The Department of Licenses and Inspections, in partnership with the Office of Information Technology, released a trove of data in the form of a retooled website and map on Monday in an effort to increase transparency, but has removed some of that information after it may have proved to be a little too transparent, possibly compromising some citizens’ safety.
Included on the site was a map overlay pinpointing Philadelphians who recently filed gun permit appeals, including their names, addresses and grounds for appeal, with a link leading to more information including the appeal status, decision date and any further court action. That information was removed soon after Philadelphia Magazine’s Philly Post wrote a web post titled “These Philadelphians Want Gun Permits” listing details of some of the more humorous appeals.
Mayor Michael Nutter’s spokesman Mark McDonald could not say if the decision to remove the information from the site was a direct result of the blog post, but he did cite it as one example of the inability to predict how the data is used once it’s released. “If you looked at the Philly Post thing, you saw it exposes stuff that raises a question,” he said. “As part of the open data thing, we decided to put this information out. Then, some within the government asked the question, ‘Wait a minute.'”
McDonald checked with the Law Department and found the information’s release was not illegal. “The city Law Department concludes that it was a legal and permissible thing to do it,” he said. “It is public information. The basic argument here being that when somebody files an appeal, they essentially waive the right to confidentiality and publication, therefore, it would be a legal thing to do.”
But that doesn’t mean it’s an advisable thing to do. McDonald went on to say that balancing public safety and governmental transparency is something the city, like many, is still working out in a new technological landscape. “What we have here is a clash of values or goals,” he said. “On the one hand, the city wants to be transparent and believes in the concept of open data. Residents and citizens have a right to as much information as we can provide under the law and that makes for a strong, informed taxpaying citizenry. On the other hand, there are public safety concerns with this information.”
He said it has not been decided if the data will be re-released – electronically, anyway. “What we’re doing is conducting a review to see how we want to handle this,” he said. “Conceivably, we might redact some information on these gun permit appeals, that could be a potential solution, or we might decide it’s public information, but we’re not going to make it electronically available. If you want to see it, you can come down and look at it in person.”