ProPublica Forensics API: Peeling Back the CSI Fantasy to Reveal Patchwork Justice

The ProPublica Forensics API allows access to data from Propublica's investigation into the quality of autopsies across America. The API provides "state and county-level data about coroner and medical examiner systems in the United States." The RESTful API is available in JSON, XML and JSON-P formats. An astounding variety of data are available, from the ratio of autopsies to what is expected, to the number of uncertified pathologists working in a state or county system, and on and on.

The ProPublica webpage on this issue points out that the real world is far away from the CSI world we watch on TV,

Death investigations in the U.S. are often carried out in settings that bear little resemblance to the glitzy, high-tech morgues shown on television. When a death occurs under suspicious circumstances, the investigation into its cause is overseen by a coroner, often an elected official with no medical background, or a medical examiner, usually a doctor who specializes in forensic pathology.

From Maine to Arkansas, from Oregon to Bergen County (NJ), Propublica uncovered areas that are 40% to 60% lower than what would be expected.

But why is this important? No one has been brought back to life by an autopsy; what's the fuss? As Propublica in association with NPR and Frontline discovered in their investigation, flawed autopsies have sent innocent men to jail, allowed the guilty to go free, and bungled crime investigations through mishaps such as allowing remains to be cremated before police could determine if a murder had occurred. A full 20% of physicians working in the nation's largest morgues have not been board certified in forensic pathology.

In light of these disasters--of which only a fraction appear here and many more are discussed in the ProPublica article and the Frontline documentary,using the API to provide users the ability to analyze their data could help upgrade our justice system.

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