Transparency advocate: Texas needs own version of federal OPEN Government Data Act

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With the federal government making its data more easily accessible, the head of an Austin campaign finance transparency group says Texas needs something similar.

Tracy Marshall, founder and principal officer at Transparency Texas, said Texas should pass its own OPEN (Open, Public, Electronic and Necessary) Government Data Act, as the federal government did earlier this year. However, she cautioned that she doesn't advocate anything abnormal.

"I would like to see the Texas legislature pass something similar to the OPEN Government Data Act that would require the Texas Ethics Commission and local governments to publish all campaign finance data and all government data currently required to be made public be made available in machine readable format," Marshall said. "By advocating for this, I'm not saying anything  one way or the other about exposing, quote-unquote, 'dark money.' That's a whole other conversation about whether we should have greater disclosure requirements on private citizens."

Making available data that already is required to be released to the public more available has nothing to do with "increasing exposure or disclosure for private citizens that some people out there want to expose," Marshall said. "What I am saying - and I think everyone should be able to agree about this - is that data that is currently required to be made public, based on laws as they stand, should be readily  available and accessible to the average citizen."

Tracy Marshall, founder and principal officer at Transparency Texas   Photo courtesy of Tracy Marshall

That doesn't happen with publicly available data in Texas, and Marshall is in a position to know what difficulties that causes because Transparency Texas seeks to spotlight campaign finances.

"We are a state campaign finance website," she said. "We track all the money in Texas politics."

That is an especially arduous task under current laws in Texas. Transparency Texas, a nonprofit organization, gathers its information from public records, which includes campaign finance data that candidates for public office are required to report. All candidates for public office nationwide must report campaign finance information, including contributions and expenditures, to ethics commissions set up in all U.S. states.

Ethics commissions in all states also are required to make that information publicly available but too often do so in a user-unfriendly way.

In January, President Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act which, among other things, made the OPEN Government Data Act the law of the land.

The OPEN Government Data Act requires data be provided in "machine language" with machine learning Application  Programming Interfaces (API) that can digitally accessed without too much effort.

"Some states also require that, it's the best case scenario," Marshall said. "In Texas we don't have an API at the ethics commission. They do make the data available in bulk downloads, but they are huge, huge files. You would have to have an entire team to input all that data, work with it and then make it searchable and usable."

Poor usability of campaign finance data disclosed in all 50 states is not a newly recognized issue. In 2016, The Campaign  Finance Institute issued a report that found poor usability of data released on states' campaign finance reporting  websites is undermining disclosure and that most states fall far short of any reasonable standard.

"It takes too long for users to find the answers to simple questions, and the answers they give are as likely to be inaccurate as not," the institute said in a release issued with the study. "The participants in this study found the states’ websites frustrating and gave low grades to their assigned states. The report’s appendix details each of the 50 states’ scores on each of the questions."

Poor usability of campaign finance reporting data runs counter to why that data is made public, Marshall said.

"The idea is supposed to be that you don't have to be some kind of political insider or campaign finance expert to be able to see what's going on," she said. "In Texas we can get state level data in a bulk download, which, please excuse the expression, is  a pain in the butt to download and manipulate. Transparency Texas has a team that does that. They get the data, they clean it up, put it on our website and then people can access it. But if our site wasn't there, then the average citizen would find the bulk download practically unusable."

The difficulties become even more onerous at the local level in Texas, such as races for mayor and city council, where candidates usually are required to report their campaign finances to a city hall or other similar place. Transparency Texas has only started to tackle to problem of making local campaign finance data available to rank-and-file Texans.

"We're only just sticking our toe in the water for local races," Marshall said. "We're finding that they may put that data on their websites but it’s not searchable, it's not downloadable. What we're finding we have to do is a process called 'scraping'."

Scraping, also called "web scraping" or "data scraping," is a way to import information from a website into a spreadsheet format or similar file to make data available on another website.  

"Again, that takes an IT person to get that data that's just sitting there, basically, and then work it into a format that can be searched and get it to be something other than looking for a needle in a haystack," she said

While the issue seems simple enough, Marshall said she currently sees little political will among state lawmakers to do anything about it, adding, "I doubt there will be any change any time soon, honestly."

She said the few glimmers of hope include some state legislators' support for piecemeal fixes, such as greater transparency in government-funded lobbyist data. What she hasn't seen is any move in Texas to tackle the entire issue of making all public data more easily accessible.

"They're not talking about what I'm talking about, about making data into a more accessible format, in a machine readable format and into an API, state and local," Marshall said.

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