The Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists is excited to announce Tony Webster, a public records researcher and data activist, as its 2017 Peter S. Popovich Award winner. Webster’s dogged work to make government more transparent exemplifies the spirit of the award, which honors those who fight for First Amendment rights.
Journalists could learn a lot — and many have — by watching how Webster, a software engineer and researcher, uses the Data Practices Act and Freedom of Information Act. He requests records early and often about topics important to Minnesotans, like law enforcement’s use of emerging surveillance technology and housing fraud in North Minneapolis. Over the past two years, Webster has been in court challenging a sheriff’s denial of access to emails about facial recognition technology. The Court of Appeals recently rejected the sheriff’s argument that requests to access emails by topic or keyword are too difficult to comply with.
This spring, Webster plans to launch Goverage (twitter.com/goverage), a non-profit organization to help journalists and the public use and enforce their rights under state public records laws. In addition to making data policies and court documents about freedom of information litigation more accessible, Webster says Goverage will do research on how compliant government agencies are with the many transparency provisions of law.
Webster publishes much of what he finds on his website, tonywebster.com, where he calls himself a “web engineer, public records researcher and policy nerd.” Through his Twitter account, @webster, Webster raises awareness in real time about efforts to keep public information secret, calling out public officials and their offices for bad — and sometimes good — handling of data requests.
Webster will accept the award and speak at this year’s MNSPJ Page One Awards banquet scheduled for June 15th.