The High Price of Transparency in India

Expertly documented by this New York Times story in yesterday’s paper:

Amit Jethwa had just left his lawyer’s office after discussing a lawsuit he had filed to stop an illicit limestone quarry with ties to powerful local politicians. That is when the assassins struck, speeding out of the darkness on a roaring motorbike, pistols blazing. He died on the spot, blood pouring from his mouth and nose. He was 38.

Mr. Jethwa was one of millions of Indians who had embraced the country’s five-year-old Right to Information Act, which allows citizens to demand almost any government information. People use the law to stop petty corruption and to solve their most basic problems, like getting access to subsidized food for the poor or a government pension without having to pay a bribe, or determining whether government doctors and teachers are actually showing up for work

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EFF Enters GIS Fray

This is a locator map showing Orange County in...
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Last week, EFF joined a coalition of public interest and media groups in filing an amicus brief (pdf) urging a California Court of Appeal to uphold the public’s right to access electronic files created and stored by local governments. The case, Sierra Club v. Superior Court, focuses on the public’s right to access geographic information system (GIS) basemaps created by local governments in California.

GIS basemaps integrate basic property information such as parcel boundaries, addresses, and other property data. Additional information can then be “layered” on top of the basemaps, enabling users to understand, interpret, and visualize data in ways that simply aren’t possible through the rows and columns of a spreadsheet. Individuals and organizations then use these maps for a variety of innovative purposes — for example, scientists use them, journalists and the media use them, and public interest organizations use them(pdf).

The Sierra Club filed a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for Orange County’s property information — information the County used and maintained in a GIS format. The Sierra Club requested the GIS basemap as part of its mission to protect open spaces in California: using the basemaps, the Sierra Club makes detailed maps of proposed real estate developments and suggests possible alternatives to those developments. The County, however, refused to turn over the information in the requested GIS format, despite its obligation under California law to provide public records in “any electronic format in which it holds the information.” Instead, the County offered to provide the property information in a pdf, even though the Countyalready had the information available in GIS format.

Orange County claimed that information stored in GIS format is exempt from disclosure under the “software exception” of the CPRA. While the CPRA does exempt government entities from disclosing “computer software developed by a state or local agency,” public information processed or formatted for that software is not exempt. Coupled with the County’s obligation to provide public records in the format requested, it seems clear that Orange County is illegally withholding its GIS basemap from the Sierra Club.

 

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What Do You Think Of This FOI Request?

The Charlotte Observer reportedly has made a most interesting FOI request:

The City of Charlotte has given residents on its e-mail list a heads-up about the Charlotte Observer obtaining the city list through an open records request. The paper’s Director of Strategic Products and Audience Development says the Observer requested the listings “because we believe that many of the engaged citizens on the lists would be interested in helping us improve our journalism by telling us about stories they see.”

 

AT&T, Corporate Privacy and Personhood: The Best Thing I Have Read on the Subject…

U.S. Supreme Court
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This piece in Slate gets it about right:

AT&T slips into the Supreme Court chamber this morning, moments before arguments are set to start. He feels slightly affronted that nobody seems to notice him. (AT&T is a very emotional guy.) AT&T is handsome in the obvious way. (He has the Nights and Weekends plan). After these same justices ruled almost a year ago to the day that he had the same political-speech rights as human people, he’s feeling a lot more corporeal than he used to. If things go his way today, in the coming years he will enjoy not only free speech and personal privacy rights but the right to bear arms as well.

 

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Legislative Update: West Virginia

Image: SOPS AF FOIA Request
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The House Judiciary Committee endorsed a measure Thursday that would define what that law considers a public record.

The bill says it’s any writing prepared or received by a public body, if its content or context relates to the public’s business.

The legislation responds to a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling. That decision went against FOIA requests by The Associated Press for a justice’s e-mail correspondence.

The committee endorsed a second measure that would exempt certain Division of Juvenile Services records from FOIA. It aims to protect details regarding detention facilities and security policies.

