Our world is built on streams of data, beaming into headsets and printers and our ever-present phones. Twitter can predict what I will read; TikTok knows how to make me laugh; Facebook still thinks I want to see a picture of your lunch. (I don’t.)
Much of the data is not just invisible but corporate and proprietary. It’s about us, but it’s not ours. Ask for it, and you’ll hear the sound of CEOs laughing.
Maybe that’s what makes me appreciate it when the government says “Yes.”
Asking questions of town and county officials every week is a big part of my job. I’ve had the chance to see how, for people in government, producing data can range from being a burden to a terror. It is not always shared willingly. Sometimes it has to be requested formally, through a public records request. If the data are not in good shape, a records request can be a week-long headache for those who have to respond.
The story on page A7 this week, about Covid in assisted living facilities, is the result of such requests. The information that the state eventually produced is, by right, public. If it informs policy decisions, then we also get to see it — because, as voters, we are the leaders. It’s one part of democracy that is still thrillingly democratic.
I should not make it sound so easy. We sometimes pull our hair out trying to understand the data we get. Right now, all four Outer Cape towns are reporting their Covid cases differently. The state’s numbers don’t capture all the rapid tests being done at Outer Cape Health Services, so both the state and the county reports are undercounts. There are six different governments — each of our four towns, the county, and the state — each describing the same reality slightly differently. It’s like having six different accountants do your taxes, and then trying to reconcile their work.
The law that gives us the right to see public documents is the Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1966. Another law, passed 30 years later, is now making it harder to report the facts about Covid: HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which protects the privacy of medical information. In the name of HIPAA, officials are denying access to, or redacting, data that we need to know — like how many people are dying of Covid in assisted living facilities.
This is not trivial information for people who are still trying to survive a pandemic. HIPAA was not enacted to conceal statistics — but it has the force of law, and officials who are afraid of violating its rules sometimes go to absurd lengths.
Free access to public information is the law, but it’s also a habit that can be lost. It’s part of our job to keep that information flowing.