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Statistics: Buried Treasure on the Web

This article has been archived and may no longer be updated.


Genie Tyburski, Web Manager, The Virtual Chase


   Originally published by Law Office Computing (Apr/May 2003) under the title, "Finding the Numbers." Revised to reflect resources and strategies current as of the date appearing at the end of the page.


3 October 2003. M scoots around the corner trying to catch up to Lawyer X, who, unaware of her quest, moves with equal determination toward the elevators.

"Slow down, X," M silently urges. She doesn't want to shout down a long hallway filled with working lawyers. That wouldn't be professional. "But jogging, I can justify," she thinks, picking up speed.

Ding! The elevator bell tolls. As the open doors begin to close, M waves her hand between them hoping to activate the motion sensor. The doors jerk open and she slips through.

"That was dumb, M!" admonishes X. "You could lose your arm doing that." Good friends, X tends to be overprotective.

"I know," M concedes. "But I really need to talk to you."

"At the risk of losing your arm?" X asks, incredulous.

Not one to be patient while X belabors his point, M warns him with a look.

"Right. It's your arm," mutters X, feeling better for having the last word.

The elevator doors open at the lobby level and the lawyers step out. X heads toward the exit. Keeping pace, M asks if he is on his way to a meeting.

"No, I just want to take a walk. To work out the stress," he adds with emphasis.

"Mind if I tag along? The research I want to ask you about is probably a no-brainer for you."

"M," he responds, "That flattery was a bit obvious, even for you."

Unoffended, M shrugs, "If it gets me what I want..."

During their walk, Lawyer X learns about M's involvement with an education advocacy group that wants her help in drafting legislation to reduce incidents of gun violence in schools. M wants to gather some background information and discover how attacks impact on students and the community. She asks how to find statistics to support the organization's cause.

Fortunately, statistical sources abound on the Web, although finding specific data might require knowing where to look. X recalls a memo ("Tyburski Files," Law Office Computing Feb/Mar 2000) he wrote a few years ago that cited several general statistical resources. He suggests that she begin by reviewing it, as well as the Web site of the U.S. Department of Education.

While the Web provides access to countless sources of accurate and reliable statistical information, the data often resides in databases or publications buried deep within a Web site. Google and other engines might retrieve the start page for the database or publication, but not the data itself. Or, they might contain some facts and figures from publications (not databases), but the keywords you enter differ from those used in the statistical table.

For example, Google stores information about the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Web site. It lists the tables appearing in the report, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2002. The actual tables consist of GIF images and load with the aid of JavaScript. This combination of little or no plain text on the page, and the use of JavaScript instead of the HTML code for a hyperlink, hinders a search engine's ability to collect information contained within the table.

Equally critical to finding this list of statistical tables are the keywords you select. Given the topic, M might select:

  • School violence

  • School violence guns

  • School violence weapons

  • School safety

  • School crime safety

But none of the above queries retrieve the NCES list of tables within the first 100 hits at Google, even though the later two use key terms from the title of the Web page as well as the report. All return other NCES Web pages, but none of these -- including earlier editions of the same report -- link to the 2002 statistics. A searcher would have to be diligent to find the report via Google. (3 October 2003. Although this was true when I wrote it, it is more likely today that the search strategies above will retrieve information about this report within the first 100 search results.)

Of course, government agency Web sites make good research starting points for a variety of topics. But suppose you represent a client in an employment discrimination lawsuit against a federal government agency. You want to find out how often the agency defends such matters in your federal district and how many of these cases your assigned judge handled over the past few years. You would find it enlightening to learn how often the court ruled in favor of the government, and when it sided with the plaintiff, as well as the median and average amount of relief.

A plaintiff lawyer's pipe dream? Not if you know about TRACfed. Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, affiliated with Syracuse University, gathers and disseminates statistical data about federal government agencies. Making extensive use of the Freedom of Information Act, including challenging some agencies in court, TRAC collects data directly from the government and then provides the tools researchers need to analyze it. By accessing the fee-based TRACfed service, you can obtain answers to the above questions.

Imagine that a client tells you that the Department of Housing and Urban Development recently interviewed him, and his business partners, in connection with a mail fraud investigation. He confesses to charging twice the cost of contracted labor, a practice that probably exceeds that of other area businesses in the industry. He also admits to encouraging contractors to provide favorable rates in return for work, but he denies forcing them to do so.

The client wants to know whether the agency is stepping up its fraud investigations. How often do such matters result in convictions? If convicted, should he expect a prison term or fine, or both? How long are the prison terms? How hefty are the fines? With TRACfed, you can assess the depth of the trouble your client is in.

What other useful statistical resources exist that you might not find with a search engine? The U.S. Department of Transportation maintains databases that contain accident statistics, including details regarding individual carriers. InfoNation provides demographic, economic, environmental, health, and technology-related data concerning United Nations member states. MapStats provides state demographic, labor and business information, and profiles of federal judicial districts. These profiles include data on arrests and crimes reported.

Some local communities also provide crime statistics. San Diego County's ARJISNet (Automated Regional Justice Information System) publishes monthly statistical reports about crimes in the region and provides interactive maps for viewing crimes, arrests or traffic violations by city, neighborhood or other geographic region.

Cancer Mortality Maps & Graphs by the National Cancer Institute offers interactive charts, graphs and maps that analyze cancer death rates from 1950 to 1994 in order to find geographic patterns and time trends. For instance, maps that chart the deaths of white females from breast cancer throughout 2.5 decades show a concentration in the northeast, Great Lakes and western regions.

Whatever your need for statistical data, there's a good possibility it exists via the Web. But don't rely solely on search engines to find it. Use related government, trade association, publisher and advocacy group sites. Also try specialized finding aids like Statistical Resources on the Web and Statistics.com.

Lawyer X spies M by the coffee machine. "How did the research go? For the school violence statistics?" he adds when she gives him a quizzical look.

"Quite well. The pointers you gave me helped a lot." She pauses. "But the numbers are scary. Ten percent of all public schools have reported at least one incident of violent crime. In fact, more than 350 school-related violent deaths happened over a recent seven-year period. And bullying is on the rise."

M grins suddenly. "Sorry. I get a little worked-up about this. I'll step down from the soap-box now."

"It's OK," X assures her. "How's the draft of the bill coming along?"

"A bit slower than I'd like, but I'm motivated."

"Yep," X agrees, "But then I never doubted that."


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Created: 3 October 2003
Revised: 18 October 2007 (no text revisions)
URL: https://www.virtualchase.com/articles/archive/statistics.html

Suggestions: Genie Tyburski, tvceditor [at] virtualchase [dot] com