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Columbia Missourian

New online Missourian sheds light on the city’s darker deeds

By TOM WARHOVER
April 14, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT
Tom Warhover is the Columbia Missourian's executive editor for innovation.

MU placed nine sanctions on the Alpha Tau Omega chapter as penalty for fraternity members’ trashing of a Lake of the Ozarks hotel last fall. One sanction — barring new members from living at the house — could result in the house closing.

I hope you read that story on April 6. The state Sunshine Law forced officials to release documents that they would rather have kept private. The spirit of the law: Good deeds are rarely done in the dark.

The law is made for all of us. Too often, though, regular folks don’t have the expertise or patience to wade through the roadblocks. Documents are public, but not really publicly available.

More little bits of sunshine are possible these days, though. One of the benefits of the Internet should be to put new tools in your hands.

The Missourian made a leap in that direction this weekend. Go to ColumbiaMissourian.com and see for yourself.

Everything has been updated, redesigned or built from scratch. Everything. It’s just plain better. I’ll save details of that amazing feat for another letter. Instead, I want to point out one special feature.

The crime watch uses the same information — “police blotter” — reported in the print edition. The online version, though, maps out the most recent crimes. You can see, literally, where bad stuff happened. Or you can search through the database to map different categories of crime over specific time periods.

In other words, you can look at the data and draw out of it your own “story.”

It’s a small but significant step. Imagine being able to do the same thing with restaurant inspections, business licenses, or dozens of other pieces of information.

The process has been slower than I hoped. There were several negotiations with police over providing specific street addresses. Technical issues prevented one database from talking to another; instead, Missourian reporters write down each incident report at the police station and type it in later.

Still, City Manager Bill Watkins has responded favorably to the idea of more documents electronically delivered to citizens.

It’s our information, after all.