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San Francisco Publishes New Tool To Interpret Local Lobbying Information

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, January 20 2012

San Francisco's City Hall. Photo: Flickr/http: 2007

The San Francisco Ethics Commission on Thursday published a new tool that enables web developers to more easily access, interpret and mash up local lobbyist filing information.

San Francisco follows Chicago, which also offers an application programming interface for its lobbyist database. New York City offers a searchable database online, but doesn't have an API.

The San Francisco Ethics Commission has required lobbyists to file detailed electronic disclosure statements since 2010, but much of this data was difficult to use because it wasn't formatted in a way that could be interpreted by relational databases.

The commission was politely prodded about this in December during a local hackathon organized by Adriel Hampton, lead organizer for CityCampSF and the founder of San Francisco Tech Democrats, a group dedicated to open government and transparency issues.

techPresident left a message at the ethics commission for comment on the creation of the application programming interface. In the meantime, the commission's responsiveness generated a round of applause from open government advocates.

"Full access to the lobbyist database is key to being able to produce meaningful analysis of influence in the City," Hampton told techPresident via e-mail.

He further explained:

"This new API will help journalists, researchers and good government activists to more easily compare lobbyist contacts and activities with things like City Planning data, campaign contributions, and legislative actions.

It will also help show which companies and lobbyists are not reporting their efforts to influence city officials. There is a long way to go, but this is a great start."

CitiReport, a muckraking newsletter published by longtime San Franciscan Larry Bush, had sponsored a $1,000 prize for the best "open ethics" application created during the December hackathon. No-one was able to come up with one at the time.

"This is like a great effort to make political influence data accessible at the city level -- San Francisco deserves credit for being a leader on this front," said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs, the portion of the Sunlight Foundation that provides the public with free government data APIs.

"Although the API doesn't expose absolutely everything available on the HTML lobbying portal (links to images of the lobbyists don't seem to be included, for instance), it does include a lot of substantive, useful information."

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