During “Sunshine Week” – a time to focus on the trend toward greater government transparency in the U.S. – let’s recognize the City of Los Altos for its progress. Here are some improvements in “data transparency” we’ve seen in the last several years of council-watching. (Here’s the organization behind Sunshine Week.)
We want to commend the City of Los Altos for:
- online city council meetings videos for delayed streaming
- online city council study sessions videos for delayed streaming
- coming soon…online Los Altos School District meetings video for streaming
- online agenda documents from City staff, consultants, etc. (rather than paper binders)
- clearer City financial reporting – thanks to Russell Morreale, Dir. Of Finance
- upgrade of the video streaming to include mobile-friendly mp4, mp3 formats
- buying new software for document management of legislative & public records
- promoting the City IT function to “Department” status
EDITORIAL COMMENT: The City of Los Altos has come along way, but let’s reach higher. Portland, Seattle, NYC, Chicago are admittedly big cities, but take a look at their web sites. That’s the direction City of Los Altos should be looking over a 10 year horizon. Partnering with other small cities and also with school districts to share some IT technologies, contracts, and costs might be the way to move forward.
Areas for City Government improvement:
- Improved Website UI (User Interface) and Navigation
- Online Access to Financial reports as .xls or machine-readable datasets, not .pdfs
- Online Ability to track/search issues from start to finish over the process
- Online Access to Commercial and Multi-family project documents
- Online Citizen participation technologies ( e.g., See www.peakdemocracy.com)
- Process Upgrade – more than 4 days agenda notice, cap on length of meetings at 11 pm
The Benefits of data transparency: Anyone can be an Analyst
An example: Any citizen could download a file of financial data and do their own analysis and charting. Third party organizations could do the same. Right now each individual has to perform tedious data entry or buy specialized OCR to get the data for analysis. So it isn’t done. (And we’re pretty sure the original data were in .xls or could have been exported from an accounting system as .xls.)
The Costs: Some Trivial, Some Definitely Not
Releasing .xls and .doc formats along with .pdf is trivial. An online database of Legislatve documents will take time and money – but it will increase internal efficiency and performance of the City (estimated cost $100 to $200K – trivial compared to over $3M for downtown streetscaping)
What to learn more? Try these resources
Why pdfs are bad, even for text stuff like legislation.
Ten Principles for opening up Government Information
Similar to the preceeding, is 8 principles
Open States: 50! – a resource for legislative info in a uniform format
Wouldn’t we love to see to EASILY and QUICKLY see the following info for City Council members?
Here’s some voting and contributor info on Anna Eshoo our district federal congressman.
Last but not least is the link to the the website of the promoters of Sunshine Week. Their agenda is to help when citizens or journalists are barred from what one would think are open records. EDITORIAL COMMENT: Here in Los Altos and the Bay Area, folks are seldom flat out barred from access. It just can be troublesome, hard, slow, time-consuming. Sometime one doesn’t even know the records exist. Los Altos Politico considers all that to be opaque disclosure, semi-transparency at best.