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Thanks, baby

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Normally, I use this space to gripe about government types. This time, I am full of love.

Saturday’s feature story on baby names wouldn’t have happened without the speed and forthrightness of the data geeks at Vital Statistics, and the forbearance of provincial media guy Glen Cassie. Last year, on a whim inspired by this, I asked for the top baby names broken down by postal code prefix. Glen rolled his eyes, said he would check, and a day later I got an Excel spreadsheet with exactly what I asked for.

A day later. That’s service. That’s also transparency. Granted, we’re talking about baby names, not outstanding warrants or flood claims or the mess of other, more controversial data sets the province keeps. But still, that’s how open government is supposed to work.

This was, like, a year ago that I got the baby name data. I then sat on it for months because we needed to figure out how to map it, which meant buying forward sortation area boundary files for crap I don’t even understand. That’s when my own data geek (and boss), Free Press Online Editor Wendy Sawatzky, started to work, creating this interactive map. Unfairly, she doesn’t get a byline in the paper, so she gets no love, except from me. ‘Twas ever thus for nerds. The Vital Stats folks probably don’t get many public pats on the back, either. I don’t even know their names – maybe it’s just one dude? But, along with Glen, they responded quickly and carefully to my endless string of questions, requests for updated numbers, fiddly problems and "one more thing..." emails. I thank them.

This story was meant to be an experiment. We’re always trying to use databases to better guide our reporting and find trends we might have missed. This time, we wanted to practice overlaying data on postal code prefixes. Baby names were kind of a light-hearted test run in advance of the upcoming census release, which we can also map by postal code prefix (did you know there were 85 Japanese people living in West Broadway in 2006?). Those maps look easy. They are fussier than hell the first time. In a way, the process of creating the baby names story was more important to us than the actual product.

At least it started out that way. To find some babies named Olivia and Liam and Ava, we did something we don’t normally do – we alerted readers (and our competition) to the upcoming story and asked for feedback, stories, photos, the works. We did this with a blurb on our website and a little Tweeting and Facebooking by social media reporter Lindsey Wiebe.

The response was nuts. I received about 65 emails from readers, which shaped the story significantly. Instead of acres of text and data boxes – always the default plan of a data geek - we instead devoted most of the real estate to real parents with cute babies and good name stories. That made the feature way more fun and much more reflective of our readers. And it was so much easier than scrambling around for a "real Olivia" at the last minute like I normally do. I think we’ll do these kinds of shout-outs again, so keep your eyes peeled. And a huge thank you to all the proud parents who emailed us. You made the story miles better, and it was a total pleasure to read all your emails. I thank you.

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