Monday, April 30, 2007

One story in particular is incredible.

Fairly quiet lately but one in particular is incredible.

St.Paul Pioneer Press 4/25, p. 1A. Story, headlined "U archives unvarnished look at war detainees", describes an archive of government documents that are on a U web site that is describing some terrible things that have happened to some of the Guantanamo detainees and their families. The story also contains the following comment on what some federal flacks think of freedom of information.

" A Defense Department spokeswoman acknowledged the U documents were originals sent to the ACLU, but she declined further comment.

'Further dissemination of this material isn't in the spirit of the FOIA program,'
spokeswoman Cynthia Smith said."

St.Paul Pioneer Press 4/25, p. 4A. Story, headlined "Stories of war 'war heroics' criticized", illustrates why actual records of government are needed to check against official lies.

St.Paul Pioneer Press 4/25, p. 4A. Story, headlined "America marks 500 years on map", is about the 500th anniversary of the creation of the first map that used the term America to describe this hemisphere and illustrates why government archives and the money for them are so important.

St.Paul Pioneer Press 4/26 10B, Editorial, headlined "Strong enough to face the facts about threats", commends the U for putting up the document archive.

St.Paul Pioneer Press 4/26 1B. Story, headlined "Sheriff forms 'rat squad' to home in on bad guys", describes a Washington County web site of the County's most wanted criminals.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

I am trying, except in special instances, to stay focused on stories about government information. So, here is the latest.

StarTribune, 4/21, p. A11. Story in Nation section, headlined "Social security numbers exposed", is about another poorly protected government website.

StarTribune, 4/21, p. B3. Story, headlined "Twins' extra money for stadium is confidential", is about Hennepin County refusing to disclose how much extra money the Twins are kicking in to pay for the stadium site.

St. Paul Pioneer Press, 4/21, p. 4C. Story, headlined "Google deal hits privacy question", discusses some of the privacy implications of Google buying Doubleclick which has a bad reputation for tracking and selling information about people's Internet usage.

St. Paul Pioneer Press, 4/21. p. 4A. Story, headlined "Social Security data found online", is the St Paul take on the Department of Ag. data.

StarTribune, 4/22. p. A21. Story, headlined "Report: penalties for abuse nursing home inadequate", summarizes another GAO report the problem of nursing home abuse.

St. Paul Pioneer Press, 4/23. p.3A. In Nation/Word section, story, headlined "Audit finds more waste by FEMA", is another government report documenting federal management failure and possible corruption.

St. Paul Pioneer Press, 4/23. p. 3B. Story, headlined "AT&T backs cable bill to expand market", is a Wisconsin story based on campaign contribution reports.

St. Paul Pioneer Press, 4/23. p. 8B. Story, headlined "Librarians boost immigrant services", describes how out-state libraries are helping immigrants particularly with bilingual materials.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Recommended reading on the MN Data Practices Act

The recent issue of Minnesota Cities from the League of Minnesota Cities includes a useful overview of the Minnesota Data Practices Act, "Dealing with Data Requests," by Tracie Chamberlain. The clear information is geared to the needs of city employees, but interesting to a broader audience.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Two thoughts on Web filtering

I was skimming last month's issue of Government Technology. An essay, "The Cost of Free Wi-fi," discusses the use of filtering software by cities providing free wi-fi access, fearing liability for the actions of users on the network. I am guessing that most MNCOGI supporters would agree with the author's thoughts.

Shane Peterson writes, "I pay taxes, and I don't care about who does what on a Wi-Fi network supported by my tax dollars. I don't think I'm alone. It's like being offended that some people use taxpayer-funded interstate highways to drive to Nevada to gamble or engage in other, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas" activities."

His essay ends with, "It's not for government to say what Web sites a person visits. Unless, of course, that government's headquartered in Beijing."

