by Aimee Edmondson, NFOIC contributing writer
The FOI movement has gone high-tech in recent years with plenty of new tools to encourage information sharing, and these tools are already revolutionizing the way we use public records. A group of trailblazers presented the latest ways technology is influencing open government at the 2008 FOI Summit in Philadelphia.
Among them was Adrian Holovaty, a journalist and programmer who founded EveryBlock, a local news web site funded by the Knight Foundation. On Everyblock, news has gone hyperlocal for readers in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Other cities will be added later. Holovaty, probably the best-known industry advocate for “journalism via computer programming,” described how EveryBlock users can find out in detail what is going on in their neighborhood via public records.
Users can type in their address and up pops restaurant reviews near home, as well as crime reports, building violations, building permits and a variety zoning information.
“Newspapers are interested in sexy stuff,” said Holovaty, a 2001 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and the founder of the widely noted EveryBlock Chicago (formerly chicagocrime.org). “A well-known restaurant has rats, for example. But you want to know about the restaurant around the block.”
Through a unified interface, EveryBlock takes disparate data sets, collecting and relating them to specific locations requested by the user. Government entities publish such data on their own websites, and EveryBlock.com screen scrapes that, crawling government websites and grabbing all the raw data. It is also programmed to automatically crawl newspaper websites for stories and photos, cataloging the information by address for mapping purposes on the website.
“We are not just answering specific questions. We are trying to get all the data and let users answer their own questions,” Holovaty said.
Users are able to map a crime, look at the exact location and see whether any arrests were made. The narratives of each police report are not online yet, but EveryBlock is trying to add that after users said they wanted it.
“People are clamoring for it, but it isn’t included in the data,” Holovaty said.
Users can also easily find out what businesses are moving into their neighborhood, thanks to business licensing data.
Other cool uses: If too many people are living in your neighbor’s basement, you might find that out through building violations data. Or, if there’s a concrete truck behind your neighbor’s house, you can find out what’s happening through building permit data. Filmmakers must file permits before they can make a movie in Chicago. Residents can easily find out what’s being filmed nearby.
Using excavation permit data, you can find out why there is a gigantic truck in front of your house ripping up the street. Through zoning records, you can quickly learn when someone wants to add a bar in the neighborhood.
“That is gold. If I live there I want to know that, and it’s all in public records,” Holovaty said.
Website presentation is a big deal, he said, and users don’t want to look at some boring Excel datasheet.
OpenCongress combines official government database access with news and blog coverage to provide a deeper look at what’s happening in Congress. The site offers 4,000 different issue areas and provides voting history and all official actions on every bill. Users can also keep track of what people are saying about the issues and which bills are creating the most buzz. The site grabs everything on the web automatically about each issue so there’s no editorial selection, said Moore, who operates the site as a joint project with the Sunlight Foundation.
Users can log in free and create a personal profile page, tracking specific issues and bills. A news feed gives automatic updates. Reporters, political bloggers and issue groups are heavy users of the site.
“It’s easy to follow the news, but this helps keep you in touch with what is really happening behind the scenes. We were seeking government transparency,” Moore said.
Another panelist, Edwin Bender, showed conference attendees how to navigate followthemoney.org. In 1999, the former journalist co-founded the National Institute on Money in State Politics and focuses primarily on reporting links between campaign financing and state policy making.
The site is an exhaustive compilation of state level campaign finance data, and four million records amounting to $3.5 billion in contributions are tracked. The data go back to the year 2000.
Soon users will be able to map donations in their states using followthemoney.org.
“We’ll be trying to answer very simple questions, such as ‘Does a particular candidate take a lot of PAC money?’ You can go to your district and look at specific candidates,” said Bender. The slick website is user-friendly and doesn’t just throw out database spread sheets. It’s easy to read and reporters or bloggers can link directly to the site.
“You can post our data on your blog. Pick an issue—the NRA or healthcare—and data will automatically update on your blog from our website,” Bender said. “We’re letting the databases talk to each other.”
Panelist James G. Blaine also talked about his blog passopenrecords.org, which was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association and was an integral part of the push for the passage of a new open records law in the state.
“The blog was a part of a larger strategy by the association. We tried to stimulate discussion. We were a publicizer,” said Blaine, who is also a writer, teacher and consultant to nonprofit organizations.
Blaine tried to keep his blog updated regularly so people would visit it often for updates. Political insiders, policy makers and open records advocates were the niche audience, and Blaine measured hits in the hundreds.
“We realized we were reaching people we needed to reach. We were part of the political process,” he said.
He compared the blog to the party press of the late 19th Century.
“It was vibrant, highly partisan and combative…you didn’t get everything you wanted in one newspaper. It was the totality. It was a transitional period. I think of blogs like that.”
Hyde Post, vice president for internet operations at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, moderated the panel. He noted that these websites can empower local citizenry and make them care more about matters closest to them.
“This is deep democracy at a higher level of engagement—and power.”