There’s more to Tim Clemans than first meets the eye. Or the editor’s pen.
I wrote about Clemans two weeks ago. He’s the guy who requested release of nearly every email ever sent by every state agency.
I called Clemans’ public records request “outlandish” and “gimmicky.” Still true.
I also suggested he wasn’t acting in good faith. After talking with him Friday, I’m softening a bit.
Clemans, a 24-year-old self-taught computer programmer, is pushing agencies beyond their means to fulfill his gigantic public records requests. But he’s also helping agencies figure out how technology may help them with the processing.
If together they find a breakthrough, we all stand a better chance of getting prompt access to the gazillions of public records our government produces these days.
“We live in the 21st century,” Clemans said, “but the government doesn’t.”
Clemans’ email request was the latest in a string that began last September. He filed 30 massive requests for Seattle Police Department dispatch calls, police reports and videos. The state Supreme Court had just ruled that Seattle police couldn’t withhold dash cam video for three years, as they’d tried to do after a request by KOMO-TV.
“I was curious,” Clemans said.
Rather than fight the request, Seattle police enlisted his help. If Clemans would stand down, the department would let him try to develop software to help them.
After he passed a background check, they turned over a batch of records he could experiment with. His approach is to have police “over-redact” documents and videos to eliminate privacy concerns, then routinely post them online at the end of each shift.
Clemans’ program automatically scans each document, marking out proper nouns (names) and numbers (addresses or phone numbers). Another program scans every video to make it black-and-white and blurry enough that you can’t identify a person.
Citizens would get enough information from the fuzzy documents and videos to know which specific ones to request rather than asking for big batches. Police would manually review only requested documents, releasing any words or images the public should be able to see.
Clemans describes this as Phase I of a complicated testing process. Some items would be too complicated for automation, but he believes it would work for most.
The department isn’t paying him, Clemans said, although it’s offered to help him apply for a grant. He’s using open-source (free) software and giving his program to the department for free.
And in five short months, he’s become an A-lister with government agencies across the region.
As a result of his bugging, he said, the Snohomish County emergency dispatch center posts dispatches online instead of processing requests on CDs. Kirkland city officials are working with him to post spreadsheets online.
He applauds the King County Sheriff’s Office, which now posts helicopter video at the end of each shift to a private YouTube account. The agency reviews them afterward and releases within days those that aren’t part of active investigations.
An Everett city attorney called last week in response to Clemans’ request for a day’s worth of emails. He’d heard about Clemans on the radio. He’d like a system that would allow employees to mark every email as they send it, automatically posting those that don’t require redaction.
“I got flown out to Yakima on their dime,” Clemans said. The police chief drove him from office to office to offer advice. The dispatch center was printing out reports and scanning them back in to fulfill requests, he said. He quickly found a way to automate that.
“Oh, yeah, I’m working with Poulsbo, too,” he said. “Bellingham has driven to Seattle to meet with me. They liked me so much they asked me to talk to the state Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. It’s fun.”
“When I meet with these people, they say, ‘Yeah, we get it. You want this, but there’s logistical problems. Let’s figure this out.’ ”
He hasn’t asked any agency for a job, he said, although he asked for a job at Evidence.com, the company that manages Seattle’s police video. For now, he does systems development for a medical records company.
“My priority is ultimately to help,” he said. “This is a technology problem. I think there are things that can be done, certainly when records are created.”
And his enormous request of all state agency emails that didn’t require redaction?
The state Attorney General’s Office said that because agencies don’t categorize emails by those requiring redaction and those that don’t, the request was invalid. Clemans is seeking a change in government operations rather than particular documents, the AG said, and he should take it up with the Legislature.
Clemans responded by dropping the redacting provision and requesting all government emails.
“I won’t be surprised if they don’t respond,” he said.
In the meantime, he appreciates what he says the Everett city attorney told him: “There’s no way we would have gotten here if you hadn’t asked.”