Tuesday, March 17, 2020

New digital tool aims to help sniff out and keep track of state legislation nationwide that affects government transparency

Just in time for Sunshine Week, the National Freedom of Information Coalition is launching a digital tool meant to help people find and keep track of state legislation that would affect government transparency.

"One goal is to alert the public quickly so advocates can try to stop anti-transparency bills from becoming law or from spreading to other states," Ryan Foley reports for The Associated Press. "Another is to allow journalists and researchers to spot trends, ranging from efforts to expunge more court cases from the public record to preventing out-of-state residents from seeking documents.

Tracking such bills is an increasingly tall order. For one thing, only a handful of states (including Florida and Maine) require bills to state up front that they would affect government transparency, according to NFOIC executive director Daniel Bevarly. "The number of reporters covering statehouses also has dropped significantly in recent years, meaning there are fewer eyes watching legislative action," Foley reports. "Anti-transparency provisions are often buried deep in legislation, some of which may be about unrelated topics, Bevarly said. The new program could act as an early alarm system that blocks poorly written bills from becoming laws."

The software for the tool copies the raw text of bills from every state website at least once a day and dumps it into a searchable database. A pilot program using the software found that 13.6 percent of the 142,000 state bills introduced in 2019—more than 19,000—contained transparency-related search terms like "public record" or "open meeting," Foley reports. Some of those bills weren't really related to government transparency, but Quorum, the software developer that created the tracker, is refining it to provide more accurate results.

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