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On the Records: Adventures in Public Information

Most agencies release their data with little hassle. Not the Dallas Area Rapid Transit agency.

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Most of the databases you'll find on our site we obtained through the Texas Public Information Act, a state law that gives citizens access to records maintained by governmental agencies. Even with the law, getting information occasionally requires a fight.

Case in point: A recent request for payroll data from Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

Two weeks ago, we sent DART an open-records request asking for a list of its employees and their salaries. It had the same language we've used to obtain searchable payroll records from more than 20 government agencies around the state. We ask specifically for spreadsheet-type files. Most agencies have released the records quickly, often by e-mail and without any hassle or excessive charges.

But DART wanted to make things interesting.

Yesterday, we received a large manila envelope from the transit agency. Inside there was another envelope containing a CD-ROM, a letter and two copies of an invoice charging us $2. Rather than releasing a spreadsheet, though, DART mailed us a 75-page PDF file. Normally, I would just convert PDF file into spreadsheet, which can be sorted, used for calculations and added to our database. But someone at DART decided to add security features to the document, restricting the ability to copy/paste or export the data. I similarly couldn't use software, like Monarch or Xpdf, to get access to the data.

Then I saw something infuriating. Inside the document settings I noticed that the PDF had actually been created from a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, called "orr-stiles.xls". It now seemed obviously that DART just didn't want to give us full access to its data, which violates the spirit if not the letter of the law. Frustrated, I called the agency to protest. Tempers flared, but several hours and two begging emails later, I received the spreadsheet I originally requested. You can view DART salaries here.

In the end, we got what we wanted, and the agency didn't charge much. I wonder, though, whether average citizens — the folks the law is designed to help — would have had the experience or energy to wrest the data out of the bureaucracy. Let's hope so.

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