Arkansas has one of the country’s strongest Freedom of Information laws. It gives all Arkansans the right to access to public records and meetings. Our city boards and commissions can’t meet in secret. The police must create a public record when someone is arrested. Records generated by agencies supported in full or in part by tax dollars can be inspected. The information — from reports of deaths of children from abuse to how much the city is spending on street paving to the health concerns of elephants at the zoo — is publicly owned.
Without the law, crucial business of the state would be held in private and dozens of unethical or corrupt public officials would suck from the public teat (hey there, Mark Darr).
But the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has its hurdles. It requires government agencies to turn over records right away when requested, unless the records are in “active” use or in storage, in which case the agency has three days. But there are exemptions, which officials occasionally interpret broadly. The only way to force compliance when that happens is by filing a lawsuit, which many ordinary citizens (and weekly newspapers) can’t afford. Even when the system works as the law intends, making sense of public documents — typically delivered as photocopies or non-searchable electronic files — can be incredibly laborious. It’s no coincidence that journalists and legal experts, with time and expertise on their side, are responsible for the most prominent examples of exposing government impropriety through FOIA.
The way the FOIA works is reactive. Arkansans can’t access a public record without asking the custodian of the record for it. That was a sensible system in 1967, when Arkansas’s FOIA law was passed and when most requests were fulfilled by pulling documents from file cabinets. But we live in wholly different era today, where most government actions or interactions — from a 311 call to fix a pothole to a campaign-finance disclosure — are (or should be) stored digitally in a database. That puts us in position to move from a reactive system to a proactive one.
“The intent of the Arkansas FOIA is to provide access to information in an open and public government, one of the hallmarks of a democratic society,” Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has written. State leaders should honor that intent and adjust policies to reflect today’s technological landscape, where cheap data storage and vast computational power make providing open access to government data not just possible, but practical.
The state of Arkansas and our biggest municipalities should build on the state’s FOIA law and adopt comprehensive open data policies. All public records, save those that would violate privacy laws or undermine security, should be proactively made available to the public for free on the Internet in a structured, sortable, downloadable format.
The move wouldn’t only be a boon to transparency and government accountability. It would improve governmental efficiency, lead to better public services and provide a potentially enormous economic stimulus. There’s treasure locked away in government that belongs to the public. It’s time to free it.
Arkansas isn’t entirely devoid of transparency initiatives. Last year, Transparency.Arkansas.gov went live, thanks to Act 303 of the 2011 General Assembly. The website details state expenditures, revenues and bonded indebtedness. All told, it included $1.9 billion in state contract spending and $7 billion in other spending during the 2013 fiscal year. The information is searchable, downloadable and machine-readable (i.e. a computer program can search and sort the data).
The legislature earned an “A” from the Sunlight Foundation, the leading advocacy group for open data and transparency, in its Open Legislative Data Report Card, for posting online information on bills, committees, legislators and votes in a timely manner and keeping the information from past sessions archived online.
The state House streams video of meetings of the full body and committees on the Internet. The upcoming fiscal session will mark the debut of a new platform that allows users to see live footage on their smartphones. The state Supreme Court began streaming its proceedings in 2010, and several cities, including Little Rock and Fayetteville, livestream their city council meetings.
Picking out where the state falls short is an easier task (see sidebar). In some cases, there are signs of effort, but no follow through. The city of Little Rock hosts an archive of city board meetings that go back to 1914, but no minutes from 2013 are available. Asked generally about the city’s open data initiatives, Information Technology Department Director Randy Foshee said, “We have a policy of trying to be as open as we possibly can and present [information] to the public in a way that they can retrieve it and use it.” As an example of transparency, Foshee pointed to a PDF copy of the city budget — a document that’s “won awards.”
The city is considering different products to help it provide citizens more information, but “those products are generally pretty pricy,” Foshee said. “If you get something that’s an open source product [freely available software, usually supported by a community of developers], then it takes a tremendous amount of time internally to maintain it, and we don’t have a lot of extra time.”
