More governments around the country are creating public records portals to share requests and responses for access to information. Official government portals aren’t the only approach to this, though. There are public records portals run by a variety of community groups in the United States and around the world. Community-run portals often serve a unique need by helping with the formatting of records requests and by allowing anyone to upload and share documents they’ve received through the public records process (rather than relying on governments to post their own responses to requests). Community-run portals can also have the disadvantage of uncertain funding and the lack of a clear mandate to follow certain best practices — or even a mandate to continue to exist, for that matter.
With those potential advantages and restrictions in mind, how do community-run public records portals stack up to the best practices of providing information about public records requests and responses, allowing for downloading information in open formats, and providing context about the public records process?
Around the U.S.
On the national scale, there are at least two major community-run public records portals: FOIA Machine and MuckRock.
MuckRock allows people to file and browse requests at the federal level and in all 50 states and Washington, DC, as well as with some municipal agencies. It is free to use the website’s request generator, but there is a fee to send the request through MuckRock’s system (with some exceptions). Users can browse requests and see information about responses for free. Information available about records requests includes the subject of the request, its status, the dates for its creation and last update, who sent the request, and who received the request. Responsive documents can be downloaded and appear to usually be available as PDF.
MuckRock goes beyond a basic public records portal by doing reporting on access-to-information issues and hosting a forum for people to discuss relevant issues. There’s no clear link specifically dedicated to providing more information on public records laws, but relevant information is woven throughout the website.
FOIA Machine is another community-run public records portal, supported by several journalism and nonprofit groups. The portal is in beta, so its features are not clearly accessible from the home page without registering an email address, but clicking on any of the links on the home page leads through to a fuller version of the website. The portal allows for filing and browsing public requests. Users have to log in to file a request, which is free. Users who file requests can choose to keep the responses private or make them public. The public portal includes information on the subject of the request, the status of the response, and the date when a response is due. Some requests can be downloaded, usually as PDF. Some responses can be downloaded as well, and format varies but appears to usually be PDF or an Excel spreadsheet.
FOIA Machine has a comprehensive list of public records laws for the federal level, the states, and Washington, DC. It also goes beyond best practices with additional features such as a forum for discussing related issues.
On the local level in the U.S., the Ann Arbor Area Government Document Repository in Ann Arbor, Mich., allows users to upload documents related to government processes. The repository is run by ArborWiki, an informal group of local residents who also run a community wiki of information about Ann Arbor. Visitors to the website can browse recently shared documents, browse by submitter, or browse by the agency that provided the documents. Documents provided in response to requests can be downloaded. Most documents appear to only be available as PDF, though a variety of formats can be uploaded for sharing. The website is free to use, and there don’t seem to be restrictions on accessing or reusing documents.
This particular portal also appears geared toward tracking how well the public records process works, with the suggestion for people submitting documents to include notes on what the documents are about, whether there were “any problems or revelations,” and, if the request was denied, what reason was provided. Given the organization’s goal to keep a log of how the access-to-information process works, the website should also include links to relevant public records laws, which currently don’t appear to be provided.
There are also some community-run public records portals for specific topics, such as this website for sharing New Jersey court records, run by the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government. Another example is Fatal Encounters, a collaboration between the Reno News & Review and California State University, Fullerton, which uses the product of public records requests to map deaths related to interactions with police.
It’s important to note that there are also community-run open data portals, such as OpenDataPhilly and OpenOakland, that provide valuable insights on public records that are primarily in the form of datasets. Because these portals are focused on sharing data rather than sharing public records requests and responses, they should be evaluated differently from public-records portals.
This proactive community approach to sharing public records isn’t just happening in the United States. Alaveteli, a platform built by MySociety, powers these kinds of public records portals around the world. One example of a portal built on Alaveteli is WhatDoTheyKnow, which allows users to make requests from more than 15,000 public bodies throughout the United Kingdom. Responses to requests sent through the website are automatically shared. Anyone can search or browse the published responses. Response and request information available includes the subject of the request, the date of the most recent activity, the name of the requester, the status, and the agency handling the request.
Responsive documents are available for download in a variety of formats. For each individual request and response, there is an option to download a zip file of all of the correspondence. WhatDoTheyKnow includes extensive information on the public records process through its help pages and blog. The portal also has an API in the works and includes information for public records officers who have to respond to requests — a smart move for being more inclusive about helping everyone involved with the access-to-information process. Showing its versatility, Alaveteli has been deployed in places around the world and continues to go through iterations for improvement.
Similarly, Froide is a platform from Open Knowledge that powers public records portals called FragDenStaat in Germany and Austria. The portals allow for searching or browsing requests, including information about when a request was submitted, who it was sent to, what it was about, and the status of a response. Information about requests and responses does not appear to be downloadable, unfortunately. There are details available about relevant public records laws, though.
Why it all matters
Public records portals, whether government- or community-run, provide an important intermediate step between the traditional reactive process of public records requests and responses and the proactive nature of open data. The variety of features in existing public records portals shows that this is still a relatively new space, but we hope that highlighting best practices and providing assessments can help current and future portals iterate and improve.