MNCOGI-SPJ response to School District 833 data practices proposal

Feb 4, 2014 | No Comments

On February 3, 2014, MNCOGI and the Minnesota chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists sent a letter to several members of the Minnesota Legislature in response to a legislative priority set out by the School Board for District 833. At its January 9, 2014 meeting, the School Board listed its priorities for the coming legislative session, including making modifications to the Data Practices Act that would permit requests to be answered only if they were of “general interest to the public.”

As noted in the joint MNCOGI-SPJ letter, the district’s proposed standard would – if adopted – weaken the long-standing presumption of broad public access to Minnesota government data.  It would also permit government entities to “play favorites” with data requesters, effectively allowing them to pick and choose between who they wished to respond to. To quote from the letter,

“The proposed criteria of “general public interest” is exceedingly vague.  Some government entities might favor one requestor over another on the basis of mere political considerations, or turn aside “uncomfortable” requests that sought data related to government mismanagement, waste, fraud, or other unflattering conduct.”

Minutes from the School Board’s January 9th meeting are here. MNCOGI’s letter is available for review here.

Encouraging words about open data from Minneapolis

Feb 3, 2014 | No Comments

By James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

Last month, Minneapolis’s Chief Information Officer, Otto Doll, convened a meeting with open data advocates to talk about how to get more city data into the public’s hands. I’m encouraged to see these kinds of overtures from public officials, and it’s clearly a response to the movement of civic-minded hackers who are changing the whole conversation about public records. Doll started the meeting by acknowledged that despite its progressive image, Minneapolis is way behind most major cities in providing regular access to electronic records. My Strib colleague Eric Roper covered the meeting as part of his Sunday story about the open data movement. Roper’s story noted that Secretary of State Mark Ritchie will host a “Capitol Code Open Data Jam” Feb. 22. The office describes it as an event “for citizens to use accessible public datasets to create new technology solutions that can stimulate business ideas — such as smartphone applications or websites.”

Too many public officials are reluctant to release data because they worry the public will misuse or misinterpret it. It’s refreshing to see officials offering access to data as a way to improve government’s performance and make society better. Let’s make them follow through on it.

Rejection by redaction: Seven months and waiting

Jan 9, 2014 | No Comments

From James Eli Shiffer, MNCOGI board member and the Star Tribune’s watchdog and data editor

When public officials take forever to fulfill records requests, one of the most common excuses is that they need to redact information that’s not public. Under Minnesota law, they can’t charge for the time spent redacting, but the process can result in long delays in handing over records that are undeniably public. Star Tribune staff writer Eric Roper told the story of how he is still waiting for public records that he requested from the city of Minneapolis seven months ago.  The city’s explanation? The time has been spent redacting documents that fill a “banker’s box.”

Holding political candidates accountable for public data

Nov 14, 2013 | No Comments

By James Shiffer, MNCOGI board member

I confess that I am late to the party when it comes to the growing movement of civic-minded hackers who are doing wonders with government data. But the more I find out, the more I realize that those of us who have wrangled with government agencies for years over public records now have a new generation of compatriots who recognize the power of public data to make the world better.

One of those advocates, Bill Bushey of Open Twin Cities, paid a visit to the MNCOGI board earlier this week. One thing he talked about was the open data questionnaire that was sent to all political candidates in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Several of those who responded were elected to office, and now the public has a record of what they said they would do to make government data more accessible. My Star Tribune colleague Eric Roper blogged about it here.

One of newly elected Minneapolis City Council members, Linea Palmisano, gave a statement that we would like to hear more of from politicians: “I also believe that both the media and citizens shouldn’t have to submit a ‘data practices’ request and wait months in order to get data from the city. The irony is that the city has spent millions of dollars in the IT department but accessibility hasn’t improved for citizens.”

Now let’s they make sure they keep their promises.

MNCOGI draft of traveling law enforcement data bill

Nov 14, 2013 | No Comments

The MNCOGI board recently approved its draft of a possible “traveling law enforcement data” bill at its November 11th meeting.  The draft language creates a classification scheme for law enforcement data entering Minnesota from other states, and sets out the following results:

1.  Data that is already public in another state would remain public when transferred to Minnesota;

2.  Data that is already classified as “not public” data in another state would remain “not public” in Minnesota for a period of one year.  After that time it would become public data in Minnesota, unless the data became part of a Minnesota criminal investigation.

MNCOGI’s language would also require that agencies keep a public log with details about the “traveling law enforcement data” coming into their possession.  Finally, bi-annual audits would be required to ensure that “traveling” data that became part of a Minnesota criminal investigation met the threshold for “criminal investigative data” as set out by state law.

The draft bill has been shared with the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association, as part of ongoing talks about this issue.  Watch this space for more updates on this process.

– Matt Ehling, MNCOGI board member

 

MNCOGI in the news

Nov 14, 2013 | No Comments

MNCOGI and board member Don Gemberling have been featured in recent Minnesota news coverage.  On November 11th, Minnpost ran a piece on data privacy issues, and Don Gemberling made an appearance in a recent Almanac broadcast about lawsuits stemming from drivers license data breaches.

