What You See In Public Records Databases Is Not Always All That You Can Get

A recent New York Times article discussed what local restaurant owners think are the shortcomings of the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's updated database of restaurant inspection scores.  Amidst the back and forth between Department of Health and Mental Hygiene staff and the restaurant owners over what was being disclosed is a reminder to public records researchers to always get beyond the data that is presented for searching.  Here's the background: A new restaurant grading system took effect in New York in July 2010, amending inspection criteria and replacing the previous numerical scoring system.  However, the health department's website continues to report scores awarded prior to July 2010.  These scores are inconsistent with recent scores because they were recorded under different guidelines, and, according to restaurant owners, can potentially mislead uninformed consumers.  Additionally, overall scores are reported for each inspection date but the specific violations incurred are not provided.

From the public records perspective, the improved database also opens up additional data for searching and offers new ways to search both old and recently posted data.   This isn't new data.  This is data that has existed all along in department systems but that previously wasn't available for search over the web.  This is not to say that it wasn't available to those who asked for it.  And, that's the point:  In order to conduct thorough and complete searches of government provided data, it is often required that the researcher make a call or file a secondary public records act request asking that data otherswise unavailable for public search be canvassed.

This approach is true of many other public records databases, such as professional licensure records.  For example online resources will list date of licensure, but materials such as related credentialing test scores or applications are not usually provided.  Similarly, a current licensure status is listed, but a history of licensure status is not typically reflected online.

Also good to know: Original records are sometimes released to third party developers who can use them to create independent applications.  We have previously discussed two applications that incorporate restaurant inspections: