Freedom of information tools, it’s time for an open data inspired upgrade

Ji Lee, Eugène Delacroix

The relationship between the U.S. open data initiatives that we see today and the freedom of information advocacy that has been going on since the 1960s has not always been clear for advocates in either camp. However, not only can open data and FOI disclosure efforts work symbiotically, they can also learn from each others’ shortcomings, and in many instances meet each other in the middle to create more robust, comprehensive information disclosure. In addition to upgraded records management and building open data policies on their existing freedom of information laws, jurisdictions of all sizes should:

  1. Collect and open FOI request data.
  2. Use FOI request data to inform open data release prioritization.
  3. Invest in tools that organize, streamline and publicly share FOI requests and responses online.
  4. Connect open data initiatives and FOI responses through policy and technology.

Collect and open FOI request data

Collecting and sharing metrics on freedom of information (FOI) requests — also known as right-to-know, or public records requests — can improve the FOI request process, save tax dollars and shine a light on how well each government department and administration is serving the public’s requests for information. Collecting FOI metrics can help identify frequently requested pieces of information, struggling departments and opportunities for government data management improvements. These facts can in turn lead to proactive disclosure of popular records, identify departments needing additional FOI training and resources and lead to a holistic and thoughtful approach to government information management.

While the U.S. federal government requires annual FOIA reporting — and since 2009 has provided these in metrics for bulk download at — the vast majority of local governments do not collect information on jurisdiction-wide FOI requests. If they do collect it, they do not share those metrics online for the public to view as well. Open data initiatives often call for the release of “high-value” datasets. Freedom of information request data is a high-value dataset because it’s the #1 indicator as to whether the government is providing information that the public desires effectively.

Some jurisdictions are informing us about FOI requests but are doing so incompletely. Cook County in 2011, and Washington, D.C. just last month, have specifically called for the release of FOIA logs and FOIA reports in their open data policies. Unfortunately, Cook County has not updated their FOIA logs on the open data portal since 2012, and while D.C.’s FOIA reports are online as PDFs, it remains to be seen when the recent reports will be available in machine-readable structured open formats on the open data portal. Chicago releases their FOIA logs on the portal, but while their 311 FOIA logs are up-to-date, their Police FOIA logs have not been updated since December 2013. In 2012, New York City’s then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio conducted research on how effectively each NYC agency was in answering FOIL requests. Unfortunately this data was not released on the NYC Open Data portal in structured open formats and the report has not since been updated.

Use FOI request data to inform open data release prioritization

Open data initiatives should include public input in determining which data to prioritize for proactive, open release. Examining what data they have reactively released, due to public records and freedom of information requests, is the most efficient way to discover what information the public wants and already uses. Information that is routinely requested (i.e. the same request once a year by the same organization) should be especially prioritized because proactive release will save the government time and money of filling a repetitive request — but more importantly because information that is consistently requested is clearly highly valued and desired. Similarly, if the information requested through a FOI request is part of a larger dataset (like NYC Stop and Frisk Data) that entire database should be released to the public. Reinvent Albany recently made the case, by examining over 4,000 of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation requests, demonstrating that New York FOIL logs are a valid way to identify which data sets are most interesting to the public, i.e. “High value data sets.”

Invest in tools that organize, streamline and publicly share FOI requests and responses online

There are tools out there today all over the world that are streamlining the FOI request process. Some tools help manage the request process internally, some provide external public platforms that track the status of requests, and some help advocates public make requests. In the document below we have gathered some of the tools out there today and included what self-described features they possess, if they are built on open source software, and where they are currently deployed today:

Connect open data initiatives and FOI responses through policy and technology.

The next frontier for information disclosure policy is to mandate that FOI request responses be posted online as open data. Sharing public information with the entire public upon request will reduce repetitive requests and provide potentially greater impact at little to no extra government cost. This is already happening in certain jurisdictions. Oakland, the State Department and the introduced New York City OpenFOIL bill are examples of this next step in government transparency policy unfolding. For open data initiatives that are  already underway, adding metadata (such as tags) that indicate the dataset was opened up as a result of a FOI request could help community members find proactively released data more quickly as well as provide accountability metrics of how many proactively released datasets were previously requested under freedom of information requests. Jurisdictions around the country rolling out open data initiatives should provide a clear index of all government information holdings as open data and point open data seekers to a clearly conspicuous ‘request a dataset’ feedback tool and a link to each departments’ FOI request process. Ultimately the government should facilitate the people’s request for information — be it proactive or reactively — and make both of these channels as accessible and accountable as possible.