Tuesday, November 30, 2010

This paint has been tasting of lead!

So I'm actually really kind of looking forward to taking media law.

I'll likely be biting my words junior year when I'm taking the course that's known for its difficulty, but for right now anyway, it's really interesting.

And all of this coming with the fight for public records in Eastern North Carolina will give me some context.

Over Thanksgiving break, a young family friend informed me she was moving to Washington.

My response: Why? Do you know how badly public records laws are violated there??

She says, "I'm a teacher. I don't care."

I looked at N.C. G.S. 162 6.1 today — public records law regarding electronic communication.

All databases a government entity has, we have a right to as much we do public documents. They have to provide a list of what data they have, including all fields, and we have just as much right to them as paper documents.

In light of this, I have revised my letter. Any and all feedback is welcome.

Dear Washington Police Department:

Pursuant to the North Carolina General Statute 132‑1.4 I would like the ability to obtain a copy of each indecent and arrest report within 24 hours after the report is made. I am requesting that they include all information the law requires.

I requested this data in person at the Washington Police Department on Oct. 21. The original reports the department gave me took out the information of the nature of the crime when it covered the "status" codes on top of the property section of the report.

When it was deleted, it was written on top "Deleted in accordance with N.C. G.S. 132 1.4-j". That statute reads:

"(j) When information that is not a public record under the provisions of this section is deleted from a document, tape recording, or other record, the law enforcement agency shall make clear that a deletion has been made. Nothing in this subsection shall authorize the destruction of the original record."

First, on the copy, there is clearly a staple — yet I received no second page. It is not made clear that a deletion has been made. Second, this statute does not allow any and all information to be sensored. N.C. G.S. 134.1.4-c lists the following as things that cannot be censored:

1) The time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency.

I did not receive on this report the nature of the violation.

I am attaching a copy of the police report I received for reference.

N.C. G.S. 132‑6.2 explicitly states each exception where a government may charge more than the explicit fee of making the copy. Crime reports are not included. I know the Department normally charges $5 per report. The normal costs for the police report range from $.05 to $.25. $5 is excessive. "Actual cost" is limited to direct, chargeable costs related to the reproduction of a public record as determined by generally accepted accounting principles and does not include costs that would have been incurred by the public agency if a request to reproduce a public record had not been made.

I understand that if I seek a copy of this record, there may be a reasonable copying fee. Please inform me of that cost prior to making the copy. I can be reached at 919.455.7739.

In addition to the physical copies of these records, I am requesting access to any and all electronic forms of this information that the department has, including but not limited to spreadsheets, PDF files, word processing documents, databases, digital and image copies. N.C. G.S. 6.1 states:

"Every public agency shall create an index of computer databases compiled or created by that public agency.

The index shall be a public record and shall include, at a minimum, the following information with respect to each database listed therein: a list of the data fields; a description of the format or record layout; information as to the frequency with which the database is updated; a list of any data fields to which public access is restricted; a description of each form in which the database can be copied or reproduced using the agency's computer facilities; and a schedule of fees for the production of copies in each available form."

According to the statute, this request should be acted upon as soon as possible. Please feel free to contact me so we can work out a reasonable date.

If you choose to deny the request, then you are required to respond in writing and state the statutory exception authorizing the withholding of all or part of the public record and the name and title or position of the person responsible for the denial.

Thank you for your assistance on this matter.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

drafting

Writing public records requests, when you're not looking for a specific record, is awkward.

I drafted the requests to send to the police department this week. And trying to follow the typical request is difficult when you're not looking for one document. what I'm looking for is access.

The part about the fee is a little awkward to write as well.

Here's the draft of the letter. I'd appreciate feedback.

Dear Washington Police Department:

Pursuant to the North Carolina General Statute 132‑1.4 I would like the ability to obtain copies of police reports with all information the law requires. The original reports the department gave me took out the information of the nature of the crime when it covered the "status" codes on top of the property section of the report.

When it was deleted, it was written on top "Deleted in accordance with N.C. G.S. 132 1.4-j". That statute reads:

"(j) When information that is not a public record under the provisions of this section is deleted from a document, tape recording, or other record, the law enforcement agency shall make clear that a deletion has been made. Nothing in this subsection shall authorize the destruction of the original record."

First, on the copy, there is clearly a staple — yet I received no second page. It is not made clear that a deletion has been made. Second, this statute does not allow any and all information to be sensored. 134.1.4-c lists the following as things that cannot be censored:

1) The time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency.

I did not receive on this report the nature of the violation.

I am attaching a copy of the police report I received for reference.