Both bills head to the full House.

 

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Penthouse Founder’s FOI Files Reveal, Well…

Penthouse (magazine)
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Before he rose to notoriety as the founder ofPenthouse magazine, Bob Guccione allegedly wrote letters soliciting customers to buy his dirty photos at the bargain rate of 10 photos for $2 under the pseudonym of “Robert Gucci.”

That’s just part of what is revealed by the more than sixty pages of FBI records on Guccione obtained by TPM through a Freedom of Information Act request. Guccione died in October at the age of 79.

Until now, it was widely held that Guccione got into the business in 1964 with the founding ofPenthouse. But the new information unveiled in an FBI file from 1964 shows that a “Gucci” who shared an address with Guccione had been under investigation in 1956 for “sending obscene photographs through the mail.”

 

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Dogs in planes = health issues

Thinking of flying with your pooch? Depends upon the breed, apparently, according to nice FOI work by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

More than 20 animals died or were injured or lost on Delta Air Lines flights last year, a number that shows the dangers pets can face when they take to the skies.

The Delta incidents, including those on Delta Connection regional flights,  involved several bulldogs and pugs that died during transit, along with other types of dogs  and animals that ran into trouble during their travels. According to Delta reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation for last year through November, other animals that died included a Jack Russell terrier, a pit bull terrier, a Boston terrier, a Dogue de Bordeaux, a Labrador retriever and a bird.

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Postal Service Spent Crazy Money on Armstrong…

Cyclist Lance Armstrong at the 2008 Tour de Gr...
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No wonder stamps keep going up….

The U.S Postal Service spent $31.9 million to underwrite Lance Armstrong’s pro cycling team during its glory years of 2001 to 2004, approximately 60 to 65 percent of the team’s total budget, according to documents newly obtained from the agency under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The materials provide the first clear look at how heavily the agency invested in Armstrong and reveal the exact dollar amounts at issue should Armstrong and former team officials be charged with fraudulent use of government funds at the conclusion of an ongoing federal investigation.

Until now, the USPS has gone to great lengths to keep the precise amount it spent on Armstrong a secret. In 2003, the agency’s Office of the Inspector General issued an audit report that was highly critical of the deal but blacked-out specific sponsorship amounts.

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Now here is a great idea! An FOI training session for CITIZENS!

A free three-week class on the Freedom of Information Act will be offered at The Register Citizen’s new Community Journalism School next week, and it’s not too late to sign up. The class will be available online.

Former Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission member Andy Thibault is teaching the class, which will also feature guest speakers including South Windsor Police Chief Matthew Reed, Freedom of Information Commission staff members and Jan Smolinski, who used the Freedom of Information Act to bring public attention to the infamous missing person-turned-homicide case of her son, Billy.

Sunshine Week: Looking for an FOI Hero

Sunshine Week 2011 (March 13-19) will highlight “Local Heroes” across America who have played significant roles in fighting for open government, the American Society of News Editors announced Thursday.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Free materials that individuals and organizations can use to participate in Sunshine Week are available on the project’s website.

“As a society, we often associate the word ‘hero’ with movie stars and athletes,” said Tim Franklin, co-chair of the ASNE Freedom of Information Committee. Franklin is the Louis A. Weil Jr. Endowed Chair and Director of the National Sports Journalism Center at the Indiana University School of Journalism in Bloomington. “But in a self-governing democracy like ours, it takes the commitment and passion of average citizens doing extraordinary things to make government more open and more accountable.

“The ASNE Sunshine Week Local Heroes winners won’t be seen on the big screen or on ‘Sports Center’ highlights. The largely unknown winners in this contest, however, will be heroes to anyone who pays taxes and votes in a local community — in other words, to every single resident who lives there.”

The winner of the Local Heroes contest will receive an expenses-paid trip in April to San Diego to be honored by the nation’s newsroom leaders at the 2011 ASNE convention. Second- and third-place winners will receive $500 and $250 prizes, respectively.

 

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