Mining metadata

Supervisors OK the release of information buried beneath public documents

The Board of Supervisors' Rules Committee unanimously recommended Nov. 30 that all parts of a city document should remain in the public domain, including the document's electronic fabric, or metadata.
If approved by the full board, which seems likely, the decision will signal a victory for a small but vocal group of activists who view metadata as an important front in the battle for public access to government documents.
Metadata is defined as data about data — information that can reveal nuances of a document, such as where it was created, how it was modified, and when it was transmitted. If you know how to use the Track Changes function in Microsoft Word, for instance, you can glean how a document's numbers were calculated or how its text evolved.
Local activists Allen Grossman and Kimo Crossman argue that such access to city documents is one of our privileges as citizens: we pay for city government to represent us with our tax dollars and therefore have the right to track almost everything it does — down to the faintest of electronic fingerprints on an Excel spreadsheet. Grossman and Crossman got involved with the fight for metadata when board clerk Gloria Young denied their request for a copy of the Sunshine Ordinance in its original Microsoft Word format.
"Are we gadflies, whatever that means?" Grossman asked the Guardian the day before the Rules Committee made its recommendation. "I don't think so. I think we have an interest in making sure that everyone else knows what's going on."
Some city officials say that granting boundless access to documents and their metadata is risky. Deputy city attorney Paul Zarefsky wrote a five-page memo expounding the dangers: it could let hackers into the computer system; it could leave city documents open to manipulation; it could burden city officials with more data awaiting redaction.
He and Young proposed that all city documents should be presented to the general public as PDFs, or portable document formats, which would exclude any metadata from the original document.
The Rules Committee's recommendation unanimously rejected that proposal. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi argued that while requests for metadata might be a nuisance to city officials, the city is still responsible for providing "all native data" to the general public that is consistent with the Sunshine Ordinance. When Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Sean Elsbernd agreed, room 263 at City Hall erupted with applause.
"The fact is that we're entitled to see all public information that is not exempt," Grossman told us. "To the extent that public information is buried in the other data, the metadata, we're still entitled to see it."

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