Fun with FOIA – Public Records games in California

It’s a good day for open public data in Oakland today. And a slightly confusing one too.

The City of Oakland launched their new open public data system- a one stop website where you can find public records, GIS data, city data and more: http://data.oaklandnet.com

It’s just launched so not every conceivable dataset is available just yet, but this is a great start and a good sign that Oakland is slowly getting it that open government is not just good government, it’s also smart government. This is slow in coming, it feels like a long time back that I first started hounding city councilors and staff about considering open data in Oakland, but we got there!

And this new data is just in time for our next event- for International Open Data Day! We’re hosting a hackathon at the 81st Ave Library in Oakland, sign up now to get your data hack on with other great peeps who love this city and love data: http://opendataday.openoakland.org

So that’s the good part about open public data today, now for the strange part.

Property ownership data is public record. Your name and ownership data, property value and all that. You can even map it out nice and easy online. image

As soon as the Oakland site went live I got inquiries about parcel data. It wasn’t there strangely, so I sent people to the County site, and someone complained fairly that there were no owner records available. Strange. So I sent them a link to our community run data catalog which has our complete Assessor’s Secured Roll. Easy. Collaboration and communication, nice.

Well, nice until a clever reporter type pointed out the wonders of the California Government Code Section 6254.21:

(a) No state or local agency shall post the home address
or telephone number of any elected or appointed official on the
Internet without first obtaining the written permission of that
individual.

Ahhhh, that would explain the missing name fields. Government agencies cannot publish addresses of electeds. So instead of maintaining a long list of those names to scrub form data files, they just presumably remove the entire name field? Interesting.

Even more ominous is the following:

(b) No person shall knowingly post the home address or telephone
number of any elected or appointed official, or of the official's
residing spouse or child, on the Internet knowing that person is an
elected or appointed official and intending to cause imminent great
bodily harm that is likely to occur or threatening to cause imminent
great bodily harm to that individual. 

Luckily I don’t know anyone who would want to cause harm, but the following section c goes on to describe that if an elected official writes to you, you have 48 hours to remove that info and you cannot transmit it in anyway ever again. Sure. Easy.

The screwed up part of all this is that for $25 you can walk into the county assessor’s office and buy a copy of the Secured Roll on DVD (cost of reproduction seems fine) and you have all the elected officials records, names and all.

So once again our laws, our practices and our technology are all out of wack. Government is prohibited from posting info online but can issue the file to anyone with no questions. Residents may post the content as long as they are nice. So given that I am of good intent only, it appears that I may legally post to the interwebs these data. Which I shall do.

Oh how I love you California.

Note- In California we don’t really use FOIA- our state and local gov is covered by the Public Records Act or PRA. Federal gov and some states are covered under FOIA. Just to be educational and correct. I did recall writing this above but Firefox did crash on me and wipe my entire post, in the rewrites I often get sloppy… oops.

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