Tony Webster has been called a nuisance, a harasser and “an apparent agent of Black Lives Matter,” among other things. He says he’s just a policy wonk with a desire for government transparency.
“I’ve called myself a data nerd, and I don’t mind the term nerd,” said Webster, 28.
Webster is the local guy who recently sued the city of Bloomington, accusing it of violating the Minnesota Data Practices Act by refusing to give him information about the December protest at the Mall of America, which he believes is public under the law
Webster said he was denied certain information and intimidated when the city had a uniformed police officer stand watch over him while he looked at public data. While reading e-mails, he also found references to background checks on him to see if he had a political agenda, which he says he finds “disturbing.”
His motivations for requesting data are not the business of the city, he said.
“The interesting thing about data is that it’s neutral,” said Webster, a self-employed Web engineer. “It could boost the activist’s arguments or make them look bad.”
The city’s argument that he works for Black Lives Matter “is ridiculous because of all the other work I’ve done,” he said.
Webster has spent considerable time on projects that proved beneficial to people he doesn’t know. For example, he created an application that uses public information to alert veterans to jobs, an app that tells you your car has been towed and a website that helps people find the best hospital in their area. He received no compensation for any of it.
Webster also helped create awareness that license-plate tracking of cars by police could inadvertently help abusers track the whereabouts of victims, something that was later addressed at the Legislature.
Most of his data projects are not controversial, such as his work scanning data on fire-hydrant locations to make sure all neighborhoods were served equally — they were.
He said it’s possible the data he wants will make Bloomington police look good, and he’s willing to put that on his Web page, too.
Webster did not participate in or attend the protest, and he said he has no connection to Black Lives Matter. So why is this his business, you might ask?
“I use data to make sure people get the services they deserve,” said Webster, who became interested in public-policy issues when he interned for a Minneapolis City Council member. “I thought [this issue] deserved more public knowledge. There needs to be more discussion.”
Part of the suit is over something called “metadata,” an innocuous enough sounding word that refers to details inside e-mails, photos or videos that tells you when, where and perhaps who gathered the information.
Webster says it is essential material that would provide a detailed timeline of what happened, in this case during the illegal protest at the mall.
Bloomington officials have said they don’t believe the metadata qualifies as public, and they say they have given Webster plenty of material about the event.
But Webster says he received only 7 percent of the e-mails generated in the city on the issue, and little of the metadata he wants. That small amount of metadata was indeed interesting, he said, because it showed that files had changed size — meaning someone could have deleted information from them, which is against the law.
It also showed that authorities had set up a fake Facebook page and made friends with protesters in advance of the event, “which brings up interesting legal issues,” Webster said.
The case is important because there is an increasing push nationally to get and use public data by a range of people, from journalists to advocacy groups to guys like Webster.
Right now, the government is increasingly good at capturing information about all of us, but it lacks the technology, or the will, to make that information public.
Mark Anfinson, attorney for the Minnesota Newspaper Association, has read Webster’s complaint and said “it is a metaphor for all these access issues that is sending the area of data practices into a tizzy.”
Based on what Webster has already found, with some data appearing to be missing, there may be “some potent information” in the city’s possession, Anfinson said.
The fact that Webster has retained a powerful law firm, Maslon LLP, shows he is serious.
“It demonstrates what has become part of modern access law,” said Anfinson. “It’s very expensive and few people have the luxury of pursuing a complaint.”
Webster’s lawsuit asks for damages and attorney’s fees should he win.
On his blog, (tonywebster.com) Webster identifies how public information, shared widely, makes the world better — from weather data collected by the government and shared around the world to telephone mapping applications to food production and consumption.
But he knows not everyone recognizes the importance of keeping collected information public.
“It’s hard to recognize the value of something intangible,” he wrote on the blog. “But just like the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, data is something created by the government to make government, public, and private functions more efficient and stable.”
“We need to recognize that government data is one of our most valuable assets — an asset that has been produced at taxpayer expense.”
Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin