Losing The Lotto: Waiting For Massachusetts

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There's just a mother hen on the eggs over here!

Mondays are interesting days here at StateImpact.  It’s when we plan out what we’re going to cover over the course of the week, and how.  It’s when we look at where we’ve been in the past week, and where we’re going.  And sometimes, it’s the day that critical information is brought to our–or rather, in this case, my–attention.

“You’re like a mother hen on the eggs over here!”

That’s what Rachel Gotbaum, my StateImpact partner-in-crime, told me today.  She’s convinced that I need to share with you a bit more often how exactly I get from Point A (observation) to Point B (question) to Point C (data) and finally…to Point D (story).

Unlike my partner, I’m not from the Northeast originally, let alone one of its major cities.  But I’ve been in the area long enough to know that when a dyed-in-the-wool East Coast urbanite like Rachel adds “over here!” to the end of a sentence…it’s Serious Business.  And I need to pay attention.

So in that spirit, I’m going to start sharing with you the process of putting a story together, as it comes together.

Let’s start with the lotto series.  I posted a couple of seriously nifty tables a couple of weeks ago (you can see them here and here).

Then, I stopped.

Then, last Friday afternoon, I called “Game On!” for the series.

Here’s what happened:  I was waiting on some data from Massachusetts.

If you ask anyone even tangentially involved with gaming in New Hampshire, they’ll probably confirm one solid observation:  When it comes to the lottery, the Bay State’s been cleaning our collective clock for years.  And they’re stealing Granite State gamblers.

At this juncture, it makes sense to try to determine the veracity of these broad-based assumptions, and, if they’re true, why.  After all, New Hampshire has fewer people, so it’s not like counting up ticket sales is really a valid way to determine if Massachusetts is a serious threat to our lottery sales.  And the way you get this info is by getting your hands on some good ‘ol fashioned raw data.  Specifically, what you need are spreadsheets, something along the lines of what you’d use in Excel.  Once I have spreadsheet info from New Hampshire and Massachusetts, I can start to see some patterns, then enlist some help from data people, run some cool calculations, and present you with charts that demonstrate how much of a threat to New Hampshire lotto revenues Massachusetts actually is.

I’ve been in touch with the Massachusetts Lottery Commission several times.

And following my first call, they were very good about providing me with what they call a “Comparative Statement of Operations.”

It was a PDF file.  There’s a copy below:


What that means for a reporter looking to do data-driven work is a lot of data entry.  Around the time I started feeling the first twinges of tennis elbow, I gave up, and decided to beg for a proper Excel spreadsheet.  While the person I spoke with at the Massachusetts Lottery Commission was an absolute gem, it seems not everyone’s so keen on sharing the goods.  Here’s the gist of my conversation with the Lottery Commission:

Q: First, thanks so much for giving me the Statement of Operations.  This information was exactly what I was looking for!

A: You’re welcome.

Q: But, well…here’s the thing.  In order to actually use this data, I’m going to need it in an Excel spreadsheet or something similar.  Is there any way you could get that to me?

A: Well…I don’t know if we can get you that.

Q: How come?

A: I’ll have to ask our [commission] comptroller.  But they don’t really like to give that information out.

Q: But it’s public record.  And I can’t use a PDF.

A: They like to keep it locked-up in PDF format.

Q: Why?

A: Well, they get a lot of public information requests, and always give the information in PDF.  Because otherwise, it’s just too easy to manipulate the information and say things that just aren’t true.  To abuse the information, basically.

After explaining that what I really wanted to do was keep the information intact and just generate some cool tables for a public radio blog, the Lottery Commission person was even more sympathetic.  I was told they’d make my case to the comptroller.

(Incidentally, under Massachusetts law, if anyone makes a public records request for spreadsheet data, if the government already has the spreadsheet on file, it usually has to turn it over.)

A couple days later, I got the data.

Of course, data analysis takes some time.  So while that project’s cooking, I’ll go ahead and keep you clued-in to other aspects of our Losing the Lotto series.

Stay tuned.

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