An interesting new web startup has just emerged from San Diego. Flashlight is a new partnership between reporters at the San Diego CityBeat and the public information advocacy site Open San Diego. The effort will create an indexed, easily accessible repository for various public records searches, and documents dug up during the course of journalistic reporting.
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.
So long as Flashlight keeps its link index fresh, the site could prove extremely useful as a reporting tool. That said, keeping public information links fresh is not easy. For instance, when LA City Attorney Carmen Trutanich took office, his staff removed a handy search tool from the city attorney’s website that allowed the public to search through various city contracts.
What would be great is if Maass and the Open San Diego folks can convince other reporters and public officials to turn over documents to the site–turning it into a one stop shop for documents culled during the course of journalistic reporting. Of course, getting reporters to turn over hard fought documents–ones that may still contain a scoop or two, even after the initial story is done–may be a tough sell. Here’s hoping it works out.