See more of the story

It looks like Ramsey County’s libraries may be having a rough time of it. Fewer items are circulating year by year. Visits to buildings are declining. Even internet hours are down.

It’s never been easy to ferret out information like that in Ramsey County. But now residents can hop on the web and find such basic metrics of performance from not just the libraries, but a number of county entities.

A new “Open Data Portal” on the Ramsey County website is a user-friendly way for citizens to access public records.

The county’s boast that it is “committed to greater transparency and accountability by providing public data online in a meaningful and accessible format” is the sort of verbiage you see a lot. The problem is that it often takes a Wonky McNerd to find it or make sense of it.

But in an era when many government officials bemoan the disconnect between the wealth of data that exists and the ease of finding it, Ramsey County’s portal, unveiled late last month, seems like a start.

Visitors to the new site can find data on spending, maps of neighborhoods suffering high poverty and job trends, or see how the county stacks up against the six other core metro-area counties.

Four basic clusters at the outset yield to multiple options, including “Departmental Performance Measures,” always a sensitive spot.

Key metrics of health can be spotted at once. For instance, one piece of good news for Ramsey County is that the share of its population that ranks as young adults — a retention challenge for many places these days — is climbing. That’s not true for all counties.

To be sure, even a quick helicopter tour finds plenty of unanswered questions. What does it mean, for instance, that 8 percent of roads in Ramsey County are rated “poor”? How does that compare with other jurisdictions, and is the figure growing or shrinking?

It’s not always clear whether library data is really just for January of each year (it’s not) or perhaps simply labeled that way. There’s data for 2015 but not for 2016 (you can find that on a state website).

And while it may take some data skills, the site notes that “the public data in the portal can be used to create comparative charts and graphs, downloaded in spreadsheets and other formats, developed into mobile apps, and used for other purposes.”

It’s hard to find anything similar on the home page of neighboring Washington County. The data’s in there somewhere, but it’s hard to find — and in the case of libraries, for instance, nowhere nearly as candid as what Ramsey County provides.

And on Scott County’s home page, it’s likely that few untutored civilians would know that “Delivering What Matters” is the insiders’ term for “Here’s Our Transparency Stuff.”

David Peterson • 651-925-5039