Trying to get information out of the government can feel like standing in a Soviet bread line.

Except that the bread has gone stale and inedibly hard by the time you reach the front of the queue.

That’s often what happens when you file public records requests with federal, state and local agencies. The length of time government takes to hand it over, whether intentional or not, can make the data so old that it’s next to useless.

To cannibalize the adage about justice: Access delayed is access denied.

It’s especially true with the rise of the open data movement, the effort by civic-minded computer programmers to create wondrous apps from underutilized government databases. These are people who can make society better by harnessing real-time data flows of bus arrival times, snowplowing schedules, 911 calls and other information that government typically keeps for its own use.

Open record laws have failed to keep up with the push for open data. That was the sentiment expressed last week by one of the architects of Minnesota’s public records law, Don Gemberling (with whom I serve on the board of Minnesota Coalition on Government Information).

On Monday, Gemberling told a gathering of government watchdogs, journalists and programmers in downtown Minneapolis that the law needs to change to force governments to share their data proactively.

Some governments have already started putting large data sets online, including the city of Minneapolis and the geographic-information staff at the Met Council and metro counties.

But despite collecting more information than ever before, most of government handles it the old-fashioned way. You have to ask for it. Then you wait.

There’s rarely a penalty for taking a long, long time to hand it over. In Minnesota, state and local agencies are required to respond to requests in a “prompt” manner, defined elsewhere as a “reasonable” amount of time. The state agency that mediates disputes about public records gets daily complaints about long delays, but the “lack of clarity” is also frustrating to those in government, said Stacie Christensen, administrator of the agency, known as IPAD.

No one in the state tracks whose request has been languishing the longest. The federal government does, for Freedom of Information Act requests. Last year, that dubious honor went to some poor soul who asked for records from the National Archives and Record Administration on Aug. 31, 1993, and still hadn’t received them.

That makes my eight-month wait for data I requested from the Social Security Administration seem paltry, but still, it’s an irritating reminder of an outdated system.

One of state government’s champions of open data was Mark Ritchie, the two-term secretary of state who stepped down in January. Even though his most recent computer training was a Fortran class in 1968, Ritchie became one of Minnesota’s leading advocates for government to open its databanks to the public. He hosted last year’s Capitol Code “hackathon,” in which government and private sector developers brainstormed apps to show how long a voter had to wait at a polling station on Election Day, for instance, or visualizing the origins of migrants to Minnesota.

This week, Ritchie said he had another reason for pushing to get more data online: to defend the agency from the kind of crushing requests that followed the U.S. Senate race recount in 2008.

“The current law is a poison pill designed to allow anybody on the planet … to destroy the capacity of an agency to function,” he said. “I ran a tiny little agency that people tried to shut down using data practices requests.”

That should be reason enough to make open data the law of the land.

 

Contact James Eli Shiffer at james.shiffer@startribune.com or 612-673-4116. Read his blog at startribune.com/fulldisclosure.