FOIA Machine lubricates the wheels of access


Some holiday time-off-task offers a chance to get back to Poking Around – so where do I start? With a post about FOIA…. Though I’m eager to poke around a broader sphere, I have been intending to share this newish tool for some time.

Maybe you too have sworn off cookies, shopping, toys that blink and blast, and melodramatic reruns on TV – time to stretch the brain. Admit it, you’ve always wanted to mine the wealth of public information/data — from what’s behind the torture revelations to the fine points of climate change to your personal information trail.

Though widely supported efforts to streamline the Freedom of Information were torpedoed in the waning days of the last Congress, the folks at the Center for Investigative Reporting are pressing on – inviting seekers of government information to participate in the beta test of a promising tool on which they have been working since 2012.

FOIA Machine, a Kickstarted open-source platform, free to the user, offers innovative features that may clear the path to the maze of public records. Initially supported with a John S. and James L.Knight Foundation Prototype grant,with support from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, FOIA Machine was put over the top by 2000 contributors to the Kickstarter campaign. In their Kickstarter promo FOIA Machine team leaders describe the project as designed 1) to automate submission of requests, 2) to track FOIA requests, and 3) to aggregate information about FOIA requests themselves.

FOIA Machine was originally designed by and for journalists. Still, the John S. Knight Foundation anticipated that “FOIA Machine will aid journalists and private citizens in accessing millions of important governmental documents around the world that are covered by freedom of information laws which exist in more than 90 countries.”

FOIA Machine allows inquisitive users to

  • Prepare a request under the FOIA or any other Public Records state law from the agencies databases
  • Send requests to a right officer and agency, or schedule it for later sending
  • Track the status of requests
  • Get the records back to their email and FOIA Machine mailbox
  • Create projects from the group of similar requests
  • Use automated request or request letter templates to prepare requests
  • Search for other users’ requests and responsive documents
  • Share their FOIA experience with other users

As with any request, the toughest step is the first one – formulating the information or data need. FOIA Machine offers a couple of options: Users may use the email-like form to select an agency and contact(s) by simply fillinf out the body of the message. If the user knows the contacts and agencies, or can locate that information in the FOIA Machine data base, that is included – if that information is missing, FOIA Machine promises to lend a hand. There’s also a guided “wizard” option to assist in the process.

When the information/data request is submitted FOIA Machine emails the identified contact(s). It will also send the requester a copy of that information. From that point on the requester and agency staffer are in touch with the requester responsible for follow up. Simultaneously, there is another email address cc’ed by FOIA Machine on every message. FOIA Machine tracks the status of the request and the agency response, then provides a log of each interaction in a central location.

Requesters have a number of options. They may keep the transaction public or private; if it’s public it will appear in FOIA Machine’s listing of public requests. Users may also use the system feature to generate requests if they want to rely on the tool for tracing only. FOIA Machine provides a social support component with an online discussion group and through Twitter @foiamachine.

Clearly, the more users the more robust the pool of shared information. The cumulative knowledge can help users figure out how to improve their chances of getting requests fulfilled. Shared experiences, including the agencies track record, can guide users’ approach – plus the record of past requests may eliminate the user’s need to initiate a time-consuming request.

After this beta testing phase FOIA Machine will be managed by the non-profit Investigative Reporters and Editors. Meet the FOIA Machine design team here: