Post readers deserve a better online gateway to government data

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By Andrew Alexander
Ombudsman
Sunday, March 14, 2010

In the struggle for access to public information, The Post has always fought hard for its readers. Through jawboning with government agencies or taking them to court, the newspaper has a well-deserved reputation for successfully battling to disclose documents.

But the era when paper records were kept in dusty file rooms is fading. Today, "freedom of information" has been expanded to encompass the right to instantly tap vast quantities of public information in electronic form. The contents of these databases, from restaurant health inspection reports to toxic waste citations, help citizens improve their communities and their lives.

The Post has a journalistic obligation and a business imperative to provide easy online access to the data through its Web site. But it's fallen far behind at a time when its readers have a growing number of alternatives.

The Post is not out of the game. Although offering limited online access to databases, it has used public information to create datasets for stories and online features. For instance, the Web site's "POTUS Tracker" analyzes President Obama's schedule so readers can see whom he met.

But other sites offer far more. An American Society of News Editors survey of more than 130 newspaper Web sites last year found that many created ambitious online sections where readers can access scores of government-maintained databases. They provide bridge safety reports, teacher evaluations, school-by-school test scores, lists of poisoned wells, school bus incidents, property records, nursing home inspections and even a list of the victims of swindler Bernard Madoff. Some are fun, such as those listing a state's most popular baby names or vanity license plate requests that were rejected as "objectionable."

Increasingly, sites allow readers to customize data searches for up-to-the-minute alerts on neighborhood crimes, real estate transactions or when someone has called for city services to fill a pothole. Some even offer iPhone applications for mobile access.

The Post knows it's lagging. Old technology and short staffing are to blame. Raju Narisetti, the managing editor who oversees the Web site, said its decade-old content management system "can't really handle a lot of the databases and open-access information." A state-of-the art system, to be implemented by year's end, "will make it relatively easy to build those interfaces" to provide seamless reader access. Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, the editor who oversees local news coverage, said he already is scouting "easily scrape-able" government Web sites that will give readers information on crime, as well as "property records, applications for various permits and service requests."

Not all government databases are reliable, cautioned Sarah Cohen, the Knight professor of journalism at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy. And she said offering data without context, such as teacher salaries, risks being little more than "voyeuristic." Cohen, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Post, still works for the paper on contract.

A separate problem is that government agencies keep many databases secret. It remains "too easy for the government to say no" if officials fear data might be embarrassing, said Rick Blum, coordinator of the Sunshine in Government Initiative, a news industry group fighting for open government.

There's urgency as The Post plays catch-up. Narisetti said that's partly because more robust competitor sites are emerging.

But the urgency also stems from the need for The Post to increase revenue. It returned to profitability in the final quarter of 2009, but it lost money for the year.

"The revenue models online are driven by page views and time spent," Narisetti said. "The more databases readers can engage in [means] they're spending more time on your site." He added: "There is a clear business value for wanting to do this."

Money aside, there are strong journalistic reasons for The Post to expand database access. Public information increases transparency. Government is more efficient and honest when the media, in concert with the public, can monitor its activities. That point is worth remembering today, the kickoff for national Sunshine Week, which annually focuses public attention on the value of freedom of information. (Full disclosure: I helped launch it in 2005 and remain active in the initiative each year.)

With the president's mandate to increase public information, the federal government is offering more data online. State and local governments are doing the same. Technology aids transparency. And The Post should help its readers by becoming a robust online gateway to digitized information. If not, readers' loyalties will shift to another brand.

Andrew Alexander can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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