Carnival of Journalism: Let’s increase the flow of local government data

The Carnival of Journalism is back for month two, under the guidance of ringleader David Cohn. The question this month:

“Considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?”

I expect there are a nearly limitless number of ways to approach this. I’m going to start with an example close to home: Oakland, CA. And I’m going to suggest we lean on an actor that tends to make most folks in journalism nervous: Government.

I’m often struck, living out here in Silicon Valley, about the disconnect between what people believe is available in terms of information online, and what the reality is.  I can’t even recall how many times I’ve been speaking to a group about the future of journalism, and someone will say something like, “Well, now that all the information is available online, why do we even need journalists? Can’t we just do everything you do with better tags and filters and feeds?”

The answer: No. And we are perhaps decades away from anything that resembles that fantasy world.

But there are things we can do to move in that direction. Let start to explain with a story. Two years ago, my car was stolen. I had to go to the Oakland Police Department to get a copy of the police report for the insurance company. As I approached the window to talk to the attendant, I watched her working on her manual typewriter, stopping to fix a mistake with some white out. Eventually, she paused to help me. She fetched the paper copy of my report and then went to the copier to make me a copy. There were some parts of the report, such as where the car was eventually found, that never made it to the file.

This was the Oakland Police Department in January 2009. Now, the Oakland cop shop does eventually digitize some information and make it available on its own mapping system. And one group, Stamen Design, has created a more elegant version of that information here. But both versions provide only the barest of details about the incidents. There is no narrative, no names of the people involved, and no identities of the police who responded. It’s a baby step forward, but only just.

As a former cop reporter, I can also say that these systems require us to depend on the accuracy and the truthfulness of the police. While I hate to be cynical, even when I was reading through stacks of police reports in the mid-1990s, the real scope of an incident or the real impact was not apparent until you cornered a cop and got them to talk. And even then, their stories, in certain circumstances, differed from witnesses, especially where accusations of police brutality were involved.

Technology can’t fix all of that. But in following Mr. Cohn’s advice to “Bite small, chew well,” I’ll start with the Oakland Police’s dilemma. What is needed is a massive investment in their infrastructure, something that would increase their efficiency as a department, but also expand their capacity for transparency. That, in turn, would bolster the amount of crime information they can put online, which in turn would amplify the effectiveness of services like the Oakland crime maps.

Take this small example, and now expand it around the San Francisco Bay Area, to the dozens of police and sheriff’s departments that are still only just barely in the digital age. And now widen the lens to include all aspects of local and county governments. Big investments in the infrastructure are needed to get the information of these agencies online, and in formats, like structured data, that would open them up to wider consumption and interpretation.

As the reach of metro and local papers continues to ebb, I’m guessing many of these police departments haven’t seen a cop reporter in years. So this type of investment seems like a great opportunity to dramatically increase the flow of information that is also urgently needed. Of course, that flow would quickly become a flood, creating a secondary challenge of finding ways to filter it, provide context, and make sure there was community-wide access for all citizens. It would need to be packaged in forms that make for easy and convenient consumption. But that shouldn’t be a reason to not try.

However, the more immediate problem, of course, is who will pay for this? State and local governments across the country are facing historic financial problems. Many state governments are bleeding red ink. The federal government seems the best bet, despite the current focus on cutting the budget. President Obama has taken some steps to promote a Government 2. 0 agenda, and in his recent State of the Union address, he called on making strategic investments in infrastructure to “win” the future.

Over time, such a program would cost billions, if not trillions, to bring every government into the digital age. But in terms of impact on increasing sources of news, it strikes me as one of the smartest investments we can make.

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  1. Have you heard of Civic Commons? They believe that agencies cooperating to build and use open-source software can actually save governments millions of dollars in IT costs. If enough agencies buy into such a program, maybe the funding problem would be solved.

  2. Another group that's good to follow is Gov 2.0 (@govfresh on Twitter). There are many people in government who are open to using technology to lower the walls between the public and public information.

  3. [...] buddy Chris O’Brien shares a personal experience with trying to obtain police records after his car was stolen in 2009. [...]

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