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Study finds most cities disclosing kinds of data they collect, as new law mandates

Data patch cords route communications through a typical office on September 1, 2009 in Washington, DC. On September 2, 1969, Len Kleinrock passed data between two computers through a 15-foot cable in a lab at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the first test in what would become the internet.     AFP PHOTO/Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Under a new state law, California cities must disclose the kinds of information they are collecting from the public.

Most governments in California are complying with a new law that requires them to post catalogs of the types of data they collect from the public, a review conducted this week concludes. 

But many, including several Southern California cities, haven't yet shared the required information.

The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation conducted the review based on a "database hunt" held on Saturday. Volunteers with the EFF scoured nearly 700 government websites to see if they were posting catalogs of their "enterprise systems" — essentially anything that holds records on the public or is a primary source of information.

A law requiring California agencies disclose the types of data collected on their websites went into effect in July. The legislation is intended to give citizens a glimpse into the kinds of information that governments collect about them.

The information can be complex: the City of Los Angeles lists more than 1,300 applications in its catalog. The city's inventory includes everything from the Los Angeles Police Department's use of force tracking system and city whistleblower complaints, to a database on airport K-9 dogs and software to track tennis court reservations.

Even where agencies post these catalogs, the underlying data often isn't online and in some cases would be shielded from public view by privacy laws.

The EFF review found around 430 of the 680 agencies it searched were in compliance with the law. That includes many of the largest cities in Southern California, including Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim.

Another 250 California agencies hadn't made the information available, the EFF found. That included several midsize cities across the region, among them Compton, Orange, Hawthorne, La Cañada Flintridge and Buena Park.

None of those cities immediately responded to inquires from KPCC about their response to the law.

Overall, about two in three of the agencies surveyed had posted their catalogs. "It was way more compliance than I was expecting, to tell you the truth," said the EFF's Dave Maass, who helped organize the database hunt.

Maass said the catalogs could help citizens track everything from body camera software used by police departments to water tracking systems employed by water districts. 

"It's a whole lot of information. We're talking thousands upon thousands of databases that we now know exist," he said.

The author of the law, state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), said he was cheered by the finding — and the search itself.

"This hackathon [hunt] they did, I'm so over the moon," he said, adding an effort at transparency conducted by citizens is "exactly the point" of the law.

Hertzberg said he would write letters to agencies that haven't yet posted their catalogs of data online.

The EFF's Maass said the disclosure law is limited in its scope. "On the whole, this is a baby step for California in terms of open data," he said.

He said future laws should go beyond catalogs, and require the state and local government to open up underlying data. 

Finding data held by your local agencies

The links found in the database hunt are available on the EFF website. Users can download the "spreadsheet of local government database catalogs" and find the full list of links there.

Here are links to the catalogs of some local of the state's larger government agencies: