What happens when you’re hit by a city vehicle and file an insurance claim against San Antonio? Now you can find out by searching a database that tracks every claim filed against the city in the past decade.
I stumbled across this story by using Google’s advanced search options. Google lets you search specific websites for specific files and specific terms. So a way to find little-known databases and interesting stories is to search a government website for spreadsheets, pdf’s, and other type of documents.
Related: How to solve impossible problems: Daniel Russell’s awesome Google search techniques
For example, let’s say you want to focus on the city of San Antonio. In Google’s search box, you’d type site:sanantonio.gov, to limit the results to pages from the city’s website. Then use “filetype” to focus on specific types of files. The term filetype:xls searches for spreadsheets. Filetype:doc searches for Microsoft Word documents. Filetype:pdf searches for … you guessed it, pdf files.
You can do broad searches or get creative and add words you think might lead to interesting stuff. Check out this search with the term “injuries.”
One of the top results is a form for a vehicle accident report that is filled out by city employees whenever they’re involved in an accident. All the entries and check boxes in the form suggest this information is typed into a database of some kind. And if that’s the case, that means you can request the data, analyze it yourself, and see if there’s a story lurking in those numbers.
Using the Texas Public Information Act, I asked for any database the city had that tracked insurance claims from vehicle accidents. The process took awhile and there was a lot of back and forth. At first, the city’s Risk Management Office only sent me a pdf with two categories of information: case numbers and dates. The format and info was worthless.
But eventually they sent more complete spreadsheets that tracked the dollar amount of the claim, whether it was denied, and a brief description about what happened. It was interesting reading.
No one outside City Hall had ever looked at this data before. Thanks to a nifty Google search, now everybody can.