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Public Eye Northwest, October 4, 2012


Washington Meeting Transparency Winners

Great, a 126 page .pdf file with the city council's entire agenda packet. As an online publication doing original reporting emphasizing public sector source materials, we can sure do a lot with that. NOT. A key indicator for local and regional governments and state bodies which also hold regular public meetings, is the transparency of the online agenda. Here, openness means providing baked-in-individual links to most or all of the agenda items. The good news: some governments - including King County, Sound Transit, The City of Seattle, Seattle Public Schools, The Port of Seattle, and other cities, counties, ports and school districts - are doing it right.

Recently we combed through local and regional government web sites across The Evergreen State to come up with our link-list to the agenda pages of Washington public meeting transparency winners. Quickly scanning agendas each week, we find important accountability stories others miss, which we distribute to a growing readership through our site, social media and our relationship with The Seattle Times, as part of their News Partner Network. You'll see results of our agenda-mining in our article archives covering King County government, local governments in King County, and the City of Seattle.

Government's Secreted Data Problem

But making meeting documents linkable is just the start. Many governments claim to be further embracing transparency by putting public data sets online, which third parties can use to develop civic apps and data visualizations. Good, but the menus tend toward random and sparse - while the bulk of public data voluntarily released still lives in largely isolated .pdf files. This makes contextual historical data hard to get at. Example: in 2010 King County passed an ordinance mandating electronic summary disclosure of all its settled negligence claims of $100,000 or more.

However, we found the related quarterly reports published online since then are few and far between. Thanks to a diligent county employee who dug it up from internal storage, we got all the data we were seeking and crunched it, finding some interesting patterns. But it shouldn't be that cumbersome. Structured (numerical) government data that are key policy and performance indicators should be day-lighted 24-7 in refreshed spreadsheet files at agency web sites or parent government "open data" sites, in several basic formats friendly to repurposing (Excel, CSV, etc.). Digging through .pdfs to compile aggregate structured data is so......1997.

Here you'll see an example of what a smart approach can facilitate. Ferret volunteer Dr. Nathan Brown used 27 years of crime data for King County cities (that were reported by the cities to an association and then made available in an importable format) to develop an Excel spreadsheet enabling multiple filtered views. He also zeroed in on Seattle, using the spreadsheet data to develop some compelling graphs showing the city's steady drop in violent crime, by type, over those years.

State Govt. Agencies Add Value with Flickr

Government transparency isn't all about public meetings and hearings, reports, legislation, staff memos, and data. Audio, video, photography, and even gaming platforms are also ways that government and stakeholders can connect. We'll get deeper into government video best practices another time. Right here, we'd like to shine a light on two agencies in Washington State using the photo archiving site Flickr to good advantage. The Washington Department of Transportation has a series of Flickr albums on the deep-bored tunnel being built along the downtown Seattle waterfront to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct on SR 99. As well they should. But our favorite pic of theirs is the world's largest tunnel boring machine, coming soon to Seattle. Wow! And the Washington Department of Ecology uses Flickr to accent the varied and fairly awful marine debris which washes up on our ocean shores. Hold that oil drum, would ya?

Report: North Sounder Commuter Rail Weak

The Citizens Oversight Panel of Sound Transit dug in deep and found that the North Sounder Everett-Seattle commuter rail line is underutilized and too costly to operate, while several miles to the east along the I-5 corridor the agency's leaner express buses to and from Seattle are much more popular but badly overcrowded. The report urges several remedies and a key benchmark for future decision-making on North Sounder. More articles accenting government accountability are in our Management archive.


Get Involved in State's Vehicle Mileage Tax Study

Washington State has begun a preliminary feasibility study on eventually implementing a vehicle mileage tax to fund surface transportation needs. More background, including how to get involved here. More in our Washington State+Transportation archive.

Why Owl Poop Matters

From Public Data Ferret's Open Science archive

UW Study: Scat-sniffing Dogs Can Help in Spotted Owl Counts,

Pertussis in WA Hit Hispanics at Double the Rate of Others,

Older, With Love Handles? No Problema, At Least Health-wise  

A Tip of the Hat to...

Summer 2012 Public Data intern, William McKee of Washington State University's Edward R. Murrow College of Communication contributed a number of well-done news articles, and is aiming for a career in radio news. Another Summer 2012 intern, Henry Apfel of the University of Washington, is entering his senior year and did a series of strong articles and data visualizations for us, successfully grappling with the Tableau Public tool. Dr, Nathan Brown's data visualizations and spreadsheet work has been invaluable, as has the rock solid reporting by veteran newsman John Stang. As ever, thanks also to volunteer Leif Hansen for newsletter production and database management.

Support Our Work... our "Donate" page or contact Matt Rosenberg to talk it over. And if inclined, please volunteer.

Our Elevator Pitch...

What is Public Eye Northwest? Glad you asked. Here's the quick-and-dirty.

Public Eye Northwest is a Seattle-based 501c3 public charity.
A key PEN project is the public service news database called Public Data Ferret. The Ferret's work is regularly linked to in The Seattle Times. Our mission:
1) Produce original, bias-free online articles from overlooked government documents and data.
2) Archive our work, by jurisdiction and topic for easy reference at our Public Data Ferret online hub.
3) Distribute the material widely through legacy media partnerships, social media channels, and networking.
4) Train students and community members to contribute.

5) Promote government transparency in the digital age.

More at PEN's website.
Matt Rosenberg,
Leif Hansen,
Copyright © 2012 Public Eye Northwest, All rights reserved.
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