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Why does this data from our troubled Philadelphia Traffic Court cost $11K?

In spite of Pennsylvania's Right to Know Law, Philadelphia's courts are governed by a different policy: their own. The price tag is expensive, said one open data expert, but not unheard of.

Ugh, traffic. (Photo by Flickr user joiseyshowaa, used under a Creative Commons license)

William Entriken wants to analyze Philadelphia Traffic Court data. But the data, the court says, is going to cost him.

$11,200, to be exact.

Entriken, a financial analyst and civic hacker, requested a list of court cases tried in traffic court since 2005. As part of his project, he wants to know which cases were ultimately lowered to a “3111” violation, a type of ticket where, if you plead guilty, you pay a fine but get no points on your license. Entriken wants to analyze the data to see if there was anything shady going on with these types of tickets.

So why is data from the troubled traffic court so expensive?

Because it isn’t readily available, according to Marc Flood, the deputy court administrator for the Philadelphia Courts, which oversees Traffic Court.

The $11,200 price tag is quoted from Xerox, which manages the traffic court’s data. Xerox said it would have to create a program that would scan the database to identify all the cases with a 3111 violation. That’s roughly 60 hours of work time, according to Xerox, and work time doesn’t come cheap under the courts’ public access policy. It’s $85 an hour for staff time and $300 an hour for computer time.

That adds up, quick.

Under the state’s Right to Know Law, agencies are not allowed to pass on labor costs to a data requestor, said Nathanael Byerly, deputy director of the state’s Office of Open Records. But Philadelphia’s courts are governed by a different policy: their own public access policy, which allows the courts to pass on labor costs for data requests.

So Entriken, who previously built an app that showed how often SEPTA‘s Regional Rail was late, is raising $17,000 on Kickstarter to get the data (the higher number is to account for Kickstarter fees, and, Entriken says, the potential of the city raising its initial price for the data).

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This is a unique data request, said court administrator Flood, who generally fields requests for a copy of a document out of a file, rather than a request for a large electronic file. Those more common types of requests are generally free, he said.

We called the transparency advocates at the Sunlight Foundation and MuckRock to see if if the $11,200 price tag was out of the ordinary.

Unfortunately, it isn’t, said MuckRock editor J. Patrick Brown. He pointed to one instance where MuckRock had to pay for data, though the staff-time rates were much lower.

Still, Brown said, “it’s not unusual to see those types of rates.”

One reason the rates might be so high is because a private corporation is managing the data. It’s somewhat common in the Philadelphia courts, where each court has a different data manager, Flood said. For instance:

  • Xerox manages Traffic Court’s data
  • Thomson Reuters handles Municipal Court’s civil case data
  • The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts handles Municipal Court’s criminal case data
  • An internal staff handles Court of Common Pleas data
  • The State of Pennsylvania handles Family Court’s Child Support case data
  • The Philadelphia Courts handles Family Court’s Juvenile case data

“It’s a big problem area,” said Sunlight Foundation national policy manager Emily Shaw, when asked about private companies managing public data.

If it makes data less accessible, it’s a problem, she said.

Companies: Sunlight Foundation
People: William Entriken

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