Freedom of Information: More sunshine -- easily and at no cost - Page 2

Technology can allow the city to take a huge step forward in public access -- right now
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That could be expanded to cover streaming audio, and the text could be computer translated (or translated by bilingual typists) into other common languages. The advantage of media integrated with RTC is that specialized search engines like blikx.com and everyzing.com can be used to find relevant phrases and begin playback directly at that spot. And transcriptions can be posted online in real time (somewhat like live blogging!) so that if you are late for a meeting you can quickly scan what has already transpired, and by the end of the meeting you will effectively have a draft of minutes. That saves a lot of staff time and provides an immeasurably more useful historic record.

Today, video recordings of city meetings can't be downloaded — the only way to review it or post a clip to YouTube is to order a $10 DVD, which arrives a week after you send a check (and no, they don't take PayPal). And while many other city meetings make audio recordings, you have to pay $1 for an audio tape and pick it up during business hours or pay more for postage. They all should be available as free podcasts.

The SFG-TV video shows more than just the speakers and officials; there are other angles, and they ought to be available too. It's important to know who attended the meeting but never said anything, who greeted whom, and even who ignored whom.

2. Let the public do the broadcasting. All City Hall meeting rooms should provide wi-fi (and electrical outlets), and the system ought to have enough speed to allow bloggers or activists to upload high-quality video broadcasts of meetings that SFG-TV can't afford to cover. It can be done using existing services like Justin.tv, Upstream.tv, and live.yahoo.com. This would also allow live blogging — and let people preparing to testify on an issue have access to the Web to do research on the spot. If the room had a projector and a screen, people who were unable to attend the meeting could still comment, either through video or just by posting text messages that the decision makers could read.

The audio broadcasting of meetings should be expanded to include all meetings between the mayor (or supervisors) and city staff. The law already requires public access to so-called passive meetings — those between the mayor or department heads and outside parties that influence city policy.

3. Make public most city emails and other documents as soon as they are produced.

San Francisco city employees produce thousands of records a day — e-mails, memos, reports, etc. — and the vast majority of them are and should be public record. But many are deleted and others never see the light of day. When a member of the public asks for all the records on a topic, just finding those documents can be a sizable task.

But it's technologically simply to solve that problem: every time a city employee produces a document, the computer system should automatically send a back-up copy to a public web server. That way nothing would get lost or erased, and anyone looking for public information could simply go to that site and search for it him or herself.

For e-mails sent by city staff, one way might be to CC (carbon copy) an online message board (for example Google or Yahoo groups, which would be available at no cost to the city). Other approaches for instant messages, text messages and voicemails could be adopted as well. The Palo Alto City Council is already doing something like this for a narrow collection of e-mails (although not in real time).

We all know there are some city communications that must remain private or be redacted — for example Attorney Client discussions or human-resource conversations regarding personnel. But there are simply ways to make sure those stay confidential: one approach might simply have the user tick a flag or answer a Yes/No Possible Redaction popup when the message is sent.

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