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Web 2.0 Challenges Notions of Public and Private Information

September 9, 2008 By

My successor in state service earns $121,920 a year. My boss' successor earns $137,160. They are doing better than we did -- how much better is a matter of public record. But a decade ago when I was on the public payroll, public employees' salary records enjoyed a level of obscurity because they were bound in a book that sat on a shelf behind the counter.

With the rise of the commodity Internet, self-styled government accountability activists predictably began to post that information online. These efforts tended to use public disclosure laws to obtain flat files, which produced static tables that didn't lend themselves to robust search or comparison.

Enter XML and third parties -- daily newspapers chief among them -- that made the data more widely available and provided tools for more sophisticated display and interrogation. For example, The Sacramento Bee recently created a firestorm of controversy in the California capital when it posted public employees' salary information on its Web site -- by name, title and department.

The debate that followed pitted those who claimed it was a reckless action in an age of rampant identity theft versus taxpayer advocates who claimed a public right to know.

Such local skirmishes have flared up across the country, but tend to get resolved without much fanfare, and as a result, maintain the appearance of containment. That's largely and increasingly an illusion. What if an Internet startup were to do for salary information what Zillow did for real estate values (through secondary use of public property tax records) and Expedia did for travel arrangements? We are about to find out.

Rich Barton -- the serial entrepreneur behind Expedia and Zillow, among others -- has taken the wraps off Like his earlier launches, Glassdoor was created to make transparent the information that's obscure and hard to get in usable form.

This latest venture -- with a de rigueur Web 2.0 twist -- wraps salary details in the context of anonymous workplace reviews and rankings from the employees who actually work at the companies.

In published reports, Barton describes the new company's origins as a break room fluke. He unintentionally printed the results of a Zillow employee survey that included individual salary information. Seen in the context of a quasi-public space, Barton had an idea. "It raised a really interesting question for me, which was, why not? Why shouldn't that be public?" he asked.

A consumer survey released to coincide with the debut of Glassdoor underscores the lack of consensus on the merits of sharing detailed salary information. It is still taboo for 11 percent of respondents, but more than half (52 percent) approve of sharing such details if it can be done anonymously -- a boost attributed to the less starchy views of younger workers.

The user-generated reviews are anonymous, but the site does name names. The early concentration is on tech-industry executives, but can public executives be far behind? After all, the data for them is free, public and digital. So much for local containment.

Glassdoor provides a useful reminder that everything we know about records management is wrong. Sure, that's hyperbole, but Barton isn't exaggerating when he claims, "People's appetite for this information ... is effectively infinite." Once again, the Internet will show us what happens when public records are actually public.


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared as Public Records and That Pesky Web 2.0 in the September 2008 print edition of Government Technology magazine.

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