Transparency in local government just became easier thanks to RecordTrac, a web-based application designed to help cities more efficiently manage, respond to, and track incoming requests for public records. For the public, the Code for America tool provides an easy way to request public records and track progress made on each request. The system also allows the public to search previous public record requests and access previously produced records. Tips and examples make it easier for the public to structure a request that can be satisfied without additional back-and-forth that delays response.
On Feb. 5, Oakland, Calif., Mayor Jean Quan announced that three 2013 Code for America fellows—Sheila Dugan, Richa Agarwal, and Cris Cristina—would work with city staff and the community to identify needs and develop new apps and tools “that will bring greater openness, efficiency and participation to local government.” RecordTrac is the result of these efforts: The app allows anyone to submit a public record request to the City of Oakland. Each message (request) is made public immediately and is tracked through the process of compiling the response. Also, users can search past records requests to view previously released documents. This eliminates the wait many people experience between submitting a request for a public record and receiving a reply. Documents that have been sought previously are immediately available. For municipal employees, it’s a vast improvement over older software that was not able to assist in compiling responses to complex requests within a reasonable time frame. The public was often in limbo in terms of what progress was being made on a request.
People have become accustomed to finding information online immediately, and government agencies must do a better job of emulating the private sector, championing openness and transparency while improving efficiency. According to Mark Headd, chief data officer for Philadelphia, “This is an innovative solution that will make it easier for citizens to request information and data from their city government,” increasing transparency and building more efficient processes while offering better access to public information.
Oakland is one of 10 municipalities (Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.; Las Vegas; Louisville, Ky.; New York; San Francisco; San Mateo, Calif.; South Bend, Ind.; and Summit County, Ohio) partnering with Code for America to “keep pace with the community they serve by creating and implementing new applications, and by demonstrating new ways of resolving local challenges.” One such app is CityVoice, a voice messaging platform in South Bend where the public can leave voice mail messages about abandoned properties throughout the city. Listen to recent messages and view the map on the CityVoice website.
What Is a Public Record?
According to the California Public Records Act, Government Code Section 6252(e): “‘Public records’ includes any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.” Today, this could include images or sound as well as printed correspondence.
Code for America
Founded in 2009, Code for America supports civic startups by helping to organize developers locally to reuse and deploy civic software. “Code for America is re-imagining government for the 21st century.”
RecordTrac is an open source software project that can be redeployed by any municipality. For additional technical information, consult GitHub.