On the Media: Let's put more public documents online

How far have we come from the world of Deep Throat and the superhero reporter when the biggest news of the day arrives via a somewhat obscure website, in the form of tens of thousands of documents dumped by an unknown source?

It's hard to know how they'll cast the movie version of WikiLeaks' reporting on Afghanistan, but someone should try because journalism has reached a watershed in which massive data files, collected anonymously, can reshape the way we see the world.

The only shame is that we have truckloads of needed detail about a war half a world away but only the barest clue about government hanky-panky right under our noses. Think the recent salary scandal in Bell, which paid its top officials like junior executives at a Fortune 500 firm.

Is there any reason why every city in California shouldn't put up a Web posting with the salaries of top employees and elected officials? How about a state law that says the information must be posted online?

That should be just a start to an epic document dump, which would allow journalists and citizens alike to make meaningful searches of government business. But the push for greater transparency has been one of those public policy orphans — with no great champion or sense or urgency. Maybe the scandal in Bell — a hideous, multi-year rip-off of public funds — stands a chance of changing all that.

In the meantime we have to rely on private companies and citizens to push their government to do more. Some have already stepped in to fill the gap.

Thomson Reuters, the news company, has created the Open Calais initiative, a Web operation with software that sifts mountains of data to identify people, places and things and the relationships between them.

The company opens the service to outsiders, so one major metropolitan newspaper used Open Calais, for example, to show how development contracts were awarded. (Thomson Reuters said the paper did not want to be identified until the project is complete.)

It's not hard to imagine the power of a database that might include, for example, the minutes of meetings held by every agency in California, along with records of all campaign contributions and contracts.

But as with most powerful technology tools, the ultimate advances come only when a human brain applies its reasoning, intuition and moxie to the raw data. The challenge, in a time of shrinking news organizations, is in finding the individuals who will provide that brain power.

The Washington-based Sunlight Foundation has taken up the challenge. It called on citizen witnesses, for instance, to paw through a campaign contribution database to find out how much money members of Congress funneled to their wives.

The foundation put out a call on its blog for the job, and volunteers needed just one weekend to check on all 435 representatives. They found 19 instances in which spouses had gotten campaign cash. The total came to more than $600,000.

Among its more recent projects, the Sunlight Foundation unleashed its "Transparency Corps," a volunteer group that roots out information about public officials. To keep its volunteer information collectors energized, the foundation awards points for tasks completed. It then ranks the top performers and displays their photos or avatars on its website.

"I just like investigating and finding connections and shining a light under rocks and that sort of thing," said Alex Brant-Zawadzki, a journalist and political operative who helped the foundation collect the information on campaign bucks paid to political spouses.

The moment is ripe for a news outlet or nonprofit to employ such models here in L.A. County.

But that doesn't mean cities will willingly pump their pay raises and developer perks into a computer. When they go to city hall, the first answer they're likely to hear is "no." They should respond — according to Jim Ewert, legal counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. — by asking what provision of the Public Records Act allows for the information to be kept secret.

The First Amendment Coalition has a form letter online for those who want to formally request information. The organization and others, like Californians Aware, provide advice to those who run into roadblocks.

Persistence is the key. Sometimes you have to be ready to go to court to free up documents that should be made public with no fuss.

Newspapers used to handle this job all on their own. But now the printed word has retreated in many places. Jane and John Q. Citizen may have to step into the void.

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey

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