Evanston launches online public records portal, database

Robin Opsahl, Assistant City Editor

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Evanston’s new public records portal went live Monday, making the city the first in Illinois to create an online form and searchable database for requests through the Freedom of Information Act.

Evanston receives more than 600 FOIA requests annually, which are responded to individually by the City Clerk’s office, the city said Monday. The online portal, created by coding startup NextRequest, allows for residents and local organizations to submit and track public records requests online, as well as search through previously requested documents and information, which remain available online through a database.

“I’m pleased to partner with NextRequest to provide our residents with an improved process for public records requests,” Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said in a news release. “The City of Evanston strives to promote transparency in all of its operations. This new service will make valuable city information even more accessible to residents while conserving staff time and city resources.”

The decision to make the FOIA process digital was twofold, said James Shin, Evanston’s application analyst. He said before the portal, having city officials work through the hundreds of requests individually was a long process and cost the city time and money. The portal makes the process easier on both workers and community members, and allows for direct communication with the relevant city officials. In addition, putting the process online increases transparency by allowing access to previously requested documents, Shin said.

“The software adds a layer of efficiency both internally and externally, which means people will be able to access information easier,” Shin said. “People being able to find public information and let civic employees help more easily is always a net positive.”

Although there are no plans for addressing a backlog of FOIA requests filed before the portal went up, Shin said, Evanston implemented the online requests for all city departments, from the Evanston Police Department to the Department of Public Works.

The city is one of the first governments to launch their public records portal for all departments, NextRequest’s chief product officer Reed Duecy-Gibbs said. Evanston joined cities including Albuquerque and Orlando that are using software like NextRequest for their public records, something that Duecy-Gibbs said is increasingly common in communities across the nation.

“The old way of doing things isn’t viable anymore,” Duecy-Gibbs said. “We want to help local governments publish info out proactively, and give a way to help people access without having to ask.”

NextRequest began as an initiative from the non-profit Code for America, when the creators decided to turn the project into a business to help local governments use technology more effectively, Duecy-Gibbs said. With recent controversies like the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago, he said access to public records has been a pressing issue. Duecy-Gibbs said while making life easier for public employees is one goal, another one is to make the process of accessing public records more accessible.

“What we’re trying to do is change the tone of the relationship between the government and the public around access to information,” Duecy-Gibbs said. “It’s very adversarial and it doesn’t need to be. Technology is one way to make this a win-win for both employees and citizens.”

Email: robinopsahl2018@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @robinlopsahl