Public Data: How to Access and Use It
Updated: Jan 13
Across the United States, people engage in a range of activities to participate in civic life. These activities include voting, donating money to their favorite candidates or campaigns, and registering for a political party. A lot of these actions generate data in the form of government records.
For example, the Federal Election Commission maintains a database of people who have made contributions to federal political campaigns. State election bodies also maintain databases about people who have given to political campaigns and also maintain files about voters. Of course, these voter files don’t include who you voted for, but include details about your name, address, and precinct and whether you voted in a given election.
How are these records accessed and who is accessing them?
Oftentimes, State Secretaries of State are responsible for maintaining these records and every state has slightly different rules about who can access and use records and for what purpose. For instance, in some states you can use the data from these records for any purpose and in other states you can only use the data for election-related purposes.
Public datasets like these are accessed through a variety of means. Like many public records, some are available physically at government offices upon request. Others can be downloaded off the web and sometimes upon request state agencies will forward records in the form of discs, USBs, or paper. But regardless of where they are found and accessed, these records are a treasure trove of data that many policy advocates look to when trying to understand their preferred audiences. These actors include campaigns, academic researchers, pollsters, data companies, and others.
What other kinds of public data records exist?
There are a lot of public records out there; including real estate records, criminal records, and environmental records, but a key source of government data that is used by policy advocates is the Census’ data. The Census Decennial data is the data resulting from population canvassing every ten years which is released to the public. It’s often used to make political determinations, such as the amount of people that are in a distinct area that is relied on for redistricting. By law, Census records are aggregated with advanced statistical techniques called “differential privacy” to make sure the privacy of individuals is protected.
Why do these records exist?
Many of these records are the product of public life. Governments need to collect some data about you to help you vote in local government elections, after all. Maintaining accurate voter records is a key part of ensuring elections are secure and making sure appropriate resources and manpower are available on Election Day. There are a number of state and federal laws that govern the creation and access of these records, too.
How do I learn more?
To learn more, you can go to your state Secretary of State’s website or department of elections to learn about what kinds of records they collect. For example, this page from Virginia provides a summary about the kinds of election-related records that are available and who is allowed to access them: https://www.elections.virginia.gov/candidatepac-info/client-services/.
You can also learn more about types of federal public records that are available through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, https://www.foia.gov/, https://www.fec.gov/freedom-information-act/), and you may also be able to learn about state public records through your own state’s version of FOIA.
What can I do with the data?
Public data records give you insight into the audience you want to reach for better campaign, advocacy, and outreach efforts. Advocacy and public affairs teams increasingly need to run local-level campaigns to have an impact on the issues they care about. This requires localized insights to effectively plan, execute, and measure the impact of their campaigns. But, most of these teams are not adequately resourced with the data, tools, and talent they need to win at the local level. Crowdskout provides the data, tools, and expertise to transform organizations’ ability to take a data-driven approach to drive big change around the issues they care about. We want to empower organizations with the intelligence and tools they need to win. Learn more about how Crowdskout can help your organization use data to better understand and connect with your audience at https://www.crowdskout.com/.