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Bay Area Coders Seek to Drag State Government Into The Digital World

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, December 9 2011

Leland Yee. Photo: Tim Bartel / Flickr

We may live in the "information age" of "big data," but it turns out that the massive amounts of data government entities generate are still a long way from being usable, especially — in all places — California.

A group of civic-minded coders in the Bay Area are working both to come up with solutions on their own and to push the state to make some changes in state law that would require public records to be published in more accessible electronic formats.

“We’re trying to bring advocacy in open data to a new level here in California and in San Francisco,” says Adriel Hampton, an open government advocate and founder of Gov2.0 Radio, one of the leaders of the group organizing the effort.

Hampton and David Cruise of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials recently worked with California State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo) to come up with legislation that would mandate that all public records would have to be made searchable and machine-readable.

Under the bill, government officials would save their documents in an open format rather than respond to records requests with thousands of paper pages or with scanned documents.

"Publishing data in formats that can't be searched, compared to other documents or reused in a meaningful way is as useless as keeping it tucked away in obscured file cabinets," Hampton writes in a briefing documenton the legislation. "Publishing in accessible formats online is as simple as educating employees in how to properly save and store documents for online publication using the same software they already have on their computers."

Yee has yet to formally introduce the legislation, but a working effort to nail down definitions and specifics can be viewed online at Hampton's web site.

Hampton says that he's keeping the conversation on the web (as opposed to e-mail) so that other advocacy groups across the nation can learn about the process of legislative advocacy, and how they can lobby and start a conversation their representatives to create such a law.

"Five years ago, I had no idea that you could just advocate and get a senator to write a law on this important issue," he said. "People don’t know how to pass laws.

"By publishing openly the briefing documents we’re sharing with legislative officials, and asking people to publicly comment on a web page about why this is important and propose alternative language suggestions. we're providing an important framework for getting this work done."

Yee expressed his support for the effort on Thursday when he issued a statement announcing his intent to introduce the legislation.

If you're a coder, you're probably thinking to yourself that the bar is being set pretty low here. But Yee's proposed legislation is only the beginning.

On Saturday, San Francisco-based Granicus, a company that provides streaming and other communications tools to state and local governments, is holding a two-day hackathon to come up with apps and ideas that they all hope will illustrate the powerful potential of open government data and structured data formats.

A number of cash prizes will be awarded on Sunday for ideas that coders come up with in various categories.

One unusual example specific to California could showcase how powerful having machine-readable data could be.

One of the public interest groups that has felt particularly hindered by the lack of accessible data in California is Forests Forever, a conservation group dedicated to checking the practice of clear-cutting in California.

Logging reports are currently filed in the state in non-searchable PDF files. Forests Forever wants to require the state to make those reports available in a structured XML format. They're awarding $1,000 to anyone participating in the hackathon who can come up with a prototype XML schema and a great demo app that would use the data to illustrate the impact of clear-cutting on California watersheds.

Hampton said that the group then hopes to use that example to lobby the state legislature to require the publication of the reports in the structured data format.