Just the Facts

By Victoria Szymczak, Director of the Law Library

During the past year, a lot has been made of “fake news.”  Even if the news isn’t exactly “fake,” writers present facts in a way that may garner approval or outrage from their readers.  Newsworthy facts are accompanied by a narrative to provide context, and it is the narrative that creates the spin.  The curious reader may be left wanting to know just the facts.  Fortunately, there are some outlets that will satisfy those cats.

USAFacts.org is the brainchild of former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.  Content consists of freely available information organized into a single platform.  To start off, the landing page for USAFacts.org presents a graphic showing you how much money the U.S. government took in (5.2 trillion) and how much it spent (5.4 trillion) in 2014.   You can browse the broad categories and then narrows down to smaller sets.  For example, if you follow the trail for revenue collected from payroll taxes, we learn that the U.S. government collected $228.2 billion for Medicare in payroll taxes.  On the other side – money spent – we can follow the trail in Wealth and Savings to see that we spent $511.6 billion (net of premiums) on Medicare.  You can also search for facts.  Searching for Presidential Campaign Contributions will yield results for 2014 ($924,000,000) and 2012 ($1,008,000,000).  This is a growing, and incomplete resource but it is easy to use and gets to the point quickly.

The Law Library subscribes to a database of statistics called Data Planet which is significantly larger than USAFacts (for the moment).  Data-Planet Statistical Ready Reference is designed to allow users to quickly navigate the billions of points of data contained in the repository, representing ~5,000 datasets covering thousands of geographic entities. With Data-Planet users can quickly search and view charts, maps, and rankings of time series among other filters.  Data Planet’s advanced search feature that allow you to tailor your search by category, state, and country.  For example, a search for solar energy consumption yields data from 1960 to 2014.  Using the advanced search feature, we can limit the results to Hawaii which tells us that we consumed 10,277,000,000,000 BTUs of solar energy in 2014 compared to 1,347,000,000,000 BTUs in 2000.

If you are savvy enough, you might be able to tap into government sources directly.  The gateway to government stored statistics is at https://www.usa.gov/statistics.  In addition to the federal sources, you can find links to local and state statistical gateways.  For example, if you select Hawaii from the state resources and follow the link to the Corrections Department, you will learn that 1,620 incarcerated men are being held at the Saguaro, AZ Correctional Facility and 2,954 incarcerated men are being held at jails and prisons in Hawaii.  Many of the larger, federal databases are more difficult to pinpoint and decipher, which makes the above two resources more friendly in some instances.

It does not take much to check the facts yourself.  So, don’t be lazy!

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