OpenDisclosure: Your guide to the 2016 Oakland campaign data
on October 31, 2016
A group of volunteers from Open Oakland have built a website called OpenDisclosure.io in partnership with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission. The site allows voters to view information about campaign funding for local ballot measures and for candidates running for office. Open Disclosure launched October 18, and uses existing data from city public records to create simple graphs and easy to understand information.
Open Oakland is a group of hackers, developers, database scientists, designers together with civic workers and journalists are all volunteers to create access to information. The group from Open Oakland is a part of a California CivicLab.
“Open Disclosure is an easy-to-use web tool that Oakland voters can utilize to view campaign data that is collected by the city,” said Whitney Barazoto, executive director of the Public Ethics Commission (PEC). “What is really wonderful about it is that the site takes data that is now in thousand of pages of PDF documents, that currently a member of the public can find on the city clerk’s website. But they really have to know what they are looking for and they need to know how to look through all these PDF documents.”
The site uses a script to calculate the total amounts of money that each candidate and ballots measure receives. It also shows if the money raised has come from out of state donors.
“Our goal is making the tool available, just to enhance the way that information is communicated,” Barazoto said. “What people do with that information and how they use it is up to them. For us, our goal is just to better illuminate the campaign data that we do have locally and is available to the public but it is not presented in the best way.”
According to Barazoto the idea came up because of the lack of the staffing on the Public Ethics Commission back in 2013.
“We asked Open Oakland if they are willing to look at this data and find a way to help illuminate it and make it more accessible,” Barazoto said. “In 2014, the open disclosure team put together mayoral race data for that election. We found it very useful both for the community as well as our commission’s work.”
They found it useful, she said, so this year they decided to expand the service to include ballot measures as well. “Everybody’s eyes will be on this, and we can have people coming to us with complaints and information when a violation happens,” she said.
“It’s part of healthy voting process,” said Sarah Seiter, a project manager for Open Disclosure, describing the wealth of information that voters will have access to through the site. The Open Disclosure team is a group of volunteer civic hackers that include developers, data scientists, policy wonks, civic workers, designers, and journalists working to promote government integrity and transparency in campaign activities by promoting the exposure and visibility of campaign finance data.
Seiter, who came on board a little bit before the original product was released in 2014, learned that the ethics commission had indicated that they wanted to have a better site for displaying campaign finance data. The project was then picked up by some volunteers in Open Oakland. “The project grew in part cause the PEC supported it and they have a staff member that was dedicated to working with us. It became one of the largest project in Open Oakland and that relationship that helped drive the project forward,” she said.
Kate Drew, a data analyst who worked on the OpenDisclosure.io, said that the public is mostly interested in how much money each candidate has raised compared to the others. “It seems really simple,” she said, “but when you look through the data you will find eight different [kinds of] amounts. … The available information on the city clerk’s site is confusing.”
Drew and the the developers who worked on the project needed help from the city to be able to understand the information on the city clerk’s website. “We have been very lucky to work with the ethics commission to tell us how to read this data so we can code that out in the way that was accurate,” she said.
Drew’s role was to write a script that pulls the data from the city’s server and separately calculates the total spending and ensures that the data on the Open Disclosure site always matches with the city’s database.
The site includes fundraising totals for the people in the running for the Oakland’s city council. For example, in District 1, Dan Kalb is running for reelection against Kevin Corbett, an attorney. Kalb’s campaign has received over $71 thousands while Corbett’s campaign only received approximately $40,000.
Voters also can look up measures like HH which would add a tax on sugary beverages. According to the site, Measure HH has received over $6 million to support the measure in campaign funding and 97 percent of that money coming from out of the state.
The Open Disclosure site is updated daily, according to Seiter, within 90 days of the election, candidates are required to report any new contribution over a $1,000 within 48 hours of receiving them. “We feel that daily update is an appropriate granularity to pick up any changes,” Seiter said.
Seiter spoke of the group’s strong relationship with the ethics commission, which allowed them to build the site and create easy access to clear information about campaigns funding. “A lot of the civic hacking groups are more traditional hackers,” Seither said, “but we are a little bit non-traditional. Our city government has invited us in, and it wanted us to get involved, and that was a very important factor for us to be able to deliver a product like this.”
“For us we are really hopping this will be the beginning,” Seiter said. She said that the project is in beta on the city’s website, but that any other city that is also using campaign finance tracking software called NetFile should be able to set up a similar site for their community.
The Open Disclosure team worked with Code for San Francisco and Code for San Diego in the early stages of the project to see what is it like to launch a similar project in other cities. “We are hoping to make this available statewide network resources eventually,” Seiter said.
In 2014, several Code for America brigade project teams from across California joined forces to establish California Civic Lab, a partnership organization to build Open Disclosure California (ODCA). Early members of California Civic Lab came from Oakland, Sacramento, San Francisco, and San Jose. ODCA could not succeed without the guidance and support from their partnership with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission.
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