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March 29, 2016, 10:35 a.m.
Reporting & Production

FOIA Mapper aims to make it easier for journalists to know where to look for public documents

“There’s all this information sitting out there that everyone has access to, but nobody has any idea that it’s even there. That’s the basis of the project.”

The process of filing a Freedom of Information Act request can be complicated.

One big part of that complication: It can be difficult to know, amidst the wide sea of federal departments, what information is available from which part of which agency — and what properly formed questions will turn up the right answers.

That’s why independent data journalist Max Galka is launching FOIA Mapper, a Knight Foundation-backed site that goes live today. It aims to streamline the FOIA process by helping users figure out the best ways to request the documents they need.

Galka compiled a wide array of government data — various government documents, information systems, logs of FOIA requests made by other people, and more — into a centralized, searchable database. Users can search for a specific topic; the database will show them whether the information they’re looking for is publicly available and how to find it if they need to file a FOIA request.

foia-mapper-explained

“There’s all this information sitting out there that everyone has access to, but nobody has any idea that it’s even there,” Galka said. “That’s the basis of the project.”

FOIA Mapper also lets you browse by department. If you know you want to request information from the Department of Defense, the Department of Transportation, or any other agency, it will show you who to contact there, along with information about how long the average records request takes to process and what percentage of requests are denied.

FOIA_Mapper agency

Galka also assembled a database of FOIA requests submitted to each agency. The FOIA logs for most of the agencies on FOIA Mapper go back at least two years, but some go back further. Galka plans to make the FOIA logs searchable by category, so you’ll be able to search for requests mentioning Hillary Clinton or everything filed by The New York Times or BuzzFeed, for example.

“I didn’t have to make requests for most of the record systems — I was able to piece them together from different places online, although there is a lot more information that is available by making requests,” Galka said. “I did go out and request the FOIA logs.”

The government itself has taken steps to make the FOIA process easier. Last year, 18F, a startup within the federal government, built openFOIA, a website that aims to centralize document requests. And of course there are other sites and projects that aim to make the FOIA process easier, notably MuckRock and FOIA Machine.

Still, the Associated Press reported last week that the Obama administration set a record in 2015 by producing redacted documents or failing to produce any documents in 77 percent of all FOIA requests.

FOIA Mapper is supported by a $35,000 Prototype grant from the Knight Foundation. The Prototype Fund gives grant recipients a six-month period to develop their projects. Each cycle begins with a human-centered design seminar and ends with recipients coming together to share their work with each other. (Knight also supports Nieman Lab, though not through the Prototype Fund.)

Galka said the version of FOIA Mapper released Tuesday is still a work in progress. He plans to add more functionality and additional documents. He also might expand the project to lower levels of government.

“Tackling the federal system is a huge undertaking. If I start going into the state- and city-level government systems, that starts to multiply in size quickly. If this is something that people find useful and it goes well, it might make sense to expand it.”

POSTED     March 29, 2016, 10:35 a.m.
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