A hat tip to John F Moore for pointing out a posting on cityethics.org entitled “A Government Ethics Approach to Open Records“. However, as someone with a view from both sides of the fence or barricade (depending upon one’s opinion), I believe the author Robert Wechsler, Director of Research at City Ethics, is getting a little overheated and might find more tax-payer dollar savings from adopting a more federal approach, which may not come easy to citizen of the USA.
Mr Wechlser’s gripe is the charging of amounts like 25 cents per page for Freedom of Information request responses. First of all, the charge is not just for the copy – it’s for someone to dig out and then manually copy the information, which isn’t always an easy task especially if it has to be edited for any personal information. I don’t think anyone is being obstructive, that is the way to conspiracy theory mania. I agree that it would be better online – but in what data format or structure? I’ve no idea how many local authorities or jurisdictions there are in the USA but if all those different sets of data are to be published and offered up to an API, one structure and an easily tweakable API might save an awful lot of time and effort?
In a recent post I reported that the NAO revealed UK local government had around 1300 functions to deal with from schools to car parks, from town planning to pest control. Someone needs to decide which are the most important to be published first and get on with it – there will be some variation from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Even better if software application suppliers could squeeze out the data from their applications in an open format – many of the apps are widely used and the avoidance of having to do it oneself would encourage sales. However, as with photocopies, pushing out the data still has human intervention and costs at some stages and admittedly this may reduce as others extract and reformat, but there will be a capital investment required.
Government does need to be open and transparent, but there’s an awful lot of data in there to get out, along with an awful lot of personal data to keep behind the firewalls. Paranoia about the data controllers is easy to come by, but in most cases they are just trying to do a job in difficult circumstances and having to please many masters (including the citizen). I extract information all the time – academic, historical and other – it all has a cost to compile, host and store and someone has to pay for it sometime.