Arkansas needs an open data plan. The Arkansas General Assembly and city and county governments across the state should introduce comprehensive legislation covering what data should be made public, how it will be delivered and how it will become interwoven with existing policy. The Sunlight Foundation offers 32 suggestions for drafting open data policy. One of Sunlight’s suggestions — creating an inventory of all information holdings — would make a good starting place. Government tech officers, or newly created transparency advisory committees, should identify what’s easily available and what’s high value and work until they meet in the middle.
Tranparency.Arkansas.gov needs an update. In July 2012, Arkansas joined a majority of states in providing checkbook-level details of state expenditures and revenues. It’s a powerful resource, but it needs to be made significantly more user friendly. For example, visitors can’t search the data with a single query. Payments to vendors are included; but to search for actual contracts, you have to go to another state site that’s not linked from the transparency site. As much as it might pain them, state officials should look to Texas’ transparency portal for inspiration. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group gave Texas’ site a 96, the highest score in its report “Following the Money 2013: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data.” Arkansas received a 69.
The state needs one data portal. “To me, everybody just thinks of government as government and they really don’t differentiate between city, county, state and federal,” Arkansas Chief Technology Officer Claire Bailey told the Times. “So we’ve got to work together, those of us in public service, to make it as easy as possible for people to find information.” Hear, hear. Transparency.Arkansas.gov should be the place Arkansans go to learn about how their state operates and where developers go to get datasets and APIs. As more local data become available, it and relevant federal data should be included.
The state should consolidate its information technology infrastructure. Arkansas is one of the few states in the country without one IT department providing support for all state agencies, according to Bailey, who also serves as director of the state Department of Information Systems (DIS). Bailey understands where government needs to move on the web. The state portal, Arkansas.gov, employs responsive design (i.e. it’s mobile friendly) and geo-locating features. It’s undoubtedly the most user-friendly website in Arkansas government. She also gets the value of open data. “Big data and transparency not only generates introspection into government, it also provides a catalyst for emerging enterprises that can look and think differently about data and put that to use for economic development,” she told the Times. As CTO, her job is to consider state tech policy from a macro level and suggest ways to improve. But that’s a tall order when many state agencies have their own IT groups and visions. A consolidated system would allow for easier and quicker implementation of open data policy.
The state Senate should livestream its proceedings. Legislative watchers know well the Senate’s pitiful reluctance to embrace transparency. In 2011, the House began broadcasting live on the Internet from its chamber and four committee rooms. A big chunk of its initial $400,000 setup fee went to build a sophisticated control room. House spokespeople are too decorous to say so, but the current control room would almost certainly support livestreaming the Senate with minimal upgrades. The cost to outfit House committee rooms ran $65,000 a pop. So cost isn’t a reason for the Senate not to join their colleagues. An even worse excuse? Grandstanding. Current Senate leader Michael Lamoureux (R-Russellville) has often said he doesn’t support the move because he’s afraid his colleagues will suddenly start preening for the camera. Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), who’s in line to take Lamoureux’s place, made a similarly lame argument in an interview with the Times. “There’s a lot of tradition and some apprehension [cameras] would change it. There’s a lot of camaraderie. … There’s not a lot of grandstanding in the Senate. There’s not a lot of political posturing on the bills. It’s more about the facts surrounding the bills.” Those of us who are able to show up at the Capitol know that lawmakers do not need cameras in the room to grandstand. Dismang added that he’d never gotten a request from a constituent. That misses the point: Most people won’t watch gavel-to-gavel coverage, of course, but if a few motivated citizens have access, they can spread the word, leading to a more informed and engaged citizenry. It’s 2014. Access to the government of the people should not be limited to Arkansans able to go to the Capitol in Little Rock in the middle of the working day.
The General Assembly should pass a law mandating online filing of all financial disclosure reports. Lobbyists are already required to do so, thanks to a law passed in 2011. But PACs and candidates at the state and district level have the option of filing online or on a physical form. The Secretary of State’s office scans forms and includes them as PDF documents in its Financial Disclosure database, but they’re incredibly laborious to sort through. The advanced Disclosure search, which only includes those candidates, officials and PACs who file online, is organized in a searchable, sortable, downloadable database. The difference between the two methods is like going to the library to learn the definition of “efficiency” versus using dictionary.com. Thanks to yeoman’s work exposing improprieties in disclosures from Blue Hog Report’s Matt Campbell and others, there’s enough political pressure that this seems likely to happen during the next general session, in 2015. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State should work to improve the functionality of its database, something spokesman Alex Reed said has been discussed with an eye towards 2015.
The Bureau of Legislative research should make it easier to track legislation. RSS feeds would enable visitors to the Arkansas General Assembly website to follow the progress of bills.
Arkansas courts should expand public access. The state court system is currently amidst a massive, multi-year effort to digitize all of its paper records. Individual courts choose whether to participate. If they do participate, they have the further option of enabling a public-facing interface, CourtConnect. Once a court’s records have been digitized, making them available to the public is as easy as “flipping a switch,” according to Stephanie Harris, communications counsel with the state Supreme Court. So far the Supreme Court; Court of Appeals; nearly two dozen county circuit courts, including the Pulaski County Circuit, and district courts in Faulkner and Hot Spring counties are fully online. The goal is to get 80 percent of the caseloads from courts around the state digitized by 2016, according to Tim Holthoff, information systems director in the Administrative Office of the Courts. Harris said she expects a number of courts to hold out. To keep growing the number of digitized courts, “it’ll take demand from the public and demand from attorneys, and it’ll also take demand from younger judges who’re used to using [the online system],” Harris said.
More cameras in state courts. Without cameras recording the 1993 trials of the West Memphis Three, Damien Echols would be a dead man (or still rotting away on death row). That should be all the evidence courts need to join the growing, national cameras in court movement that the state Supreme Court embraced in 2010.
The Arkansas Health Department should post restaurant inspection scores online and conform to the open data standard. Currently, to find out how area restaurants rated on their latest restaurant health inspection — i.e. whether they were storing food properly, had vermin infestation, etc. — you have to visit the health department unit in the county where the restaurant operates and request to see the paper file. That’s unacceptable for information so critical to public health. Robert Brech, Health Department CFO, said the department hopes to unveil an online search this spring. Department spokesman Ed Barham expressed skepticism of the fairness of employing a grading scale that would meet the open data standard. “I don’t know how you could come up with a 1 to 100 scale and compare a hot dog stand to Red Lobster,” he said. But, of course, the same argument could be made about any grading in just about any context — say 8th grade math and English. It’s just a useful shorthand that, in the case of restaurant inspections, would help the public make informed decisions.