Second, as Director of the Minnesota Legislative Reference Library, I have been asked a few times in past years whether the Legislative Reference Library public access computers have filtering software. They do not - what if users were searching for information on breast cancer, or sex education, or many other things that might be blocked? This morning I noted a book being returned to our library, one that certainly would get filtered out, a 1994 report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, Sex and America's Teenagers." Robbie LaFleur

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The latest update from two local papers.

4/7 PPD, p. 6A. Story, headlined "Global warning papers softened by U.S., China", is another example of politics trumping science in government information.

4/8 PPD, p. 1A. Story, headlined "When drug firms pay doctors, what do they get?", illustrates what we can all learn from state information.

4/8 PPD, p. 1B. Ruben Rosario's column, headlined "Prosecutor's office loses its way" illustrates the reluctance of government agencies to provide access to embarrassing information.

4/8 PPD, p. 3D, Story, headlined IRS Lax in preventing ID Theft", is another in a continuing series of instances of government computers,full of personal information,being lost or stolen. (500 IRS laptops lost or stolen over a 3.5 year period.

4/8 Strib, p. A3. Story, headlined "Scientists feel climate report is too weak", is also about politics interfering with science.

4/9 Strib, p. A9. Story, headlined "Iraq's resilient symbol of hope: the library" includes information about a unique role for a library director - finding guns and ammo to protect the library.

4/9 Strib, p. A3. Story, headlined "Army prosecutions for desertion up sharply", is based on a government report.

4/9 Strib. p. A8. Story in Nation subsection, headlined Effort to catalog all species living tops 1 million", is about the work of the National Museum of National History.

4/9 PPD, p. 2A. Story: headlined "Army cracks down on targets deserters", is similar to Strib story above.

4/9 PPD. p. 4B, Story, headlined "Used car title search settlement criticized", is about Carfax and its access or lack thereof to public records that it uses to develop car histories.

4/10 Strib, p. A1 Story, headlined "Ex-Viking Marshall gets pardon for drugs", illustrates the affect of public records.

4/10 Strib, p. A1. Story, headlined "Minnesota joins states backing ban for a national ID", is about legislation opposing the national ID, i.e. driver license, federal mandate.

Hands-on Access to Government Information

An article in the Star Tribune, "Of, and For, The People," discusses citizens academies run by cities. Attendees learn about all the departments and budgeting - it is an example of hands-on access to government information! The picture at left is a group from the Hopkins Citizens Academy. From the article: "The goal is to give residents insight into what the city does behind the scenes. But there are side benefits. Participants are likely candidates the city can pluck for its police reserves, boards or commissions. And they often have fun."

Monday, April 9, 2007

This weekend there was a fairly chunky update from our two local papers.

4/4, Strib, p. H3. Story, headlined "Rain barrels for city residents", presents the interesting problem of only being able to order something from the government if you can go to a web site.

4/5, Strib. p. A5. Story, headlined "Sun is threat to Global Positioning System" demonstrates that nature sometimes will overcome technology.

4/5 Strib. p. A7, Story in Nation subsection, headlined "Man pleads guilty to National Archive theft", is about an intern stealing historical documents and putting them on E-bay.

4/5 PPD. p. 6B. Story, headlined "Surveillance operation alleged by a fired Wal-Mart worker", discusses possible spying by Wal-Mart on a number of people including critics.

4/5 PPD. p. 1A. Story, headlined "Mammograms best read by human eyes", is another story about the limits of technology.

4/5 PPD p. 6A. Story, headlined "National Archives intern admits theft", is same as story described above.

4/6 PPD p, 1A, Story, headlined "Justices strike down Photo Cop in Minneapolis, is about the end of the photo cop lawsuit.

4/6 PPD p. 1A. Story, headlined "Pentagon debunks Saddam ties to al-Qaida, is about a government report help us understand reality between truth and fiction.

4/6 PPD p. 9A. Story, headlined "FCC wants better tracking of 911 cellular calls", is one of those good/news bad news technology stories.

