OPRAmachine is an open-source platform that lets citizens easily file requests for public records to their local governments, and it makes the requests and answers available to the public.
New Jersey citizens are guaranteed access to public records via a law that allows them to request such access. The Open Public Records Act, known as OPRA, states that “Government records shall be readily accessible for inspection, copying or examination by the citizens of this state, with certain exceptions, for the protection of the public interest.”
Fulfillment like the lawless Wild West
Cities, towns, counties and other government entities can interpret how this service is to be implemented. So, until the arrival of OPRAmachine, fulfillment of this service was like the lawless Wild West: People would ask for information from local governments through a traditional paper process, and then hope their requests would be accepted, Rozzi said.
Some government agencies would give people the runaround or would request special forms. Making requests across multiple counties or municipalities was a chore. Also, multiple people could make requests for the same information from a county or town, and that county or town would then find itself swimming in paperwork. And it was difficult for local governments to comply with the OPRA law’s imposition of a seven-business-day deadline.
“I decided to create OPRAmachine because I’ve always had a passion for both technology and government and politics, and I felt there wasn’t any other solution that adequately served New Jersey’s needs,” Rozzi said. “We needed a platform like this. Since we launched the site in 2017, we’ve seen the platform adopted by a diverse array of stakeholders that have been using it for a variety of applications.”
As of April 30, according to the website, there have been more than 4,693 successful requests to 1,119 authorities.
NJ News Commons at Montclair State University recently named Rozzi’s company, Rozzi Media Group, based in Forked River, as the winner of this year’s Excellence in Local News award for the category of “Innovate Local.”
Rozzi built the site on the open-source Alaveteli platform.
“We were the first to deploy this open-source software for public record requests in the United States,” he noted. “It took a significant amount of effort to customize the software and get it in a condition that was suitable for New Jersey. I began working on this in December 2016, and we had to work out a lot of the kinks.”
The site is operated via a Debian Linux distribution that runs on the company’s servers.
Rozzi also set up and customized the infrastructure, to make sure the site worked smoothly for its users.
“Since our requests are sent via email, email deliverability has been a bit of a challenge,” he said.
The data is published though multiple methods. “We have a JSON REST API that is the industry standard for apps pulling data from servers, and we also publish an RSS feed for OPRA requests for every single town and school district on our site.”
Whenever someone files a public records request, it is automatically published on the OPRAmachine site. The request is then tracked, and anyone can make use of this information. In the traditional OPRA process, one person would make the request, and he would obtain the records himself.
From a data science point of view, OPRAmachine is the only site that collects and publishes statistics on OPRA compliance by agency throughout New Jersey, Rozzi said: “We are collecting statistics by municipality, by school district and other agencies that are subject to OPRA, and tracking to see if those requests are being fulfilled in the proper time frame.”
Rozzi believes that the site could be replicated for other states, but has some concerns, as it is highly dependent on the specific legal climate of each state.
“There are equivalent freedom of information laws in just about every other state, but some of them have different requirements,” he said.
He added that a court case settled in New Jersey allows citizens to file OPRA requests to their government agencies without having to fill out any special forms.
OPRAmachine has a free tier of service that allows people to make up to three OPRA requests per day at no cost. However, Rozzi instituted a pro tier of service in November. He told NJTechWeekly.com that his business model resembles GitHub, the code hosting site for technology projects. In the free tier, OPRA requests are automatically published. In the pro tier, which costs $12 per month, users get to make unlimited requests and have the option to keep their requests private on the site. He explained that journalists working on a story, lawyers, private investigators and others might not want to tip their hands by having their requests published.
How OPRAmachine is being used
Rozzi gave NJTechWeekly.com an idea of how the requests could be used. He recently gave a presentation at Ocean County College, in Toms River, to a group of students in an addiction studies class. They are using OPRAmachine to investigate the state of the opioid crisis in Ocean County. A large component of their work involved submitting their own OPRA requests and going through the process. They also used existing records on the site.
“As a part of that project, I, along with the professor, provided guidance and mentorship regarding the OPRA component of the project,” Rossi stated.
Another function of the platform was demonstrated by a journalist who used it to figure out if every town in Middlesex County was paying its public employees what was mandated by New Jersey state labor law. The platform has enabled comparative research across towns, and has helped people to gain a greater understanding of the machinery of local government.
OPRAmachine does have some competition, Rozzi said. “NextRequest and GovQA have been adopted by a handful of municipalities in New Jersey. The difference between us and them is that a government agency will contract with one of those two software products, and they will spend a few thousand dollars to get access to the platform. Our business model is completely different, because we don’t charge the municipalities a cent. Instead of burdening municipalities and putting an addition burden on taxpayers, we make our money from our pro subscribers.”
The website doesn’t offer advice on how to frame OPRA requests, but the examples of successful requests on the site should prove helpful. Rozzi said that people should keep their requests as narrow as possible with regard to the date range and subject matter. Your request will likely be denied if you submit an open-ended question. Also, he added, if you do have a voluminous request, the towns will impose fees.