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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

Open Data, New Orleans

The city of New Orleans announces a new site for open data from the city:

  • Data.NOLA.gov | Enabling New Orleans

    Aug 20, 2011 | This site is a catalog of public data sets produced by the City of New Orleans. We’re starting small, with data sets that are found within the Department of Information Technology & Innovation, and will be adding data sets from other departments over time.

Categories include: Administrative Data, Demographic Data, Geographic Reference. Types include: Datasets, External Datasets, Files and Documents, Filtered Views, Charts, Maps, Calendars, and Forms.

Local FOIA and Open Government

The San Francisco Bay Guardian has a special issue on open government and freedom of information.

It begins this way:

“On one front, the advocates of secrecy are pushing hard to keep electronic data under strict controls. The state Legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit the release of electronic data embedded in a public record. The county of Santa Clara tried to set a $100,000 price on access to a public database.

But on the other hand, sunshine advocates are pushing for ways to use the same technology to make government more open.

The special issue includes articles on “A citizen’s guide to fighting secret government”; “Virtual meetings”; a “Sunshine experiment in Palo Alto” (Posting e-mails from council members on the city’s Web site); and more. Of particular interest are these two:

  • More sunshine — easily and at no cost, Technology can allow the city to take a huge step forward in public access — right now. By Kimo Crossman, San Francisco Bay Guardian (March 12, 2008)
  • Battleship metadata, Legislation on mapping software would create an expensive new category of public records. By Sarah Phelan, San Francisco Bay Guardian (March 12, 2008)

Crossman notes:

…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.

…In fact, we all know storage continues to get cheaper and smaller — so San Francisco should abolish any retention timeframes for electronic records and keep them all into the foreseeable future. The world-famous Internet Archive is right here in the Presidio: I suspect that group would love to archive all the city information, and keep it online, free and forever.

Yellow tap water: thoughts on local government, part II

And now for my second tale of local government information and intrigue from Tacoma, Washington.

I live in a 1920’s era house, and I have to admit that sometimes the first spurts of water out of the tap are slightly rusty (nothing to worry about, the plumber assures me, as if anyone would believe that).  But in this past month, I noticed that the water had a slightly tinted look to it, even after I’d let it run for a while.  It wasn’t anywhere near as cloudy as the tap water I’d seen in Vancouver BC last year when I visited that city during a boil-water advisory. No, this tinted water looked a little off, tasted fine, didn’t seem to kill me, and froze right up into sort of mod-looking ice cubes.  Normally, I’m skiddish about such things, but I didn’t think too long and hard about my not-quite-right water.  I was thirsty, so I’d been drinking it anyway.

I was suprised to see in last week’s mail, mixed in with the Val-pak coupons, cable TV come-ons, and various unwanted bills, a blanket-mailing to all Tacoma residents from the Tacoma Public Utilities water management superintendent.  The content of the letter said basically, hey, the water’s yellow, we know about it, it’s a normal seasonal occurence, and it happens when naturally-present iron and manganese pass through our treatment process.  Problems or concerns?  There’s a phone number I can call.  I didn’t call it, because I felt satisfied with the information, but I’m glad the phone number is available.

Mass mailings direct from government, aside from those related to taxes or elections, have always interested to me.  Here at work, we have agreed that the nuclear fallout shelter designs from FEMA, delivered en masse to American doorsteps through the early 1980s (as near as we can figure), are some of the most seductive.  By far our favorite is Home Fallout Shelter: Snack Bar, Basement Location, Plan D. I went trolling about on Worldcat, the open web, and Google Books, looking for a digitized copy from a .gov or .edu.  Found one on a web site called Millionaire Playboy(TM) which I approached with trepidation; it appears that Millionaire Playboy(TM) is a commercial outfit that reviews and sells kitsch to the pop culture and video gaming communities.   Why have these folks beaten us to the digitizing of these government classics, which they’ve no doubt gotten from a federal depository library (or from some hopeless collector with a worse hoarding impulse than mine)?  (Scroll down to the bottom of this off-putting Mr. Stinkhead column and you’ll see a bunch of them.)

I’m signing off for the day.  The web has wearied me.  I’ve rambled too long, when all I wanted to tell you about was my yellow tap water and how my local public utility gave me the resources to learn more about it.

Dead crows: thoughts on local government information access, part I

It’s been a pretty typical week for me in Tacoma, Washington (my home when I’m not at work in Seattle).  But as I reflect back on the past seven days, I can see how local government information popped into my world in at least two conspicuous ways (and I’m sure many other more subtle ways).  I’ll share one story now.

On Monday afternoon, upon returning home from walking my dog, I noticed an unfortunate sight:  a dead crow lying near our driveway, at the base of a telephone pole.  I had just disposed of a dead sparrow I’d found in the same vicinity the day before, so this concerned me.  I remembered that dead crows could be a sign of … some health hazard, I couldn’t remember which.  Without thinking, I consulted the real, tangible phone book’s blue pages (a hidden pasttime of many of us govdocs types), figuring I’d call the county health department.  I flipped past the federal government pages, the state pages, and found the county health department and its numerous entries.  Aha!  West Nile Virus hotline.  I called the number, and, because it was after hours, got a voicemail message.  Gratifyingly, the voice said something along the lines of "If you’re calling to report a dead crow, please provide your name, contact info and a detailed location for the crow.  We’ll call you back during business hours.  Check out our web page as well."

The next day at work, I received a courteous, professional call from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department.  The Environmental Health Specialist told me she was going to stop by my residence and remove the bird for testing.  She also conjectured that the crow was probably a juvenile who had been electrocuted by the power lines, a common occurence, but she would remove it all the same.  When I got home, I found her business card and several Washington State government brochures (yes!  it was a multi-jurisdictional day!) about mosquito repellent, West Nile Virus, and Dead Bird Reporting.  Jackpot — tangible gov docs, delivered to my doorstep!  Overall, I was quite pleased with how this terribly old fashioned combination of the phone book and telephone worked so quickly and efficiently.  Reviewing the web pages was a fun exercise after the fact, but I liked talking directly to the specialist.  Out here, Dex is one of the prominent phone books.  Its online version doesn’t seem to include government, at least not in an obvious way, leaving users with the impression that there are two types of phone numbers in the world: residential and business.  The blue pages rock.