Op-ed: More local government transparency needed for Ohio campaign finance data

The following oped appeared in the print version of The Plain Dealer on Sunday, April 26, 2015 (yeah, Sunday circulation!), and online here at cleveland.com. Please share your thoughts about it there or below, and thanks to the editorial page editors for selecting this important content.

At a public meeting in Oakland, California, early in 2014, an analyst with the city’s Public Ethics Commission proposed the idea of building an app that would help residents understand who actually puts money into campaigns at the local level.

Five months later, after hundreds of hours of research and development, the city’s tech-savvy civic advocacy group, OpenOakland, launched an app called Open Disclosure, which makes obscure and complex campaign finance data intelligible to average citizens. Their process is described in greater depth in Government Technology’s article, “Oakland App Sheds Light on Campaign Finance.”

Oakland’s Open Disclosure is one of many user-friendly applications being developed across the country that transform individuals’ ability to meaningfully participate in government.

While state and federal government agencies have taken great strides to open data, local governments are far behind, and very few rival Oakland’s example. In spite of local data holders’ best intentions and commitments to transparency, local public data remain largely unpublished, data that are published are rarely machine-readable, and user-friendly apps that rely on machine-readable public data are hard to come by.

The Ohio secretary of state’s campaign-finance database illustrates the standard to which we should hold local boards of elections.

The database now provides information that is machine-readable and is searchable by term, candidate, election cycle, and keyword. These characteristics make it easy for users to make sense of the data, and support applications that rely on machine-readable data.

Ohio’s local campaign finance data landscape is lagging far behind the secretary of state’s model.

Though some local election boards have made updates that provide PDF documents to the public online, these improvements still hamper the mass aggregation and translation of election data because they don’t provide machine-readable data.

Across the 10 largest counties in Ohio, only seven post data online: Cuyahoga, Franklin, Summit, Montgomery, Lucas, Butler and Mahoning. The remaining three counties — Hamilton, Stark, and Lorain, collectively serving more than 1.5 million residents — do not have campaign finance archives online at this time. Most notably, none of these 10 largest Ohio counties posts data in machine-readable formats.

This landscape is especially troublesome since several of these election board sites are newly designed.

Election Data Chart

Without data being published in open formats, it’s no surprise that applications that rely on machine-readable data (such as Oakland’s) are hard to come by. Local governments’ lag in adopting open-data best practices is caused by a combination of resource scarcity and lack of awareness.

The development of open database systems and the conversion of archival information are huge undertakings that require new tech and training. Lack of awareness about open data standards is an even greater barrier, however. Most local agencies take their commitments to openness seriously, but are unaware of the seismic difference in usability between different data formats. It is incumbent on open-data advocates to work with agencies like election boards to inform and educate.

This local campaign-finance-data landscape is indicative of broader challenges standing in the way of connecting citizens with the information they need to meaningful contribute to the health of their communities. To adequately respond, government agencies need to collaborate across jurisdictions to identify and implement appropriate technologies. Right now, every county is developing election-data standards, internal database systems, and websites for publishing election data more or less independently — surely there are better solutions. They should consider working with the Ohio secretary of state’s office to consolidate information technology or the whole campaign finance reporting process altogether.

Additionally, outside advocates need to take a greater role in informing and helping guide these improvement efforts.

As with other government data transparency topics, the current landscape leaves much to be desired.

That said, the opportunities to make government meaningful in people’s lives, update government infrastructure to respond to the demands of the 21st century, and save money while doing so are unprecedented.

Beth Sebian is co-founder and executive director of OpenNEO, a nonprofit dedicated to improving data transparency and government openness in Northeast Ohio.

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