Last week I attended InfiNet's affiliate meeting in Norfolk, Virginia, as a guest speaker. (InfiNet is an Internet service provider owned by Knight-Ridder Newspapers and Landmark Communications.) After my chores were over, I was able to listen to several other interesting presentations, on which I'll report over the next couple days. (This week I'm at Internet World in Boston, and will report later this week on what I've seen and heard here.)
Tom Boyer, computer-assisted reporting (CAR) editor at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, showed off a wonderful project that melds CAR with the Web. He has set up a Web server and placed on it several community databases (currently in beta testing, but you can look at it on the Web) that can be searched by Web users:
* Virginia School Performance. Data is from the Virginia Department of Education's annual Outcome Accountability Project report. Visitors to the site can get a ranking of schools in their region or see individual schools' test scores, attendance and drop-out rates. Boyer plans to add additional fields of data including more test scores, free/reduced school lunch percentages, and school zone information.
* Hampton Roads Neighborhood Demographics. This database includes 1990 U.S. Census data for census tracts, with neighborhood names overlayed on the original data. Type in the city and neighborhood and the server returns population, ethnicity percentages, income, education level, etc. Maps of the tracts will be added later.
* Virginia Beach Crime Log. This database allows users to find a catalog of recent crimes down to a city block. The City of Virginia Beach just recently began providing crime incident information to the newspaper in database form, after 2 years of negotiations.
* Norfolk Crime Log. Similar to the Virginia Beach crime database, but this database contains only robberies, burglaries and sex offenses.
Boyer plans to add crime databases for Chesapeake and Portsmouth soon, plus local property assessments, more schools data, and searchable community calendars.
These databases will be a great public service (once they are announced to the public), and Boyer points out that it allows the newspaper to "get intensely local." He says of the information in the crime databases, "Most of these crimes are of the petty variety -- thefts, vandalism, etc. -- and the newspaper never would have had the space to publish them. As you explore ... you see that serious crime is very uncommon in the vast majority of Virginia Beach neighborhoods. We plan to enhance this report by providing neighborhood summaries keyed to police zone maps."
As to why his newspaper embarked on this project, Boyer says, "We want to be the dominant information provider in our market. ... I worry about competition from online services" offering the same thing. "If you (other newspapers) don't do this, somebody else will."
The project has been fairly inexpensive. The paper purchased a single Pentium-based PC (with 16 megabytes of RAM and a 1 gigabyte hard disk) running the Windows NT operating system and hooked it to the paper's existing Internet connection (part of the InfiNet operation). The server runs O'Reilly & Associates' Website software; CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts are written in Microsoft Visual Basic; and Microsoft 46oxPro/Win 2.6 software handles the database queries and writes the HTML output. Boyer expects that within 6 months you'll be able to accomplish what he's done using only off-the-shelf software.
The hardest part of the whole process, as any CAR expert will tell you, is in securing access to government databases. That can take months or even years; actually putting the databases on the Web once in hand can take only a matter of days.
This is a nice concept, no doubt, but how do you pay for it? The best option may be getting sponsors or advertisers. A realty company might want to be the sponsor for a property assessments database, for example; its logo could show up on the query form used to search. Otherwise, depending on the type of information, you might want to charge a modest fee per search. Of course, you could just consider this a public service and absorb the costs. But in these days of tight newsroom budgets, it's probably better to make database Web projects pay for themselves.
Steve Got a tip? Let me know about it
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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org
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