Using data to fact-check politicians

Posted by on Apr 25, 2017 in data, journalism | No Comments
Using data to fact-check politicians

Using data to fact-check politicians isn’t new. But as a reporter, it never gets old.

At the March 16 round table in Sarasota with Gov. Rick Scott and area business leaders, he said something that set off my BS alarm.

Economic development is happening “all across the state. It’s not just in one part of the state,” Scott said. His Department of Economic Opportunity repeats the talking point to reporters. I know because it’s happened in conversations I’ve had with DEO folks.

“At (the Department of Economic Opportunity), our goal is for every Floridian to experience the prosperity that the state has seen over the past five years,”a DEO spokeswoman told me in an email last May, after I asked if the state considers unemployment levels when granting economic incentives. “Since 2013, DEO leadership has visited all 67 counties in the state to hear first-hand what the needs, challenges, and successes are on the ground. We are dedicated to economic development in small and large towns across the state.”

They’re nice talking points. But the data don’t reflect them.

Months before Scott’s round-table visit, I took a big-picture look at the state’s economic development projects. I wanted to see who the state was giving money to and how much, but I ended up finding other, more interesting stuff. So it goes with data analysis, right?

Primer: an economic development incentive is taxpayer money that’s given to a company for moving to Florida, expanding their business within Florida and/or creating jobs. Scott’s Sarasota roundtable was to rally support for Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership that is the “principal economic development organization” in Florida. The Florida legislature is teetering on killing the whole thing.

Before I jump into what the data told me, I’ll tell you about the circuitous route I took to get to it. (Caution: nerd alert. If you aren’t into this explainer, skip ahead two paragraphs)

I requested the database that powers the Department of Economic Opportunity’s incentive portal, but the DEO spokeswoman I worked with on the request told me that the DEO does not “maintain a separate electronic file with the information requested.” I’m sure there’s an exportable file somewhere behind that database, but Florida’s public records law doesn’t require agencies to create a record if the requested one doesn’t exist, so we went another way.

The Bradenton Herald’s digital news director at the time figured out we could copy and paste the portal search results into Excel seamlessly. We did a comprehensive search, copied and pasted each page, 28 separate times, to get the 1300+ projects into Excel. I’m sure I could have scraped it, but my scraping skills are rusty and on a daily deadline, sometimes you don’t have time to write a scraper. This tedious, ugly copy-and-paste method is not my favorite way to get data, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. I did it again after Scott’s Sarasota visit in March make sure I had any new projects or updated information.

After I analyzed the data, it was clear to me that not all of those conversations in Florida’s 67 counties paid off or actually did anything for citizens living in certain parts of the state. In reality, 15 percent of Florida, or ten counties, haven’t had any projects at all. Zilch. Zip. Zero. Not even a terminated, inactive or expired one.

Almost half of the state had fewer than ten projects and nearly a third had fewer than five.

Meanwhile, the most projects awarded were to Florida counties with large metropolitan areas, as we reported in the Bradenton Herald:

  1. Hillsborough (Tampa), 144
  2. Orange (Orlando), 142
  3. Pinellas (St. Pete, Clearwater), 109
  4. Duval (Jacksonville), 100
  5. Broward (Ft. Lauderdale), 94

All across the state? It’s more like all across the cities. And of the more than 1,300 projects awarded by DEO, nearly two-thirds of them went to just ten counties.

And what’s more, the 150 complete projects aren’t exactly evenly spread, either. Those in Pinellas (St. Pete), Miami-Dade (Miami) and Hillsborough (Tampa) make up almost a quarter of them and almost a sixth are in Duval County (Jacksonville).

Granted, almost 500 of DEO projects are still active. On the other side of the same coin, more than 700 are inactive, terminated or expired.

A Manatee County economic development official once told me that economic development is a “regional sport,” meaning what benefits one area will benefit the areas surrounding it. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this or to what kind of scale it could be true. And I’ve got to think it would be really hard to track the numbers on such a claim.

If the state has an economic development strategy and sound reason the projects landed in mainly metro areas, I haven’t heard it yet. I don’t know if there is a strategy. What I do know is that it’s not okay to deceive or mislead your constituents. Scott paints a much rosier picture of what’s happening with the DEO and Enterprise Florida than what the data show.

Author’s note: This post is publishing almost two months after Scott’s visit to Sarasota. You’ll find my story on Scott’s roundtable on my “best of March 2017” page. After I put it there just a few days ago (ahem, yes, I’m a little late on the “best of” post this month) I decided it was worth a post. Plus it’s good timing. The Florida legislative session ends on May 5, which is when we’ll know if Enterprise Florida lives or dies. 

May 5, 2017 update: Gov. Scott stopped in Sarasota as a part of his last-minute attempt to rally support for his budget priorities, which include Enterprise Florida. When it was press gaggle time, I asked him why legislators in counties where no economic development projects have been awarded should support Enterprise Florida. Indeed, he confirmed my hypothesis about their trickle-down strategy and told me that any job creation anywhere helps everyone in Florida: 

“EFI (Enterprise Florida Inc.) does all sorts of things,” Scott said. “They have rural county initiatives, they do trade missions and they also recruit companies. And by the way, there’s no risk in it. As a taxpayer, you get five times your money back guaranteed. So every county benefits because more money comes into our coffers when we get a job.”

Does economic development work like that? There’s really only one way to find out: smart data analysis. Stay tuned…