4/6 PPD. p. 1B Story, headlined "Metro leans hard on water reserves", summarizes a state study of water use.

4/6 PPD. p. 1B Story, headlined "2 pawn chains sue city and police", describes a lawsuit in which collection and use of customer data is part of the dispute.

4/6 Strib. p.B1. Story, headlined "Caution: Lots of road work ahead", includes a brief description of a MNDOT spokesperson decision to withhold MNDOT ratings of construction impoact from the public until challenged.

4/6 Strib. p. B3. Story, headlined "Pawnshop firms sue St. Paul", is similar to story described above.

4/6 Strib. p. A1. Story, headlined "Red-light cameras illegal, state high court rules", is similar to other photo cop story described above.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Google seeks better access to gov't info

Google seeks better access to government information

Oct 25, 2006

Officials from the leading Internet search engine are working to remove barriers that prevent their technology from reaching vast troves of information buried in government databases.

Internet users want government information because it has a reputation for being reliable and accurate, said J.L. Needham, a strategic partner development manager at Google. But while portions of agency Web sites are easily indexed by Google and other common search engines, the engines cannot search other areas, known as the deep Web.

For instance, Google cannot scan information in the database housed at the Environmental Protection Agency's Web site, Needham said. The site allows users to view government regulations and post comments on proposed agency rules.

"If you were a business owner and found out you were potentially subject to a new regulation that you wanted to find out more information on, it may be difficult to find this information using a search engine like Google," Needham said. "The problem is that search engines are unable to crawl the full text of many government agencies' databases."

As much as 40 percent of the content on agency Web sites is invisible to Google's crawlers, Needham said. This means that for a majority of Internet users who do not know how to look beyond a search engine site, that information is effectively invisible.

Needham said he is meeting with a variety of agencies to discuss how the information housed in their databases can be made available in the search results from engines such as Google, Yahoo or MSN. One method would be to use Google Sitemaps, which enhances Google's search results, Needham said.

Implementation of Google Sitemaps by a federal institution that maintains one of the world's largest networks of sites, including many databases, doubled the number of Web links found by Google, Needham said. This allowed for millions of new documents to be included in search engine results, he said.

A Dec. 16, 2005, memorandum from Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, required all agencies by Sept. 1, 2006, to set up their public information so that it is searchable. It stated that "increasingly sophisticated Internet search functions" can "greatly assist agencies in this area."

Agencies also were required to provide all public data in an open format that allows the public to aggregate "or otherwise manipulate and analyze the data to meet their needs" by Dec. 31, 2005, according to a separate OMB memorandum signed by Johnson on Dec. 17, 2004.

Mark Luttner, director of EPA's Office of Information Collection in the Office of Environmental Information, said the agency's e-rulemaking program management office is working with OMB to respond to a recent request from a search engine company that wants to index the data.

In addition to the technical challenges presented by the company's request, EPA has to consider whether a commercial company could assert proprietary ownership on federal data and whether providing government data to one company would provide an unequal playing field for other companies, Luttner said.

Needham said Google, for one, does not want to assert ownership over any information obtained from agencies, and agency efforts to improve the ability to search their Web sites would likely be equally beneficial to its competitors.

Commonly used search engines like Google are able to index other agency Web sites used to disseminate information, such as the Small Business Administration's Business Gateway e-government initiative.

Nancy Sternberg, the program manager for Business Gateway, said the initiative's Web site,, has been optimized for all major search engines. But does not contain a separate database, Sternberg said, which would make indexing much more challenging.

Search engines cannot index the database housed at the Health and Human Services Department, according to John Etcheverry, director of grants systems modernization at HHS. But in 2007, will implement a Google search appliance that will let Google scan specified database tables with grant synopsis information, he said. Allowing search engines to crawl the entire database would create security vulnerabilities since it contains sensitive applicant information, he noted.

