Hawaii lawmakers are debating the merits of requiring state officials to put campaign finance reports in a searchable database that the public could easily access.

The raw data exists. But the information isn’t presented in a useable format for the public’s benefit on the state Campaign Spending Commission’s website.

Legislators are worried about the cost of making it better and campaign finance officials are concerned about just how hard it would be.

While politicians have been talking, local techie Jared Kuroiwa has built an interactive searchable database — in his spare time, for free.

“All the data and everything they get from campaigns and noncandidate committees, they already have it online and present it,” Kuroiwa said. “The problem is that it’s not in a way that’s useable. I wanted a presentation that’s a little cleaner, showing how money’s being spent and where the money is going.”

By day, Kuroiwa is Oceanic Cable’s senior programmer for Interactive TV. “Yes, I have a full-time job,” he says.

He estimates it took about five weeks, at a rate of four hours a day, to write the code that pulls data from the commission’s existing site and spills it into his site.

“It’s a lot of time when you’re not being paid for it, but just think about how much would it be for a state agency to try to do it,” Kuroiwa said. “The harder stuff isn’t the website itself, it’s the backend.”

Now, campaign finance reports are not searchable on the commission’s site. And the information contained in a report isn’t cumulative across an election; reports are organized by reporting period.

Let’s say you wanted to know who Mayor Peter Carlisle‘s biggest donors have been over the past few elections. Or what his largest campaign expenses have been.

You’d have to sift through his individual filings online for each reporting period to find out. There are 11 reporting dates for most races in the 2012 primary and general elections.

And if you wanted to figure out which companies and organizations have been giving the most contributions to politicians, you’d have to analyze all reports, hundreds of them — by reporting period for every year — for so-called noncandidate committees registered with the spending commission.

Kuroiwa has gotten a pretty good start on organizing all those reports into a searchable format.

Here’s a look at what he’s has done with the “politicians” category on his site.

You can click on highlighted names and it takes you to a page for that candidate, breaking down contributions and expenditures in several ways.

House Bill 2174, co-introduced by House Judiciary Chair Gilbert Keith-Agaran, would require the Campaign Spending Commission to do much the same thing — make finance reports available to the public online in a searchable database.

The bill’s preamble says the state “has a duty to the residents of Hawaii to ensure that information concerning campaign contributions and expenditures is readily available to and easily accessible by the public.”

Specifically, the bill would require that the database allow the public to:

  • Search any report by any identifying element required in the reports;
  • Ascertain through a single search the total amount of contributions or expenditures for a person, party, candidate, candidate committee, or noncandidate committee for the applicable reporting period or election period;
  • Download reports and data maintained in the database.

Lawmakers this week are working to finalize a version of HB 2174 in conference committee. There were concerns over the cost to revamp the commission’s website and whether it could be completed by the imposed deadline of 360 days after this year’s general election.

Other states have figured out how to do it. Civil Beat found examples of searchable campaign finance databases in other states:

Kuroiwa credits his pro bono project to City Camp, an event put on by the city in December that invited input and collaboration from Honolulu’s tech community.

“At City Camp, one breakout session that was substantive talked about trying to create a more open government for the city. I think it should’ve extended to the state,” Kuroiwa said. “I took a dataset I knew was there and easily accessible.”

He wound up getting in touch with the Campaign Spending Commission to chat about his project, which he says sparked officials’ interest in light of HB 2174. He tweaked some of his search functions to match what the bill would require.

It’s unclear if the commission will integrate Kuroiwa’s database with its website. He said it’ll depend on what state Chief Information Officer Sonny Bhagowalia has planned. He’s meeting with Bhagowalia this week.

The code he wrote initiates a search every few hours that trolls the Campaign Spending Commission and the Office of Elections’ websites for any updates, such as new candidates.

Beyond campaign finance data, Kuroiwa hopes to make more layers of data accessible to the pubic.

“I’m starting to go department to department,” he said. “Think about if you could attach this to procurement data. Or, people always wonder if money really influences a candidate’s decisions on bills. I don’t know. If datasets could match up to bill data, then you could say, this guy got money from Altria, which is Philip Morris’ parent company, so is he the guy who wrote the smoking ban law? The first step is to have the data available.”

He’s working with the state Ethics Commission, and already has lobbyist expenditure reports tied into his dataset.

“There’s a cadre of good programmers out there … but they don’t know where to access the data or if it’s in a format they can use,” Kuroiwa said. “My hope is that if you make the datasets available and make it compelling, people will see the value in it.”

For now, he’s got a good head start.

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