We all know what a headache it is to file Freedom of Information Act requests to governing bodies. Wired calls this tedious practice that reporters endure “government hell.”
The whole process is a time-suck: crafting the request letter in such a way that it will be read and actually considered, figuring out where in the bureaucracy to send the document in the first place and finally, waiting on a response – which will more than likely be a big fat “no,” for one reason or another. Or, if it’s a “yes,” it takes months or longer, and by the time you’ve received a response, you’ve moved on with your life.
Some people pay big bucks for any substantial amount of information from government agencies (usually 100 pages or more). Despite its necessary function, FOIA can be a real inconvenience, but the information that can be gleaned from a successful FOIA request is invaluable to reporting and more importantly, operating as a watchdog for those with the most power.
To aid with the method of asking for non-classified docs, specifically for the purpose of accountability reporting, the Center for Investigative Reporting has launched what they call the FOIA Machine, a mechanism for automating and organizing the process of requesting public records.
Introduced to the world via Kickstarter, the FOIA Machine promises to fulfill three main functions for journalists. It’s clear the heartbeat behind this operation is comparable to MuckRock, for example, but FOIA Machine likely wants to perfect that model.
- Help reporters with the logistics of filing an FOIA request and automates submission
- Keeps all your requests straight by tracking which days you submitted what and can send email reminders regarding your next steps with the request
- Create a wide knowledge base about FOIA requests in general and best practices for journalists. FOIA Machine will aggregate educational content and create a community where journalists can share about their experiences, compare laws across states and share tips on producing better FOIA requests (because FOIA can be rendered differently according to each state or municipality, it can often be confusing how to navigate individual entities… the FOIA Machine hopes to streamline that learning process).
FOIA Machine has had a couple of runs on Kickstarter. After meeting their first target in just two days, they came back with a “stretch goal” of $50,000. With the extra cash, FOIA Machine will add additional features to the site and host five FOIA events in five states to showcase the final product and generate discussion about filing requests, etc. Fun fact: the original idea for the startup was to track data on government response times to records requests. Needless to say, the scope of the project broadened quite a bit once FOIA Machine started getting love from Kickstarter donors and journalists across the country.
Plus, since they got 2,000 people behind them financially, the Knight Foundation will write FOIA Machine a $10,000 grant check.
FOIA Machine hasn’t launched just yet, but journalists can sign up for the free service now.
Given my natural tendency toward disorganization, I’m looking forward to having one database to consolidate all the details of each FOIA request I file and learning how to better cooperate with government agencies from other journalists. (And who can resist the cute little robot mascot?)
Will you sign up for FOIA Machine? How might you change it? What would you add?