Attack of the geeks

A cadre of computer whizzes plans to expose DISD's finances to the world

A loose alliance of computer experts, dubbed the "Geek Garrison" by their leader, has descended on the Dallas Independent School District, demanding all of the district's financial records for the last two decades. When they get it, the geeks plan to post all of the information on the World Wide Web.

At least one well-known critic of the district says the computer campaign could blow the roof right off DISD headquarters.

But that, the geeks say, is not their ultimate goal.
They want more than that.
Wouldn't you know it: They want to change the world.

The computer experts are looking at DISD as a proving ground for a technology they plan to replicate all over the society, revolutionizing politics and democracy itself in the process.

"Increasingly in the 21st century, citizenship will be empowered by people who use their technical skills to help people make informed decisions," says Kendall Clark, one of the geeks and president of the North Texas Linux Users Group.

Education activist Russell Fish, himself a geek, made a formal demand on DISD a month ago that it turn over all of its financial records dating to the early 1970s. Backed by lawyers from the Texas Justice Foundation, Fish also is suing DISD for broad testing data, which he also plans to publish on the Internet.

While DISD drags its feet on both requests, Fish already has built a computer to process the data, and he and other experts have created a search engine--a program that will enable anybody, sophisticated or not, to call up Fish's Web page and start asking questions.

"A parent could go to the page and say, 'Well, OK, just exactly how much did the district spend on window frames last year?' And, zip, here comes the answer.

"It's probably the biggest open-records request ever made by anybody," Fish says.

Fish's Web page is already up and running, with the search engine in place and the computer "just sitting there twiddling its thumbs, waiting for the data to show up." A link to the page is on the Dallas Observer's Web site at www.dallasobserver.com.

The service Fish proposes will merely bring politics up to the same vantage point that business has enjoyed for some years now, according to Laurence Jolidon, editor and publisher of State & Local Insider, an Internet service based in Dallas. Many businesses now use the Internet to plug consumers directly into the kind of product information that used to be available only through salespeople.

Jolidon, whose company provides government data to a mainly business clientele, says he thinks the project proposed by Fish is revolutionary.

"It's hard to predict, of course, because politics is so fluid, but then so is the Internet. It's almost the perfect match," Jolidon says.

Closer to home and to brass tacks, the mechanism that Russell Fish and company propose promises some really exciting political fireworks, says longtime DISD critic Richard Finlan, who has spent years demanding data from DISD and then painstakingly searching it by hand. Finlan predicts the real story exposed by the system Fish proposes will be the sheer volume of cash that will turn up missing.

"They're going to find missing money, you bet," Finlan says. "The point is, nothing at DISD balances. Nothing balances. Nothing balances."

So far, the district is not arguing that the information Fish is seeking is not public. The school district says it just doesn't want to stop doing what it's doing and work on Fish's huge request unless Fish pays it to do so, according to DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander.

"We also have an obligation to protect the public's interest, and we just don't have enough staff around here to retrieve records of this magnitude unless there is a reimbursement for the labor involved," he says.

There are more profound misgivings about the project in other quarters.
"I just don't think raw data will produce anything that people will be able to understand," says veteran school board member Yvonne Ewell. "People still need someone to interpret the data for them."

But it's just that kind of official possessiveness of information that draws the geeks to the battle in the first place, according Clark, the Linux person.

"That's a very paternalistic and insulting attitude," Clark says.
Then, with true geek objectivity, Clark adds: "Of course, I cannot literally deny the truth of that claim."

Linux itself, Clark explained, is an internationally successful computer operating system that has been developed for free by a loose confederacy of volunteer programmers and is distributed for free all over the world.

Why free?
"Because we don't like Microsoft," Clark says.
And here is the center of the weave--geeks to DISD to blowing off the roof to world freedom/world domination. Linux is a computer system devised and propagated by people who think knowledge should be free and universal.

Fish says most of the geeks involved in his effort are gifted intellectually, like Clark, who is a computer genius and doctoral candidate in religious studies at SMU.

"Most of these guys," Fish says, "are running around in sandals and ponytails all day with way too much time to think."

Fish attended a monthly meeting of the Linux users group a few weeks ago. When everyone started talking at the same time about the projects they were working on, a large group gathered around Fish's chair (apparently the equivalent of geek parliamentary procedure).

"Russell is a pretty captivating guy," Clark says. "I was interested initially from a technical point of view, because he was using free software to manage such large data sets. But then when I heard what the data was about, all the politics and everything instead of just 10 gigabytes of some corporate crap, then I got really interested."

Several members of the group quickly signed up as volunteers to help Fish with his project, guaranteeing him, he says, one of the most sophisticated technical teams anywhere in the world.

Fish, who was chief executive officer of his own successful Silicon Valley start-up firm (he sold it), knows exactly what he wants to do with the huge data set he intends to pry out of DISD.

"In the business world, every once in a while you do a physical audit. You go around and count everything and put it on the balance sheet," he says. "If you had it last year, and you don't have it this year, there are only so many options. You sold it, you gave it to somebody, you lost it, or you stole it. I don't think that has ever been done at DISD."

When he loads the DISD data into his computer, anybody will be able to call up the page and start checking on what happened to the system's nuts, bolts, and dollars.

Finlan agrees there has never been an overall consistent audit of DISD and says that if Fish succeeds in doing it on the Web, the results will make the scandals of the last year look laughably mild. The difficulty Fish will encounter, Finlan predicts, is that most of the district's financial data will turn out to be on paper, not on disk.

"When I was chasing down $54 million in missing money that the district had put in Ray Hunt's bank, all of it was on reams and reams of handwritten logs," he says.

Fish says that will be all right too. "A lot of it probably is still pencil-and-paper," he says. "One of the things we will force out into the open is the fact that a billion-dollar-a-year school district is being run on the back of an envelope.

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