Google's forays into the government include a U.S. Government Search Web page, which is intended to provide a single location for searching across agency information and for keeping up-to-date on government news. Google maintains the site is not intended to compete with the government search site hosted by the General Services Administration, called Rather, it is intended to complement it, company officials say.

John Murphy, director of technologies, said the pages are optimized for all search engines, but the MSN-run search tool is specifically directed to searching government Web pages, including those hosted by state and local governments.

©2007 by National Journal Group Inc. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Following is a clip describing an interesting initiative of the Citizens League 0 Facts Unfiltered offers an ideal opportunity to contribute public information to the discussion. Depository librarians and others familiar with goverment information sources may be willing to post info about sources, access, finding tools to this public discussion of issues -- issues discussed more knowledgeably by those who have identified and checked public information sources.

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Facts Unfiltered

One of the facets of MAP 150 this fall is to gather facts around key policy issues. The questions we’re posing focus on the capacity of different aspects of Minnesota in the future. The facts that we gather will be used to supplement our interviews with Minnesotans to better understand what Minnesota’s policy environment. These are the questions that we’re looking to put facts to.

Family’s capacity: What are the future prospects for Minnesota families in making ends meet?

State’s capacity: What does the fiscal health of the state budget hold for Minnesotans: can they continue to expect the same level of services at the same tax rates in the future?

Economy’s capacity in terms of human capital: Is the state’s educational system producing the labor force we’ll need to maintain Minnesota’s strong economic growth?

Capacity of the natural and built environments: Given Minnesota’s projected population growth, is Minnesota creating and preserving built and natural environments that will sustain Minnesota’s prized quality of life?

Capacity for innovation in the public interest: Is Minnesota retaining its capacity for civic and political innovation, especially in ways that reflect the growing diversification of the state population?

Government Information has wide impacts

Anyone paying attention to the news recently ahs noticed that the topic of home mortgage foreclosures is hot. Lots of ink (and electricity for pixels) has been used to document the tide of mortgage foreclosures and their impact on families, cities and the international financial markets.

If you (as a memebr of the public) want to udnerstand where all this is coming from, you need government information. Data on foreclosure sales comes from local sheriff's departments (Hennepin & Ramsey Counties locally). Data on home mortgages, borrowers and lenders comes from Home Mortgaged Disclosure data (HMDA) compiled by the federal government.

Analyses of these data show who is being afffected, how it is impacting our communities and what's likely to happen in the next few years.

If you want to do something about this problem (either as a softhearted liberal or a tough minded investor), you should thank the public agencies who collect and report this information.

Public access - it's not academic, it's the real world, the real economy.

Imagine if this information was NOT public!

CRS reports - action needed

From Open the Government --

Policy and News Updates for March 20, 2007

[new] Accessing Congressional research
American taxpayers spend nearly $100 million a year to fund the Congressional Research Service (CRS), an arm of the Library of Congress whose 700 researchers provide reports to members of Congress on a variety of topics relevant to current political events. However, these reports are not open to the public. The best way for the public to obtain a CRS report is through their member of Congress, but the process is slow and it requires that the requester know the report exists.

On March 28, coalition partners of, along with the Center for Democracy and Technology and others, sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi [D-CA], the Senate Rules Committee, and the Committee on House Administration asking that CRS reports be made available to the public. According the letter, "Public demand for these reports has never been higher. In a little more than a year, members of the public have downloaded more than 3.5 million CRS reports from, a Web site that provides a searchable database of CRS reports that have been obtained by various archivists and members of the public."

Making CRS reports available to the public makes sense. According to the letter, "CRS already maintains a fully searchable, password-protected Web site for members of Congress... Increasing capacity and providing public access to that site would constitute a trivial expense for the Library of Congress or for the House in light of their current levels of traffic." As Paul M. Weyrich, Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, notes in a commentary piece, "The proliferation of free information online has only strengthened the argument that CRS also should offer free information."

Focus has turned to CRS recently, due to two memos CRS Director Daniel P. Mulhollan issued noting changes in CRS policies. On March 20, Mulhollan issued a memo to all CRS staff saying, "I have concluded that prior approval should now be required at the division or office level before products are distributed to members of the public. This policy is effective immediately." In the past, it was possible for members of the press, other researchers, and other government officials to request specific reports from the congressional support agency. However, as Secrecy News reports, this memo changes that policy. A staffer told Secrecy News, "We're all sort of shaking. I can't do my work."

In addition, some members of Congress have criticized CRS for its recent decision to stop its reports on earmarks. In a Wall Street Journal Editorial titled "Earmark Cover-Up", John Fund accuses CRS of "helping its masters hide wasteful spending." Despite requests from Sen. Coburn [R-OK] and Sen. Jim DeMint [R-SC], a private Feb. 22 directive from Director Mulhollan states that, "CRS will no longer identify earmarks for individual programs, activities, entities, or individuals," ending its 12-year practice of reporting on earmark data. Mulhollan responded to the editorial in a memo to CRS staff and a letter to the editor, available through Secrecy News.

TAKE ACTION: Help add to the Open CRS collection! Call your member of Congress and request a PDF copy of the following CRS Report. Once you receive it, submit it to Open CRS.
Report Order Code: RL31686
Title: Demilitarization of Significant Military Equipment

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Lots of news on government information

3/28 PPD, p. 2C. In the National subsection, a story headlined "Research firm sues to see auto safety data", is about a group that studies tire failures suing the U.S. Department of Transportation.

3/29 Strib, p. E4. in "News of the Weird", the first item describes a website being operated in Finland that allows voters to match their physical appearance with the appearance of candidates so they can vote for people who look like them.

3/30 Strib. p. A10. Story, headlined "Soldiers' VA cure hindered by lapses in use of digital medical data".

3/30 Strib. p. A12. Story, headlined "Interior official altered reports, inspector says", is about another instance of government reports being altered for political reasons. The story also describes release of confidential information to selected businesses.

3/30 PPD, p.1C. Story, headlined "Ridder's clear break scuffed" includes allegations that the new publisher of the Strib took confidential data from the PPD.

3/30 PPD, p. 1A. Story, headlined "St. Paul candidates join You Tube nation".

3/30 PPD, p. 7a. Story, headlined "Bush appointee altered species reports to benefit landowners", is the same story as described above but with a more direct headline.

3/31 PPD, p. 2C. Story, headlined "Technology 'xxx' hits red light again", is about defeat of a proposal to give pornography its own address on the web.

3/31 PPD, p. 1C. Story, headlined "Ridder says exit made in good faith", continues the saga of what Rider took from St. Paul to Minneapolis on his laptop.

4/1 PPD, p. 3A. Story, headlined "Bush fills attorney post with insider" is based on analysis of the resumes of new U.S. attorneys.

4/1 Strib. p. A9. Story, headlined "Many prosecutors had inside track", is the same as the Pioneer Press story mentioned above.

4/1 Strib. p. D1. Story, headlined "In a hurry for ultrafast Internet", is about the City of Eagan looking for high speed internet for the entire city including the possibility of laying fiber citywide.

4/1 Strib. p. B1. Nick Coleman's column, headlined "If Heffelfinger hadn't quit would he have been purged", is Coleman's take, using public e-mails, on the local effect of the U.S. attorney fiasco.

4/2 Strib, p. A11. Story, headlined "From cabarets in Cyprus to drivers in Qatar, dangers abound for Americans abroad, the State Dept. warns", is about a state department cataloging dangers of foreign travel, which is put up mostly for businesses, according to a spokesperson, but is available to anyone.

4/2 PPD, p. 2B. In the "Bulletin Board" feature is an item, headlined "Will the library let me borrow this book? It's 'TOO SOON TO TELL'", is about a technology twist in libraries.