Government shutdown closes websites, affecting data journalists

October 2, 2013
Category: Uncategorized

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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