Freedom of Information: More sunshine -- easily and at no cost

Technology can allow the city to take a huge step forward in public access -- right now
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news@sfbg.com

Imagine sitting at home — or in your office, or in your favorite café — and listening in on what are now secret, backroom policy discussions and decisions in the San Francisco mayor's office. Imagine having access to an immediate transcript of the talks. Imagine being able to read internal e-mail discussions among city staffers about issues that affect you — without ever filing a public records request. In fact, imagine never having to file another written request for public documents; imagine just going to a city Web site, entering a search term, and finding all of the records yourself.

Imagine filing a complaint with a city agency and tracking the issue, minute by minute, as it works its way through the system.

Imagine listening on your cell phone to any policy body as it meets in city hall.

All of this is possible, today. Much of it is not only consistent with but actually required by local law. And it won't cost the city more than a modest amount of money.

Transparency is a common buzzword during this presidential campaign; the Barack Obama campaign has even issued a white paper describing policy and technological ways to embrace it. He's talking about live Internet feeds of meetings about significant issues involving executive branch appointees as well as for those of regulatory departments (a program that would go far beyond what you see on C-SPAN).

So there's no reason San Francisco can't take the lead in using technology — generally simple, off the shelf, existing technology — to dramatically increase sunshine at City Hall and public participation in local government.

Proposition G, the city's 1999 sunshine law, mandates that San Francisco use "all technological and economical means to ensure efficient, convenient and low cost access to public information on the Internet." Here are five easy ways to do that:

1. Fully adopt the voyeur concept for city meetings. This is the idea that the public should be able to observe and engage in government decision making — all government decision making.

All policy meetings in City Hall should at the very least be broadcast as audio on the Web and available via phone teleconference. In other words, the meetings should be streamed online, and that stream should be accessible by calling a free conference line. This is already standard practice in the business world and is working well for many investors in public companies that disclose financial information in compliance with Securities and Exchange Commission rules. It can be done for little or no cost with services like blogtalkradio.com, skype.com, freeconferencecalls.com, and webex.com.

Today only a limited number of public meetings are broadcast, mostly because the only outlet is SFG-TV and resources are limited. But audio streaming is a no-brainer — there's no need for a staffer to control cameras, the microphones are already set up, and these days just about every room has a speakerphone.

Currently, the SFG-TV video coverage isn't posted on the city's Web site, sfgov.org, until two or three days after a meeting. That's too long; the audio should be made immediately available online. And the Internet URL and dial-in options should be listed on the meeting agenda so that news media and citizen bloggers can instantly refer back to the URL with timecodes to point out specifics, and include them in their stories and blog postings.

With streaming, you can follow along in real time when you are stuck at home taking care of a sick relative, or at the office listening with headphones, or you are disabled and can't cross town to attend in person.

The city already has a great contract for real time captioning — the text you see at the bottom of the screen for video. It's not 100 percent accurate, but it's pretty decent.

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