North Carolina General Statute 132‑6.2 explicitly states each exception where a government may charge more than the explicit fee of making the copy. Crime reports are not included. I know the Department normally charges $5 per report. The normal costs for the police report range from $.5 to $.25. $5 is excessive.

I understand that if I seek a copy of this record, there may be a copying fee. Please inform me of that cost prior to making the copy. I can be reached at 919.455.7739.

According to the statute, this request should be acted upon as soon as possible, but in no event later than the third business day following receipt of this letter. If access to the records I requested is going to take longer, please contact me so we can work out a reasonable date.

If you choose to deny the request, then you are required to respond in writing and state the statutory exception authorizing the withholding of all or part of the public record and the name and title or position of the person responsible for the denial.

Thank you for your assistance on this matter.

Respectfully,
Kelly Poe


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Now now now

I'm sad to announce, I won't have a finished prototype by the end of the semester.

Although I learned a lot this semester about data sharing and organization, I don't have a real product to show for it. Because the actual data is harder to find than expected.

It's sad, because I expected to have a real product that would give the Washington Daily News a hand in the transition to online journalism.

But this class isn't about helping one small-town newspaper. It's about getting information to the public.

And what I've found is serious violations with to North Carolina public records law.

I hope whoever takes on this project after me is able to use what I've done and continue.

I've attempted to get my hands on public records, and I've found that they aren't really public. I asked the local journalists, they don't have any problem getting their hands on them. But going in as a citizen, they aren't public at all. And I've talked to the lawyers for the North Carolina Press Association, and they agree with me that I've got a case.

It's not okay to charge $5 for one sheet of paper that's a police report. It's not okay to censor the manner in which a crime was committed. It's not okay to hide the blotter or let us look through reports.

I'm creating a memo for the next person to continue the project. Right now, I'm in the midst of writing letters and requesting records.

I hope this product gets created. But more than anything, I just hope I make Washington, N.C., a more transparent place for everyone.

So now I'm going to put together everything I know. I know I can make a prototype if I really wanted. I'd have to write an SQL, and I could at least get address and incident type to make some sort of crime map for Washington.

But this has become something much bigger. If there's one thing I know I believe in, it's open government.

So that's my goal from here on out.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

sailing on

Google has so many random functions.

I never realized how many way there were to organize information until I took this class. And, dear God, I'm actually starting to use spreadsheets for my personal life.

I have a goal to go somewhere I wouldn't otherwise get to go to this Summer. For whatever reason, one of the areas I've taken an interest in is Alaska.

So I found a list of all newspapers in Alaska. With a little research I can make a database of addresses, phone numbers, circulation, whether they're daily or weekly, etc.

I'm excited about learning these new ways to organize data.

But I'm concerned with finding that data to organize.

The last time I attempted to get police reports from Washington, NC, I had to drive there. They also told me to get a weeks worth I'd have to wait at least four days because it would take them so long to manually censor them (AKA, violate public records law).

So I'm very concerned about how to get this data I'd need to play with in such a short time span.

I'm not sure where to go from here. But I'll make some calls in the morning and try my best.

Where I'm going next, I'm not sure.

Anyone got some spare police reports from Washington lying around?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Make a story out of all that we see

Only a few classes left.

I went to a meeting on Thursday where the class working with Whiteville presented their strategies to the Whiteville officials. I only wish our professor would have warned us not to wear jeans. I felt like a fish out of water and very disrespectful, but I had no idea what to expect out of the meeting. Also, the food was really really good.

It's sad that we won't finish this product by the end of the semester. I've become a lot more attached to Washington than I anticipated.

But the presentation on potential markets in Whiteville got me thinking about the potential customers in Washington. A lot of the ones that were presented seem applicable.

There's the "home for the holidays" group, consisting of those who use the news only when they come home from college, or wherever they've established a life elsewhere. There's not much reason to come to the small Pamlico town if you don't have family there.

The "Texting Teens" are different than the "Front-Porch Neighbors", and the way we need to deliver news is totally different. The Neighbors are the people who've been reading the paper for years, and as such, we don't have to worry about them losing interest in the print version of the paper. We know the best way to deliver the news.

The teens are, in fact, all about texting. They're about wireless laptops in Internet cafes and iPhones and 3G. They want news sent to them such that they don't have to actively seek it out, and they want it as soon as it happens.

I hope our project is continued into next semester. Seeing the students speak with the Whiteville folks, I was a bit envious of the relationships they've established. I wish I could have gotten to know some people in Washington a bit better.

I didn't anticipate all the obstacles I've encountered, though.

I do hope at the very least, some of the "Public" records actually earn that title by the time we leave.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

By morning light, the cinnamon's on her cheeks.

Today I tried out using mappable data.

In mapping crime, it's obvious why this is a useful tool. People want to know what the most dangerous spots are. People want to know where not to move.

For real estate transactions, it makes a lot of sense. You want to know where the land is so that you have context to go with the address, it actually means something to you.

Births and deaths I could see how it could be useful, although it's less obvious.

It's a much more complicated process than I expected though, to be honest. After playing around with ZeeMaps and MapAList a bit, I realized coding is not going away in this class. Before this class, I didn't even know what a CSV file was. Now, I'm learning excel in an entirely new way.

Once you figured out how to correctly arrange the data you needed, the sites were incredibly customizable. Even finding what data you needed wasn't as hard as it sounds. As a rule of thumb: delete stuff you don't need until you're left with what makes sense.

And considering most of them are easy to embed as well, I'm feeling optimistic about the web building portion of this class for the first time in a long time.

Now, with crime, it's a matter of deciding how to sort all the data we have yet again. How to group things? There's a difference between larceny and felonious larceny, but do those deserve to be different on the map? there's only so many basic colors of pinpoints we have before we start using picture of corns and shoes to mark locations of crimes.

It doesn't help that those looking for crime have so many different things they're looking for, as well.

Choosing how to organize all this data could prove to be the hardest part.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Onward, upward.

I've started the first stages of prototyping my product.

The essential mission of my product is this: if you come to my site looking for information about Washington, N.C. crime, you should be able to find it on my site.

Beyond that, you should be able to find it easily. If you're looking for a particular arrest, how many crimes are near your house, or the frequency of your crime, you should find it on my site.

I haven't quite gotten there yet.

Those are all possible searches, but there are a ridiculous amount more of typical users who would want this product.

But if a person comes to my site and browses through looking for something crime related that my product doesn't offer, it should still lead them to the correct information. For example, it's easy to google "sex offender map" and find a site that will tell you the criminal histories of whosever in your neighborhood. But someone could very easily come to my site looking for that. That's why the News & Observer links to that site on their crime data page, just as I would for mine.

It's hard to think of every possible use.

I'm trying think of all the possible fields people could search by. Here's just a few:
  • how many crimes on my street
  • how many larcenies, vehicle break ins, etc
  • all the crimes of a certain type, location etc. in a certain location
  • how many arrests made on violent crimes
  • search by name (i.e., see if that babysitter of yours has a Washington record)
  • how many crimes in a short time period
etc, etc.
So it's hard to make one product that will be user-friendly for all these different goals.

But I'll keep drafting products. I'll get there.

It's a matter of trial an error.

Onward, upward.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

City in a snow globe

Follow up on my last post: my professor, my editor and everyone I've talked to agrees with me in that Washington, N.C. is blatantly violating state public records law.

In recieving my first police report, there were several items taken out, with no explanation except that they were "Deleted in compliance with N.C. G.S. 1.4 (j)"

Well, upon looking up that law, this is my explanation:
"When information that is not a public record under the provisions of this section is deleted from a document, tape recording, or other record, the law enforcement agency shall make clear that a deletion has been made. Nothing in this subsection shall authorize the destruction of the original record."

So it's fine to delete certain things as long as it's made clear that a deletion has been made.

but, let's look at the provisions of this section:
"(1) The time, date, location, and nature of a violation or apparent violation of the law reported to a public law enforcement agency."

The police report withheld the nature of the crime. The department deleted the codes that explain what the "d" means on a status report, but as someone who has a fair amount of experience with police reports, I know personally that it means damaged. So not only is this deletion illegal, it's ineffective.

And, they only gave me one of two pages of the incident report, and it was not made clear

So while these reports may be possible for journalists to understand, they appear to be a different story for the general public. This is not okay. Public records law was not made for journalists. It was made for the public.

Also, they don't charge the press for their $5 police reports. But again — this is still a violation of the law. The law was not made for journalists.

I'll look forward to seeing how this ends up. I tried contacting Washington's paper today, to see if they were facing the same problems. Unfortunately the one man everyone told me I needed to talk to was out at the polls.

But what the managing editor told me is that while he has not been around that long, he has not heard of any problems they've had with the police department.

And I guess I could see how that could happen.

Journalists will press for information.

If the journalists get preferential treatment, then maybe they wouldn't pursue the rest of the laws for the non-journalists.

Though this class started out about just creating a WDN product, I'm excited that it could become much more than that.

Happy election day everybody!