Huang Qi, the Chinese dissident who had been working to uncover information about school buildings that collapsed during the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan, China, was formally arrested last week for illegally possessing state secrets. He had been in detention for weeks.
Huang had already served five years in prison on charges of inciting subversion after publishing many articles critical of the government on his Web site, http://64tianwang.com/. He claimed that he was badly beaten in jail, and suffers headaches and depression.
The parents of children who died in collapsed school buildings have been considered a possible threat to the Chinese government. Their protests and harsh questioning of officials was seen as having a chance to grow into an opposition movement shortly after the earthquakes. The arrest of Huang and other steps taken by the Chinese government have quelled this movement ahead of the Beijing Summer Olympics.
As the person at EveryBlock responsible for working with local government to get more public data, I couldn’t help but feel small seeing someone go to jail for reporting on building code standards. Our work focuses, in part, on obtaining building permits, code inspection records, and other public data in United States cities. Huang Qi is a living legend for someone like me.
The nature of this particular case — involving building standards after a disaster — also reminds me of the work of Stephen Doig and dozens of others at the Miami Herald after Hurricane Andrew. Their What Went Wrong series was a data-oriented look at building permits, wind speed, and damage reports. They won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service that year “for coverage that not only helped readers cope with Hurricane Andrew’s devastation but also showed how lax zoning, inspection and building codes had contributed to the destruction”.
It’s good for me to take a break from whining about this or that city official not calling me back, or some municipal department that turned down my Freedom of Information Act request, or some agency that provides partial data rather than every field I requested. I’ve got it made. For some, it really is life or death, captivity of freedom, torture or awards. And there are legends of this business that still live and breathe. Let’s try to keep them free, and appreciated, and keep working as hard as we can, wherever we are.