Information, please

The Bay Area leads the revolution in information sharing. So why is it still so hard to get basic public records in San Francisco?

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IMAGE VIA CREATIVE COMMONS

rebecca@sfbg.com

The concept of "freedom of information" has taken on epic proportions in the Age of the Internet. Take Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales' comments at the RSA Security Conference, which drew prominent tech luminaries to San Francisco's Moscone Center last week.

"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of human knowledge," Wales said in describing the project's foundational vision, his image magnified by giant projection screens. Twenty-four million volunteer-submitted entries and 490 million unique visitors later, the San Francisco-based project "has become part of the infrastructure of information," he proclaimed.

Wikipedia isn't alone in having a philosophy of open access to information. Twitter's informational updates are unbound by time or distance, while Google's stated mission is to make "the world's information ... universally accessible." For better or for worse, humans have never had so much light shed upon so many topics at once.

But even as the Bay Area plays host to a revolution in information sharing, local sunshine advocates bent on protecting the public's right to know face an uphill battle. At the state level, budget rollbacks threaten to impact agencies' ability to respond to California Public Records Act inquiries. And when it comes to illuminating the activities of government or tracing how money influences politics in San Francisco, secrecy is still the word of the day.

OPEN DATA

San Francisco city government has seemingly embraced the ethos of information sharing that's currently in vogue amid the tech world. But even as the city accelerates its commitment to "transparency" through software, traditional systems for providing access to public records are languishing.

Enforcement of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, an open-records law enacted in 2000, remains anemic, and the transparency law came under attack last year with calls to scrutinize the city's cost of compliance. Meanwhile, the city agency tasked with routing political corruption — the San Francisco Ethics Commission — is still in the information dark ages.

Last fall, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee announced he was creating the position of a Chief Data Officer as part of San Francisco's Open Data initiative, a project that displays government information online in a user-friendly format.

Powered by a Seattle company called Socrata, the Open Data platform seeks to "enhance open government, transparency, and accountability" by making data widely available. Socrata won the privilege of launching in San Francisco after snagging a Living Labs Global Award through a private nonprofit, an honor it received at an international convention in Stockholm, far from City Hall and completely outside the city's normal bidding process.

Setting the eyebrow-raising contractor selection process aside, Open Data does provide some nifty tools for information-seekers and raw fodder for software developers who can use it to configure new apps for citizen engagement. The program features data sets showing real-estate development projects, neighborhood crime incidents or campaign spending trends, among other things.

Jay Nath, the mayor's chief innovation officer, is a key driver behind Open Data. But when it comes to direct public information, he's not so open at all. Reached by phone, Nath said he needed permission from the mayor's communications office before he could answer basic questions about the system — for example, how much it cost. Due to some mysterious holdup that doesn't bode well for the city's depth of commitment to transparency, he never responded to Guardian requests for an interview. All we know is that one news report put the price at $40,000 a year.

While the information generated by Open Data is an interesting development and could prove useful in many respects, it's no substitute for sunshine.

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