Monday, March 03, 2008
By Centinel March 3, 2008
Several weeks ago, reader AA initiated a collaboration with the blog. The goal was to highlight areas of city government that are transparent in theory, but in practice, thanks to the information cost, are completely opaque. The aim was to find a topic that we thought should easily accessible to the average idiot, namely local campaign finance. We looked around and quickly found a pair of idiots, reader AA and myself.
The test was simple. We asked for a list of all the donors to all the campaigns in the last election cycle for city council and mayor in Pasadena. I expected that we’d be emailed a link to the relevant file or have a PDF fired back to us with the info. Boy, was I wrong.
The city clerk’s office was courteous and helpful. Unfortunately, they helpfully copied hundreds of pages of Form 460s. The forms were filled in by hand, wildly varied in their completeness, scrawled in degrees of illegibility. There was no way to quickly browse the information, to do any kind of meaningful comparison. To actually search for a donor’s name required you flip every single page of every single candidate’s forms.
This may have been a cutting edge way of doing things back when quills were the premier data entry technology, but it doesn’t pass muster in a digital age. Hell, none of the forms had even been typed in (on, you know, a typewriter), leaving countless names and occupations inscrutable. To my knowledge, a single candidate, Steve Madison, was kind enough to have a front page that listed all his donors and relevant info up front, neatly typed and easily scanned (well done, Steve).
By the time we were finished digitizing this information, it had cost us over a dozen hours, which equates to hundreds of dollars of lost productivity between us. The end result was a functional database of all donors to the most recent city council campaign, but the cost was completely unreasonable. Even more galling, there is absolutely no reason for the system to be this way: the software exists for candidates to file these forms electronically (and is in use in nearby Los Angeles) and avoid this process entirely.
Over the coming week, we’ll be posting some of the highlights of our civic exercise (known unofficially as the “cam-pain-in-the-neck finance project”). Below is the first treat: a breakdown of all Mayor Bill Bogaard’s donors by zip code. Feel free to point out any interesting bits and pieces in the comments. Also, you can play with the full data set over at Many Eyes.
I’ll be the first to admit that we may have made some missteps and there may have been an easier way to do this. We just couldn’t find it. And two reasonably competent interested citizens couldn’t find it, then the information is too hard to find.
UPDATE: Note that you can play with a lot more information in this visualization if you muck about with the tabs at the bottom of the image.
Click here to view the visualization.