Getting the most out of Google

Ever wonder just how much information is stored on Google? To find out I googled it, of course, and came up with this interesting little tidbit from the company’s CEO Eric Schmidt: Every two days we collectively create as much information as we did up to the year 2003. From the history of mankind, to every two days! That’s about six exabytes of information (or six quintillion bytes) every 48 hours. Talk about a lot of tweets.

With this much information available at every keystroke, there’s bound to be something on what you’re looking for. The only problem is finding it.

Google

But with a few extra clicks of your mouse, you can make sure you’re getting the most out of Google. Done right, and a simple search can become the start for an investigation. Begin by clicking on the advanced search option to the right of the search bar. Next you’ll be given a list of options that can help refine your search. Like they tell you at the doctor’s office, fill these out as completely as possible.

Now for the fun part. Under the “Need more tools?” tab, select the type of file you want. For investigations that rely heavily on documents, you might start with .xls (Microsoft Excel) extension or .ppt (Microsoft Powerpoint). Then type domain you want to search, we’ll say Humboldt State University, and bingo — you’ve got documents!

My favorite just from this quick search alone? “Current CSU Salary Structure – Humboldt State University” and “Department Criteria Standards Criteria Standards Status List,” both Excel documents that the school doesn’t plaster all over the home page with the hope that you stumble across it.

It sounds simple, but you would be amazed by what’s out there, just ready to be found. So what are you waiting for – start searching!

It’s that time of year again!

It’s May, which in Humboldt County means it’s time for another groundbreaking investigation by students in Public Affairs reporting at Humboldt State University. This year’s project will appear on the pages of the North Coast Journal, as it has for the past six years. It is due to hit newsstands everywhere in Humboldt County tomorrow. While we all wait to see what this year’s class, led by Marcy Burstiner, comes up with, it’s a good time to take a look at what students did last year.

This story, which was broken up into a main bar and a sidebar, started out with a single search warrant. From there we produced a spreadsheet of information, which looked like this:

Then we used the data to create a map that highlighted certain aspects of the data, such as where marijuana grows were being busted up and how many search warrants were served where.

Starting your own investigation

Want to do your own investigation but aren’t sure where to start?

A good story is often easier than you might think. This story, which won a Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence of Award this year, started with an email.

Start by filing a FOIA (which you can learn more about here). Be sure to include as much specific information as possible when filing your FOIA – an office will likely ignore or even dismiss your request if it appears to be too vague. Don’t worry at this point about keeping the focus of your story under wraps; if you don’t have any documentation to back up what you want to report on, you’ve got nothing to hide anyway. Remember, your job at this point involves complete transparency.

Once you get your documents – and be warned, this can take time, which is why it is best to start at this step – it’s time to organize them. This can be done using a simple spreadsheet, whether it’s excel, google or whatever else you like to use, and will save you a lot of time in the long run.

For this story, we simplified the wealth of information into a few key points, and ended up with something that looked like this.

Now that you’ve organized it, it’s time to filter it down. This can be done in a variety of ways, but it’s best to keep it consistent. For example, if a story has a strong geographical element to it, you might want to start by breaking out all the info by location. If it’s people you’re focused on, use their names. At this point you want to keep it simple, that way the legwork pays off in the end when you can actually find what you’re looking for.

Once you’ve got your data in order, it’s time to go back and re-interview. It’s often a good idea to do this multiple times – there is no such thing as too many interviews. Don’t be intimated by this, either. Instead, think of each interview as an opportunity to collect a single piece of information. It could be something as simple as an address that in a couple weeks leads to your best source, or the name of a building or penal code you didn’t know before. If you approach interviews this way, it’s tough to have a failed conversation with anybody.

Now that you’ve collected your data and reported the story it’s time for the fun part – writing it out! While this part can be stressful, it is a lot easier if you’ve done the preparation beforehand. Ideally, your story should write itself once you’ve added in the data and sprinkled in your interviews. If you don’t find this to be the case, you might want to go back to step one and check to see if your groundwork – the foundation for any good investigation – is solid.

SPJ Mark of Excellence