It's great that there's a flurry of activity to get the city's contracting information online, but it might be worthwhile to slow the process down and figure out how it can be made most useful.
I'm not as concerned with the sheer speed with which we get the information up, as I am with the format and accessibility of that information.
At present, bid results are organized on the city website by contract number. The rough type of commodity or service and the expiration date of the contract are also immediately provided:
From a practical aspect, users are never going to be aware of what Contract Number 018-05 concerns in order to be curious about it. Nor are they going to want to look up all contracts that have expired on 09/30/06.
Users are going to be curious about contracts awarded to (or denied to) particular firms. Or, they will want to look up a contract they know was just awarded last week. Or, they will want to scan for who is getting the most lucrative awards in different areas. Why not index the information by name of contractor, by date of the award, or by dollar amount?
Of critical importance, when users click on the contract number, what is provided is not another HTML page (a normal website page) but a PDF document. Since there are hundreds upon hundreds of contracts to pick through -- and the information provided on the index page is minimal -- users will sometimes have to download and open hundreds of PDFs in order to locate information that they desire.
PDF documents are stand-alone files that cannot easily interact with one another. If I have discovered that Bill Jones Contracting is providing the city with a certain service, I should be able to click on the words "Bill Jones Contracting" and get a page detailing all the other commodities or services that they provide the City -- a "baseball card" if you will.
When the campaign finance disclosure website is also up and running, it can be made to be included on this "baseball card". None of this is possible to build with PDF formatting.
I can't claim to know yet what exact shape of database will be most useful for end users -- but I can inform you definitively that PDF formatting is the least flexible medium for serving up this information. It makes searching impossible -- text searches are a good backup resource for any selected indexing system. And when tweaks and alterations are necessary, PDFs require individual and repeated edits to each document. That's a major disincentive to ever make improvements.
It looks as though, in the wake of a scathing Post-Gazette report about political contributors, the City is scrambling to get as much information online as possible in order to demonstrate transparency. That's an understandable reaction, but it would be a mistake to conduct so much time-consuming data entry towards a project that is essentially unusable. Voters who have concerns about city contracting outcomes shouldn't be made to feel even more suspicious and resentful when confronted with a frustrating data portal, and I don't believe that's the intention. Let's take a breath and nip this problem in the bud.