Three Of My Favorite Online Tools

The internet has brought us many things. Opportunities to post photos that will live on to embarrass us till Facebook is history. Spam. Why do I keep getting ALL CAPS offers to maximize my erections?

But advocacy today is altogether different — and more effective — because organizations have picked up on how the ‘net can give us new ways of learning and communicating.

Among the developments I’m excited about — and grateful for — are online tools that let you mine and combine vast bodies of government data, looking at them through lenses you choose.

Here are three I’ve been using. Do you know of others you’d recommend?

FRAC National & State Program Database. This tool gives us access to the Food Research and Action Center’s current and historical data.

As you might expect, it provides data on participation in and spending for major federal nutrition assistance programs, both nationwide and by state.*

For perspective, it also includes some basic poverty and food insecurity data, plus some data on “economic security policies,” e.g., participation and cash benefits in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

You can choose a state and up to three years’ worth of data going back to 2005. You then get an online table of all FRAC’s data in all categories. You can print it out, but not download it.

CLASP DataFinder. This tool provides a range of multi-year demographic, spending and program information, e.g., enrollments for major cities, states and the U.S. as a whole. Which type of information you get depends on the category.

For states, there are 11 categories. For cities, there are six. They focus principally on issues that affect low-income individuals and families, with a heavy emphasis on children.

When you pick a category, you generally get a subset of variables you can choose — often lots of them. You can pick variables from one category or combine.

A button pops up a table reflecting your choices. You can download it as an Excel spreadsheet or print it.

Or you can go to the original data sources because the tables include cites, with links. I really like this feature!

National Priorities Project Federal Priorities Database. This tool covers a broader range of issues than the others. It’s also the most flexible — and so the most complex to use. Happily, there’s an online step-by-step guide to get you started.

Data are available in eight major categories. For each category, there are indicators, e.g., participation rates, demographics. Also program-level expenditures.

You can choose up to five variables at any one time — indicators, expenditures or a combination and from one category or a mix.

The variables you’ve chosen are presented in interactive maps. Mouse over the state you’re interested in and you get a little pop-up box. You switch from one variable to another rather than getting all the data in one map.

Click on a state and you get a county map, with the same variable broken out.

Map pages also provide brief explanations of the variables and, as with the CLASP tool, links to the sources.

For expenditure variables, you can get figures adjusted to account for inflation. So if the latest expenditure is for Fiscal Year 2010, you can find out what it would mean today.

You can switch from a map to a table format. Tables provide data for all states and for previous years as well as the most current. Some go back as far as 1999.

The tables are downloadable in several formats. And if you’re working on a website or a blog, you can embed a map in your page.

Talk about bells and whistles!

* For all the tools discussed here, the District of Columbia is included as if it were a state.

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