Today, The Lens is unveiling a new service to bring greater openness to government business in New Orleans. We call it The Vault — referring to the place where valuables and important government documents are locked away, inaccessible to all but the few who know how to find them.

If you have 90 seconds, here’s a video from Lens founder Karen Gadbois about how this project came to be, and a quick overview from news technologist Abe Handler about how it works.

Every year, government bodies in New Orleans sign hundreds of contracts worth millions of dollars, including road construction, office supplies, computer-systems maintenance, trash pickup and consulting.

Those documents, like most everything else in government, are public records, available to anyone so they can track how public business is being conducted.

But it isn’t exactly easy to keep tabs on public business. For example, the Sewerage & Water Board of New Orleans keeps its contracts on paper.

The city of New Orleans has done the most to make its contracts accessible, by posting them online. But even then, you’ll have trouble finding most contracts unless you know the name of the contractor or can guess how they’re described in city files.

Sure, you can file a public-records request, but you need to specify exactly what you want, or the city may reject it for being overly broad. Even if you’re specific, you’ll be in a long line of people seeking all kinds of records from the city.

We believe these documents should be as easy to find as anything else online — surely as easy to find as things that are less important to our civic life.

We started with the city of New Orleans, the largest government body in the area. We have now uploaded more than 5,300 contracts signed by the city — more than the city has on its own site.

We processed them with text-recognition software to make them fully searchable by any word or name. We organized them by department and vendor. Unlike the city’s site, all these contracts are visible to Google.

Stop wondering. Start looking

Our service is easy to use: Just type a name or term and hit Enter. Use the “vendor” or “department” tags to find everything for a certain company or department.

If you’re not sure which city department to look under, we have you covered. On The Vault’s main search page, we have listed many city departments with descriptions of what they handle. (Would you know that home elevation contracts, for instance, are under Homeland Security?)

Most people have never read a government contract. So The Lens’ Charles Maldonado has written a helpful primer to help you understand the most common types of contracts.

More on the way

We’ve now put 5,300 contracts online. Every week, we add more.

In the coming weeks, we’ll expand to other government bodies in New Orleans. Many of those contracts are stored on paper, making it exceedingly unlikely that people will find them.

We’ll also add other publicly available information services to help people learn more about the companies getting these contracts. Business records and campaign finance records are on our to-do list.

Our goal with this project is to help you see what your government is up to. Our customers are neighborhood leaders, elected officials, journalists, people seeking government business — anyone who wants to keep tabs on how government bodies are doing their job.

If you find something useful, please let us know. And if you have ideas about how to improve the service, tell us that, too.

Perhaps this service will ferret out corruption. Maybe it will help someone figure out what’s going on with long-delayed construction on the neighborhood park. Perhaps government officials will use it to learn how to operate more efficiently.

Take the first step: Peer inside The Vault.

The Vault is part of The Lens’ Open Data Initiative, funded in part by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Lens readers like you

Steve Myers

Steve Myers was editor of The Lens. Before joining the staff in 2012, Myers was managing editor of Poynter Online, the preeminent source of news and training about the journalism industry. At Poynter,...