I had an unpleasant flashback today. I was sitting in class at the NICAR conference (National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting) when the speaker said something that sparked a memory.
He mentioned how important it is to push back when a government official tries to give you a database in a PDF, instead of Excel.
“People give in and accept PDFs too easily. The law says they have to give it to you in whatever format they have it in,” explained Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors.
After hearing that, my mind raced back to 2007. I had filed a public records request to get salary data for each of the schools in the University of North Carolina system. All of the schools sent the data to me in Excel, as requested. Well, all but one.
North Carolina Central University officials sent me their salary database in a PDF. I emailed back and asked if they could please resend the database in Excel.
“Specifically what kind of data are you needing?” the spokeswoman responded. “Can you clarify what this information is being used for?”
From there, the conversation quickly went down hill. The spokeswoman explained that the school could not provide the salaries in Excel, even though all the other UNC schools had done so. I asked to speak with the person in charge of the salary database so I could get a better idea of what format they used, but my request was denied.
After several back-and-forth phone calls and emails with no resolution, the spokeswoman was done.
“I find it hard to believe that WRAL chooses to provide this information as a public service and does not have the staff resources to manage the data in the format that the station needs … I would appreciate it if you would refrain from continuing to harass us with requests for information that has long since been provided to you,” she wrote.
As mad as that made me, the spokeswoman was right about one thing – I should have known how to convert a PDF into Excel. I have since learned ways to do this. But she also made some pretty big errors by refusing to tell me what format the data was stored in and who was the custodian of the records – all things that should be public information.
I wish I could tell you the story had a happy ending. It didn’t. I never got the Excel spreadsheet, and the spokeswoman never returned my emails and phone calls. She has since moved on to another job, and I have since learned more about the public records law and how to deal with pesky PDFs.