You don’t have to be a journalist or a Freedom of Information Act expert to access public records in Virginia Beach, thanks to a new open-data portal that launched Monday.
The portal provides Virginia Beach residents easy access to many public records normally available through a FOIA request. The idea is to cut the middle man, putting information at residents’ fingertips and encouraging city employees to look at ways to improve services, said Virginia Beach Director of Management Services Catheryn Whitesell.
“What (the database) will allow citizens to do is to delve into how the city works, and how we do business,” Whitesell said. “All of the data is subject to FOIA… we’re just making it easier.”
“Internally, I hope it will give employees the opportunity to use data to look for ways to improve services for citizens,” she added.
Although the database initially includes 15 data sets – such as restaurant health-inspection reports, police calls for service and the city budget – Whitesell said Virginia Beach plans to expand it to include up to two new data sets a month.
The database’s homepage shows a searchable list of data sets, including the operating expense budget, capital improvement projects, appropriations and employee salaries, as well as a data set suggestion area for residents who can’t find exactly what they’re looking for.
The information is free and downloadable, and is part of a national Bloomberg Philanthropies initiative called “What Works Cities.” The program was launched in April 2015 and aims to improve city services and inform local leaders and citizens equally, according to a Virginia Beach news release.
Virginia Beach is one of 16 new cities to join the program, which already has 54 cities participating.
“What Works Cities stands for open government and evidence-based government,” said Virginia Beach Mayor William D. Sessoms Jr. in a news release. “I strongly believe in both. Virginia Beach is a stronger city when its citizens are well-informed and its leaders have access to the best data possible. What Works Cities will help us do both.”
The $45,000 Socrata database software was funded from a combination of information technology and budget office funds and was approved by City Manager Dave Hansen.
“We have about 40 data sets we can load to the portal,” Whitesell said. “It’s a relatively inexpensive software package.”