 edition of the Sacramento Daily Record-Union.]


Another sign of the ongoing recession: Preliminary third quarter data showed sharp declines in tax revenue for most states, including California. The Rockefeller Institute of Government says total state collections fell from $134.0 billion in Q3 2008 to $119.7 billion in Q3 2009, about a 11.3 percent drop. Corporate income tax, personal income tax and sales tax revenues decreased 19.4, 11.4 and 8.2 percent, respectively.

Total California revenue didn't drop as much, percentage-wise (8.7). Broken out, corporate income, personal income and sales tax collections dropped 11.3, 16.0 and 1.0 percent, respectively.

In 1996 California legislators appropriated money to help local schools reduce the size of K-3 classes down to 20 students. Despite billions in subsidies since then, class sizes in most of the state's largest districts are rising again. That's the conclusion of a recent investigation by the new nonprofit journalism team California Watch. CW examined the 30 largest K-12 districts and found that many schools have increased class size to 24 in some or all of the early grades. In some districts class size has grown to as high as 30 students.

The CW study is supplemented with video interviews, a FAQ on the state school-reduction program and an infographic comparing California's student-to-teacher ratio in K-12 schools to those in other states. There's also an interactive map displaying information on class size and state subsidy for the larger school districts including several in the Sacramento region.

The California Energy Commission today approved the nation's first energy-efficiency standards for televisions. The Commission estimates that TVs now account for 10 percent of household power consumption. And the new standards would save consumers $50-250 in electricity bills for the life of each set.

The power limit on TVs won't kick in until Jan. 2011, but consumers can choose to buy an efficient model before then. About 1,000 types of televisions in the market already comply with the California mandate. Here's a helpful chart showing the brand, model, screen type, size and energy drain of each one. The list is arranged alphabetically, but with some spreadsheet magic one can sort the models by size, then efficiency. See the attached Excel file.  

Hunger in the United States is measured by the U.S. Agriculture Department in terms of "food insecurity," i.e. the percentage of households which--at some time during the year--"were uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members because they had insufficient money or other resources for food". In a recent report the USDA annouced that 14.6 percent of U.S. households were food insecure in 2008. That's up from 11.1 percent in 2007 and is the highest level of food insecurity since 1995 when the national survey began.

The USDA analyzed the households experiencing food insecurity along several factors, including age, race, gender, marriage status, poverty status and presence of children. California's 3-year (2006-08) average for food insecurity--12.0 percent--was close to the national average of 12.2. Among the states, Mississippi was highest with 17.4 percent, North Dakota lowest with 6.9. 

The New York Times has produced two health reform infographics that deserve mention. The first summarizes the recent House vote on H.R. 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act. In addition to the complete tally of each house member's position, the accompanying map shows the geography of the vote with color-coding of each congressional district in the country. You get a good sense of where the Democrats who voted for and against the bill come from.

The other infographic is a well-illustrated NYT timeline of attempts at health reform legislation in the United States. It begins in 1912 with Theodore Roosevelt promising national health insurance while campaigning for President, and ends with the Oct. 7 House vote. (Presumably the chronology will grow with new developments.) Most of the timeline entries are supplemented with historic Times news clippings.

Misery loves company. So with California facing yet another budget shortfall, it's comforting (if that's the appropriate emotion) to know that several other states are in the same fiscal pickle.

The Pew Center on the States today released a study identifying nine other states whose budgetary and economic troubles have approached California-like dimensions. Pew scored all 50 states by six factors

  • high foreclosure rate
  • increasing unemployment
  • decreasing state revenue
  • relative size of budget deficit
  • legal obstacles to balancing budget (such as a supermajority budget vote threshold)
  • poor money management practices

and concluded that Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin most match our state's fiscal challenges. This is troubling news for the nation recovery as a whole, since together these 10 troubled states account for more than a third of U.S. population and economic output.

Over the weekend the online Bee launched redesigns of our Data Center and Investigations pages. The former aggregates all the valuable internal and external data sources (databases, interactive maps and charts) the Bee offers in an easy-to-browse listing. The latter showcases current investigative journalism produced by Bee reporters.

Coinciding with this redesign is a new name for this blog. I-Tool Tips is now Data Surfer. We think the moniker better represents what the blog has become. (And it's sure easier to say!) The aim here is to spotlight the most relevant and credible data and research related to the news. As always, your comments and suggestions are most welcome.

Despite the uptick in the Gross Domestic Product, Friday's news that the national unemployment rate broke through 10 percent is a sober reminder that the recession is far from over. The 10.2 percent October jobless figure reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics is the "official" unemployment figure generally quoted by politicians and the news media. But lately you see more stories and commentaries quoting a much higher rate of unemployment, the latest being 17.5 percent.  

But where does the other number come from? It turns out the BLS calculates not one, but six different jobless estimates. These are known in bureaucrat-speak as "alternative measures of labor underutilization" aka U-1 thu U-6. U-3 (total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian workforce) is the official govenment rate. That rose to 10.2 percent last month from 6.6 percent a year ago. U-6 (defined as total unemployed plus the marginally employed) is the most dire figure. That's the one that hit 17.5 percent in October, up from 12.0 percent the year before.


Last week the California Assembly Public Safety Committee held a hearing on a bill that allows marijuana to be taxed and sold legally to adults. The Board of Equalization estimates that pot sales could generate a whopping $1.4 billion net annual revenue gain for the state. But that's based on a lot of assumptions--none backed up by hard data.

A more sober analysis of the budgetary impact of legalizing pot was done in 2005 by Jeffrey Miron, a visiting Harvard economics professor. He concluded that lifting the prohibition on marijuana helps government budgets by generating tax revenue and saving money on enforcement. The national bottom line:

The [Harvard] report estimates that legalizing marijuana would save $7.7 billion per year in government expenditure on enforcement of prohibition. $5.3 billion of this savings would accrue to state and local governments, while $2.4 billion would accrue to the federal government.

The report also estimates that marijuana legalization would yield tax revenue of $2.4 billion annually if marijuana were taxed like all other goods and $6.2 billion annually if marijuana were taxed at rates comparable to those on alcohol and tobacco.

Broken out by state, Miron estimated that California would save $981 million annually in law enforcement costs (including police, judicial and corrections expenditures), plus generate $105.4 million in additional state taxes. (Again these are 2005 projections.)

The Internal Revenue Service on Monday released fresh statistics on electronic filing of federal income tax returns. About 95 million out of 141 million individual returns were transmitted via the Internet in 2009. That's almost a nine point hike in the percent of e-Filers over last year. Since 2000, the proportion has grown from 27.57 percent to 67.18 percent. Some 66 percent of tax refunds in 2009 were received with direct deposit. That's up four percent from 2008.

In California more than 77 percent of individual and corporate income tax returns were filed electronically in 2009. That's a 2.5 percent increase over last year. In addition, almost 45 percent of filers used direct deposit for refunds.

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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