September 23, 2010

Meet the Public Data Ferret – he digs so you don’t have to

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Editor's Note: InvestigateWest introduces new blogger Matt Rosenberg, aka the Public Data Ferret, who digs deep to shed light on public institutions. Here's his first blog.

Suppose the company you were considering as an insurance provider had been sanctioned for overcharging 2,134 auto policyholders by almost $600,000 total, by dropping their multi-vehicle discounts due to an error during a computer system upgrade?

Suppose they were disciplined for inflating premiums with unauthorized policy additions? Or had their license revoked for insolvency?

What if the insurer had been ordered to cease and desist from blatantly deceptive marketing of a so-called long term health care plan that turned out to be nothing more than a bare-bones accident policy? Imagine that the friendly local insurance agent you were going to entrust with your premiums had actually had their license revoked for pocketing payments from other customers instead of executing policies, or was convicted for felony grand theft, or embezzlement of his dead mother's Veterans Administration checks?

You'd probably want to know who's in the rogue's gallery and who's not. Which is that much easier in the state of Washington thanks to one more user-friendly government database, this one from the state insurance commissioner's office.  At Public Data Ferret site is a tutorial on how to use the state's database for insurance consumers.

Our top Ferret finds are highlighted each week in live interviews on KOMO-AM 1000 News Radio in Seattle. Here's the full archive of those radio segments – with transcripts. The neutral blogged synopses of governments documents and the database tutorials at Ferret are searchable at the main page by jurisdiction and topic. So, if you want to see all the useful government databases dug up so far, it's easy. Just check the box "databases" in the right hand column, scroll down to click on "dig it up" and dive into the results.

Perhaps you didn't know how easy it is check online, for free, on restaurant health inspections, hospital infection rates, fecal coliform bacteria levels at public beaches, shellfish harvesting sites statewide closed due to high contamination risks, consumer product safety recalls, or construction and land use permit requests in your Seattle neighborhood. What about that new crime-mapping database, including specific incident reports, from Seattle Police?

How do you actually use it? Reading the tutorials, maybe you'll have something to add in the comment string about features we missed, or that you think the programmers should add. The big idea behind Public Data Ferret is that while old-fashioned forced disclosure of government-held data using public records law remains a cornerstone of liberty and free inquiry, the "public's right to know" now extends to voluntary disclosure. Especially important is the posting online of key documents, reports and data. That's what we ferret out, boil down and distribute.

College-going rates of students at a large suburban Seattle school district. Actual outcomes of investigations by the official independent oversight office into formal complaints – including use of excessive force – lodged against Seattle Police. An actuary's report to city government on the $1 billion spread between the city's pension obligations to one large group of employees and that pension fund's assets. A regional planning body's sobering final report on the $64 billion 30-year regional surface transportation plan to keep Puget Sound traffic from getting totally tied up in knots as population continues to grow. Washington state birth and abortion rates from 1984 through 2008. The latest annual report on racehorse fatalities in Washington state. A federal forecast showing major growth in coal-powered electricity and greenhouse gas emissions in developing nations versus an ever-greener energy portfolio in developed nations. Federal reports on systemic lapses in environmental oversight of oil and natural leaseholders, fraud in the for-profit education industry, rising federal public debt and the risk of a financial crisis.

In many instances these government findings weren't reported at all in Western Washington, or in other cases, just barely. Links to source documents are always included. Sorting the wheat from the chaff is the trick. And with unalterable forces having reduced the role of legacy media, government intel is slipping right through the cracks. Alternative information providers are filling the void. A challenge is the current highly-charged political environment.

I'm a former opinion page columnist for a metropolitan daily newspaper, and a blogger on politics and policy. Opinions come like second nature to me. But as the new online infrastructure is built to mine public data, the expression of opinion needs to come after the discovery, and after real dialog. The rhetorical jousting on politics and policy which dominates the blogosphere and some social media isn't merely tiresome, it feeds polarization and disengagement.

Focusing on factual data from objective public sector sources is a good place to start. The voluntary transparency push is beginning to reach regional and local spheres. Two crucial realizations are that online access to information makes community engagement easier and raises the bar for voluntary disclosure by those we entrust with our taxes.

Here's one more: the question isn't whether someone will pay you – or someone else – to find out what's really going on in City Hall, the county building, the state capital and Congress. It's whether any of us can really afford to be in the dark. In the new information eco-sphere, partnerships, syndications, and online "civic commons" platforms with backing from foundations and other public-spirited donors are emerging as a viable model. Embedding stories, hopes, dreams – and voluntary government disclosure – into public life and community consciousness in a time of profound and lasting change in the news world, that's the aim.

 

Matt Rosenberg is director of Countywide Community Forums, a civic engagement program primarily funded by Seattle's Spady family of Dick's Drive-Ins. He edits CCF's blog Social Capital Review, as well as the Public Data Ferret government transparency huban independent initiative of CCF. He is also a member of the steering committee of Journalism That Matters – Pacific NorthwestMatt has worked in journalism, public policy and advocacy for 27 years.

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