A groundbreaking project to untangle and analyze decades of Cook County Circuit Court data got a crucial early assist from Harris Public Policy graduate students and Harris’ own Center for Survey Methodology.

Their work assisted the Better Government Association, The Chicago Reporter, DataMade and Injustice Watch in launching The Circuit, a collaborative initiative that combines data analysis and watchdog journalism.

Using data, The Circuit journalists aim to “decode” the system, The Circuit website says, detecting trends, patterns and inequities in one of the largest unified court systems in the world. They can, for example, analyze cases by defendants’ race or judges’ rulings or follow a case from beginning to end, tasks impossible before this project began. The Circuit’s award-winning work has led to headlines like “Meet the Cook County judge attorneys least want to appear before.”

Such high-impact projects with complicated, massive datasets give Harris students invaluable real-world experience. 

Professor Colm O'Muircheartaigh

“But in this case, the contribution of the students to society was greater than the contribution of the project to the students,” said Colm A. O'Muircheartaigh, academic director of the Center for Survey Methodology, Harris professor and former Harris dean. “They made a real difference on a very important issue here in Illinois, particularly in Chicago.”

The Circuit grew out of the Chicago Data Collaborative, a broader group whose members include Injustice Watch, which is a not-for-profit journalism organization, the Better Government Association, which is a nonpartisan watchdog organization, and DataMade, a civic technology company. Work by both groups is ongoing and has been supported by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

For several years before The Circuit got off the ground, DataMade partner Forest Gregg and Injustice Watch founding co-Director Rick Tulsky discussed different approaches to getting Cook County Circuit Court data, Gregg said. 

“The court data generally was of great interest to the Collaborative because it was the part of the criminal justice system that was most opaque at that time,” Gregg said.

The problem in Illinois was there was no accountability for the court system, said Tulsky, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who left Injustice Watch and is now writing a book. With Illinois courts not bound by the Freedom of Information Act, “there was no way — other than if Chief Judge Tim Evans decided to give it to us — to get data where we could independently study how well the courts functioned,” he said. 

In 2018, after Gregg figured out how to scrape the data and after meetings with court officials, Injustice Watch secured remote access to the court’s mainframe information system. That’s where court cases were recorded but the system could be accessed only through public, text-based terminals in county courthouses, according to The Circuit website.

Marc Farinella is executive director of the Center for Survey Methodology and senior advisor for the Center on Effective Government.

“It was all public information, but it was not available to anyone in any kind of fashion that would allow for statistical analysis,” said Marc Farinella, senior adviser for Harris’ Center for Effective Government and executive director of the Center for Survey Methodology.

Working nights and weekends to make sure not to impede public access, DataMade ran its program between April and August 2019, looking up and downloading court cases, according to The Circuit website. 

“Then Injustice Watch joined with the Better Government Association and The Chicago Reporter to undertake a major collaboration using this data,” Gregg said. 

Injustice Watch, which had previously hired Center for Survey Methodology interns, reached out to Farinella and O'Muircheartaigh for help. With methodological oversight from the Center, the Harris students got to work.

Students including Trina Reynolds-Tyler, MPP'20, worked on the project under the direction of David Eads, then the senior editor of design and delivery at The Chicago Reporter and now data editor at The Marshall Project.  

They worked with data that had many quality problems, such as missing information or charges that were not standardized, according The Circuit website.

“Standardizing charges was a necessary step for any other analysis,” Gregg said, adding that “the scale of the problems in the data was truly daunting. We spent much longer than anticipated working through data problems.” 

Harris students, Gregg added, “helped our timeline along by months.”

Early on, O'Muircheartaigh said, there were questions about what Harris students would bring to the project. As journalists came up with questions to explore using the database, “I think they thought ‘This is such a simple question, what's all the fuss about? Why can’t we just get the answer if we have the data?’ ”

A look at The Circuit's website.

But, he said, “there's a big void between asking the questions and getting the answers out of the data.”

The students, O'Muircheartaigh said, “were that translation point.” They helped provide the bridge between the raw data and turning journalists’ questions into data analysis.

“We can add enormous value by providing this translational component to projects where the raw material and the writing capacity are in place but there isn’t capacity for analysis,” he said. “What I think is extremely important,” he added, “is a capacity for journalists to examine unwieldy data that are dumped on them by a bureaucracy not particularly keen to have the data analyzed.”

While Harris’ contribution to the project is done, the work continues. The Circuit is pursuing additional media partners and plans additional stories based on the data. And in May, the articles already written won three Peter Lisagor Awards, considered the top honor in Chicago journalism.