Monday, December 31, 2007
Pegasus News solves one of Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert’s five ethics proposals
Ask and ye shall have already received eight months ago.
DALLAS This initially slipped by me during the holiday festivities, but Mayor Tom Leppert, Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia and Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway floated a memo to the Dallas City Council last week, calling for a five-point overhaul of city ethics procedures.
A key point in the memo resonated with me (emphasis and link mine):
The issue of electronic filing of campaign finance reports to improve transparency has been raised at various times in the past, most recently during the past election cycle. It is already being used on the Federal and State level, and in some Texas cities. The City Secretary has identified a program currently being used by San Antonio that will be utilized here in the next election to facilitate electronic filing of reports. It can be viewed on the web site for the San Antonio City Clerk. This will make the process both easier for the filer and more accessible for those seeking to review/analyze the information.
I applaud the ideal here, but have to point out that PegNews users had the benefit of such a system in the last election cycle.
Now we didn't have the benefit of the first half of Leppert's plan -- electronic filing. We hand-entered all of those contributions, not just for Dallas, but all area municipalities and ISDs, most of the time from hard copies of PDFs.
My concern with the plan outlined in the memo is this: Intake of the data is obviously the responsibility of government. But I'd argue that the second half-- dissemination of the information to the public -- might well be better left in the hands of private enterprise:
- Data is both delicate and robust: Transparency and dissemination of data is something that, in and of itself, sounds noncontroversial. It's something almost anyone can get behind. But the devil is in the details: How is the data sorted? Which fields are interactive? How easy is it to search? When you're talking about Public Good, the value of a database is as much in its interface as in its content. The right interface makes data a powerful tool. The wrong interface is an outright impedance to Public Good, as it fulfills requirements to make data available, making requests by other mechanisms difficult or impossible. (Bureaucrat says: "I'm not going to pull that data for you. We've already made it publicly available and it's not my problem if the interface is broken.") Which leads to my second argument...
- Unless public data interfaces are built privately, the foxes are watching the henhouse: I've seen this through my earlier experience with public notice. When government disseminates data as a duty, at best it goes for the cheapest solution that will fulfill the requirements. At worst, an interface can be designed to inhibit discovery of information that those in power want to obscure. Sure, the data might be available, if you want to do thousands of manual queries, which cuts out most ordinary citizens (and media outlets) with limited time resources. Meantime, a private enterprise (like Pegasus News) has a profit motivation, which means that beyond the personal affinity for public transparency that is in our DNA, our sole motivation is to maximize use of the database. Best practices in this day and age tell us that free access, as opposed to fee-based searches or subscriptions, are the best way to encourage usage. So, private enterprise is motivated to ensure that the database is as usable as possible so that we can maximize ad revenue on the searches that take place.
- Even when motivations are properly aligned, government generally sucks at building data interfaces: I don't know if this is a lowest bidder problem, or tied up in filling requirements versus driving usage. But I defy you to name a counter-example. The San Antonio service the memo cites is better than most, but it misses key points that anyone who has keyed in thousands of disclosure forms would notice: If you're trying to catch jackanapes, you need to be able to sort not only by candidate, but by donor, and more importantly by address. (Consider the problems of multiple people in the same household, common names and misspelled names -- intentional and accidental.) Our politics interface certainly could do with improvement, as it was built in less than two days. But it at least has those key capabilities.
- Private enterprise crosses jurisdictions: Sure, it's interesting to know who gave what to whom in Dallas City Council races. But some of the most interesting information in our political database comes from looking at what was given across DFW-area jurisdictions.
- We're going to do it anyway, so save your money: Case-in-point, the Dallas Police Department's new near-realtime crime reporting database. It's a great gift to the city, but the interface is clunky and difficult to understand unless you're a cop. (And frankly, we've interviewed cops who couldn't make sense of it.) But that's OK, because if you count our soon-to-be-integrated-into-our-neighborhood-maps version, there's already FOUR private businesses re-distributing the data in different ways -- different, but all more user-friendly than what the city is providing. Plus, when local citizen crusaders start piling their way through public data, do you want them doing so on your dime, or ours?
Now I'm not suggesting that government abdicate its responsibilities. It has a duty to make the raw data available and a duty to build the best interfaces it can if the private sector fails. But I'd suggest to the Council crusaders that they give us a chance before they dump a lot of tax dollars into this. You know what? I'll even go on the record here that we'll build the form submission format for free. We'd probably come out ahead in the saved labor from the data entry process.
And what about protecting against bias? Against us redacting data we don't like? You can count on our competitors if our open site comments don't do the trick.
But, don't give us a stopgap system that only appears to be transparent.
Yes, we're serious about this. I'll meet with officials from any local governmental body who are serious about making public information, well, public. Give me a shout.