State Puts Political Finance Data Online for the Public, but Amateurs Need Not Bother

Thursday, August 29, 2013

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said it couldn’t be done, and then she did it, sort of.

Months after telling news and advocacy groups (pdf) that her office could not post comprehensive campaign and lobbying financial data online in a searchable database because of technical issues, Bowen did the next best thing. She provided tab-delimited text files that people can download to their personal computers for use in their own searchable databases or spreadsheets.

“Next best thing” might be a bit of an overstatement. In this case, the next best thing is a zip file that takes more than an hour to download. It comes loaded with 80 data files that can be sucked into a database or spreadsheet and four pdf files that explain how to set the whole thing up. It is not for amateurs or the general public.

The Secretary of State’s office touts its existing online collection of data about lobbyists as being for the “curious” who want to know who California’s lobbyists are, who hires them and “how much is being spent on lobbying.” While you can ferret out information on individual lobbyists and the parties that hire them, Cal-Access does not provide access to its wealth of information in an accessible database.

If you really want to know “how much is being spent on lobbying” you had to buy a CD-ROM of the raw database from the state. In April, the Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Bee, Common Cause, the Sunlight Foundation, Maplight and other interested parties pleaded in a letter (pdf) for better public data access. “This change would vastly improve the public accessibility of valuable civic information, reaffirming California’s role as a leader in open government, and showing your commitment to shining a light on money in Politics,” they wrote.

Bowen refused at first, but in July said she would begin making available the raw data for download by Labor Day. The raw data has arrived. Hopefully, someone with more resources than the general voter will put it in a form they can use.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Under Pressure, Bowen Puts California Raw Finance Data Online (by Jeremy B. White, Sacramento Bee)

Sec State Bowen Tweets Why She Failed to Disclose Campaign Data Online (by John Hrabe, Cal Watchdog)

A Not-Too-Transparent Look at State Government’s Lobbyist Data (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Secretary of State Bowen Refuses Plea to Update Online Campaign Data (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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