March 14 2011 12:00 AM

Some background on our new transparency tool, Flashlight

Sunday marked the beginning of Sunshine Week, an annual event organized by media activists and journalists (often the same thing) to bring public attention to open government and public-records issues.

As part of the effort, CityBeat partnered up with the fledgling organization, Open San Diego, to create a new website: This site provides easy and quick access to hundreds of links to databases, public-records depositories, informational searches and mapping systems. We advertise it as "one big bookmark collection, organized to help you find your way through the data maze."

When good-government advocates began pushing for transparency through public-records laws and ethics reform, they may not have full appreciated how the slow drip of information would accumulate, over just a few years, into great expansive seas of data and documents.  At the same time, we've reached a point where data sets and link sites are regularly becoming obsolete, too.

To give you an idea of the scale we're talking about, when I first attempted to create a public bookmark resource in 2003 for Tucson Weekly, I called it the the "Online Muckraker's Guide." I collected 42 links and that was pretty much exhaustive. Four years later, I tried again with the "Citizen Muckraker's Guide to New Mexico" for the Santa Fe Reporter. When it was launched, I had collected 104 links.

With this new project for San Diego, the starting point is 248 links and growing every day.  Flashlight has the links categorized so that you can conveniently click a button to zip right to the relevant links, whether that's Census data, court records, lobbyist disclosures or parcel ownership.

For me, the "Muckraker" projects primarily functioned as tools for investigative reporting—particularly digging up dirt on candidates and exposing questionable government and corporate activities. This time, Open San Diego founder Jed Sundwall talked me out of using that title.

"I'd like the official name to be the OSD Data Directory," Sundwall said in an e-mail I hope he doesn't mind me sharing. "Our stance is that making data more open is better all-around, for students, journalists, researchers, policymakers, etc. Our goal is not merely to rake muck. "

In indelicate and regrettable terms, I expressed my knee-jerk opposition to "OSDDD." We agreed on a compromise: Flashlight.

It has a certain speedy sound to it and it represents an individual's ability to shine a light. If the overwhelming amount of data available online can be compared to the enormous, poorly lit basement of the world's largest library, you need a flashlight to find your way through the stacks.

(Plus, as of late, I've become convinced that a flashlight, like the pen, may be mightier the sword and, like a pen, I've started carrying one in my backpack most of the time. Not only is it symbolic, but it's also practical for looking into holes and  lighting up notepads at night. In theory it could also be used to temporarily blind villains before fleeing danger. Not that that happens very often. Or ever.) 

Success in open-government advocacy can't only be measured in lawsuits won and legislation passed. Why open windows into powerful institutions if no one's going to look through them? With Flashlight, we hope to enable you, the public, to become watchdogs and data connoisseurs, to understand that you don't always need journalists to filter information for you, but instead you can examine the evidence yourself. The more eyes, the better. The more fish swimming through the data, the better. 

Please let me know how you use Flashlight, what you discover and ways we can make it more useful. You can leave messages in the comment box on the site's side bar, or drop me an e-mail. You can also follow us on Twitter at @flashlightSD, where we'll post notes whenever we add a new link.

Happy digging.


See all events on Thursday, Oct 20