Streamlining Public Data Collection with FOIA Machine

Reading time: 3 min

Freedom of information laws, which allow citizens to request government records from federal agencies down to local police stations, now exist in roughly 100 countries around the world. In the United States, the Freedom of Information Act, enacted in 1966 and known as FOIA, has long been a pillar of investigative and data journalism. However, while retrieving government documents and statistics should be as easy as submitting a FOIA request, the system is rarely so simple. “All of these documents that the government creates, the public has a right to all of them. It’s your data, basically, except in specific instances where there’s exceptions,” said news developer Michael Corey in a recent conference call hosted by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in Berkeley, Calif. “I think investigative reporters and others who work with FOIA all the time would tell you that that’s not how the process often works. The government often treats it in the opposite direction.” “Whether through intentional misconduct or bureaucratic inertia, [the government] is very slow about responding, and they either claim exemptions that either don’t apply or where they’re clearly stretching it to claim an exemption,” attorney Karl Olson later added. But now, data geeks and journalists can find a new ally in FOIA Machine, a free online platform created by CIR to streamline the information request process and compile a database of information accessible to a community of users. FOIA Machine, which started as a Kickstarter campaign, last week raised more than its stretch goal of $50,000 and received an additional $10,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation as a reward for attracting over 2,000 backers. The FOIA Machine Kickstarter page says the service is “like TurboTax for government records.” The platform, it states, will streamline, “the complicated process of filing and tracking public record requests, putting all of the steps, rules, exceptions and best practices in one place and allowing users to track requests on dashboards, receive alerts, share request blueprints and get social support and expertise from the FOIA Machine community.”

FOIA request screen shot (via FOIA Machine Kickstarter)
Starting a FOIA request (via FOIA Machine Kickstarter)
Picking a topic (via FOIA Machine Kickstarter)
FOIA Machine also hopes to add an API to interface with outside applications. The idea for the project began out of a shared frustration of getting hung up in the process of requesting documents. “Journalists for a long time found this a complicated system to navigate,” Corey, a member of the FOIA Machine team, said in a recent phone interview. “We’re not the first group to try something like that. We wanted to automate both the sending and the forming of the requests and tracking the requests as they went through the system. This is painful for reporters.” However, while Corey says that CIR approached the creation of FOIA Machine “from the journalist’s angle,” other professions will benefit from the project. In fact, he says, “Journalists do not file the majority of FOIA requests.” Lawyers and real estate agents do. Beyond retrieving new government documents, data enthusiasts will also benefit from the community aspect of FOIA, which hopes to provide a forum where journalists and others involved in the system can trade knowledge on differing law, experiences and best practices. This community will form the bulk of the FOIA Machine’s database of contacts, laws and any publicly available information requests. “You have to go into your records requests knowing the law that specifically governs the information that you are asking for,” said CIR reporter Ryan Gabrielson on the conference call. “Because in California, there are certain exemptions that exist for the California Department of Consumer Affairs that don’t exist for other agencies. It’s a massive tangle that you have to undo.” FOIA Machine has not launched yet, but you can sign up in advance on the website. Allison McCartney is an editor at the PBS NewsHour focused on education and informational graphics, and a freelance designer in the marketplace. She has a bachelor’s degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where she studied Middle Eastern history and art. You can follow her on Twitter @anmccartney.

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