Friday, December 12, 2008

Online Contract Disclosure: Slow Down

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.


  1. Considering you can't even click on the author of a post-gazette news article and bring up other articles written by that author, I can't complain too much about the primitive state of the bid results page.

    Someone is getting paid money to add this data to the website. Perhaps if that contract is released you can directly contact the developers. ;)

    It should be incredibly easy to add another column for contractor, and just more than trivial to make those columns sortable.

  2. That's some power you have there, Bram. Already you've gotten them to change the reports over to spreadsheet format (unless you and I are looking at different pages).

    Still not the easiest data to work with, but it's a lot better than PDF, for sure.

  3. Jer -- I'm not sure that what you think happened happened. I can't seem this time around to come up with a link to a city contract that has any data behind it; I don't trust now that that line about xls spreadsheets was up there previously or not.

    Authority contracts are a different story -- those as a rule are up and still in PDFs.

    Might as well take a moment to mention something about the URA forms. There is the line, "Awarded to lowest responsible bidder?" Then there are boxes for yes and no. Of course, all of the boxes are checked yes, because to check one as no would be the admission of an actual crime.

    A more useful box for the reader would simply read, "Awarded to the lowest bidder", then yes/no, and then "If no, please explain." This would give the URA the opportunity to illustrate what seemed to confuse us all last time; what made those alternate bidders fail to meet the responsibility threshold.