Saturday, March 18, 2006

Deconstructing KXAN...

Jim Swift, over at KXAN, recently did a piece on open government. As his story had a few inaccuracies and some misleading statements, I would like to take the time to set the record straight on a few things.

First, the meat of the problem.

Mr. Chapman, who Mr. Swift interviews, pulls out as an example crime information used by gun dealers in Los Angeles to promote guns in high crime areas. This was taken by Swift to be an example of openness "jeopard[izing] the safety and privacy of citizens."

I'm sorry but I don't see the connection.

Owning a gun is legal. Marketing guns to customers is legal. Neither one has anything to do with privacy of citizens. Could crime information be the privacy invasion Swift or Chapman was thinking of? I don't see how. The rights of society to know the when and where of crimes outweighs the rights of suspected criminals. This is a decision we as Americans made long ago and the OGO does nothing to change the status of crime info as an open record. To put this information online is, in fact, a decision that the City of Austin made long ago as well. That is why you already can get crime information online here in Austin. But I couldn't get the City's "Crime Viewer" software to work, and the crimes sorted by neighborhood page shows that crime apparently stopped in Austin in 2003. Only the text files available online show up-to-date information about crimes. Crime information, I note, that does nothing to even remotely invade privacy.

How about security? This blog isn't about gun rights and laws, but it is a hard stretch for me to tie the OGO Amendment to the debate about gun ownership. We shouldn't hide the community from knowing about the crimes that happen sometimes in their own backyard, and to say that the OGO somehow harms the safety of the citizens of Austin is downright misleading.

Next, I need to clarify an inaccuracy in the report. The local organization that fights for your cyber-liberties is called EFF-Austin, and I am on the Board of Directors. EFF-Austin has a rather unique history. As it states on our website, we were originally intended to be one of the first chapters of another organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation or EFF. However, EFF decided long ago not to have chapters and we continued to exist as a separate entity with the name “EFF-Austin”. We were, in fact, formed out of the very first legal case that the EFF had which involved a dispute between Steve Jackson, one of our founders, and the Secret Service.

Thus Gary Chapman is on the Board of Advisors of EFF-Austin, not the EFF.

I would also like to take this opportunity to explain EFF-Austin's position on the Open Government Online Amendment. EFF-Austin has officially endorsed the OGO Amendment. In fact, I was present and contributed to the drafting of the amendment and currently work on the campaign to get the amendment passed. Chapman is, of course, on our Board of Advisors, but does not officially represent EFF-Austin. EFF-Austin fully supports the Open Government Online Amendment and supports an open and accurate debate about it.


At 5:09 AM, Blogger Kathy Mitchell said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 5:32 AM, Blogger Kathy Mitchell said...

Just to be clear, most crime information would still be confidential if this amendment passes. Nothing new would become public. Detailed information about specific crimes is confidential under various exceptions to the Public Information Act--particularly Sec. 552.108 which protects information related to the detection, prevention or investigation of crime.

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Gary Chapman said...

This is Gary Chapman.

I haven't seen the KXAN TV report. There may have been some things that came into the report that I didn't say or intend. I never said I was on the board of EFF.

If the segment says that the story about the LAPD's crime maps is an example of public information jeopardizing the privacy and security of citizens, this was a misunderstanding of my point.

The point I was trying to make is that making information public can have unanticipated consequences, and some of those consequences come as negative surprises to both public officails and citizens.

There's a crime information example here in Austin. The APD's crime information once listed the house number of a crime scene with the block's first digit followed by the appropriate number of zeroes, in order to obscure the actual house -- for privacy reasons -- but to show the general neighborhood of a crime incident. But of course there are many *actual* houses that have that specific address, the one with the lead digit followed by zeroes. In some cases those residents started to complain that their houses were being reported as having been the site of crimes that didn't happen at that house, and in some cases more than one crime. So the City's information managers changed the system to list the first digit followed by "X's," instead of zeroes.

The point is that decisions about what to make public require a fair amount of attention, experience, testing, and feedback. And there are lessons to be learned from cities or other governments that have released information and learned something from that. That was the point about the LAPD's crime maps and gun vendors example. The LAPD didn't anticipate that, didn't like the result, and thus learned something from an unanticipated consequence of putting crime incident maps online. This doesn't mean that Austin should *not* put its crime incident maps online, only that there should be an informed and iterative process of making such decisions that weighs what risks and benefits might result.

Gary Chapman
LBJ School

At 8:52 AM, Blogger JS Hatcher said...

For the record, both the video and a transcript of the KXAN report are available online here.

Thank you, Mr. Chapman, for clarifying your point--that didn't come across in the piece. But there seems to me to still be some confusion about the issues involved with the OGO Amendment. There are two, separate, and distinct issues involved and talking only of making information "public" confuses the two.

One - What is considered public information under the law.

Two - What public information should be placed online.

The OGO affects both of these areas, but doesn't affect them in the same way. In relation to the first area, the amendment takes away some very specific options from the City under Texas law to withhold certain information. These categories of information are outlined in Section 4. See the Section-by-section analysis for further details.

Second, the amendment requires specific items to be placed online and then sets a possible and practical standard for other information. The specifics of what must be online are in Section 3, and is not the same information as in Section 4. Again, see the section-by-section analysis for details.

Making the information public is one issue, and making it available online is another issue. Both issues are in the amendment, to different degrees, and both issues are part of the debate. It has been said before, but it bears repeating: This is a charter amendment, and the City has a great deal of latitude to parse such niceties as how to reveal street numbers in City ordinances and implementation policies when enforcing the OGO. That is when such subtleties and the debates attached to them will be the most valuable.

At 6:36 AM, Blogger Kathy Mitchell said...

It's unlikely that anyone will look back at this string, but I just wanted to highlight a point made by Jordan. Most of the information the city claims it will have to put on line is in fact completely discretionary. They get to decide by ordinance what to put on line with the exception of a specific list of items that constitutes a "floor" of compliance. Those items include things like the city's legal docket, city policies that directly affect members of the general public, agendas and minutes of meetings etc. There will be considerable negotiation, discussion and policy development to determine the ordinance that will define other items that are "practical" to place online after this passes--and I hope that Mr. Chapman will be part of that process.


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