How Researchers Use Public Records to Study Society

Public records research.Public records have become an important research tool for many academics over the past decade. The gradual loosening of government control over citizen data has been propelled by advanced in technology alongside changes in the laws. Now it is possible for researchers to conduct complex studies about topics in many different areas of life, producing sometimes stunning revelations that had previously eluded public knowledge. Here are a few examples of past studies based at least in part on public records.

Virus has ‘catastrophic’ affect on red squirrels

New research has revealed for the first time the catastrophic effect of a deadly virus on Britain’s native red squirrels.
The research shows that squirrel poxvirus is threatening to wipe out red squirrels in some of the areas in which they remain in northern England within 10 years. In areas where the virus has been detected, the rate of decline in reds is 17-25 times higher than in places where there has been no outbreak.

Until now the reds’ main survival challenge was believed to be competition with grey squirrels over resources. However, this research highlights the urgency for new conservation strategies for the red squirrel, a species that has been in Britain for the last 10,000 years and is protected under the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act.

For the Epidemiology and Infection study, researchers analysed public records on red squirrel populations in Cumbria and Norfolk – both areas that suffered squirrelpox virus outbreaks. The team compared these figures with similar records from red squirrel strongholds in Scotland and Italy that have not been affected by the virus.

21st August 2006

First study to test real-world effects of stun gun use raises questions about safety

The rate of sudden deaths increased six-fold in the first year that California law enforcement agencies deployed the use of stun guns, according to a UCSF study. Findings also showed a two-fold increase in the rate of firearm-related deaths during the same time period.

The most widely used brand of stun gun is the Taser, and the team surveyed for outcomes related to the deployment of this device.

Under the Public Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act, researchers mailed surveys to 126 police and sheriff departments in California cities and the 10 largest cities in the U.S. The survey requested three types of information: the rates of in-custody sudden deaths in the absence of lethal force, firearm-related deaths, and officer injuries requiring emergency room visits.

January 22, 2009

UAB Research Finds Consumer Behavior and Lifestyle Traits Influence Foreclosure Rates

A homeowner’s station in life and personal spending beliefs and habits are important indicators of the borrower’s potential for home-mortgage default, say researchers in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Business.

“Our research has shown that a borrower’s personal traits and behaviors have considerable influence on their willingness and ability to repay a mortgage loan and avoid foreclosure,” says Stephanie Rauterkus, Ph.D., UAB assistant professor of finance.

“Traditionally, the industry has focused on default pressures like income, credit scores or loan-to-home-value ratios, but our research has shown that borrowers who may look identical by these traditional measures could have very different default probabilities based on their behavioral characteristics,” she says.

The study, Behavioral Determinants of Mortgage Default, was authored by Rauterkus, her husband Andreas Rauterkus, Ph.D., UAB assistant professor of finance, and Grant Thrall, Ph.D., professor of geography at the University of Florida.

The researchers considered a sample of 7,000 mortgages from public records in Jefferson County, Ala. Borrowers were classified into one of 12 so called LifeMode groups, which were based on classifications established by the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI).

January 13, 2010

Partners who had powerful faces in college lead profitable law firms

Law firms are more profitable when they are led by managing partners who have faces that look powerful, according to a study in the current Social Psychological and Personality Science (published by SAGE).

Appearance matters a great deal when it comes to judging people—this includes clothing, posture, hairstyles—but the real window to judging people is the face. Previous studies have shown that West Point cadets whose faces projected dominance were more likely to become generals than cadets with less dominant faces, Senate candidates whose faces were judged more competent than their opponents won three-quarters of their races, and the more powerful the faces of CEOs of Fortune 1,000 companies looked, the more profits that their companies earned.

Nicholas Rule of the University of Toronto and Nalini Ambady of Tufts University had people judge photos of 73 managing partners from the top 100 US law firms for dominance, maturity, attractiveness, likeability and trustworthiness. Half of the judges rated current photos downloaded from law firm websites. The other half rated photos from college yearbook photos, which on average were taken 33 years prior. Law firm profits were obtained from public records.


COMING BACK AFTER SURGERY NFL linemen return after disc surgery, encouraging average people

If NFL linemen can recover from back surgery and return to their spine-bruising careers, so can you get back into your “game” of horsing around with your kids or working out at the gym after back surgery.
That’s the good news from a new Northwestern Medicine study that found 80 percent of NFL lineman – whose spines are especially vulnerable to degeneration – were able to return to play many more games after the surgery. These elite athletes spend a lot of time in a squatting stance that puts tremendous stress on their spine.

The study is encouraging to average people who are often fearful of becoming physically active after disc surgery, said lead study author Joseph Weistroffer, M.D., assistant professor of orthopaedic and of neurological surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a spine surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

For the study, Northwestern researchers scoured two decades of public records to determine the career outcomes of 52 NFL offensive and defensive linemen who had had herniated disc surgery during their active careers. Not only did 80 percent of the players return to the game, they also played an average of 33 games during three years after the surgery. More than half of them attained the prestigious distinction as starter at their position.

January 21, 2011

Stroke takes ‘enormous toll’ on Hollywood stars

A study by researchers at the UCLA Stroke Center found that stroke and cardiovascular disease have exacted an enormous toll on Hollywood stars.

The findings were presented at the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference (ISC) in Los Angeles on Feb. 10.

The team investigated the frequency and impact of stroke among best actor and best actress Oscar nominees from 1927 through 2009. They identified lifetime reports of non-fatal and fatal strokes and heart attacks through public records and prior studies of deaths from all causes among nominees. They also examined the impact of strokes and heart attacks on these performers’ careers.

February 10, 2011

Study co-authored by UO finance professor links personal, corporate risk-taking

A CEO who enjoys the adrenaline rush of flying a private airplane is more likely than other chief executives to exhibit similarly bold management characteristics, according to a new study by finance professors at the University of Oregon and the University of Notre Dame.

The study, “Cleared for Takeoff? CEO Personal Risk-Taking and Corporate Policies,” documents a link between the personality traits of high-flying executives and business moves such as mergers, acquisitions and accumulation of debt. The study is co-authored by Stephen McKeon, an assistant professor of finance at the UO’s Lundquist College of Business; and Matthew Cain, an assistant professor of finance at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.

The co-authors identified the subjects of their studies by searching the Federal Aviation Administration’s airmen certification database and other public records.

Aug. 9, 2011

Please note that I am only including abbreviated excerpts from these original reports. In some cases I may have omitted intervening paragraphs for the sake of brevity. Please be sure to read each report in its entirety and to cite the correct source if you republish this information elsewhere.

As you can see, researchers have found all sorts of uncommon uses for publicly available data. We will probably see many more examples of this kind of analysis of public records through the coming years.