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Sacramento, Calif.’s Online Records Span the Distant Past

A new public records repository is increasing transparency in California’s capital city and making public information requests easier for city staff.

by / September 22, 2011
Sacramento circa 1940. Image: Historic Old Sacramento Foundation

Officials in Sacramento, Calif., are hoping a new online records library provides citizens and city personnel with more accurate and quicker access to public information.
Launched earlier this month, the system’s public Web interface opens a virtual door to documents such as meeting minutes, resolutions and ordinances passed by the Sacramento City Council from 1921 to the present. The records are stored in PDF format and are retrievable through the Web portal — which is accessible on mobile devices — and via search engines.

Mrudul Sadanandan, principal application developer with the city of Sacramento, said that currently only Google has indexed the data, but expects Microsoft Bing and Yahoo to follow suit shortly.

The project initially began seven years ago, spurred by a sustainability initiative called Citywide Content Management (CCM) from the Sacramento City Council. The effort aims to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and reliance on paper. As another part of that initiative, the City Council moved to paperless meetings earlier this year.

It was only in the last three years that IT staff got involved in the online record library project. At that point, Sacramento made decisions such as on what equipment to purchase, what people needed to be hired and exactly what type of interface would make the most sense for document searching.

Ultimately the city moved its records to an enterprise content management (ECM) platform from EMC Documentum. Wendy Klock-Johnson, Sacramento’s assistant city clerk, said security was a primary concern in selecting a records system because the system is an all-encompassing data repository that includes items such as human resources documents.

“When we went to an electronic system, we weren’t interested in just a repository; we wanted a system that was robust enough to have workflow capabilities as well,” Klock-Johnson explained.

The records system houses approximately 4.5 million records, but only about 100,000 of those are available to the public. Employees have been using the ECM platform internally for the last few years. The system delivers search returns in an average of 40 seconds per query.

IT staff are continually making more documents accessible to the public. Klock-Johnson said that she either finds something during a public records request that needs to be public and lets a department know, or departments can individually come to her about including various items.

If the particular document is of historical significance and has long-term value, it gets earmarked for inclusion by IT personnel.

Early Challenges

At the outset, getting all the paper records scanned was the biggest challenge, according to Klock-Johnson. By going back to the 1920s, many of the documents were bound in books in the city’s archives. So the physical task of getting everything together and actually scanning it took some time.

In addition, once documents were scanned, they needed to be uniformly indexed. Sadanandan headed up that task, teaching people about naming conventions and indexing fields so staff members working on the system were properly trained.

“Over the last two years, with our internal staff using the system, is when we fixed a lot of the issues,” Sadanandan said. Some of the records were migrated out of department-specific document storage systems. “[Things] were filtered and cleared out before we went to the public.”

The public-facing Web portal for the project was designed in-house by Sadanandan, who placed an emphasis on best practices and what the mindset of searchers would be while using it. Functions for basic and advance searches are available, as is a listing of recent searches and additions. A help section with search tips is also included.

“While we obviously don’t think this replaces the public request process, more and more customers want to self-serve,” Klock-Johnson said. “We did some demos in IT and the City Clerk’s office to weed out any other issues.”

Future Returns

Multimedia, in the form of video archiving, may also be connected to the online record library in the future. While the city already has a streaming media archive, Klock-Johnson said staff are looking at how to have the two systems talk. The new online record library would serve as the overall repository.

She also hopes that various whitepapers written for big research projects will eventually be made available. Other records are also being prepared for the repository, including building permits and meeting records of the Animal Care Services Citizen Advisory Committee and Sacramento Metropolitan Arts Committee.

Although the ease of searching online may relieve some of the city’s staff’s burden regarding public records requests, Klock-Johnson doesn’t expect to be out of a job anytime soon. While the system has made her tasks a bit more streamlined, she said, it’s inevitable that people will still prefer talking to a real person rather than a computer screen.

But instead of searching the online archive herself, Klock-Johnson said she is going to encourage the phone callers to first try the online record library themselves.

“Everything is text-searchable, so we’re expecting citizens to be able to do that,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to see initially these [phone] inquiries cease as we know it. What I do expect is to see a significant decline in the research-type inquiries, where I hear ‘I am a student and looking for the history of your city.’”


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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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