OpenGov Voices: Richmond’s new open data portal a good start, but more work needed

Tom Nash, journalist and FOIA agitator

The city of Richmond, Va., recently unveiled an open data portal that gives people access to important data that had long languished in dark corners of its website. Everything from crime data to property records are easily searchable and downloadable, with all sorts of charts and datasets ready to grab.

That all sounds fantastic, and it is. More cities, especially mid-size cities like Richmond, should be getting on board with the open data movement. But as a journalist who has now seen two small cities (see Somerville, Mass.) embrace this kind of transparency while ignoring others, it’s important that we remind government officials that open data is not a replacement for following the letter and spirit of freedom of information laws.

The same city that just unveiled its open data portal makes no serious attempt at accurate record keeping or fairness when it comes to FOIA requests. Its FOIA guidelines are more than a decade old and do little to actually guide anyone, and it charges fees based on whim rather than policy — when it’s not outright rejecting reasonable requests for important information.

A couple examples from the past six months:

  • It took a lawsuit from a citizen to wrest away the separation agreement between the city and its former chief administrative officer. The mayor even asked city councilors who wished to see it to sign a nondisclosure agreement first.
  • After the Economic Development Authority refused to release important documents about a deal that will bring in a popular west coast brewery to the city, a reporter’s persistence finally showed that construction began before the city council had voted on the proposal.
City Hall in Richmond, Va. (Photo credit: Taber Andrew Bain/Flickr)

But while we can fume over poorly behaved officials, we’re supposed to have FOIA laws that level the playing field. But the day-to-day reality of making a FOIA request from the mayor’s office is more like a slammed door than its much-touted portal. As a final example of how backwards their FOIA culture remains, Mayor Dwight Jones uses an AOL email account, whose each and every email is “searched” for any requested term two eyeballs at a time instead of by hitting the search button.

My first attempt at asking for this information came with an eight-hour estimate of “searching” for just one week’s worth of email. The details of the back-and-forth over how they came up with their unreasonable time estimate (which kept fluctuating with each protest from me) are available at MuckRock, if you think I’m exaggerating how awful the situation is.

So, Richmond’s open data portal looks great, and has some useful information. But no one should mention how great it is without noting that, behind the portal, the same culture of government obstinance remains. Open data can be a great tool for accountability, but we need our mayors to be willing to share information that we actually ask for — and not be using AOL email.

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