Data Surfer

Sites you need to see

Recent news of the recovery, identification and burial of an American airman missing in action over Laos in 1972 reminds us of the many men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in U.S. wars.

Last month, "in response to numerous requests for war casualty statistics and lists of war dead," the Congressional Research Service published a report which compiles hard-to-find statistics about principal wars and combat actions from the Revolutionary War to the Iraq-Afghanistan conflict. The data is broken out by branch of service, combat vs other types of deaths, reserve vs regular military, rank, gender, missing/presumed dead and other factors. In all a sobering, but essential, historical document.

The Bee's Capitol Alert blog reports that the California Chamber has taken a stand against a proposed initiative that would make it easier to pass a budget in the State Assembly. The "Passing the Budget on Time Act of 2010" reduces the required vote from two-thirds to a simple majority and would dock legislator pay if the budget is late. The Chamber concludes that the problem with the state budget isn't that it's often late, but that it's "unbalanced and undisciplined".

Still, one wonders how many states require something larger than simple majority in passing a budget. According to the National Council of State Legislatures, there are just three: Arkansas, Rhode Island and California.

In another sign of the recession's toll on American wallets, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported a 1.7 percent decline in average personal income in 2009 figured at the state level. Great Lakes and Rocky Mountain states suffered the biggest declines. Nevada fell the most (-4.8 percent). West Virigina rose the most (2.1 percent). California, with a -2.8 percent drop, ranked in bottom third of states.

Looked at on a per-capita basis, U.S. personal income fell 2.6 percent in 2009. In the states, per capita personal income fell the most in Wyoming (-2.6 percent) and increased the most in West Virginia (1.8 percent). California took a tumble with a -3.5 percent decrease.

The BEA concluded that flagging construction and manufacturing contributed most to income declines in California, Arizona and Florida.

A new investigative journalism group debuted this week. It joins a growing number of online news efforts in the state that includes California Watch, Voice of San Diego and The Bay Citizen.

FairWarning is a nonprofit operation based in Sherman Oaks that specializes in health, safety and corporate conduct. Its "mission is to arm consumers and workers with valuable information, and to spotlight reckless business practices and lax oversight by government agencies." The site's first three investigations look at old GM pickup trucks that explode in crashes, gross undercounting and fudging of injury data at U.S. companies, and the growing number of accidents involving all-terrain vehicles.

Yesterday, even as the U.S. House of Representatives prepared to vote on health care reform, partisans on both sides of the issue continued to squabble mightily over the merits of the legislation. Is the plan a "government takeover of medicine"? Will it reduce the federal deficit? Will the bill destroy the American economy? The din of claims and counter-claims has been going for months, and the average person doesn't not know what to believe.

Fortunately there are credible, impartial fact-checkers who can judge the veracity of political assertions on health care. One is the Pulitizer-prize winning PolitiFact, a site (profiled here last August) that examines dozens of statements by "members of Congress, the president, cabinet secretaries, lobbyists, people who testify before Congress and anyone else who speaks up in Washington". PolitiFact then rates the statement with its Truth-O-Meter scale (True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely, False and Pants on Fire).

The web site has analyzed over 250 health-related claims going back to 2007. Recently it published the "Top 5 lies about health care" and "Top 10 facts to know about health care". The articles clearly and concisely explain the most contentious points in the current debate. Worth a look.

C-SPAN.jpgThis week C-SPAN, the non-profit cable TV service covering national government and politics, announced the expansion of its online video archive to include every program aired since 1987. The archive contains over 160,000 hours of programming from all three C-SPAN networks (C-SPAN monitoring the U.S. House, C-SPAN2 watching the Senate, and C-SPAN3 broadcasting live public affairs events).

Getting around this massive archive is fairly easy using a search interface that lets you narrow your retrieval by program title, person name, organization name, location, date, subject keyword, etc. If you don't have something specific in mind, you can browse the collection by "Most Recent," "Most Watched" and "Most Shared". Or rummage through "Memorable Moments from the Video Library" -- a list of historically-important recordings that includes Al Gore's 2000 election concession speech, Barack Obama's 2004 convention address, George W. Bush announcing the capture of Saddam Hussein, Dan Quayle's remarks on Murphy Brown, and Bill Clinton's "I did not have sex" assertion. 

Sunshine Week, the annual initiative to bolster open government and freedom of information, is in full swing. It's led by the American Society of News Editors with help from many print, broadcast, and online news outlets, plus libraries, schools, advocacy groups and other interested organizations.

Sunshine Week is an opportunity to evaluate how well government bodies comply with public requests for government documents as stipulated by the federal Freedom of Information Act and (in California) the Public Records Act. The Associated Press, for example, reviewed FOIA reports by 17 U.S. agencies to compare their performance in fiscal 2008 and 2009. AP found the departments providing the entirety of information sought in 162,205 FOIA requests in 2009, as compared to 196,776 requests in 2008. These same agencies denied FOIA requests in their entirety 20,005 times in 2009, compared to 21,057 times the prior year. 

Sunshine Week activists also examined the online availability of essential state public records such as death certificates, financial disclosures, physician disciplinary information, bridge inspections, school performance data, consumer complaints against businesses, etc. They concluded that although more government information is accessible on the Internet, some of the most important information is still offline. Only one state, Texas, provided all 20 categories of information considered in the survey. California provided only 11. 

Speaking of California, The Bee reported on the current status of state and local government compliance with the public records law and found that, increasingly, officials blame budget cuts and furloughs for delays in and denials of PRA requests for information.

