Today marks four months since OPRAmachine was officially launched and made accessible to the general public. Since then, it has been breaking down barriers for access to public information in New Jersey and helping to educate the public about OPRA.
Our October 24th, 2017 the launch came after several months worth of technical preparation and trial & error as we learned to work with the open source Alavetelisoftware that powers our backend server as well as the technical challenges of managing the various components of the web service.
OPRAmachine by the numbers
Since our late-October public launch, as of February 24th, 2018 we have seen:
1254 OPRA requests were submitted to public bodies across the state by site users in our first four months of operation.
766 public authorities, including all 565 municipalities in New Jersey added to our database.
We have processed 15 requests from municipalities and citizens to change or update public bodies on OPRAmachine.
3 lawsuits were filed in New Jersey Superior Court arising out of requests originally filed via OPRAmachine for alleged unlawful denials of access to public records.
1 complaint with the New Jersey Government Records Council (GRC) over OPRA practices at a public body.
How we are making an impact
As OPRAmachine has developed into a statewide freedom of information platform for the state of New Jersey, its impact has been seen on several fronts:
Journalists have used the public records obtained via OPRAmachine to drive stories about state and local government hiring, spending and other activities.
Law firms are using OPRAmachine to make requests for documents and information that supplements discovery materials for their cases. Some attorneys are using the site to study specific types of requests in order to be more familiar with how OPRA is being implemented.
Private investigators are using OPRAmachine to further their investigations through the use of public records.
Public officials have been making use of our platform to research responses to requests from neighboring counties / municipalities and jurisdictions
Non-profit organizations have used OPRAmachine to support their missions, such as analyzing the amount of free legal services provided to senior citizens.
Concerned Citizens are using OPRAmachine to obtain records about local government & law enforcement issues. In some cases, individuals have registered on the site solely to receive notifications about the status of certain requests filed by other users rather than filing new requests of their own.
The challenges we have faced
Email deliverability has been the biggest challenge that we have been facing in administering OPRAmachine. Despite our use of industry standard best practices, such as DKIM and SPF, there are still a certain few governments whose email servers continue to prevent requests from getting through. This has been frustrating to affected users and the site administration, as some governments have been more willing to work with us than others to resolve these types of issues.
For example, Jackson Township was originally receiving and responding to requests without issue, however since early 2018 their email server has been rejecting incoming messages from OPRAmachine.
On a similar note, we have found some civil servants are confused by the underlying premise of how OPRAmachine relies on uniquely generated email addresses for each OPRA request. We hope to be able to provide educational materials to these custodians in the future in order to ensure a smooth experience for both requestors and custodians making use of our platform.
We are thankful to the local government officials of neighboring municipalities that have worked with us in good faith to resolve the issues, and remain ready and willing to work cooperatively when the opportunity presents itself.
Going forward, in the next year we hope to continue the momentum that OPRAmachine has had since its launch. We intend to introduce new features and services intended for the professional users of OPRAmachine, as well as working to address some of the current shortcomings of the platform.
2018 has also seen the creation of a comprehensive documentation website that has guides for how to best make use of the OPRAmachine platform as well as key site policies and procedures.
Despite the challenges we have faced in implementing this project, we believe that OPRAmachine has significantly increased transparency at all levels of New Jersey government - something we can all be happy about.