Frequently Asked Questions

HOW DOES OUTLIER WORK?

We send personalized data over SMS text to Detroit news consumers. The text snapshot below shows what an early interaction between Outlier and a resident looks like from our end.

After this chatbot driven interaction we invite each of our news consumers to talk directly with a journalist. About 40% of our users take us up on this offer. They ask questions about housing, taxes, or utilities and we report out the answers for them using United Way’s 211 service and public records. These conversations drive our deeper-dive accountability and investigative work and are published in community, local, or national news outlets. Click here to learn more about Outlier’s data and privacy policy. 

BUT, DOES IT ACTUALLY WORK?

It does! Outlier reaches roughly 400 Detroiters each week with valuable housing and utilities information. Consistently, 40% of our users ask for a personalized follow up. This means we are in regular conversation with more Detroiters than newsrooms many times our size. Our consumers are empowered to make important decisions to protect their families, avoid tax foreclosure and evictions, purchase new properties, and determine the most cost-efficient energy resource for their households. 

Beyond our individual engagement with residents, our reporting has led to policy change at the city and county level. For example, an Outlier story led the Wayne County Treasurer to prohibit real estate speculators from buying property in the tax auction unless they have paid off previous back taxes. In another instance, Outlier partnered with Christine MacDonald of The Detroit News to urge the City of Detroit to reinstate a lapsed rental inspection law. As a result, tens of thousands of Detroiters have greater insight into municipal decision-making and information typically inaccessible to them.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE HOUSING AND UTILITIES?

When we decided to launch Outlier, our team used call center data from United Way’s 211 service to identify the issues Detroiters frequently ask for help with. Given the national housing foreclosure crisis, years of economic disinvestment, the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, the data revealed residents’ top priority revolved around housing. This became Outlier’s first area of interest.

The second most reported inquiry was utilities. As a result, Outlier recently expanded add a second focus around utilities. We are looking forward to providing news consumers with the information they need to navigate loosely regulated utility companies and agencies. 

HOW DOES OUTLIER KNOW SO MUCH ABOUT THESE ADDRESSES?

Outlier uses traditional reporting techniques and data reporting. We use public data, use FOIA requests and sometimes even buy data to discover the following things about addresses in Detroit: addresses, tax information, whether or not the property is a registered rental, when it was last inspected, and the risk of water shut off. Bank foreclosure data is simply too expensive for Outlier to purchase in bulk. If you’re looking for bank foreclosure information we suggest entering an address at realtytrac.com.

WHAT IF I NEED MORE OR DIFFERENT INFORMATION?

Outlier is willing to look into any housing, property tax or utility question you might have. To get in touch with an Outlier journalist, contact sarah@outliermedia.org, or just tell us to follow up with you when you text Detroit to 63735.

WHY IS THIS A FREE SERVICE?

We are a fiscally sponsored project of Investigative Reporters and Editors. This generous grant funding allows us to offer our services at no cost to Detroit news consumers. If you would like to support Outlier’s work, we encourage you to click on the DONATE  button on your desktop or mobile device.

WHAT IS SERVICE JOURNALISM? 

Service journalism is a news consumer-oriented approach to frame issues, build trust with readers, and create accountability. While Outlier’s approach is unique to journalism organizations across the country, there are many great journalists, many of whom are at ethnic news outlets, working tirelessly to figure out new and better ways to serve local communities, and particularly low-income news consumers. By keeping residents first, we hope to give more than we take, and leave people with the information they need to create change and accountability.  

DOES OUTLIER WORK IN OTHER CITIES?

Outlier is proud to call Detroit home. However, we encourage others beyond The Motor City, especially journalists and foundations, to utilize this framework to connect residents with the information they need and value. Examples of this modeling can be seen across the country:

  • Wisconsin Public Television is working to adapt the Outlier approach to connect rural residents with information about the quality of their well water;
  • San Francisco-based NerdWallet wants to connect people saddled with student loan debt with actionable information about financial scams, and;
  • The Trace has asked for our help to figure out what kind of data is actionable by the victims of gun violence.

The Outlier framework is adaptable beyond the Detroit area, and our team is happy to chat further about how you or your organization can get started with creating stronger data pipelines to news consumers.