MuckRock Release Notes: Canning spammers, fixing FOIA Machine, and backend upgrades

MuckRock Release Notes: Canning spammers, fixing FOIA Machine, and backend upgrades

Plus a few tiny jurisdiction Easter eggs

Edited by JPat Brown

Last week, we pushed out some much-needed improvements for spam management on the Q&A forums plus set the groundwork for important upgrades to how we file and track requests. Here’s what’s new at MuckRock (and FOIA Machine!) and how you can help keep us improving. For past site updates, check out all of MuckRock’s release notes.

What’s new on MuckRock and FOIA Machine

Forum moderation improvements

For a long time, we got lucky and had to deal with a very low volume of forum spam in MuckRock’s FOIA advice forum. Unfortunately, we let things go a little too long and over the past month things got out of control.

We wanted to avoid CAPTCHAs if at all possible, so we’ve tried a few other tweaks that we hope will eliminate the problem for now:

  • Anyone can easily report a comment or question as spam by clicking the little “gear” icon.
  • Admins and a few select community moderators can instantly block spammers using a similar tool.
  • No one can ask or answer a question unless they have either filed a request through the site or verified their email address.

Our public records advice forum is one of the areas that’s been underdeveloped over the years; we think it’s a useful resource for getting community advice and building a repository of public records tips, tricks, and strategies, but we know it has as long way to go to meet that goal. We hope to continue building it out and improving it in the coming year. Since it’s one of the areas of our code base that’s less deeply integrated with the rest of the site, it’s also a good candidate for those looking to get involved in MuckRock’s open source efforts. If you’re interested in helping out, get in touch via email or on our Slack. Thanks to everyone who reported the issue!

Major backend overhaul that brought a few (now quashed) bugs with it

Right now, our two biggest development priorities are doing a better job of catching when requests stop getting responses from agencies and integrating with agency portals. Last Thursday, we pushed an overhaul of how we handle communications that helps set us up to tackle both areas down the road. There weren’t a whole lot of user-facing features that came with that work, but it did lead to some temporary bugs as we migrated our database (missing dates, appeals broke for some requests, other weirdness). All of those bugs (like this one) should be resolved; thank you to everyone who reported them!

Video of office on Thursday afternoon as we cleaned up the database.

Jurisdictions can have nicknames, too

For a long time, we’ve had a feature that allowed us to set up “alias” names for agencies. Typically this is an abbreviation: FBI for Federal Bureau of Investigations, for example. Then, in any form field that lets you search for an agency, if you type in something that matches the alias it will also display the agency you’re expecting. There’s not a lot of aliases, maybe a dozen or so, but they’re useful for people who would otherwise wonder why the CIA is not in our system (we’ve actually helped file over 700 FOIA requests with the CIA).

How the alias tool works

We occasionally run into the same issue with jurisdictions, usually when a place is named St. or Saint, or with the use of Island or other compound names where part of the name is abbreviated. We have 33,613 jurisdictions in our database, which is pretty much all U.S. jurisdictions, so hopefully this will help people find where they’re looking for a little easier. If you think we should add an alias for a jurisdiction or a city, let us know!

FOIA Machine share links work in Firefox

Sharing links weren’t selectable in Firefox, which was inconvenient to say the least. Thanks to the user who reported this issue via email, and huge thanks to Patrick Sier for submitting the fix!

Speaking of sharing, did you know MuckRock users that are part of an organization can automatically share all their requests with other members of their organization? Just check that option in your profile.

Help build a better MuckRock

MuckRock and FOIA Machine are open source. That means anyone can freely inspect, modify, and reuse our code, and it also means you can help us continue to improve the sites (they’re actually built on the same codebase!). Open issues are all listed on GitHub. If you find a bug you can email us directly or open an issue. If you do the latter, please search open issues first to make sure it hasn’t already been reported. If it has been reported previously, please leave an additional comment letting us know it’s an issue for you, particularly if you can provide more details about when it crops up or what you think is causing the problem.

For those who want to contribute design, code, or otherwise more directly to the site, we have a developer channel on the MuckRock Slack. We’re also part of Code for Boston’s weekly hack nights, which take place Tuesday evenings in Kendall Square. We might not make it to every one of them, so if you want to meet up there it’s a good idea to check in on Slack first. We will be at tomorrow’s event, barring any last-minute emergencies.

Image via Wikimedia Commons