Friday, August 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Improvements seen in Phila. lobbying Web site

Philadelphia has a new lobbying website that helps make detailed information easier to search, download and reuse. It's a step forward from how this information was previously shared, but there is still room for improvement.

The story of Philadelphia's lobbying website highlights some of the problems local governments face with sharing this crucial data set. Lobbying disclosures help reveal who is trying to influence government and how, but sharing the information with enough detail and in a format that's easy to analyze and reuse is something that few local governments have been able to accomplish so far.

We noted several problems when we looked at Philadelphia's lobbying website last spring as part of our exploration of municipal lobbying data transparency. That website was only meant to be temporary though, a placeholder after a failed contract for a more comprehensive site required by city law. The city knew what it needed to do to improve lobbying transparency: finding a way to implement those changes was the problem.

The placeholder website shared detailed information from lobbyist registration and expense reports, but the data was shared in PDFs, a format that makes it difficult to analyze and reuse information.

The new website shows the city is taking steps to implement the 2010 law that requires electronic filing of disclosures and sharing information in a searchable format. It's clear that progress is still held back in some ways, however, by the limits of the old system.

Philadelphia's lobbying information is housed in part of the website for the Board of Ethics, which oversees the collection of lobbying reports and is responsible for related enforcement. New features in the lobbying section of the Board of Ethics website allows users to search registration and expense information from principals, lobbying firms, and lobbyists, or browse a full directory of lobbyists that includes their photos. There's also an option to download several different kinds of reports based on expense and registration data.

While all of these provide much more functionality than what was previously available, these new features are hard to find from the main Board of Ethics website. Accessing the detailed search requires clicking on the "File 2014 Lobbying Registrations and Expense Reports Online" link from thelobbying section of the Board of Ethics website. From the filing page, clicking on the "Philadelphia Lobbying Information System" link will take users to the search functions. It's not very intuitive for the average user. Why would someone who isn't a lobbyist click on a link to file lobbying reports? Improving the ability to find the search features will be important for helping users easily access the lobbying information Philadelphia is providing online.

Once users reach the search system, there are several improvements from the old website. Now that electronic filing of registration and expense reports is required, PDFs are no longer the only format for accessing the most recent lobbying information. Data can be downloaded in bulk from the search page or for specific searches in CSV format, an important step in sharing information in an open format that makes information easy to access, analyze and reuse. Using the "public reports" tool allows for downloading information in several formats, too, including open formats like CSV and XML.

Anyone looking for older lobbying data will still run into challenges, unfortunately. Fourth-quarter expense reports from 2013 are still available in PDF, as they were on the old site. The problem of earlier expense reports being completely unavailable online remains: users are directed to contact the Board of Ethics for PDF copies of reports from 2013 and 2012. As more quarterly expense and registration reports are filed electronically, it will be easier to analyze historical data about lobbying in the city, but for now there is limited information available.

Once that data starts growing, an API would further improve access to the data. One is in the works,according to Nedda Massar, deputy executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics. An API can help search and retrieve data, especially for those who might want to create applications for displaying or contextualizing the data. We've already seen the kinds of tools access to lobbying data can empower, like Lobbying.ph. Imagine what could be done if it's faster and easier to access the data or combine it with other information.

Philadelphia shows, with this new website, that it is taking steps forward in improving access to lobbying information, and we hope to see the city's plan for transparency around this crucial data set realized in full. There are still more improvements to be made, but we look forward to watching the site as it continues to evolve.

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that uses the power of the Internet to catalyze greater government openness and transparency, and provides new tools and resources for media and citizens, alike. A list of Sunlight's funders can be found here.

Alisha Green Sunlight Foundation
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