Last week the Internal Revenue Service released its annual compendium of statistics on all aspects of federal taxation for FY 2009 (Oct. 2008 to Sept. 2009). The 84-page Data Book "includes information about returns filed, tax collections, enforcement and taxpayer assistance, as well as the IRS budget and workforce". During 2009 the IRS processed 236 million returns and collected $1.9 trillion in taxes (after refunds). Individual income tax payers contributed $854 million to that net total. Business income tax payers contributed $130 million. In 2009 the IRS collected some $214 million in net taxes from California businesses and individuals.

According to the IRS, math errors skyrocketed in 2008 tax returns. Out of 13.5 million mistakes, 10 million (74.4 percent) were connected with the one-time Recovery Rebate Credit. [Hat tip to The New York Times Economix blog.]

highway2.jpgThere are 305 highway construction projects financed by the federal stimulus currently underway or completed in California. That's according to new data released by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association which estimates these road improvements have supported 35,184 jobs in the state. Their press release breaks down the number and value of the projects by congressional district.

Speaking of highway construction funded by the stimulus (i.e. the Recovery Act), the White House announced yesterday the release of a new online map that pinpoints specific projects across the country. This "Master Recovery Transportation Map" lets you zoom from a national view down to the street level to see road work in your region. The markers are color coded by improvement types (pavement, safety, bridge, etc). Click on a marker for a project description and dollar amount spent.

About a dozen projects are located within the Sacramento metropolitan area. Most of these are in the "Pavement Restoration and Rehabilitation" category.

[April 30, 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses the first highway project to be funded solely by the new U.S. stimulus law, near Fairfield Calif. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli.]

The 2010 Census is in full swing and Americans will soon receive their 10-question "short form" in the mail. The Census Bureau is pushing hard for maximum citizen participation in the process. One argument it makes to public is that an accurate count helps determine how the federal government allocates hundreds of billions of dollars in appropriations for things like hospitals, schools, bridges and other infrastucture and services.

But just how much federal money is determined by the decennial census? The Brookings Institution --  through its Counting for Dollars Project -- has attempted to make an "accurate national estimate of census-guided federal funding," breaking it down by function and geography. Analyzing the FY2008 budget, Brookings found that 215 U.S. domestic programs used census data to allocate $446.7 billion, or 31 percent of all federal support. The lion's share of census-guided funding went to state governments for highway projects and low-income programs.

California got $63.6 billion of these 2008 funds, a per-capita expenditure of $1,730. Of that, the Sacramento MSA received $8.3 billion ($3,960 per capita) and Sacramento County got $7.6 billion ($5,441 per capita).

Last May Google launched its government data search service. Now the Internet giant has expanded it data offerings with a load of international statistics from the World Bank. These 54 World Development Indicators reflect economic, environmental, demographic and health conditions in countries and regions around the globe.

In addition to expanding its data collections, Google has enhanced its visualization capability with Public Data Explorer, a tool that makes large datasets easy to explore and manipulate. It not only lets you track specific indicators and geographies, Explorer also animates changes in the data over time. Take for example this longitudinal graph correlating fertility rate and life expectancy. The data point are color-coded and sized by region and population. Generally speaking, the more babies the average woman has, the shorter the life expectancy in the country. Click "play" and you see the stats evolve from 1960 to 2007 as fertility decreases and life spans increase in most places.

The number of federal bankruptcy filings rose 31.9 percent last year, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported on Tuesday. About 1.5 million were filed during the 2009 calendar year as compared to 1.1 million the previous year. Business filings increased percent 71.5 percent (43,533 to 60,837). Non-business bankruptcies increased percent 76.0 percent (1,074,108 to 1,412,838).

A U.S. Courts map displaying per capita bankruptcies by county shows the heaviest concentration of filings in the West, Midwest and Southeast parts of the country. The state table ranks California 11th in per capita filings (all types of bankruptcy). It ranks 8th in Chapter 7 and 18th in Chapter 13 categories.

For historical stats broken down by individual federal district, see this U.S. Courts data collection. (The Sacramento region is located in the Eastern District of California.)

The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College just published a study that anyone planning their post-employment finances will find disturbing. The authors seek to answer the question: how much will the typical married couple at age 65 spend on uninsured health care costs during the remainder of their lives? According to the CRR, the total expense, including insurance premiums, out-of-pocket costs, and home health costs (excluding nursing home care) averages about $197,000. If you include spending on nursing home care, that typical total balloons to $260,000. Further, five percent of couples, says the study, will see their health expenses in retirement grow as much as $310,000. If you include nursing home payments in that, there's a five percent chance the total health care cost will hit $570,000.

[Hat tip to the New York Times Economix blog.]

Last November, this blog explained that the federal government tracks not one, but six unemployment measures for the country. They are designated U-1 through U-6 with U-3 (total unemployed as a percentage of the civilian labor force) being the "official" jobless rate. Many people feel the U-3 doesn't accurately reflect the true employment situation in this recession. They consider U-6 -- the broadest measure covering the unemployed and underemployed -- to be the best indicator.

The annual state-by-state U-6 figures have been released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the data is fairly grim. The nation as a whole had a 2009 annual average of 16.2 percent in the U-6 category. California shows 21.1 percent, the second highest among the states behind Michigan with 21.5 percent. The New York Times blog Economix provides a useful color-coded map comparing unemployment/underemployment across the country.



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 pbasofin@sacbee.com.

June 2010

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