Open Government in Kansas

I spent an hour yesterday afternoon on a conference call organized by the Sunlight Foundation about open government in Kansas. The Sunlight Foundation is an organization whose self-proclaimed mission is to use “cutting-edge technology and ideas to make government transparent and accountable.” It was really encouraging to see the interest in open government, but there’s lot’s to be done.

We have some counties (20 according to the Sunshine Review) that don’t even have websites, much less accessible data about their governments. You can’t make claims of openness when you’re not even presenting basic information about yourself online.

There were also some issues with the Freedom of Information Act requests. The state has to respond within 3 days to tell you when they’ll respond, but they haven’t been extremely helpful and have even gone so far as to encourage people not to pester them. The old “more flys with honey than vinegar” argument.

One comment I heard in the conversation was an admonition from someone on the ground here in the state (I didn’t catch the name) to watch shooting for the stars. He said he was tired of seeing data being hidden behind “well, we want to do this right” instead of just getting information out there. He was advocating scanning things like minutes and making them available that way. I applaud the release early, release often mentality of that approach, but as a tech guy, that scares me.

I want raw data. In my ideal world, I get an API key from the state and can query the databases of any branch of government and get the information that they’re responsible for. Scanned JPGs don’t give me that. I have to run an OCR on the images and hope it’s a font (or in some cases handwritting) that’s recognizable by a computer to get any raw data out of it. Forget the semantics in it, those are almost completely lost without manually vetting all of the data.

I don’t think this is a matter of people trying to hide data through obscurity, rather, I think it’s more a matter of not fully understanding the issues here. How can you expect those 20 counties to understand the difference between “available” and “accessible” when they don’t even think a website is important enough to maintain?

One thing that really makes today’s conversation interesting, however, is the recent Secretary of State development. This past Monday, the Kansas Secretary of State gave one week’s notice that he was resigning his post to pursue a career in the private sector.

The Secretary of State controls all of the public financial records for campaigns. Voter files, campaign contributions, expenditures, all of that is stored behind the firewall at the Secretary of State’s office. There’s information on the current site about campaigns and the money they raised, but good luck finding it. I dare you. Give that site to someone who’s Internet savvy but not familiar with the site and ask them to find the the filings for the Governor’s race. I know my way around the site and it still took me 5 minutes to find it. Hint: it’s burried under sub-links that are only exposed when you’re on certain pages.

What would be amazing to see is someone appointed Secretary of State who gets open government. Who realizes that scanned tiff files aren’t “open government.” They’re a good faith step in the right direction, but they hide the potential that raw data provides. How can I feed that information into a program to analyze it and look for patterns?

I hope the state doesn’t squander this opportunity. There’s an opportunity to appoint someone who gets open government and who would make it their mission to open the floodgates on the information that the SoS office controls. Once you provide citizens (and journalists) with the raw numbers about campaigns, where money’s being spent, where money’s coming from, you open yourself up to all sorts of interesting interpretations. You start moving from that “available” column toward the “accessible” column. That’s what the open government movement is all about afterall.