This week there weren’t a whole lot of external facing improvements, but that does not mean we weren’t busy.
Building off communication tracking changes we previously made, we’ve revamped some of our internal tools for identifying when agencies stop responding to requests so we can more quickly reach out and update our database of contacts. We also made some small search engine optimization improvements as well as continue to fight aggressive spammers in the forums.
What’s new on MuckRock and FOIA Machine
We previously made a lot of changes to who can post on the forum and made it easier to report issues, but unfortunately the tide of spam continued only slightly slowed down. Additionally, spammers (or perhaps just web crawlers) started reporting everyone else as spam which made it hard to sort out what was going on.
For the latter issue, we tweaked it so that only logged in users can report a FOIA comment or question as spam.
The former issue is a little trickier: Spammers were taking the time to verify their email addresses and then coming back to the site and spamming us anyway, so we felt a CAPTCHA probably wouldn’t be very effective. For now, we’ve taken the step of saying you have to have filed at least one request through MuckRock to use the forum. We want to keep the forum open and free, but it’s super frustrating to ask a question, get a notification you have an answer, and get overwhelmed with offers to help you write your homework essay instead.
We also made links no_follow so that those spammers don’t get improved Google ranking when they spam us.
Spammers, don’t read this: We’re really bummed that only people who file requests through MuckRock can now use the forum, and hope that in a month or two we can revisit the issue and open things up a bit more again.
Keeping our database of agency contacts fresh
With over eight thousand agencies in our database, MuckRock has a lot of contacts to keep track of, including fax numbers, addresses, email addresses, appeal processes, and more. In a given month, dozens of agencies change their contact information, and we want to make sure we always have the best possible information to use when filing and following up on requests.
We’ve overhauled our internal tools to do a better job with that, taking into account more factors and making it easier for staff to reach out to agencies and ask for new contact information as needed. This should help keep requests flowing smoothly.
Making MuckRock more searchable
We’ve tweaked a number of features related to our sitemap and metadata to make it easier for search engines to understand all the different resources we have. This includes making some files (those not associated with FOIA requests) indexable, as well as including metadata on article and jurisdiction pages. Huge thanks to J. Albert Bowden for his help and advice on this issue! If you have other suggestions for improved SEO, please let us know.
Come help hack MuckRock
We love transparency. In fact, MuckRock and FOIA Machine are open source software. Anyone can freely inspect, modify, and reuse our code, and if you’re a developer or designer, 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. Michael will be at tomorrow’s event, barring any last-minute emergencies.
Image via Wikimedia Commons