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Home > Topics & Tools > Digital Media > Innovations > FOIA Machine helps journalists juggle requests

FOIA Machine is cranking up to help journalists

The online tool helps reporters and editors as they seek public records.

By Catherine Payne, NAA content producer

An online tool lends a hand to journalists juggling public record requests.

FOIA Machine, an open-source platform, helps citizens prepare, file and track public record requests to government agencies. It helps citizens access documents under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and state laws pertaining to open records. FOIA Machine opened to anyone interested on June 25, but a limited number of people have used the tool since the fall.

The tool, which is free to use, depends on private donations and foundation grants. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute provided funding. The Center for Investigative Reporting hosted the project. More than 2,000 people backed FOIA Machine on Kickstarter. The project exceeded its $17,500 goal by raising $53,654 by Aug. 16.

During the Kickstarter campaign, the team dubbed the tool the "TurboTax of government records," but it is not the official tagline, says Coulter Jones, FOIA Machine's project manager. The analogy was used to explain how the tool works, adds Jones, a data reporter at the Wall Street Journal.

 Coulter Jones
 Coulter Jones

FOIA Machine "came out of a group of us who filed many open record requests in multiple states," Jones says. "It started from the premise of 'How can we help reporters and editors like ourselves keep track of their public record requests?'" The group also knew it could help with the writing of requests by sharing state statute information and boilerplate language, he adds.

The platform is in the beta testing phase. When the platform is finished, Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit organization, intends to help manage the site.

As of July 16, FOIA Machine had 770 registered users and nearly 500 contacts in its database. 

As more people use the tool, the amount of information that can be shared will grow. The cumulative knowledge can help users figure out how to improve their chances of getting requests fulfilled.

For example, people can look at how many requests an agency receives and rejects, Jones says. Then they can think about how a letter can be written better, he adds.

The tool comes at a time when the number of FOIA requests is rising.

Federal departments and agencies received 644,165 requests in fiscal year 2011; 651,254 in fiscal year 2012; and 704,394 in fiscal year 2013, according to foia.gov. The portal provides access to FOIA data collected by the Justice Department on behalf of the federal government.

James Eli Shiffer, watchdog and data editor of the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune, says, "FOIA is not designed to be on a journalist's time frame.

"If you're hoping to get something on deadline from FOIA, forget about it," adds Shiffer, who writes the Full Disclosure column, which looks at stories about open government.

Shiffer, who filed FOIA requests this year, opened an account on FOIA Machine. He says he will consider using it.

The platform is flexible enough for journalists to use in different ways. Journalists have the option of keeping their requests private so that competitors don't find out about their plans. They don't have to use the feature for generating requests if they want to rely on the tool for tracking only. Once journalists open an account, they can add an agency and a contact to the database.

The tool has a social support component with an online discussion group and through Twitter @foiamachine.

With the support, a reporter slaving over a hot keyboard may not feel so alone in a long process.

First Published: July 30, 2014