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MuckRock makes FOIA requests easy, but will reporters use it?

Making freedom of information requests can be a daunting task. If it’s not an agency dragging its heels on releasing documents or asking for a fee large enough to buy a compact car, then it’s the actual process of the, well, process. You’ve got to identify the right agency, contact the right administrator, find out whether they take requests in the mail or electronically, and even then you’ve got to word your request precisely or risk ending up with liquor licenses when you wanted restaurant inspections.

It’s a system begging for simplification. While DocumentCloud is making it easier to wrangle and make sense of public records, MuckRock wants to make FOIA requests similarly effortless.

On its face MuckRock is a tool that allows journalists of all stripes (pro to amateur and in between) to make document requests easier. Think of it like Netflix: You tell MuckRock what you’re looking for and it provides suggestions, ultimately getting you what you’re looking for. But instead of Starship Troopers, you wind up with a nicely formatted request letter to your record agency of choice.

But in keeping with the idea of transparency, MuckRock also provides an online tracking service to see the progress of requests, and acts as a repository for all the records collected through the site.

“The idea we had was making a nice, modern interface for the end user on a very backwards, outdated, finicky process,” Michael Morisy, MuckRock’s co-founder told me.

The question, perhaps a bigger one than going from an analog system to a digital one, is whether journalists (particularly investigative ones known for being careful with their records) are willing to trade control over information (and potentially their scoop) for a streamlined, simplified FOIA process.

“The real tragedy is in a lot of cases a reporter will get hundreds of pages of government documents and they might use two or three sentences from them or might not use them at all,” he said. “And then they go into some filing room for all eternity where they’re lost.”

Morisy and co-founder Mitchell Kotler built a FOIA wizard of sorts that takes users through the steps of selecting federal or local agencies and the particular data they’re interested in. Among the options are areas like budgets, public contracts, sex offender lists and pet license information. From there MuckRock acts as an emissary, sending the request letter and providing the tracking tool to show whether the documents are being processed or are past due. Though the site currently only lists state and local data for Massachusetts, Morisy said they are hoping to expand. But the local level may be where MuckRock could have the most impact, making it easier for newspapers or local sites to create projects like a public employee salary database.

The idea was to build a service that anyone could use — a long-time journalist, a neighborhood blogger, or someone simply looking to get answers out of city hall. The value to bloggers or citizen journalists seems clear: Providing not just tools but guidance on the sometimes labyrinthian process of making document requests. But for journalists working at established media outlets, the pitch is a little more tricky. “We’ve kind of found our sweet spot right now is helping out anybody who’s at least that pro-am journalist or a community blogger,” said Morisy, who has written for the New York Daily News and Business 2.0. “But also the overburdened reporter who writes stories, blogs, tweets, and has to juggle investigations.” In theory, a new resource to help newsrooms expedite FOIA requests would be a help, particularly at a time when shrinking staff and rising demand on reporters may exclude investigative projects. In reality, experienced journalists are generally more comfortable undertaking FOIA requests themselves, if not for accuracy than to keep a story under wraps from competitors or the government itself.

“We want to give people as much control over what’s public and what’s private — the last thing we ever want to do is ruin a reporter’s scoop,” Morisy said. With that in mind, MuckRock now allows users to embargo their requests and documents for up to 30 days after receiving a response from an agency.

DocumentCloud, WikiLeaks, and attempts at crowdsourced document analysis show that technology has enabled better methods of obtaining, displaying and dissecting information. What may also need to adapt, Morisy argues, is the mindset around collecting and reporting on public documents. Journalists often have to commit to a balancing act, asking for documents only to keep them hidden away during their reporting, Morisy said. MuckRock encourages transparency by its design, Morisy said, and he hopes it encourages all journalists to make as much as their reporting open as possible.

“I think it’s important for people to see how these documents are obtained, and that it’s not just reporters that have access to documents — anyone can get them,” Morisy said.

                                   
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Ken Doctor    Aug. 13, 2014
If newspapers are going to have to survive on their own, the first numbers aren’t encouraging. In southern California, we could see big movement fast.