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Calling for Common Sense (and Bulk Data) in California

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  Request denied. That’s the response MapLight, California Common Cause, and 10 other media, transparency, and reform organizations (including Sunlight) received last Wednesday to a letter submitted to the office of California’s Secretary of State. The letter made a simple request of Secretary Debra Bowen’s office: Add the option of downloading bulk data from California’s campaign finance and lobbying database (Cal-Access) by posting this information in one, single, downloadable file on this public website, and keep this information up-to-date. Not quite a hamfisted transparency reform, but one that’s proved to be quite revealing about online disclosure in the Golden State. Currently there are only two ways to access the information contained on Cal-Access. The first is to slowly surf through the portal’s online interface, choosing limiting, specific sub-fields of information types (i.e Listing by Certified Election Candidates; Incumbents; etc), and relying on the system to generate specific reports that do not allow users to easily compare (or download) information. The second way is via CD-ROM. Yes, to gain “open” access to structured, bulk data from the state of California about campaign finance and lobbying information, you need to submit a request and pay $5 and wait for the state to send you a CD-ROM. There are a lot of problems evident in this scenario, not the least of which is the delay (up to a month!) caused by needing to translate information that already exists in an electronic format into a “physical” one (the CD-ROM). This delay not only costs the state in terms of staff time and resources, but also has a huge cost to the citizens of California. Californians have a right to unfettered access to public information -- like lobbying and campaign finance reports -- which provide vital knowledge and data about how the state government operates and who is trying to influence that power. Five dollars -- or fifty -- is too high a cost to pay for this access.

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