Ever hear of security by obscurity?  That's often what it seems Oakland city government practices, making new reports, studies, resolutions, etc. incredibly hard to find online or incredibly complicated to download.

Here's an example of what I mean. Want to find the latest reports and recommendations  from the City Administrator, Dan Lindheim? You can't. 

Even though much of his office's work is a matter of public record, there's no directory or folder online where interested citizens could access his reports are they are published.  Instead, an interested person has to go to the meetings site for the City, download PDF agendas for each meeting, and see whether a file or note from Lindheim has been embedded in one of those documents. 

Given that Council has at least 24 meetings a month, with committees and all, you can see how security by obscurity comes into play. Only the most determined end up with consistent access to city documents.

Not only that, many of the documents the city publishes as PDFs don't transfer at all to other formats.  Ever try to copy and past part of an Oakland City government PDF report into another format, like Word, so you can study it? More than 2/3rd of the time, you end up with little black squiggles instead of letters because the documents won't let you copy and paste.  This is so wrong!

Why can't the city just have an archive–wiki, directory, database, newsreader–all would work–that automatically ports ALL the public city memos, reports, files, into  a back end with a  web-based front end that would date and list all public documents? This site wold make RSS feeds available so people could subscribe to get new data, not just nots there is new data, as we have today, and offer a searchable archive so people could FIND topic using metadata and keywords?

(Sorry if I am speaking geek, here, people.)

There is no reason Oakland can't make this happen, and at a low cost. We just need to take action.

I'd like to see Oakland take a leaf from the work done by Jay Nath and his team in San Francisco and start an Open City Records project to go with the internal-facing records revamp.  Oakland should, in the next 90 days take the following steps:

  • Create an advisory committee or working group to advise on porting a revamped records management system to the web, specifically oaklandnet.com
  • Use that group to identify best practices and standards for web-based open data access around the country and provide education and learning to the city team involved in the Records Management process.
  • Create a budget and timeline for this work to happen as an overhaul of City Records  Management finally progresses.

Oakland Local would be happy to be part of a taskforce to work on this–for free. And we call on other who want to see more local government transparency on the web in Oakland to join us in asking Mayor Dellums, the city administrator and City Council to make real access to city data  a reality in Oakland.

Now that Oakland is getting a new City Records Management Program this is the moment to begin.

About The Author

Susan Mernit is editor & publisher of Oakland Local (oaklandlocal.com) a news & community hub for Oakland, CA. A former VP at AOL & Netscape, & former! Yahoo Senior Director, Mernit was consulting program manager for The Knight News Challenge, 2008-09; was a 2012 Stanford Carlos McClatchy Fellow; and is a board adviser to The Center for Health Reporting at USC, Annenberg School of Journalism. She has consulted with many non-profit organizations on strategy, product development and social media/engagement, including Salon.com, TechSoup Global, Public Radio International and the Institute for Policy Studies/Economic Hardship Reporting Project, led by Barbara Ehrenreich.