California government provides a wealth of campaign finance data at its Cal-Access website, but actually mining the resource for useful information on a daily basis is nearly impossible because of its atomized format.
News and advocacy organizations asked California Secretary of State Debra Bowen in a letter (pdf) to provide a more transparent format that would allow interested parties to download a single, comprehensive copy of the database rather than individual snippets of data that don’t lend themselves to analysis.
Access to the database online would show a commitment to “shining a light on money in politics,” provide “valuable civic information” and save “precious state funds” by relieving State Department support staff of having to fulfill public records requests.
Bowen responded last week that, for technical reasons, the answer is “No.”
In a letter (pdf) to California Common Cause, MapLight, the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, the California Newspaper Association, state Senator Leland Yee and others, Bowen reiterated what she said she told Common Cause in 2011; the department’s computer system was too old to properly prepare the material.
The problem, she said, was that state law prohibits the disclosure of certain privileged information, like addresses and phone numbers, posing insurmountable problems at producing a daily downloadable spreadsheet with the data.
Phillip Ung of Common Cause told the Sacramento Bee that he questioned that rationale, since people can order a DVD of CD-ROM of the database for $5 that includes all that material. It just can’t be viewed on the Internet.
Bowen said Internet access was the key, and that money and resources constrained her ability to change the policy. “While the 14-year-old Cal-ACCESS system can do many things, it does not contain a design component that redacts, blocks or filters this information from the data you would like to see posted on the Internet,” she wrote.
Dan Newman, president of MapLight, said that wasn’t a problem and offered to have his staff write the computer code necessary to redact the private information. “As anyone who has ever deleted a column in a spreadsheet program knows, it’s simple to remove unwanted data from a database before releasing it,” Newman told the Associated Press. “No one has to take a can of Wite-Out and redact the data.”
Although Bowen came into office with a reputation for being tech savvy, she received harsh criticism in 2011 for computer problems that crashed the state’s campaign finance disclosure database for more than two weeks and crippled the system for validating new voter registrations. Work on a new voter registration database has been marred by delays and isn’t expected to be in place before 2015.