4 Public Data Sources You Can Use For Telling Local Stories

4 Public Data Sources You Can Use For Telling Local Stories

Data storytelling is central to our newsroom efforts at Stacker, where we focus on using data to add to the conversation around current events and longer-term trends. Data journalism contextualizes, with each data point representing an opportunity to compare—placing that recent rainstorm within the context of 100 years of extreme weather history or showing how job pay for college graduates compares within a metro.

One of the biggest influences on how we approach data-driven storytelling has been our collaborations with local news organizations across the country, where we work to deliver stories for their communities that can complement their own original reporting. By working closely with publishers who are constantly looking for creative yet meticulous data storytelling, we’ve seen that there are clear opportunities to make rich data sources more accessible for local audiences.

Not only does data journalism offer outlets a potent way to do close to the community reporting on topics that may not be covered by larger outlets; with no shortage of public and private datasets, there are ways to create data storytelling for all types of publications and verticals.

To help local journalists discover what data might be available for their areas, we looked to our research team—which focuses on brainstorming and performing the data analysis that forms the basis for all Stacker stories. Though our research team are experts at sifting through datasets, they’re also storytellers at heart. So we asked them what their go-to datasets were, as well as how they use them to glean story ideas and original reporting.

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics is one of 13 organizations that make up the U.S. Federal Statistical System, a system designed to collect data and inform decision making across all levels of government.

The BLS’ impact is immense. It is responsible for collecting and analyzing data around economic activity ranging from earnings and unemployment, to how people are spending their time, and deep dives into the wine and construction industries. The BLS also provides up-to-date information on inflation, and projected data on employment and salary statistics for the next 10 years, allowing us to produce stories that analyze both the current economy, as well as how different industries will fare over the next decade.

The BLS data tools allow you to dig deeper into each dataset—offering cuts by geography (such as state, MSA, cities, and towns) and demographics (including gender, age, education level) that can resonate with your audience.

- Diana Shishkina

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

The CDC tracks health data through a number of national surveys and research. Its COVID-19 data tracker has been especially critical to journalists and the public, and the information it tracks provides insight into the pandemic beyond just community case counts. The CDC provides COVID-19 data on disparities among demographic groups, pediatric cases, vaccine effectiveness in preventing hospitalization, and other critical measures. Most datasets have an interactive dashboard that allows you to download the raw data, allowing you to view or find the original source.

The community profile report, available in Microsoft Excel format, is a rich dataset to start with, as it provides cumulative and current data for community transmission, deaths, hospital capacity, and vaccination rates, making it a powerful tool for local storytelling.

- Emma Rubin

U.S. Census Bureau

The U.S. Census Bureau provides a wide variety of data about the U.S. population at the national, state, county, metropolitan, and zip code levels. Though the sheer volume of data can be overwhelming, the “Browse by Topic” drop-down menu on the Census homepage is a valuable tool to help narrow searches. It allows users to see datasets by criteria like race, employment, health, and geography.

For an even more immersive data experience, data.census.gov is a new Census data exploration site that shows data tables directly on the screen without the user downloading the dataset first. The tables can be filtered by any criterion collected by the Census, including specific geographic areas for individuals who only want to analyze a small group of states, counties, or zip codes. Once the user has created a table that is useful for their project, they can download the filtered table directly from the site.

- Emilia Ruzicka

City Governments

48 cities host sites on data.gov, a national open data webpage. This has created a standardized platform for sharing municipal data with the public. It allows for no-code visualizations and user-friendly dataset previews. Data available for local journalists to query ranges from how the city is spending its budget to new building permits to police use of force incidents.

Beyond the federal site, many cities have also created their own platforms which are also great additions to the local journalist toolbox. Even for journalists and the data-curious in areas without open data platforms, the information other cities publish can be a source of inspiration for sending FOIA requests.

- Emma Rubin