Philadelphia opens up its lobbying data

Philadelphia recently launched a new lobbying disclosure website where users can search and download information about any lobbyist trying to influence city government.

The Sunlight Foundation found problems in the previous iteration of the city’s disclosure website when it analyzed the site in 2013.  

From the Sunlight Foundation:

The story of Philadelphia's lobbying website highlights some of the problems local governments face with sharing this crucial dataset. Lobbying disclosures help reveal who is trying to influence government and how, but sharing the information with enough detail and in a format that's easy to analyze and reuse is something that few local governments have been able to accomplish so far.

Today, the information can be downloaded in bulk and used in spreadsheet programs such as Microsoft Excel. However, records before 2014 are still only available as PDFs, static files that are more difficult to aggregate.

Taxpayers can generate their own reports to see what gifts politicians have received from lobbyists or what topic lobbyists are working on. This allows the public to see that Philadelphia City Council member Kenyatta Johnson, a Democrat who represents the 2nd District, received two Philadelphia 76ers tickets worth a total of $250 from PECO, an energy company, on Jan. 17, 2014.

According to the Sunlight Foundation:

New features in the lobbying section of the Board of Ethics website allows users to search registration and expense information from principals, lobbying firms, and lobbyists, or browse a full directory of lobbyists that includes their photos. There's also an option to download several different kinds of reports based on expense and registration data.

On Pittsburgh’s Open Book Pittsburgh, a database of financial information administered by the city controller, you can search for lobbyists, but you can’t download information in bulk. This means that you either have to know the lobbyist’s name or the company’s name to find the information.

Pittsburgh’s website doesn’t have a directory of all lobbyists, nor is there any gift disclosure information.

According to this document, Pittsburgh only requires lobbyists to register if they spend more than 30 hours in three consecutive months attempting to influence legislation. And, if a lobbyist volunteers his or her time for a cause, they don’t have to register at all.

Philadelphia, the Sunlight Foundation notes, has created the new disclosure portal in response to a 2010 law that requires the electronic filing of lobbying disclosures and making that information available to the public in a searchable format.

Reach Eric Holmberg at 412-315-0266 or at eholmberg@publicsource.org.