This search engine makes finding public records less painful

Bill Hankes was trying to find a way to sweep journalists’ inboxes of press release spam when he stumbled upon a bigger issue.

On a visit to a Seattle newsroom, he watched a reporter spend 45 minutes crawling through U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings, copying queries into a notepad on his desktop and into the SEC's data retrieval system. Afterwards, the reporter left for the patent office to pore over applications, hoping to stumble upon a nugget that could grow into a story. 

Hankes estimated that the reporter sunk eight hours into searching through public records in this process over the course of a week. 

“And then what happens if Microsoft makes a filing 10 minutes after he leaves the SEC or the court system?” Hankes asked. “He misses it.”

Hankes, who was previously a director at Microsoft’s Bing, perhaps unsurprisingly saw this as a problem that could be solved with better search tools. So he teamed up with David Kellum, another search veteran, and founded Sqoop

“The government honors its duty to disclose, they just don’t make it easy to find this stuff sometime,” said Hankes, who founded Sqoop on the principle that it shouldn’t take much time or effort to find and view public records. 

The search engine, which is free for journalists, compiles records from several different sources, including:

  • SEC filings (including insiders, events, reports, proxies, offerings, registrations and ownership)
  • Patents (including utility applications, utility grants, design patents, plant patents and reissues)
  • Court dockets (from Federal District Courts, Federal Bankruptcy Courts, a partial group of dockets from the Circuit Courts of Appeals, Court of Federal Claims and Court of International Trade)
  • Department of Justice releases
  • U.S. Attorney’s Offices releases

Reporters can do a quick search for person, place or topic and refine results based on data type or form. Other parts of the search engine can also be fine-tuned to reduce noise. For example, SEC filings can be refined based on industry or geographic location, and courts can be drilled down by type of court or to individual courts themselves. 

Because running the same search over and over can be tedious, Sqoop also offers two alert types. The first allows reporters to save a search and receive an email notification if a new record that falls within the search parameters appears. 

The second is called “Docket Watch,” and it sends an alert every time there’s an update on a particular case. Hankes claims this feature is unique to Sqoop. 

Unlike many government databases, records are compiled together with related pieces. Cover letters, for instance, will appear in a list with resources and notices. 

Sqoop is also working on building a “newsworthy algorithm” as a premium feature. Because not all public records merit further reporting and most don’t qualify as “spit-out-your-coffee news,” Hankes said, the team is working on building a tool to set a “newsworthy” bar for alerts.

The algorithm would weigh various aspects of a case or record — the number of employees a company has, which industries it exists in, whether those industries are prone to litigation, and more — to determine whether it meets a threshold for newsworthiness. It would alert journalists only about cases that meet the threshold. 

Sqoop formally launched in April 2015 and has 5,000 registered journalists in “pretty much every newsroom in the country,” Hankes said.

For reporters who aren’t using it, Hankes offered three ideas to get started:  

  • If you’re a business reporter, set up a search for all SEC filings in your area. You can do that right underneath the search box on the homepage with the “search in your current location” functionality. Sqoop uses your IP address, so you can set the search to be within 15 or 20 miles of you, or choose to run it statewide. There’s also a listing of municipal search areas that you can build searches around. 
  • If there’s a federal district court in your jurisdiction you can look for specific reports and refine your search over time based on what you find.
  • Set up and save searches for for bigger businesses in your area to monitor for activity. This also works for prominent business people. 

Learn more about journalism tools with Try This! — Tools for Journalism. Try This! is powered by Google News Lab. It is also supported by the American Press Institute and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

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