WMATA, stonewalling citizen journalists
Dear Mr. Zimmerman,
I hope this letter finds you well and that the new year is heading off to a good new start.
I write to you out of concern for a couple of WMATA stances over the last couple of months relating to public access of information, the first relating to WMATA's decision to not collaborate with Google to make our region wide transit system's schedules linkable in maps and searches, and the second relating to their (very) recent decision that community bloggers do not serve the public and are therefore are not entitled to fee waivers for FOIA requests as are members of the news media. Both decisions have been justified by WMATA's management using arguments that are, at the surface, specious. Upon digging more deeply, they represent a mindset towards the public that would be more expected of a privately held purely profit-driven enterprise, not of a public agency funded by our taxes and our fares.
I read with interest the transcript of your questions towards WMATA Chief Operating Officer at a hearing recently. It seems that you share some of the regions' citizens' concerns regarding WMATA's decision to not collaborate with Google as have the transit systems of numerous other cities. I also welcome, with some reservations, the management's recent decision to reverse course on a flat out "no" to Google and other organizations similarly interested in making timetable and route information more widely available. However, this was less than an agreement to open up the timetable information. There are few technical reasons why this cannot be provided to Google, and the financial arguments (loss of advertising revenue?) are laughable at best. It boils down to information control -- there is some fundamental reason that a segment of WMATA's management does not want it to be easy to get timetable information. The timetables available on WMATA's website are unreadable and as unusable as the hard-to-find printed schedules. Perhaps, if timetables are more widely available (rather than on the wrong bus) there will be a greater demand for on-time performance?
The recent decision by WMATA to deny fee waivers to two community blogs, GreaterGreaterWashington.org and infosnack.org, show what comes across as either contempt for the public or a massive nearsightedness regarding the changes in media organizations and communications technologies that have taken place over the last 15 years. In a letter to one of these blogs (which you can read here, Chief of Staff Shiva Pant argues that, basically, a blog read by a few thousand daily visitors, all of whom are visiting because they are greatly interested in community planning, urban organization and the specifics of District and regaional politics, is not a "wide enough" outlet that will reach a broad audience.
The fact that WMATA sees fit to judge what is considered a "wide enough" media net, therefore becoming arbiters of media reach and penetration is upsetting. Clearly, a public transportation agency is NOT equipped to decide what constitutes "legitimate" media, or to formulate any kind of reliable assesment as to what the value of 200 or 2000 or 200,000 readers is. They base their decisions on notions of "dissemination" and "broadcasting" that are not only inapplicable, but so outdated that even the Bush administration went as far as to change that in 2007 to recognize that these models are outdated. The Open Government Act of 2007 clearly spells out that for FOIA purposes ANY audience is a legitimate audience. No one seriously in the communications business tries to suggest that the Web is not an appropriate media channel and outlet.
WMATA's refusal to grant fee waivers to these requests, in particular, is egregious because they in fact were related to WMATA's decision to not provide data to Google. In one particularly twisted piece of logic, they argue that public dissemination of records regarding their decision not to provide information to Google "will not contribute significantly to the understanding of WMATA operations because WMATA has not entered into an agreement with Google. Therefore, the information that will be released is not likely to increase the public understanding beyond what is already in the public domain." In essence, because we already know they said no to Google, we shouldn't care as to why they did so, since the only material fact is that they did.
These community blogs reach out to an audience that is intensly engaged politically. Those of us who read them are the ones who care about where our communities are headed, who want to know what decisions are going on in planning and for the region. They may not be the Washington Post, but they represent those of us who show up at ANC, City Council and County Board hearings; we are the ones who vote in School Board elections. Perhaps it is inconvenient for WMATA to make it easy for informed citizens to get information about the system that we subsidize (and gladly so). But the fact is that their core mission is to provide efficient, effective, reliable and cost-reasonable transit for the Greater Washington region.
I ask you to much more forcefully insist upon the WMATA leadership that open records are not optional thing, and that withholding and concealing information is neither in their charter nor in their interest.