Researchers use them for estimates, political groups for lobbying, journalists for reporting, companies for strategy and citizens for civic participation.
What are they? Public records requests, the official inquiries to governments for nonclassified information. All 50 states guarantee the right to the practice. The Freedom of Information Act grants the same rights for federal agency information. And yet, the process has long been tedious for average citizens and a tangle for government staff members who handle the requests on top of normal workloads. Complicating matters, there's no standard requesting methodology. From states to cities, transit agencies to school districts, each jurisdiction adopts its own procedures.
The predicament is a challenge three entrepreneurs are attempting to solve. Motivated by civic transparency and government ingenuity, Co-founders Andy Hull, Tamara Manik-Perlman and Reed Duecy-Gibbs crafted NextRequest, a startup launched this year that aims to be a new delivery service for open records. The trio fashioned a platform that uses the cloud to handle the constant flow of public records requests and an intuitive dashboard to manage them all.
Key features include status tracking, department routing for targeted requests, a repository of items already answered or pending, and analytics for officials to chart efficiency. Manik-Perlman likes to describe the app as something akin to tracking packages via Amazon or FedEx. In each step, citizens and governments can clearly see where a request is in the process.
“People feel really different about the process when they can see that something is actually happening,” Manik-Perlman said.
More than this, it’s a way to probe transparency needs. Leveraging the platform’s metrics enables officials to identify high-value public information that might be placed into open data portals or released periodically. Added returns sprout from efficiencies. The startup calculated that the average record request costs cities $400 to process when factoring in labor and resources. The expense multiplies itself by the hundreds — and even by the thousands — of requests governments are sent each year.
“The public records request process is actually one of the most valuable ways to understanding what kinds of information people want,” said Manik-Perlman.
Stepping back to NextRequest's roots, Manik-Perlman said underpinnings of the technology date back to a 2013 fellowship with the civic tech group Code for America. The organization partnered with Oakland, Calif., to develop a few civic solutions through the yearlong fellowship. Fellows Richa Agarwal, Cris Cristina and Sheila Dugan fashioned RecordTrac as a result of the endeavor. The open source software allowed the city to make major gains across departments in its public records requests. However, for the tech to be universally applied, the trio knew some core features were needed.
“In order for it to be something that gets widespread adoption, to turn into a startup and sustainable business, there were a couple things we needed to change about it,” Manik-Perlman said. “So we re-evaluated everything and built NextRequest from scratch.”
As 2013 fellows themselves, the co-founders took the concept for RecordTrac and transformed it into a subscription cloud service to avoid complicated software installations for customers. This was paired with customizable dashboards that automate much of the adjustments for agencies. In the end, NextRequest went through a series of iterations with official deployments in Albuquerque, N.M.; Providence, R.I.; West Sacramento, Calif.; and the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., this year.
Jerome Wilen, public disclosure manager at the Port of Seattle, said NextRequest was piloted in the last few months, and the port has already used the service for 214 requests, with roughly 150 completed. Changes to current processes were significant, Wilen said. Previous problems included lengthy email exchanges and the dreaded task of saving information to CDs and flash drives to get around Microsoft Exchange’s 10 MB email limit.
“With this we don’t have to do that. We can upload the documents directly to that individual's request account for easy download,” Wilen said — whether it's audio, video or any other type of file.
While Wilen had good first impressions of the service, he said he’s collaborating with NextRequest for minor improvements such as editing previously published posts for internal typos and redacting private information departments might inadvertently include — an incident that happened recently when an agency added the name of a crime victim in the request.
Manik-Perlman said that in addition to the updates to the app and added research, immediate plans are to scale the service as it's refined through feedback. The goal is to open the platform up to the United States' roughly 90,000 local government agencies with the larger impact touching citizens.
“There’s the technology,” Manik-Perlman said, “but there’s also this real change in tone and the relationship between the public and government.”