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Before you can begin to use computer-assisted reporting on your beat, you need to get the data in hand. Just like dealing with paper documents, getting electronic information from a government agency can be difficult at times, but by following a few strategies and learning the ins and outs of data, it will get easier.
Here are some strategies to follow when you negotiate for electronic databases:
1. Know the law. Know how your state treats (or doesn't treat) electronic information and what the exemptions are.
2. Know what information you want. Don't ask an agency to provide you everything they have. Make sure your request is specific. Also, you don't always have to ask for the data first. Ask the agency for a list of their databases. Then ask for record layouts for specific databases. Then the data.
3. Know how the …