Each week, we host a conversation that addresses topics and answer any general questions important to FOIA users. This conversation takes place on the MuckRock Slack Channel #foia-help.
Thanks to all the participants from the week of October 27th, where the chat topic was the JFK Data Dump!
The week of November 3rd’s FOIA Friday chat topic was about where and how to find inspiration for filing creative public records requests. MuckRock’s Michael Morisy authored an article on the subject that’s a great resource for newcomers to the FOIA request process.
For local researchers starting out, municipalities such as the City of Boston offers an open data site. On this site, data sets are organized in grouped, such as: city services, finance, public safety, and economy. The format in which they are offered are a combination of CSV, XLSX, or a PDF most of the time. This collection is a resource one could use to generate ideas on where and what data sets to request.
The data that is listed on the governmental sites are proactively shared and potentially highly curated. The gaps between what is shared on the site and what is stated by the data set might be a worthwhile request. Additionally, the gaps between different data sets available between jurisdictions might help to identify the first data sets to target. To speed this process up, the first FOIA request filed should be for data inventory. However, there are more direct methods one can use for requests. Matching official reports, like that of Inspector General reports, and the IG requests was suggested by a chat member who later had a fruitful FOIA request.
You may also want to review other requests that have been filed and expand your scope to other cities/agencies. Browsing MuckRock for requests is a great place to start as well. In addition, some federal agencies will offer FOIA logs from their reading rooms.
Where you target your search may be decided by your list of possible topics. If you are not working on a looming deadline, setting google alerts for the following key terms or subject headings will help you identify trends in the headlines:
- “documents show”
- “Public records”
- “Freedom of Information”
- “According to government records”
- “According to government documents”
For the more seasoned researchers, reviewing award winning articles that leveraged FOIA driven data could be a great place to gather access points or review previously requested documents/data sets for key terms. For example, MuckRock created the Pulitzer Project to “use FOIA to reconstruct and update prize-winning investigative reporting.”
One of the more unorthodox methods our chat members suggested was that they focus on when an agency discontinues to provide data sets. A second method suggested by a chat member is to read regulations and following up with high profile annual filings and audits. A great example of this technique resulted in these requests. Additionally, Flicker and other social media accounts created by agencies are a good way of demanding transparency and accountability via a FOIA request. A few chat members were able to cite specific examples of a social media post leading to a FOIA request.
When all else fails, you can always reach out to your FOIA community members on the MuckRock Slack Channels or attend FOIA Friday chats. During this week’s FOIA Friday Chat at 2pm EST, we will be discussing the process for filing appeals. There are a great many steps you can take after a request is rejected to ensure you are asking for existing documents, data sets, or a data inventory. However, let’s say you have done your due diligence and still have been denied access to your requested documents, what can be done now?
Our community and MuckRock team have seen this before and know how to escalate this in a strategic and tactful manner. To lean more or to support others who need to file an appeal, join #foia-help on the MuckRock Slack Channel this Friday, November 10th, at 2 pm EST.
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Image via National Archives Flickr