Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Hawaii Blog beats Civil Beat

by Larry Geller

This is the sports section of Disappeared News. Or maybe more like a Bridge column because there’s not too much blood, it’s more of a friendly rivalry.

In one corner is the well-financed and exclusive Civil Beat, leading with a massive public data request for the names and salaries of public employees. They followed swiftly with another list of legislative member and staff salaries. Access to this data is restricted to paying members.

In the other corner is Ryan Ozawa’s Hawaii Blog. There you can find the same data, maybe more. For free. And a new venue, the Hawaii Open Data Project, for free access to public information.

The strategies could not be more different. Civil Beat was out in front, true, but their position was marred by a blatant move to exploit the data for paid membership. Access to the data, which was gathered at taxpayer expense by a state agency, was granted only to paying customers. All others got only a small fuzzy glimpse through the paywall.

Over at Hawaii Blog, Ryan was putting together a larger project in which public data can be made available to the public—for free. In fact, the public can contribute to what may be a growing body of knowledge. If you’d like to download and play with the data, it’s been up for over a week at the Hawaii Open Data Project.

It’s a losing game for Civil Beat if Hawaii Blog simply follows the strategy of requesting—and posting—whatever they request and post.

Local news startup Civil Beat today posted a piece on the names and salaries of state House and Senate members and staff. As before, they posted a watermarked PDF on Slideshare with the download feature disabled, and invited people to become “full members” to use their searchable database.   [Hawaii Blog, Adventures in Open Data, 9/14/2010]

Public data is, in theory, available to anyone. It seems reasonable if a website charges a fee for reports that add value to the data, but anyone should be able to get a copy of the same data that Civil Bet obtained simply by going back tothe government agency. Interestingly, Ryan was turned down when he asked the Department of Human Resources Development for a copy of the same data file supplied to Civil Beat.

I am not particularly interested in the salary data, but I am interested in the process issue. So I asked for the same data file, and also for a copy of Civil Beat’s request and a copy of DHRD’s record retention policy. Why the policy? because their email to Civil Beat is itself a public record, but eventually Hawaii government emails get deleted. They could simply have given Ryan the same pdf file or other attachments to the email sent to Civil Beat. “Eventually” can be quite short, perhaps as short as 60 days. So I also reminded DHRD that they are not supposed to delete public records that have been requested by the public.

Follow Ryan’s project if you have an interest in free access to public information. No strings attached. Meanwhile, please check out his article for more details on his project and discussion.

Ryan Ozawa is a pioneer in the use of technology to make information available for the rest of us. I’m betting on Ryan to come out ahead on this one.


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Ah, Larry, sour grapes for sure! Civil Beat is providing a valuable service. The Star Advertiser will become irrevelent in the near future. I am always suspicious when newsmedia is owned by non-Americans or corporations who gain from selling war via fear and misinformation. FOX, GE, Disney come to mind. There are others who profit of their products by trying to control news to the American citizen. Even on PBS issues are discussed by them same old tiresome people and HPBS doesn't touch any worth while issues.

I don't see this as sour grapes at all -- it's reasonable to expect that public records be public to ALL, not just those who can afford membership to CB. It's not like Civil Beat paid for them. I'd pay for their analysis, but all should have access to the records. I think that's what Larry is saying, and he's right on. I do share your suspicions of corporate controlled media, however, especially with those who make up the military industrial complex. That's why Disappeared News, Hawaii Blog and CB are so important.

Wait a second, Larry, are you sure that CB did not pay for the records?

I ask because I paid PLENTY for my request, and I was told that only the first $60 could be waived for a "public interest" request made by a requestor, like me or CB, with the means to publicly disseminate the records.

Doug, actually I don't know if they paid. But as you know, it would be payment for the search or for the aggregation or whatever.

I asked for a copy of their application for the information but not for the response to their request.

Interesting, though: what about the 2nd person who makes an essentially similar request? For example, Ryan was next. The data was available because CB was given it (and possibly had to pay for it). Now comes Ryan. There is no cost for any search, the result is on hand. So the first requestor might have to pay, but not subsequent?

Suppose I request the data you paid PLENTY for. Do I get it for free?? I'm not going to do that, just a gedanken experiment.

Something is both right and not right here. I think.

Well, in my case, the records they gave me would need to be re-searched/aggregated. I very much doubt they made more than one copy of all the records I asked for, but I see your point. Unlike the CB example, the state did not make a PDF for me to fulfill my request. If they had, then those search and segregation costs would have been sunk and, as you imply, any additional reproduction would be essentially cost-free (to the state, if not to the requestor).

At least in the case of the DHRD request, which I suspect was Civil Beat's largest request, DHRD did not charge them. As I noted in my blog post, Marie Laderta said she knew they could have assessed a fee, but decided not to. Of course, when she denied my request saying that the compilation was too arduous, I asked if she'd determined what it would cost to do so. She said she didn't have an estimate.

That's interesting, Ryan. I did not know (and do not believe) that imposing the search and segregation fee is discretionary. Who decides which requests are free, and by what criteria?

Some agencies have public logs that you must sign in on, and you can view every other person who asked for records. Some agencies treat this info as private. The privacy issue aside, can you ask for a copy of a letter sent to someone else? That would not involve the agency researching the original data, just a very simple search for a single recent letter. Perhaps you could ask for a list of all people asking for information and what they were asking for. Then you might get new ideas about what you should be asking for!

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