If you’ve ever suspected your neighborhood gas station is stiffing you at the pump, you might already know you can file a complaint with the Weights and Measures Program at the Texas Department of Agriculture. The agency’s inspectors verify the accuracy of gas pumps.
But which stations rack up the most complaints, flunk the most inspections and cost consumers the most money?
The answers to those questions lurk within inspection data collected by state employees. The information is public. But like many government agencies, Weights and Measures hasn’t been analyzing its own data to look for trends that could help consumers make informed decisions.
So Express-News Data Editor Joe Yerardi downloaded a publicly available copy of the inspection data and took a look at it for himself.
The result was an interesting Sunday story that told readers things that state officials probably should have known themselves.
Joe learned that one out of five stations in San Antonio had at least one pump that failed inspections. The pumps that are more likely to shortchange customers are owned by one of the biggest players in town: Valero Energy Corp.
Joe mapped the locations of the stations and their inspection results, so anyone can check out the track record of their neighborhood gas station.
Joe told me it took nearly four weeks to work on the story. One of the difficulties he faced was sharing what he learned with state officials, who hadn’t analyzed their own database of inspection reports.
“It’s not their job,” Joe said, describing the bureaucratic mentality of some government workers. “It’s not what they’re paid to do.”
Not every government agency is like that, but it’s not an uncommon problem. When I found a San Antonio police database that documented every vehicle pursuit involving officers, I was a bit surprised to learn that SAPD had never analyzed the information, even though it shed light on an important public policy issue.
These agencies probably paid some poor data-entry monkey to go through each paper report and type the details into a spreadsheet or database. Why not go the extra step and analyze that information?
Joe described these kinds of stories as “low-hanging fruit” for journalists, who can step in and analyze databases that agencies aren’t scrutinizing.
“If they would go above and beyond their actual jobs, there’d be less of a need for reporters,” he said.
(Photo credit: Derrich on Flickr)