Citizen Investigator

For some time I've been thinking about a project to develop something you might call an "open-source" clearinghouse for records, public and private, available on the web. (I've gotten around to posting something about it because I've been slack and shamed into posting more, and because I'm supposed to sit on a blogging panel today, and I figured it might be a good idea to actually get some experience blogging beforehand.)

My hope is that we might be able to share resources available on the web that contain actual information and records (or information about records) generated by local and state government, as well as private entities whose information and records have bearing on what we've loosely defined as "Orange County politics." (By information and records, I do not mean "opinions" and "arguments" and "punditry." I mean uninterpreted, raw data.) If done properly, and constantly updated, such a resource could become quite valuable to all of us interested in getting to the bottom of things -- not just journalists, but citizens.

I imagine we could develop a long list of subject-matter categories, and that such a list will grow and change over time. I'll rely on you all to get that effort started.

I'll begin the effort by introducing you to a pet interest of mine -- the schedule, set out by state statute, for the retention and destruction of state records. If you've ever filed an open records request, you'll immediately see why the retention schedule is a gold mine.

(The agency with responsibility for the schedule is the Government Records Branch of the State Archives . This is a good portal site for everything you ever wanted to know about government records.)

Before I list some of the sites related to the retention schedule, a word of explanation:

The purpose of the retention rules are to make sure the government destroys documents in a timely fashion or gets them over to the archives, so that offices aren't overwhelmed with paper/computer files, and so that anyone looking for information can know in advance what an agency should and shouldn't have on file. These lists aren't general -- they're very specific and comprehensive. What's cool about them is that they list everything. It's like the Rosetta Stone, the key to making your open records requests directed, specific, and successful -- which is usually the difference between a successful request and an unsuccessful one. (You can't ask to see something unless you know it exists, and state agencies have usually been able to resist very general requests -- "I want to see all your paperwork from 1998-2003," etc.) Plus, I guarantee you there will be records that are listed somewhere in these sites that will pique your reportorial instincts. ("What! They've got a record of that? I've got to see that.")

The fact that these records are listed does not mean they are public, of course. That decision is governed by state open records laws. But again, you can't argue that a certain record should be public if you've never heard of it. Knowing what's out there is the key.

The amount of information you can find online through the Government Records Branch is phenomenal. Every single file, report, and document that each agency keeps is listed here (in PDF form), along with the people in charge of keeping them at each agency, and the government records analysts in charge of making sure they comply with the retention schedule.

Plus, the Government Records Branch keeps track of similar lists and retention schedules for county and local agencies, which you can also find by following the links from the main Government Records web site (above). Stuff like: County and Municipal Boards of Elections, County Department of Social Services, County Health Department, County Management, County Sheriff's Office (mysteriously, the link is not working at the moment), Local Education Agencies, Public Hospitals, Police Department records, Municipal Personnel Records, and Council of Governments records.

Anyway:

General Schedule for State Agency Records. (This tells you what files every state agency has to keep, regardless of what kind of agency they are. It also tells you how long they have to keep the records, and how they are disposed of):

On this page, you'll find the official "Program Records Retention and Disposition Schedules" for each government agency, describing the records unique to each agency (those not covered under the General Schedule), and how they should be disposed of. By law, each agency has to keep this up to date. (Scroll down).

And here's a list of all the chief records officers (the people in charge of complying with the retention laws) for each agency:

These guys can help you sort through where to find documents, or what likely became of them if you can't find them. (The guy who covers the Dept. of Corrections was particularly helpful to me once.): Directory of State Agencies and Records Management Analysts.

This is a separate schedule, called "Standard Disposition Instructions for Reports Generated by the North Carolina Accounting System (NACS)" -- that is, accounting reports they're required to keep.

Now that I've started the conversation, please add your own favorite sites for information, and maybe we'll be able to develop something quite useful.

Issues: 

Total votes: 187

Comments

Is it legal, under NC statute, to gather and repost to the web documents collected with an open records request? Can government records be saved and represented by state citizens?

I ask because saving documents from destruction or obscurity can be very valuable in preventing hype and for uncovering lies.

When documents are on a private server the information within can be aggregated to form new meta information. This meta information can then be used to shed valuable light capable of implementing justice.

I love reading http://www.thememoryhole.org

They now have a blog http://www.thememoryhole.org/memoryblog/

 

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