Attempting to parse government documents can be a challenge, to say the least. But technology has, in some instances, helped that process along — the 311 data from New York City that we examined in class is a good example of a government’s efforts to make some of its information readily and easily available to its citizens. But as an increasing amount of governmental records are born-digital, it’s not always so easy for citizens to access that information, or for governments to provide it in a secure and efficient manner.
Sometimes, though, a citizen requesting information might get more than they ask for.
Such was the case with Matt Chapman, who’s been described as a “civic data hacker.” In an attempt to see how governments across the country handle Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, he first asked for email metadata from cities in 14 states, and the story he outlines of his experience with Seattle shows how much work still needs to be done to ensure the proper access to records.
After a lot of back and forth with the city — including an estimate that the work it would take to provide the data he asked for would be “approximately 320 years of staff time at an expense of $33 million in salary” — he finally received the metadata for around 32 million emails sent to and from seattle.gov email addresses. Included in that was the first 256 characters of every single email message, in which Chapman found credit card and social security numbers, FBI investigation details, and “texts of cheating husbands to their lovers.”
Worse still, the Seattle IT department, which handles these requests, didn’t realize it had released that data, and Chapman had to point it out to them. Only after lawyers and the press got involved did the city finally disclose the leak (which the law requires).
Chapman has since gotten much of the metadata he asked from from Seattle (after the Washington state legislature tried unsuccessfully, as he points out, to change the state’s public records laws), and he has made that data publicly available.
“A big hope in making this sort of information available to the public is that it will help in changing the dynamic of understanding what sorts of information is accessible,” Chapman writes.
What it also shows is how difficult it can be to access that information. Not every governmental record is a 311 dataset you can download from a regularly updated website. Chapman has the fortunate combination of knowing what information he can request and how to request it; the ability to hire lawyers as needed; and the privilege of time to wait for results. He captures this well when summarizing the experience of what initially led him down this path, which was an interest in discovering evidence of collusion between Chicago mayoral candidates back in 2014:
“This whole process was a complete and total pain. The usefulness of knowing the ongoings of our government — especially at its highest levels — are critical for ensuring that our government is open and honest. It really shouldn’t have been this difficult, but it was.”
The challenges of accessing governmental information, and the security risks we face when the government isn’t adequately equipped to disclose that information, are only going to increase as the kinds and amounts of data we manufacture evolve. How can we ensure this data is collected, stored, and made accessible in ways that are both efficient and secure? Reactionary legislation, like a proposition currently on the ballot in San Francisco, may seem helpful in some ways, but it’s a bit like treating an amputation with a band-aid — there is a much bigger problem than this can fix. A major systemic change in how we manage and disseminate this kind of information needs to happen, and, ideally, it would include plans for how to handle a transition when the formats change yet again.
As information professionals, and as citizens, we play an important role in making those changes meaningful and useful. Chapman, who is continuing his push to make more records publicly available, provides examples of platforms that can help begin to make that change, and I’m hopeful we can build on that.
Originally written for INFO-654: Information Technologies, Pratt School of Information, Fall 2018.