The Arizona Republic’s watchdog editors have just made the search process for public records in Arizona a whole lot easier with the creation of azpublicinfo.com.
The website was developed through a $15,000 Knight-Cronkite Alumni Innovation Grant awarded to Republic digital producer Stephen Harding by Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The grant, created by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is designed to promote digital innovation in newsrooms.
“We are constantly fighting for public records and it’s getting harder,” said Republic editor Nicole Carroll. “We wanted to educate our citizens about their rights, and make it as simple as possible for them to request public records. We take seriously our mission to educate and empower the public while keeping our government transparent and accountable.”
The formation of the site was overseen by Harding, news watchdog center director Cherrill Crosby, news assistant Jessica Ramirez and government accountability editor Pat Flannery. Additionally, reporters from across the newsroom researched agency information to make sure the site was comprehensive.
Users can identify the agency that holds the public records they are looking for through a quick search on the website. A simple, easy-to-use template then generates and sends an email requesting the information.
The site also provides a list of common reasons that records may be rejected and offers strategies for overcoming these obstacles. Examples of public records available include professional licenses, home valuations, inspection records for businesses, accident reports and a county sheriff’s expense reports.
Typically, the public doesn’t need to pay to look at a public document and read it, though a small fee does apply if a copy is needed. However, a public agency cannot charge you for the time it takes to find the document or to redact it for your inspection.
According to Carroll, the site has received positive feedback from the public.
“They are grateful. We’ve had so many people thank us for demystifying public records, for making it easier for people to interact with government,” Carroll said. “These are public records and the public should have easier access to them.”
When Harding’s application first reached the Cronkite School of Communication last year, associate dean Kristin Gilger, saw the project as a perfect fit for the grant.
“After we received the grant from Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen, he challenged our alumni to disrupt the status quo in journalism. We kept that in mind when reviewing applications such as Stephen’s project, which is using technology to increate government transparency,” Gilger said. “The website is a valuable resource to the public, reporters across the state and our students at the Cronkite School.”