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What We Don't Know We Don't Know

When it comes to making public data public, WNY is in the Dark Ages

Have a complaint about uncollected trash or a noisy neighbor?

New York City has an app for that.

Want to know if the streets you’re about to travel to work have been plowed?

Chicago has an app for that.

Curious about crime in your neighborhood?

Louisville provides an online map where you can check for types of crime by day, week or month.

It’s another story in Buffalo and Western New York, where local governments’ use of technology to inform citizens and taxpayers is behind the times in two critical ways.

First, local government websites are failing to provide even basic information to taxpayers. Forty-nine out of 53 WNY local government entities were given F grades in a report recently issued by the Empire Center for Public Policy.

“Most websites are missing a lot of information that we would consider critical to the taxpayer’s right to know,” said Tim Hoefer, the report’s author.

Secondly, local government entities here have done little to make their data publicly available online—a practice known as “open data.”

“We’re maybe 15 years behind the curve,” said Brian Borncamp, a Buffalo-based freelance programmer.

Borncamp is part of a cadre of open data advocates locally who face an uphill battle because of antiquated data systems, a lack of political will and the growing trend of local governments withholding records from the public and the press. As a result, the region is still more closed than open when it comes to public information and data.

Local governments lag

Local governments in Western New York do publish some basic information online.

The City of Buffalo, for example, posts its annual budget. Erie County publishes some contracts with vendors. The Town of Amherst puts up minutes of town board meetings.

But most data and other information collected by local government never makes its way from the filing cabinet to the web, where the public—who, after all, foot the bill—can access it.

That’s just not good enough, according to a study released earlier this month by the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based government accountability research organization.

Almost all the region’s local government websites received failing grades in the Empire Center’s transparency study because they don’t post enough information online. The study scored websites on factors like the availability of budget information, contracts and contact details for elected officials.

Among those who received F’s: the City of Buffalo, Erie and Niagara counties, and the Town of Amherst. Buffalo scored particularly low on its release of city contract information, while Niagara County stumbled on its failure to provide enough information about its finances.

In total, 49 of the region’s 53 local government entities scored F’s. That includes 20 of 21 school districts—all except Buffalo, which received a D.

Among the region’s results:

• Nine of 10 cities received an F. Only Dunkirk didn’t, earning a C. The lowest-scoring city was Lockport, with 41 of a possible 146 points.

• Four of 5 counties were graded F; Chautauqua County was the exception, with a D grade. Cattaraugus County scored the worst, with 35 of a possible 146 points.

• Twelve of 13 towns received an F; only West Seneca, scoring a D, didn’t. The lowest-graded was the Town of Tonawanda, with 65 points out of a possible 146.

• All 5 villages were graded F; Depew did the worst with 35 out of 146 points.

• Twenty of 21 school districts in WNY received F: only Buffalo didn’t, receiving a D grade. Lake Shore earned the lowest grade, 31 of a possible 141 points.

But WNY isn’t alone in its shortcomings: 85 percent of the websites for New York’s 500 largest counties, municipalities, and school districts also received failing grades.

“I often make the analogy between a taxpayer and local government and a stockholder in a company: you wouldn’t deny a stockholder the ability to come and look through the books, nor should you a taxpayer” said Hoefer, executive director of the Empire Center.

And he said local governments don’t have to spend a lot of money or invest in new technologies to improve their grade.

“It doesn’t have to be anything more elaborate than putting up a PDF of a file you already have,” he said.

Posting documents online could remove another barrier to accessing public records: cost.

The Erie County Clerk’s office, for instance, maintains a large database of public records, including land records like property deeds and mortgages, tax liens, and corporate “doing business as” filings. But under state law, clerks are permitted to charge for the information and costs can quickly add up.

To access documents via the county clerk’s online database, users must set up an account containing at least $250. Looking at original documents costs $5 per view, according to county officials, unless accessed from from a computer terminal inside the Clerk’s Office.

Progressive practices elsewhere

Making documents available is a start—but New York City and, to a lesser degree, state government—are going further, posting their data online.

New York City passed a law in 2012 requiring its agencies to make their data publicly available on the city’s open data site.

The state in 2013 launched a statewide portal, Data.NY.Gov, which offers datasets from 45 state entities. They include maps showing the location of regulated child care providers to databases of establishments with active liquor licenses to grades from restaurant inspections.

A growing number of local governments across the country are taking steps to open their data to the public.

And it’s not just big cities. The open data site for Weatherford, Texas, a city of 25,250, includes data on city code enforcement cases, which staff members worked on them, and how long it took them to close the cases.

Montgomery County, Md. publishes data on all commercial building permits issued since 2000, including information on their declared value and current status.

Burlington, Vt. makes available data from police incident logs dating back to 2011.

No city has gone further than Louisville. In October 2013, the mayor signed an executive order making public information “open by default”, declaring that the city will “proactively publish data and data-containing information.” Additionally, the city has created an inventory of information held by the city so that people know what records are kept—even if that information has not yet been made public.

Opening data to public

The release of government data has spurred the creativity of programmers to develop civic-minded apps in cities across the country.

“Someone might have an interesting use for some obscure data you might never think anyone would care about,” said Dan Magnuszewski, managing director of Z80 Labs, an incubator for tech startups located in downtown Buffalo.

Borncamp, co-founder of Buffalo Open Data said: “When you want to look at communities as a whole, that’s when open data is really important.”

He offered local property data as an example. The city’s online real estate database is searchable by owner name or address, which brings up individual records. There’s no easy way to look at records in bulk, so it’s hard to analyze broader trends across the city.

“A lot of the reluctance is an educational issue,” he said.

“Open data as a concept, as a movement, is relatively new and so if elected officials don’t understand it, they don’t see its value.”

There is also some fear associated with the prospect of greater transparency, Borncamp said.

“One of these fears is “dirty laundry”—that if we make things open then it’s only going to be used to shame public officials.”

Slow progress

Between 15 and 20 percent of county records are already available online, estimates Michael Breeden, Erie County’s chief information officer. He said that the county is working with staff from the state’s Open NY initiative but that a timeline for making more data available has not been worked out.

“We’re moving that way, but unfortunately, it’s not a fast process” he said.

Many of the county’s information systems are at least 20 years old and were not designed with online publication in mind. And a lot of record-keeping is still done on paper, meaning that the data those records contain would have to be converted into an electronic format before publication—usually a time-consuming process.

With the Open NY portal up and running, city and county governments don’t have to start from scratch to release their data. Even so, the road to publication can be a long one: some datasets on the Open NY portal needed as much as three months’ work before they were ready to be published, said Theresa Pardo, an advisor for the state’s Open NY initiative.

“Making a dataset available is one thing; making it available in a way that creates value is quite another” she said.

Local governments with limited resources should prioritize working out what information matters most to the community and how it can be released in a user-friendly format, said Pardo, who is also director of the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany.

“At the end of the day”, said Borncamp, the programmer, “this is all our data: it’s taxpayer funded. The onus should be on government to give that data out, not to make citizens come to them.”

Charlotte Keith is a reporter for Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center focused on issues of importance to Buffalo and Western New York. Visit daily for investigations, analyses, blog posts, and the latest from Tom Toles.

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