MNCOGI, MN Chiefs of Police Association in talks about traveling data

Oct 10, 2013 | No Comments

Non-Minnesota police entities prepare and disseminate “threat assessment” and other “criminal intelligence” information to Minnesota law enforcement agencies, including the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and its component MNJAC (the Minnesota Joint Analysis Center). Such data are often utilized in support of crime and terrorism prevention, and can consist of reports on individuals or groups who are believed to pose a threat to public safety.

The classification of this type of data in Minnesota has been in dispute for some time, as some of it does not fit neatly within the existing law enforcement data sections of Chapter 13. In addition, certain non-Minnesota law enforcement entities have reportedly been hesitant to share some of this data with Minnesota agencies, expressing concerns that the data might become public under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. Civil libertarians and political activists have also raised questions about the content of some criminal intelligence data.  They have expressed concerns that the inappropriate use of such data could have a chilling effect on the constitutionally protected activities of individuals or political organizations.  Since 2009, three bills addressing criminal intelligence data have been introduced in the Minnesota legislature, but none have passed.

Recently, the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association (MCPA) approached MNCOGI about working together to craft a narrow bill that addressed state-to-state “traveling” data – including criminal intelligence data – while setting aside any larger discussions about criminal intelligence data generated by Minnesota agencies until another time.  MNCOGI has agreed to prepare the first draft of a bill that would address data coming into Minnesota from law enforcement entities in other states.  Formal talks began earlier this month, and are ongoing.

Efforts at crafting criminal intelligence bills require multiple stakeholders.  The traveling data discussion will solict input from all parties as it moves forward.  MNCOGI is also presenting updates about this process on its blog.  Find the minutes of the first meeting between MNCOGI and MCPA representatives here, and watch this space for more updates.

Cameras in Courts: MN court committee keeps door open to expanded public access to courtrooms

Oct 2, 2013 | No Comments

A court panel leaves open the possibility for a continuation of the current experimental rules allowing limited use of still and video camera access in the state’s courtrooms. A recommendation issued October 1 notes “the committee is not aware of any problems or complaints caused by the use of cameras or audio recording equipment in court proceedings” during a two-year pilot project scheduled to sunset at the end of this year. The court’s General Rules Committee is made up of judges and attorneys from various jurisdictions around the state. Read the full recommendation here. Minnesota Supreme Court justices will make the final decision.

The committee also touched on the possibility of expanding camera access to some criminal proceedings, but such a move will probably require a new round of scrutiny.

The report reflects concern by some members of the panel during their Sept. 20 meeting that they have very little information to go on since there were few media requests to bring cameras into courtrooms. At that meeting, WCCO news producer Joan Gilbertson talked about the difficulty of navigating the sometimes confusing process of the civil cases that organizations were limited to covering during the pilot project. She said the proceedings are readily postponed and often settled before the parties ever enter a courtroom. “I would like to court to step up and present (media organizations) with some cases they want covered,” Gilbertson said. WCCO aired more than a half dozen stories about civil cases during the pilot project highlighting the fact that it was the first time such access was available in Minnesota.

Minnesota is one of 12 states that effectively bar camera use in court proceedings. Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota all allow camera use by media organizations for both civil and criminal court cases.

Minnesota courts to decide the future of courtroom camera access

Sep 23, 2013 | No Comments

 

After two years of limited camera access to Minnesota district courtrooms, the Supreme Court is set to decide whether to extend, expand or halt the practice of giving greater public access to the judicial process.

This week, the Court’s General Rules Committee will issue a recommendation to reflect the views expressed during their meeting Sept. 20th. This same committee in 2011 voted 16 to 3 against the current pilot project. The Supreme Court justices ultimately rejected that recommendation.

At Friday’s meeting, attorney Mark Anfinson asked for an extension of the current experimental project to allow video and still cameras in courtrooms during civil cases at the judge’s discretion. He also suggested expanding the test to allow cameras during criminal court cases. He cited some two dozen examples of media requests for camera access during the test period with no negative issues arising either from judges or media organizations. WCCO producer Joan Gilbertson presented samples of her organization’s coverage of civil cases.

The members of the committee praised the coverage, but their conclusions of the pilot are mixed.

Hon. Robert Walker, a one-time opponent of allowing cameras in courtrooms, expressed his wish to not let momentum for the current project die. He suggests allowing cameras in additional ‘safe and appropriate’ settings such as the state’s drug and veterans courtrooms.

The Hon. Mel Dickstein said the examples of courtroom coverage presented at the meeting were ‘quite good’. Still, he sees the recent pilot as a ‘lost opportunity’ for the media to tell more stories that arose from civil courtrooms. He said he’s unconvinced that the pilot produced enough compelling evidence that the practice of allowing cameras should continue, much less expand to criminal proceedings.

Losing access to records when you want them most

Sep 18, 2013 | No Comments

Star Tribune Whistleblower columnist Alejandra Matos blogs about how once-public records at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture are now unavailable, because of a continuing investigation into a business linked to a salmonella illness outbreak. Here’s the story.