Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Compare Websites: How SEWRPC's Ancient Website Defeats Public Information

I have posted more than once about how the website put up by the Southeastern Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) is not user-friendly, is barely interactive and rates about a D- on a public value scale.

SEWRPC doesn't even tape record meetings of advisory committees which are working on important, seven-county studies that will guide policy-making for the next 25-50 years.

Now compare SEWRPC's to the website of the newly-reconfigured Chicago regional (formerly Northern Illinois) planning authority.

One more time:

Chicago - - here.

And SEWRPC.

No comparison, right? The Chicago site even links to news, media and community organizations. Can you imagine SEWRPC doing that? On its website?

Get my heart medication.

Like its excuse that it cannot find the money to redo the region's 1975 housing plan - - no money, it says, though there's been plenty of money to buy a $4 million headquarters, cars for key staffers and long-range studies about freeway expansion and water supplies - - I suppose SEWRPC can't find a few bucks to move its website from circa 1995 to, say, 2000?

1 comment:

Dan Knauss said...

I was actually thinking about some related issues last night...the emerging need for "digital citizen" education and advocacy as well as education/consulting and lobbying on the corporate, NGO, and governmental end.

If/when online media becomes truly dominant, there should be a basis for legal changes requiring organizations like SEWRPC to do more than host token info sites. Right now it's still OK to have no site or an ugly, poorly organized one. Ideally that level of low expectations will change and groups like SEWRPC will maintain higher standards for their public face online.

Related problems and deeper issues:

-Generally bad interfaces and low profile of useful online public records. E.g., (1) Cannot search WDFI corporate records by names of directors; (2) MPD, city assessor's office, DNS and other data is just beginning to be integrated but with relatively cumbersome software; (3) Cannot limit CCAP search results by date, and the system refuses to return results that number over a 100 or so--common if you are searching for a large corporate entity, like a bank. An arbitrary restriction like this is perhaps a goad to force you to pay for the subscription-based service--another problem.

-Lack of metadata on public record databases (i.e. explanations of the data sources, limits, scope, currency, etc.)

-Lack of awareness of the availability/non-availability, usefulness, and value of this public interest information to many different categories of people.

One major cause of the problem of limited online access of "public information" may be a lack of awareness among information-producing organizations of the demand that exists for their information. Or perhaps they are rightly concerned about what serving that demand might lead to. Additionally, the demand for public information is not an assertive demand, at least not by people representing a broad public interest. It is much appreciated, but considered "extra," that governmental bodies have websites at all.

If you put useful info out, many different people will use it and become reliant on it. If you don't offer it, few will bug you about it, and there isn't much incentive to serve the public interest anyway.

That is not to say corporate or governmental interests are uniformly inclined to oppose public dissemination of information about their operations. (You do tend to get more control by carefully doling out info than by clamming up.) The public too has some interest in how "public information" is disseminated because it will be used in more and less predictable ways that affect individuals.

For instance, there is a major lack of awareness now of how our common expectations about "privacy" are totally obsolete due to the internet. Online real estate and PI/people-search services have mined public municipal and county records most people don't even know exist, and they've repackaged it as a saleable commodity.

Our minds, habits, and expectations haven't adjusted yet to the actual culture of what is possible and currently being done with information technology.

You get some funny scenarios, like this:

It would not be hard to create software now that would "research" all individual and corporate entities appearing before municipal committees and councils to request licenses, zoning changes, etc. This software would just automate multiple database searches: corporate records, court records, property records, etc. You can do this all step-by-step yourself by consulting google and various public databases online.

But almost nobody does that. The occasional citizen, and possibly a journalist, will do some of that if they have a particular motivating interest.

State, county, and municipal officials could do the same research themselves, very simply, as a rule. I suspect they do it only seldom when they have a compelling interest to do so. Were they to do it as a rule, some negative consequences might be: (1) a disincentive to citizen and journalist investigations on the idea that the machines (do the digging for us), and (2) an incentive for individuals and corporations to hide their tracks, more aggressively massage their messages, and generally "game" the system.