Government shutdown closes websites, affecting data journalists

Tourists, leaf-peepers and rambunctious World War II veterans weren’t the only people inconvenienced by the partial government shutdown that began Tuesday: Journalists who deal with government data found themselves in a tough spot when they couldn’t download files or pull the most up-to-date data for their projects.

On Investigative Reporters and Editors’ NICAR Listserv, where data journalists often seek help from their peers, many scratched their heads about why the government shut down its websites and tried to come up with ways to circumvent the blocks.

Matt Stiles, a data journalist at NPR, wrote in an email to Poynter that he needed diversity index scores for each Census tract in the country when he discovered the Census Bureau closed up shop for the day:

“It’s not the end of the world, but frustrating nonetheless,” he wrote.

Boston Globe data visualizer Gabriel Florit wrote in an email that while the shutdown hasn’t affected his work Tuesday, he uses TIGER and Census demographic information a lot. “I honestly don’t know what I would do without such a readily available rich source of demographic data,” he wrote.


A few minutes after noon E.T., journalists were still able sneak files past the government’s tech watchdogs. An email on the Listserv urged journalists to download from the FTP server of one site before the government wised up. Other websites, such as the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, were operational even after the USDA’s main site shut down. But by Tuesday afternoon, the USDA had blocked further access. Its FTP server was also unavailable.


Matt Kauffman, an investigative reporter at The Hartford Courant, echoed many of the NICAR Listserv’s participants’ sentiments when he wrote:

Am I the only one who finds that incredibly lame? Pretty sure the websites still operate, say, nights, weekends and holidays when the staff’s away. This is the equivalent of not merely locking the Smithsonian museums, but going the extra step to paper the windows so no one can peer inside while they’re closed.

Just about the only consistent thing across the federal websites is that they attribute their unavailability to a “lapse on federal government funding.”

Related: The Reynolds Center has a put together a list of resources for reporters who still need access to data

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  • Gradivus

    You mean give the Democrats 100% of what they want and they’ll allow the Republicans to fund the government (which is what they’ve been trying to do but the Democrats keep stopping them. As Peter Ferrara noted, “it is Obama and the Democrats who shut down the government, because they are so certain that the Republicans will be blamed for it. … House Republicans sent over to the Democrat majority Senate three Continuing Resolutions (CRs) to fund the government. The Senate Democrat majority shot each one down on a unanimous straight party line vote.” The last CR “even funded all of Obamacare, except it required a one year delay in the highly unpopular individual mandate, to match Obama’s arbitrary and illegal one year delay in the employer mandate that Obama declared by decree without legal authorization. And it nullified the special exemption from the requirements of Obamacare for Congress and its staff that the Obama Administration decreed as well without legal authorization.”

  • Media Mentions

    I’d like to think that this will be over soon but mulling over the fact that our government takes half a year to decide what to serve for breakfast and thoroughly enjoys sticking it to the other side, I’d say we’re in for a rough ride. Meanwhile, the effects have become very real and very visible. For anyone not familiar hands-on, this article looks at Arkansas as an example of sorts: Figure it’s worth a read. As for the markets, all they really show is that the government is overinflated and should consider trimming off the edges, so to speak.

  • ambiorix

    Pretty sure that it takes two to tango. The Republicans are doing every petty thing they can to inconvenience the public and not pass a clean CR. Not that complicated. Hold a vote and pass the CR like a responsible legislature and the websites you’re whining about would be up tomorrow morning.

  • Gradivus

    Obama is doing every petty thing he can to inconvenience the public so he can blame it on Republicans. It costs absolutely no money to leave information on websites the way they are, but he is spending taxpayer money to change all the government webpages so when we go to government websites that have information we may want, we are shown instead a page that says that because of the government shutdown, they are unable to show us the webpages. What a petty, despicable excuse for a president we have!

  • Abraham Thomas

    Looking for US government data? Quandl is your friend: