July: Public info belongs on the Internet

2010 Columns

Albert Einstein famously said, at the advent of the nuclear age: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

Substitute a few words and it reflects how some people feel about the information age: “The unleashed power of the Internet has changed everything, save our eagerness to snoop on each other, and we thus drift toward the end of privacy.”

Today, thanks to the Internet, it’s easier than ever to get information on others. Naturally, some people don’t like this, especially when the information is disseminated by government.

But I would argue that access to this data is, by and large, a good thing.

Wisconsin’s strong open records law allows public access to nearly all documents and data kept by state and local governments. This law has served the state well, enabling citizens to educate themselves on the workings of government and hold public officials accountable.

Conflicts arise, though, when information collected by the government about persons and property is put online. And while things like medical records and Social Security numbers are properly shielded from release, other sensitive information is available for all to see.

For instance, anyone sued or charged with a crime can found on a Wisconsin website, even if the underlying action was ultimately dismissed. I sympathize with those who find this objectionable, but it’s simply an illusion to think people will no longer have access to this information if government stops putting it out. Private data miners will rush in to fill this void, for a nominal fee, without the checks on accuracy that the state system provides.

Increasingly, government agencies are putting data online because it’s cheaper and more convenient. I would argue that this, too, is appropriate, as public officials should be saving money whenever possible.

One example is a system called ELAM – for Enterprise Land and Asset Management – now being implemented by the city of Madison. It will serve as a vast repository of public information regarding city licenses, permits or infrastructure – everything from property maintenance complaints to restaurant inspection records to repair orders for broken street lights.

The city is spending $3.9 million to create this system, which it reckons will save at least $13.5 million in staff time during the first ten years.

City employees will be major users – no more pulling files in dusty backrooms when the data can be assessed from a laptop in the field – but the system will be available to everyone.

“I think it’s something that is going to take us into the next level of web-based governance,” Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz told the Wisconsin State Journal. He anticipates a high level of public interest: “Madison is such a wired city. No matter what we put out there, people use it.”

And that is their right. Public information is public for a reason.

A property owner should be able to find if a similar house on an identical lot next door is paying significantly less in property taxes because of a lower assessment. A prospective tenant ought to be able to learn if a given apartment has uncorrected building code violations. And diners have a right to check if the restaurants they visit have been cited for roaches.

All of this information is already available, and has been for years. It’s just much easier to obtain now, thanks to new technologies.

Of course, in exchange for being trusted with this information, the public should use it in sensible and responsible ways. Just because a restaurant was written up for having a refrigerator two degrees warmer than code prescribes (and promptly corrected the problem) doesn’t mean people who eat there are putting their lives at risk.

The unleashed power of the Internet has given the public unprecedented access to information, and there is no way to put the genie back in the bottle.

To some extent, though, all of us need to change our modes of thinking.

Your Right to Know is distributed by the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (www.wisfoic.org), dedicated to protecting open meetings and open records. Bill Lueders is the group’s president.