Michael Rosebrock /

January 26, 2016; Daily Journal (Associated Press)

One important role of journalism in a democracy is in providing information to inform citizen action. In some cases, it may simply be about liberating and holding the information in an accessible and easily usable form. This is exemplified by a project in Chicago that has helped local activists inform themselves on police misconduct.

The Knight Foundation has awarded a $400,000 grant out of its Knight News Challenge on Data to fund the Invisible Institute and the Experimental Station to expand its Citizens Police Data Project. The project was established after a long legal fight to force the city to make police misconduct records available, and it now allows citizens to track and analyze those reports. Eventually, citizens will also be able to use it to make reports. The database was launched this last November and has 56,000 complaints on file. To date, use of this data has helped to provide context for the police shootings of Laquan McDonald, Quintonio LeGrier, and Bettie Jones.

“The work The Invisible Institute has been doing feels like a national model for a way transparency can serve the public,” said John Bracken, the Knight Foundation’s vice president for media innovation. “As this project grows, a key component is to engage the community and have them share their experiences. They don’t rely just on a digital component—they have a way for the community to share and engage and that’s at the core of what they plan to do.”

The grant will help the group build out and segment its data, says Alison Flowers, a journalist with the project. “This database changes the power dynamics because it lays out police conduct for the public to see,” she said.—Ruth McCambridge