Code for Hawaii and The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest recently launched a free service — UIPA.org — designed to help everyone request records from local government agencies. This new service aims to reduce barriers to access for community members who want to learn more about government practices.

When records are made freely available, it creates transparency in our society, drives community engagement, and provides accountability. Did anyone file an official complaint when the State Auditor raised concerns about HART closing its meetings to the public? Find out here. How well does the Department of Land and Natural Resources respond to requests? Find out here.

Do you know the terms of the SHOPO collective bargaining agreement? Find out here. If you want to know more about your government, all you need to do now is ask.

Democracy only works if the government operates with reasonable transparency. For example, what public officials choose to share in a press release about environmental issues, affordable housing, public schools, taxation, or transportation may only tell half the story. That is why public records laws are a vital tool to keep government accountable to the people, who are “the ultimate decision-making power” according to Hawaii’s Uniform Information Practices Act.

Find out how to use the site:

The public should not be discouraged from asking for information because the process is too difficult. There are enough real obstacles to open government in Hawaii. People should feel comfortable requesting public records, not intimidated by the process itself.

That is why Code for Hawaii and The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest teamed up on this project. The platform provides tools in one convenient place for the public to make requests to State and county agencies, track the progress of their requests, and research requests made by others. The service even automatically fills out OIP Form 1 for the user.

Provides For Anonymity

Each request is tracked on a single page and includes all relevant e-mail communication between the user and the agency. Users receive a notification from the service when a new response arrives from an agency, and a reminder to follow-up when a request is not resolved in a timely manner.

The platform also provides for different levels of anonymity. When setting up an account, community members may use pseudonyms, if they prefer that the government agency not know their identity. Users also may create accounts in their own name, but mark the account as private. For private accounts, the platform uses best efforts to remove references to the user’s identity when the request and government responses are published on the site.

Finally, when a request is made, it may be marked as non-public and kept hidden for up to a year, during which time, only the user has access to the request and any responses. After that year — if not published sooner by the requester — the request will be made public so that the entire community benefits from the user’s success or struggle with the agency.

The platform also provides for different levels of anonymity.

The platform provides an opportunity for Hawaii to crowdsource experiences with public record requests. What records has an agency provided in the past? Which agencies are more resistant to disclosure? The more people that use UIPA.org, the more we learn collectively from the efforts of others. Thus, the platform’s motto: “Expanding Hawaii’s public access one request at a time.”

Keep in mind that although the service is a free tool, government agencies may charge fees and costs to process a request. The platform has an FAQ that provides some tips to minimize the possibility of fees associated with obtaining public records, as well as discusses other aspects of the public records law.

The UIPA.org portal was created for everyone. The software builds on an open source project originally developed by the Open Knowledge Foundation with modifications made specifically to serve the residents of Hawaii.

The site you see today is a result of several years of outstanding work by the Code for Hawaii team led by Ryan Kanno and including McKay Davis, Russ Tokuyama, Ian Lind, Sara Sakamoto, Burt Lum, George Lee, and Stephan Fitzpatrick. This project could not have come together without their dedication and support.

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