Editorial: There’s no better time to develop a database to track local government

In Trenton this week, lawmakers will discuss creating an online database that would track state contracts, loans, and other expenditures and would be easily accessible on the state’s Web site. We like the sound of this project, which according to officials, would be comparable to relative budget tracking systems that cost in the ballpark of […]

hallwatchIn Trenton this week, lawmakers will discuss creating an online database that would track state contracts, loans, and other expenditures and would be easily accessible on the state’s Web site. We like the sound of this project, which according to officials, would be comparable to relative budget tracking systems that cost in the ballpark of $400,000.
Lest we concede technological superiority to our brethren in the East, Philadelphia’s tech community has a unique opportunity to demand the same accountability from our local government by developing a citizen-managed online database that would track important public records.
Tomorrow, the metropolitan area will lose a valuable contributor of government accountability. Hallwatch.org is closing shop, according to an announcement made on the site on January 23.

When the site was launched in 2001, Hallwatch Webmaster Ed Goppelt was called a nerd seeking revenge by one paranoid politician. Since, he has kept an eye on the city by providing users with access to information on elected officials, real estate, campaign finance reports, and frequent updates on City Council’s hearings, bills, and notices.
What’s fascinating is that while Goppelt has fought City Hall in court for access to a number of public records, Pennsylvania’s Fourth Estate is celebrating changes to the State’s Right To Know Law. As of Jan. 1, 2009, the law now puts the burden on agencies to to establish why a record should not be released. Previously, the law stated that the burden was on a requester to establish why a record was public. Agencies have five days to respond and even requests made by e-mail are accepted. The law was a huge win for public access to records. Surely one that had Goppelt pumping his fist.
Sweetening the law for public access is the fact that media organizations can request electronic databases as is. If it was made in Excel, they’ll fight less and pay less for that spreadsheet file than Hallwatch has in the past. Goppelt faced such difficulties from the Department of Records as unreasonable fees and delivery of data on ancient magnetic tape – in 2003. Although a fee may be attributed to an electronically enhanced document, the fee must be reasonable according to the State’s new Office of Open Records. We have a feeling that the office will be on your side; Executive Director Terry Mutchler is a former journalist.
Making the process easier yet is that the City of Philadelphia has adopted a policy establishing Open Records Officers and standards compliant with the law. That means that every public agency in the city now has a point of contact for public record requests. We urge you to have a look at the City’s list of Open Records Officers (PDF).
Yet in a seemingly perfect climate, and with little explanation, Hallwatch is going offline tomorrow at 11:59 p.m.
The loss of the site shouldn’t be a sign of our giving in. Instead it should inspire the visionaries, coders, designers, and motivated, tech-saavy and concerned citizens like Goppelt that make up our technology community.
With national sites like StimulusWatch and Recovery.gov as models for accessibility and design, and a team of dedicated individuals helping make it happen, a site with the data capabilities of Hallwatch’s could be coalesced into a more easily navigable site. And with public records more accessible than ever, there’s no better time to act. We can only imagine how it could improve Philadelphia’s transparency.

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