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OpenGov Voices: Data provides constant revelations for central Illinois communities

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the guest blogger and those providing comments are theirs alone and do not reflect the opinions of the Sunlight FoundationBrant Houston - professor of journalism or any employee thereof. Sunlight Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information within the guest blog.

Brant Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the College of Media at the University of Illinois and Editor in Chief of CU-CitizenAccess -- a community online news and information project devoted to investigative and enterprise coverage of social, justice and economic issues in east central Illinois. He can be reached at brant.houston@gmail.com

CU-CitizenAccess.org, an award-winning online newsroom, was launched with public data and it continues to thrive and grow with data about the central Illinois region.

Conceived as a digital platform for university students, faculty and journalism professionals, the project began with a review of basic Census data for the communities of Champaign and Urbana, Illinois in 2008. (Thus, the “C” for Champaign and the “U” for Urbana.) The data revealed what seemed like a surprisingly high percentage of people living in poverty – about 20 percent – in a county that is home to the University of Illinois, a top public educational institution.

But as we scanned the data, we knew there were questions about whether college students, with low earned income, were distorting the numbers. So we looked at the percentage of subsidized school lunches and saw that more than half the school children were receiving lunches. We also read news stories and talked with the staff at the local newspaper and realized there was more than a story to pursue – that there was an ongoing project.

While collecting more data and information, we worked with colleagues to raise funds from a local community foundation, matching money from the Knight Foundation’s Community Information program, and from the University. By the spring 2009, work was underway by Illinois journalism alum Pam Dempsey and Shelley Smithson. In December 2009, the website was up and running and alum Acton Gorton, was helping administer the website while reporting too.

CU Citizen Access
An illustrative representation of an interactive story about the efforts to clean toxic waste from a neighborhood community in Urbana, IL. Image by Acton H. Gorton for CU-CitizenAccess.org

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