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Friday, April 3, 2015
FOI Toolbox

FOI trackers: A new trend?

By Lynn Walsh

A county council in Maryland made an announcement in October that grabbed my attention: It was launching a new digital tool to track and share the results of state public information requests.

My first reaction: Pretty cool; it’s about time; more organizations should do this.

But, after thinking about what this means and what this tool could do, I realized there are many layers to explore.

The tool in Montgomery County, Md., outside Washington D.C., went live after the Open Data Law was adopted by the county council. Once passed, it made the county the first local jurisdiction in the country to put a law in place requiring every request made through public information laws public and published online.

The tool tracks the following information for each request:

• Name of requestor

• Organization the requestor is associated with

• A description of the request

• How the request was submitted (email, letter, etc.)

• The lead department responsible for handling the request

• The department that owns or maintain the data

Probably the most important thing it includes is a link to the actual documents requested.

Linking to documents requested or already provided through the federal FOI law is not that new, but doing so at a local level is. Montgomery County is calling it a “living dataset.”

In 2010, then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced he was going to post all public information requests he received to the city’s website. The

FOIA request log, as it's called, still exists and at the time was not the most well-received transparency move by the mayor.

Additional Resources:

* Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press iFOIA tracker (ifoia.org). Provides a way for reporters to submit and track their FOIA requests.

* Muckrock (muckrock.com) provides a way for anyone to submit public records requests and track them. The site then provides updates on its website so everyone can follow to see how the requests are proceeding. Other people can also see the requests. It also provides great story ideas.

Daley’s administration had a history of denying FOIA requests. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, “(the postings are) a new wrinkle that could give pause to reporters who don’t like competitors seeing what they’re working on.”

Others said the list would show the public “which journalists are doing their jobs.” And it could be a useful resource to show what kinds of requests by journalists are being fulfilled and which requests are not, leaving public information locked up and in the dark.

In Chicago the FOIA tracker included information such as the requester, his/her organization, a description of the request, the date the information was requested and a due date for the city to respond. It does not include information or links to the information or documents requested.

Without posting the information or links to where the information can be obtained, the FOIA tracker, in my opinion, is not as helpful as it could be. It could just become a way for reporters or others to see what people are requesting, which I can understand may make some journalists a little uneasy. (It doesn’t make me uneasy, because it is really all about what you do with the information. The requests can show you what other media organizations or the public are asking for and receiving, which can help you obtain information.)

But posting the information online allows others to easily obtain the information and have access to it without having to make other requests and go through the same process, taking up time and ultimately public money to process.

I think it is a great way to be transparent and provide more information to the public that is readily available. But there are many questions. Is it saving the cities or counties or departments doing this any time? Are people downloading the information once it is there?

The SPJ FOI committee would like to see how effective and used these services are. So, does your city or state have an FOI or public information tracker? Let me know so I can see how it is being used and how effective it really is.

Lynn Walsh is an Emmy Award-winning journalist currently leading the investigative team at KNSD in San Diego, Calif. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information. Interact on Twitter: @LWalsh or email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com

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