Oakland, Code for America unveil public records program

Code for America fellow and RecordTrac designer Cris Cristina talks about the program while Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana look on. Photo by Becca Andrews.

Code for America fellow and RecordTrac designer Cris Cristina talks about the program while Mayor Jean Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana look on.

In a push to improve government transparency, Oakland city officials on Tuesday launched RecordTrac, a new program designed by Code for America that allows users to request public records online.

RecordTrac shows those seeking records where to find them —  even if they aren’t filed under the City of Oakland. Officials said the process by which such requests are filled can be tracked through the program, which will give city government feedback as to whether records searches are going smoothly. The program is designed to allow users to explore all past records requests by anyone who has used the program.

The project, which began in February, was funded through a fellowship granted to Oakland as a “Code for America City.” The fellowship partnered Code for America fellows — Sheila Dugan, Cris Cristina and Richa Agarwal — with city staff to brainstorm innovative ways to merge technology and government functions.

“Today is one of those days where we need to be reminded that Oakland is more than crime statistics,” said City Council Member Libby Schaaf, who submitted the application for the fellowship that led to RecordTrac.

Schaaf was referring to the Oakland Police Department announcement earlier Tuesday that OPD officers had arrested suspects in the murder of 8-year old Alaysha Carradine.

“We all know that that is not Oakland,” said Schaaf. “This is Oakland.”

Schaaf praised Code for America fellows for enhancing the Freedom of Information Act for Oakland and said they are “leaving us with the courage to dream.”

Karen Boyd, citywide communications director, said the software will provide some relief to already-overworked city officials, adding that the City of Oakland has suffered a 25 percent reduction in staff over the past decade.

Public Ethics Commission Vice Chair Aspen Baker said the software addresses citizens’ expectations of a government that responds quickly to their needs.

“This is proactive disclosure at its best,” Baker said. “It is simple and beautiful, and an easy-to-use web application, and it sets the default at ‘public’ by putting all the requests and records online and making them accessible to the world.”

A “public record” is defined by the California Public Records Act as “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.”

“There’s a lot of requests for police reports,” Dugan said. “They (Oakland Police Department) have a big challenge because a lot of that information is really private… so they’re using it mostly as a tracking tool and updating the public… without going into details of people’s private lives.”

Agarwal said the program is open sourced with the intent that other cities can pick up code on GitHub, a social networking site for programmers, and adapt it for their own needs.

“We really see Oakland as paving the way in this field,” Agarwal said. “I think at the core it really serves Code for America’s mission of engaging citizens through technology.”

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