Hackers may help shape new California public records law
December 9, 2011
• Proposal would allow greater access to public records
• ‘Many government agencies … have been living in the Stone Age’
Who better to help with proposed changes to online access to public records than a bunch of hackers?
A bill to improve the public’s access to government files is being proposed by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco.
But before it’s introduced, it might benefit from a 24-hour open government “hack-a-thon” this weekend where software developers and others build applications to help government run smarter and more transparent operations.
The conference, which is organized by CityCampSF, begins at noon on Saturday, December 10, at Granicus Inc. in San Francisco. Granicus is a developer of Internet-based software “for government transparency, efficiency, and citizen participation.”
Mr. Yee says his legislation would specifically require public documents and data that are electronically available to be user-friendly and searchable by commonly used software.
Often when government agencies post electronic records online or provide electronic copies of documents in response to a public records request, the data provided is simply a scanned graphic image file that is not searchable or able to be sorted, even though the agency has the file in a searchable format, the lawmaker says.
Under Mr. Yee’s bill, such electronic documents would need to be produced in an open source file, word processing document, spreadsheet, or other format in which keywords or names could be easily searched using commonly used software, which is often the format internally used by the public agency.
“Producing a 2,000 page electronic document that cannot be searched or sorted is inadequate and almost useless,” says Mr. Yee. “For too long, many government agencies – either by choice or inertia – have been living in the Stone Age when it comes to producing public documents. This bill will not only bring public agencies into the 21st Century, but will ensure greater transparency and accountability.”
Mr. Yee chairs the Senate Select Committee on California’s Public Records and Open Meeting Laws.
“This bill sets the standard for how government agencies share and distribute data and documents with an emphasis on transparency and non-proprietary technology standards, moving California public record requests and electronically posted data into the future,” says David Cruise of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials.
On Sunday, developers participating in the hack-a-thon will present their applications to a panel of judges, who will award cash prizes.
“We’re hoping to see our APIs (application program interfaces) unlock new ways for people to access and influence the policy-making process,” says Javier Muniz, chief technology officer for Granicus. “Developers can easily access public meeting data including videos, topics, and other government actions to create a user-friendly way to follow government.”