FOIA Machine would break logjam for public records


Gaining access to public information from the government through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state "sunshine" laws is often a challenging, time consuming and costly endeavor for journalists.

"Just because information is supposed to be public doesn't mean it's easy to get," said Michael Corey, a news applications developer at The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). "In the real world, requesting public records means being a quasi-legal expert for whatever jurisdiction you want records for, and the process can often take a year or longer."

With a desire to help reporters and editors access and manage their public information document requests, a team of journalists and technology experts has been building and developing an online platform known as FOIA Machine.

CIR, which is based in the San Francisco Bay area, is serving as an incubator as the project is being prototyped. The next goal has been to raise funds for the project so a campaign has been launched.

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute has committed to providing matching funds, up to $15,000, to accelerate the campaign. The Kickstarter exceeded its goals in the first 48 hours being provided with enough funds needed to launch the FOIA Machine publicly. The additional funds will go into further development of the platform.  

"FOIA Machine is a tool that will have immediate and powerful benefits for all news organizations," said Randy Picht, executive director at RJI. "We're excited to help get the project finished and into the hands of reporters and editors." 

Once FOIA Machine launches, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a national non-profit housed at the Missouri School of Journalism, will host the project. 

In addition to helping automate the process of making and tracking requests for public records, FOIA Machine will also create a community of users to share expert tips and strategies. 

According to CIR staff, "We're streamlining the complicated process of filing and tracking public record requests, putting all 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."

How FOIA Machine will work:

  1. It automates the submission of requests: like TurboTax for government records.  FOIA Machine asks users a series of questions, then generates a properly formatted records request that can be sent directly through FOIA Machine or exported.
  2. It tracks requests and sends notices to the user about when the request was sent and when reminders should be sent to government officials.
  3. It collects information about FOIA in efforts to continue to improve and streamline the FOIA process.  All those automated FOIA requests will produce a substantial amount of data about what makes records requests successful or unsuccessful. FOIA machine also centralizes contact information and legal statues for the federal government and states.

How to get involved:
To learn more or donate money to the campaign, visit the Kickstarter page.

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