Between the big data and open data movements, governments talk a lot about “leveraging data” and “improving transparency.” These efforts often have good intentions, but governments also make data available for more basic, practical reasons. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA, or “foy-ah”) requires governments to release certain pieces of information and public records upon request from the public or media. The FOIA process can be complicated and time-consuming for both the requester and the government agency, and that’s why The Center for Investigative Reporting is making the FOIA Machine.
Announced on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter on July 16, the project met its initial goal of $17,500 weeks before deadline. With 18 days remaining, the team is about $11,000 away from its stretch goal of $50,000, which will allow the developers to include more features.
Michael Corey, news applications developer at The Center for Investigative Reporting, explained in a promotional video that the FOIA Machine will serve three main functions. It will help automate the submission of information requests by providing information to the requester, ensuring the request is sent to right place. The machine will help track requests and also give reminders to the requester to ensure the process goes smoothly and no deadlines or requirements are missed. And, thirdly, FOIA Machine will aggregate information that will help developers improve the whole process for future data requesters.
FOIA is of great value to journalists, said Coulter Jones, a data journalist and a project manager for FOIA Machine, but simplifying the process could lead to time savings for government, too. “The goal is to ease the barrier for journalists and for citizens to file public records requests,” he said. “Personally, I’ve lost time filing a request to the wrong agency or my request was too broad. In all likelihood, someone has already requested similar information from that government. So it’s not only a waste of my time if I’m trying to do a story, but it’s a waste of the government’s time.”
The extra administrative work of telling a journalist that they’ve reached the wrong department or that their request isn’t formatted properly or that it needs to be faxed, not emailed, is all time that government could spend doing other things. Given budget cuts and staff reductions in government, FOIA Machine could make things easier on everyone by making requests more clear and ensuring they’re going to the right place, he said.
Today, the primary focus of FOIA Machine is to benefit journalists and the public, Jones said, but because government is central to the process, there are some ways government could stand to benefit. “The open data movement is great but not all of those projects are complete or successful,” he said. Government-run open data projects around the country, as well as independent websites like OpenMissouri.org, achieve varying degrees of success in making government transparent, but FOIA Machine will fill a lot of those gaps, Jones said.
Eventually, he said, FOIA Machine could incorporate a parcel tracking-style system where the status of a person’s request is made available to them every step of the way. “That’s not what we’re solving right now necessarily, but what we can do is make it easier for you to keep track of that information so you know,” Jones said. “I think there’s two sides to this coin where we as citizens can be better about tracking our information and possibly push governments to an open standard.”
Most governments publish annual reports about how well they’re handling various requests, including FOIA. Another improvement that could benefit both the public and government, Jones said, is more specific data around those reports. A government that reported it responded to 95 percent of FOIA requests “in a timely manner” could be deceptive. Responding to a request could just mean sending an automated note informing the requester that their request was received, and then not actually providing the information requested until years later.
Many states and cities have begun developing open data portals over the past few years, often incorporating app contests or other crowdsourcing techniques to make use of the ever-growing mound of data that’s being collected. Palo Alto, Calif., CIO Jonathan Reichental said that governments that share their data are building trust with the public, eliminating administrative work, creating internal accountability, and providing opportunities for developers to transform data into tools for everyone.
Reichental and The City of Palo Alto have been recognized and awarded repeatedly for transparency, outreach, and open data efforts by Government Technology, the Open Government Partnership, California Forward (CAFWD.org), State Tech magazine, and the Huffington Post – and that’s just in 2013.
“When I look at the FOIA machine, I like it a lot,” he said. “Where it could become interesting is if the government agency itself logs in and creates an account on this thing and now becomes part of the supply chain. Government agencies want to solve this problem. We need a tracking system, too. So I think for the FOIA machine to be really successful, you’ve got to open up both sides of the equation – the requester and the supplier.”
Right now, he added, the City of Palo Alto is starting a project to create such an internal tracking and management system that will help the city process and route requests. “We’re going to use a product internally where the request comes in, it’s internalized, and the people are held accountable to the process and we can follow up on it,” he said.
The open data movement is helping to eliminate many of the requests that have traditionally been made, but there will always need to be a mechanism for requesting information manually, he said.
“I think cities do a very bad job of making that process known,” Reichental said. But the team behind FOIA Machine, he said, have a great opportunity to get governments to be more transparent if they can provide a way for them to participate in the service that makes things easier on their end, too.
A good analogy, he said, is that many businesses and governments upload data to Google Maps, which improves Google’s service, but the motivation for doing so is not altruistic – it’s because being present on a popular platform is valuable. Likewise, he said, if a city identifies that 1,000 local residents are using SeeClickFix, but the city government isn’t, it makes the city look bad.
So, if FOIA Machine becomes valuable enough for many people to use it and it can also provide governments with a way to participate and meet their own goals of increased efficiency and transparency, Reichental said, “it’s a win-win for everybody.”
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.