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Industry around government information booms


This news story was published on December 20, 2011.
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By Kevin McDermott, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — From Springfield to Jefferson City to Washington, government today has more electronic windows into its soul than ever before.

Consider the hypothetical state legislative candidate in Illinois. When he accepts campaign donations, they are posted online in a searchable database with the names and occupations of the donors. Once elected, his paycheck can be found, to the dollar, with the push of a few buttons on a laptop or smartphone.

He has to file a statement of economic interest, showing his stocks and other holdings, easily perused by anyone with a computer. Any state contractors who show up at his fundraising events will have their names posted online on both the state campaign and contract databases.

His legislative bills and floor votes are posted immediately, waiting there like a ghost to haunt him in the next election. When the legislator retires, his pension benefits, too, are accessible on your screen.

But there are still some persistent shadows within this seemingly bright-lit world of public information. For example, Illinois statements of economic interest aren’t in database form but rather are PDF files — online photocopies, essentially — and so aren’t searchable.

That’s where people like Adam Andrzejewski come in.

A former candidate for Illinois governor, Andrzejewski is part of an industry sprouting around the digital government-information boom: non-governmental entities that collect and augment government data for online readers, often putting it in a more user-friendly form than the agencies that created it.

“I realized that transparency would be the silver bullet of reining in corruption,” said Andrzejewski, who has spearheaded and funded an independent website called OpenTheBooks.com.

The site offers access to a searchable database of state pension benefits for Illinois government retirees. It’s something you can get yourself through the state pension systems, but only after filing a legal request and enduring a wait — steps Andrzejewski has already taken to gather the information and put it out there.

“Like anything else, you have to practice due diligence” when parsing the growing blizzard of data from both public and private sources, says Illinois political scientist Kent Redfield. Still, like other open-government advocates, Redfield sees the explosion of online information as an overwhelmingly good thing.

In Missouri, Internet users who don’t find what they’re looking for on the official state government sites — or perhaps don’t know what’s available — can turn to openmissouri.gov. A project of the University of Missouri-Columbia’s journalism school, the site’s mission is to provide information about hundreds of little-known databases that are available through government but haven’t been posted online.

For example, you won’t find online records about state amusement park safety inspections, or public drinking water systems that chronically fail bacteria tests. For those lists, you need to make a formal request to the state — something that openmissouri.org can set in motion for its users.

“The government decides what information is placed out there, and it’s not necessarily what people want or need to know,” says David Herzog, the Mizzou journalism professor who spearheaded openmissouri.org. “We’re filling in some of those gaps.”

News organizations, too, are on the government database bandwagon. STLToday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website, for example, offers readers a list of searchable public payroll databases for state employees in Missouri and Illinois, as well as many local governments.

This new availability of information is being driving in part by old supply-and-demand principles. There was a time when the media outlets were the only ones trying to wrest data from the government. Today, average citizens have developed information addictions of their own. Andrzejewski reports 40,000 visitors to his site in its first month.

Perhaps not surprisingly, political leaders — whose instinct in the past was often to keep government data tightly locked down — today are tripping over each other to be viewed as friends of public information.

Missouri has drawn national praise for its Missouri Accountability Portal, an online clearinghouse of government information where people can find state government salaries, agency spending, contracts and even a “Who is not paying?” section that highlights businesses cited for failure to remit sales or income taxes.

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn and all the other statewide constitutional officers have put forward their own online information portals, often beyond what’s required by law.

The federal government, too, has gradually moved from reticence to enthusiasm on the concept of information access. President Barack Obama’s administration pre-emptively stressed openness and access for its controversial stimulus spending program, setting up a website — recovery.gov — that allows anyone to track every dollar of stimulus money state by state.

Redfield noted that, in the post-Watergate era, Illinois politicians grudgingly implemented campaign-disclosure laws they had been forced to pass, lacing them with daunting paper forms and other requirements that were “designed to make it difficult” to get the information.
With the Internet age and its new attitudes about open data, he said, “the revolution that’s taken place is just amazing.”

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