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Request denied? Sunshine Hub sheds light on state efforts to block public access

Visitors, Florida Senators and their staff members look at the new Florida Senate chamber in Tallahassee, Fla., Monday, Nov. 21, 2016. Florida has some of the nation's strongest open-records and open-meetings laws, but that did not stop lawmakers froim trying to tinker with them. In 2017 they passed 19 new exmptions to the Sunshine Law., the second most in at least two decades. (Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

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Beyond its dramatic effects, the audio from 911 calls can provide the kind of context that is essential to the public’s understanding of what happened during a newsworthy crime or emergency. Those recordings are, with few exceptions, a matter of public record. That almost changed this year in Iowa, where the state House passed – unanimously – a bill that would end the public’s ability to access many 911 calls, in the name of privacy. The bill eventually died after an outcry from the media, watchdog groups and civil rights organizations, but it was not unusual. A months-long project by AP state reporters and data journalists found a staggering number of bills – more than 150 – introduced in state legislatures this year that were intended to eliminate or limit public access to a wide range of government records and meetings.

Sunshine Hub
A screenshot of the Sunshine Hub listing the status of various bills affecting public access. – AP

To help reporters find, track and provide input on those bills, Serdar Tumgoren and Seth Rasmussen of the data team created a unique online tool that provided full access to AP customers.

Their transparency tool not only allowed for member engagement on an issue of critical importance in the states, it also illustrated the breadth of talent and skills on AP’s data team. Called the Sunshine Hub,it was a new breed of software that relied on input from an advisory group composed of AP customers and state-based First Amendment groups. It helps users keep track of legislative activity related to government transparency,suggest new bills,search for and categorize bills for research purposes,and discuss legislation with others. In the run-up to publication, the Sunshine Hub was accessed roughly 150 times and directly complemented the mainbar state story by Ryan Foley,an Iowa-based reporter of the State Government Team,and Andrew DeMillo, the Arkansas statehouse reporter.

DeMillo and his editors in Little Rock and on the Central desk had noticed earlier in the year that the Legislature seemed to have an unusual number of bills that would roll back public access to information. His reporting showed that the 50-year anniversary of Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act actually turned out to be an occasion for an assault on transparency. The Legislature passed a host of restrictive bills,including ones that allowed universities to keep secret all information related to their police forces, public schools to withhold facts related to security and state Capitol police to keep private any record they believed could be “detrimental to public safety.” He and Foley found many similar examples around the country,including a California bill that barred release of emergency action plans required for potentially unsafe dams. That legislation arose after nearly 200,000 people were forced to evacuate following a spillway failure at the state’s second-largest reservoir.

The Sunshine package also included two hard-hitting sidebars that both landed in the Top 20 for AP Mobile traffic for the week. Foley revealed a growing trend of government agencies suing people who request records,a development First Amendment advocates say is meant to intimidate the public. A day after it moved,the Oregon secretary of state cited the story when he ordered an audit of Portland Public Schools, one of the suing agencies highlighted by Foley.

Washington reporter Laurie Kellman wrote in detail about the ways the Trump administration and Congress are skirting transparency. Her story clocked in at No. 3 for the entire week on Mobile and was shared widely on social media. The various stories ran on at least 30 front pages,including the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and The Florida Times-Union.

For their groundbreaking reporting and software development,Tumgoren,Rasmussen,Foley, DeMillo and Kellman win this week’s Best of the States and the $300 prize.

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