Foshee’s position was common. Nearly every state or local official the Arkansas Times talked to in reporting this story cited cost as a reason for not moving forward with an open data plan immediately. Of course they’re correct that the expense won’t be insignificant. It could include the cost of digitizing existing records, the cost of server space to store the records, the cost of building or acquiring a platform to make the records useful to the public and the cost of training staffers to store new records digitally.
But these are hardly out of reach. The state transparency website, by far the biggest open government undertaking in the state thus far, was joined with the state accounting system and created for about $569,000 — including the cost for consultants and two employees to maintain the massive database. Annual operating cost is $250,000. Those figures represent real money to be sure, but only a drop in the bucket in a state budget of $4.7 billion. Moreover, those expenses are far more than most open government initiatives would cost. Dollars are saved as well in terms of manpower; government employees no longer have to process requests, find documents, which may mean searching through storage, and transmit them or copy them if the agency does not want to make them available digitally.
Transparency, on its face, is a democratic necessity. But it’s the intersection between public services and job creation that could truly propel the open data movement.
Last May, President Barack Obama released an executive order making “open and machine readable” the default in releasing federal government information. In remarks on the new policy, Obama said, “It’s going to help launch more businesses. … It’s going to help more entrepreneurs come up with products and services that we haven’t even imagined yet. This kind of innovation and ingenuity has the potential to transform the way we do almost everything.”
Obama has evidence to support his prediction. Consider two of the earliest government data sets made available to the public and leveraged by the private sector. In the 1970s, the federal government began distributing weather data collected by the National Atmospheric Association. It’s now used by everyone from your local weatherman, to Weather.com, to farmers looking to manage crops and risk. (Last year, Climate Corp., a startup that uses soil, weather and crop-yield government data to price crop insurance, was purchased for nearly $1 billion.) Under Presidents Reagan and Clinton, U.S. global positioning system (GPS) data was made available to the public, a move that’s spawned an entire new and still growing industry familiar to anyone who owns a smartphone or has used Google Maps. It’s estimated that NOAA data and GPS data represent $31.5 billion and $90 billion, respectively, in annual economic value. A McKinsey study from last year put the annual global value of open data (including free information from non-governmental sources) at $3 trillion.
In 1998, Los Angeles County began requiring restaurants to post the hygiene scores the health department had awarded them near their front entrances. Clean restaurants that kept rats and roaches out and stored their food properly got to proudly display their A’s. Those who didn’t had to do the same with their C’s.
The program made an impact. One year after it was implemented hospitalization for foodborne illness dropped 13 percent, according to a study published by the National Environmental Health Association. The transparency also served as a powerful incentive for reform. By 2003, 83 percent of restaurants received an A grade, a 40 percent increase from when the program began. (A 1977 Arkansas law prohibits the Arkansas Department of Health from attaching letter grades to restaurant health inspections. Earlier law required it.)
This is not a small issue. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million people, or one in six Americans, suffer from foodborne disease every year.
Last year, civic and tech organizations teamed to replicate and extend the sort of success seen in LA County. Their model for success was the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS), the common standard for public transportation schedules that Google engineers developed in cooperation with city officials in Portland in 2005. Since then, hundreds of municipal transportation organizations, including Central Arkansas Transit, have adopted the standard, which is why you’re able to travel to cities around the world and see public transportation options on your favorite online map provider.
Much like in the development of the transit specification, the online recommendation site Yelp, the nonprofit Code for America and the technology departments of the cities of New York and San Francisco worked together to create a standard format for restaurant inspection scores that allows Yelp or any other website that displays restaurant listings to easily put the scores in front of their users. San Francisco, Los Angeles, Louisville and Wake County, N.C., have all adopted the standard. New York policymakers and tech officers haven’t yet gotten on the same page, but Luther Lowe, a Fayetteville native who now serves as director of public policy for Yelp, said he expects it’s only a matter of time before New York, the United Kingdom and a slew of smaller cities in the United States (like Boulder and Albuquerque) adopt the standard.
