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Access to records easier on Internet

By John Perry Published: October 11, 2001
In the weeks after terrorists flew hijacked airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, newspapers nationwide began asking just how secure our airports are.

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They found, in many cases, that Federal Aviation Administration inspectors have been able to regularly slip dummy weapons and explosives past passenger screening stations.

If reporters had sorted through stacks of the paper records of airport security violations, research for those stories would have taken months.

But newspapers could quickly assess security at local airports through the FAA's Enforcement Information System database, a collection of data tables that record the agency's enforcement efforts, including citations issued for security violations.

One primary activity of a bureaucracy is to collect and process information. And in this computer age, bureaucracies from small town police departments to the largest federal agency store most of that information in computer files.

For journalists and ordinary citizens who want to know what their government is doing and how well it's doing it, the computerization of public records is both an opportunity and an obstacle.

Accessing these electronic government records requires technical skills well beyond those needed to search through a pile of paper records. But it also makes it possible to analyze thousands, or even millions, of records in a short time.

As personal computers grow ever more powerful, software becomes more user-friendly and government agencies begin making electronic records accessible through the Internet. Thus, analyzing government data is coming within the realm of the general public.

To find out what kinds of information state agencies are keeping in electronic records, FOI Oklahoma Inc., a nonprofit group that supports government openness, surveyed 57 agencies about what information they keep in databases and what arrangements they have to make the data available to the public.

Among the information available is a state Commerce Department database of building space available for industrial development; the state Medical Licensure Board's database of disciplinary actions taken against doctors and other health care providers; the state Labor Commission's database of amusement park ride safety inspections; and the state Education Department's database of financial information from public school districts statewide.

Oklahoma's Open Records Act considers these data files to be records, subject to the same disclosure requirements as any piece of paper stored in a state agency filing cabinet.

All but a few of the agencies surveyed said they could make electronic records available to the public in easy-to-access formats such as spreadsheets, text files or popular database formats.

A few agencies said because they use mainframe computer systems that require extensive programming to retrieve information, responding to public requests for electronic records would be difficult.

Most agencies said they could provide electronic records on a variety of standard media, including diskettes and CD-ROMs. Several agencies said they could deliver data by e-mail or make it available to download over the Internet.

The state Election Board said it can provide large data files only on nine-track tapes, an older medium that would require special equipment not generally available today.

The state Open Records Act allows agencies to charge only the "reasonable, direct costs" of copying the records. The law also bars agencies from using fees "for the purpose of discouraging requests for information or as an obstacle to disclosure of requested information."

Most agencies that responded to the survey had policies that only addressed fees for paper records. Of those that did list fees for electronic records, most listed fees ranging from $25 for the state Motor Vehicle Commission's master dealer list to $150 for the statewide voter registration database.

Some agencies' fees were higher. Both the state treasurer and the state Transportation Department said they charge hourly processing fees of more than $900. If that is the direct cost of running their computers, the annual cost of operating the computers 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, would come to almost $1.9 million a year.

The Oklahoma Healthcare Authority posts a programming fee of $125 an hour, though payroll records show that the agency's highest paid data processing specialist earns less than $27 an hour.

Journalists jump in

In the last decade, newspapers have recognized the potential of electronic records, and they have built the expertise and technical ability necessary to make full use of electronic records.

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