TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: These FOI websites have free gifts just waiting to be unwrapped

At the SPLC, we think it’s really touching that people arranged festive family get-togethers, decorated their homes, and canceled school and work just to celebrate Transparency Tuesday. We should make this a yearly thing.

In the holiday spirit of giving, here are a handful of online resources where journalists covering schools and colleges can get free information that will add substance and credibility to their reporting:

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is an indispensable resource and friend for anyone working in the media, but our favorite reference source is the Open Government Guide, a rundown of how each state’s open-records law has been interpreted and applied.

Anybody covering higher education should bookmark, and frequent, the National Center for Education Statistics. It’s a bonanza of data about what’s going on in universities, colleges and tech schools across the country — if you can’t find a national story to localize, you’re not looking hard enough. And if a statistic about your hometown college exists, chances are it’s findable in IPEDS, the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, where you can run comparisons to see how your school measures up against its rivals.

The Sunlight Foundation seems to roll out a new toy every week that enables policy geeks to follow what’s going on behind the scenes of Congress, but perhaps the most useful one is Scout, a free keyword-search service that lets you receive email alerts whenever a topic of interest generates legislative action in Congress or in your state.

For perspective on how states are responding to the crisis of the day — declining budgets, school shootings — the National Conference of State Legislatures tracks, and reports on, trends in state legislation. Want to know how many states allow guns on college campuses? Or how many have bullying laws that apply to off-campus “cyberbullying?” It’s in there.

The Transactions Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University gathers and analyzes statistical reports about the caseload of various federal agencies. Reports available on TRAC provide insight into the government’s spending and enforcement priorities — for instance, what types of cases the Justice Department is prosecuting, or how many undocumented immigrants the Department of Homeland Security is trying to deport.

If you’re just a hopeless freedom-of-information nerd who’s curious about, say, what the government is doing to save the endangered gopher tortoise, then the Government Attic is for you. It’s like the Ripley’s Museum for policy wonks, with all manner of oddities culled from requests that others have made under the Freedom of Information Act, searchable by keyword.

And finally, the SPLC is constantly trying to make the job of getting public records less painful — and dare we say, fun? Our Tumblr site features some of the most inventive, how’d-they-think-of-that journalism by students using public records in novel ways. And our Know Your Rights section includes tips and tools for locating the documents that’ll nail your story — and getting information through the side door when the front door gets slammed in your face.

Got a favorite FOI resource you’d like to share? You know what they say, it’s better to give…