Code for America, the nonprofit partner in the creation of the restaurant inspection open data standard, could be the WPA of building out the open data landscape in government. Founded in 2009, Code for America connects local governments with web developers and designers to tackle problems and show what’s possible with technology.
“Peace Corps for geeks” is how interim Co-Executive Director Abhi Nemani described the yearlong fellowship that cities apply to participate in. The goal is to catch government up to the rest of the world.
“As we’ve seen within tech industry over last decade, the Internet and tech more broadly are changing the way we do business. It’s letting us create web platforms that change the way we collaborate, connect to each other and get work done,” said Nemani. “That disruption is largely happening away from government. If you can build the web as a platform, you can build government as a platform.”
Code for America has done work on making city websites more intuitive. (“Governments are pretty terrible at building beautiful web applications and websites,” Yelp’s Lowe said.) One site, called Honolulu Answers, and later redeployed as Oakland Answers, gets rid of departmental level organization in favor of a simple search box. “Citizens don’t think it’s the Department of Public Works that they should talk to about potholes,” Nemani said. “They just think that they should talk to someone about potholes.”
Too, if an agency can sort its high-value data in a particular way and make it available in a CSV or Excel file, the data can be accessed on popular, nongovernmental websites, such as popular online consumer guides or local media outlets.
“It’s government saying, ‘We have these services, we have these opportunities, this information and we want to get it in your hands in the easiest, most human, most natural way possible,’ “ Nemani said.
“A fun game to do — everything that you interact with your government about, think of a third party you could interact with instead,” said Nemani. Maybe Yelp for food stamps, he suggested. Or Trulia or Zillow for building code enforcement data.
Meanwhile, Nemani said Code for America is working to scale its impact through additional programs.
“We think that a big problem in the market is that companies like CGI [the primary contractor of Healthcare.gov] get trusted with major contracts for the government because there’s no one else responding to the bid … . There’s a lack of modern government technology. We want to change that … . We’re supporting civic start-ups — modern, open, lean, efficient tech companies that can really work with government to provide the services that we expect in the 21st century.”
When Lowe was frantically searching for a partner to join San Francisco in the restaurant inspection standard project in advance of a presentation before a mayoral conference, he turned to the technology office of the White House. Their recommendation? Louisville.
“I thought, ‘No way,’ ” Lowe said. But in less than a week, Louisville had agreed to embrace the data standard. A little more than a month later, Louisville’s restaurant inspection scores were live on Yelp.
Under the leadership of Mayor Greg Fischer, Louisville has become one of the country’s leaders in open data. Last October, Fischer issued an executive order that made his city the first to treat all of its data as “open by default.” It’s one of around 25 open data policies in U.S. cities; five state legislatures are currently considering open data legislation. Fischer’s order builds on the Kentucky Open Records Act. Acting on the order is still a work in progress three months later, but as the Sunlight Foundation explained, “This combination [of an open data order with the Open Records Act] implies that all information that is legally accessible now will be proactively disclosed online via Louisville’s open data portal (or future successor site).”
In his speech announcing the policy, Fischer said he wanted his city government to have a “culture of weakness orientation.”
“I want to know what’s not working. All organizations have lots of problems. Strong ones got them out in the open. They’re prioritized; they’re working on them. Weak ones have them hidden away in a drawer. When you open that drawer, boy is it stinking. …
“When you think about innovation, it is disruptive. It often creates a mess. You fail forward. You fail fast. And that’s a good thing.”
As an Arkansan who avidly follows Arkansas politics, Lowe wondered in a speech in September at the Arkansas Times‘ Festival of Ideas, “If a city like Louisville can be this pioneer… for open data initiatives, why can’t Arkansas?”