A team of investigative reporters and data journalists are building FOIA Machine, a website to help people navigate the complexities of the Freedom of Information Act.
Sponsored by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the project is an attempt to increase public access to information that is all too often bogged down in red tape.
Here’s how FOIA Machine works, according to its Kickstarter page:
We’re streamlining the complicated process of filing and tracking public record requests, putting all of the steps, rules, exceptions and best practices in one place and allowing users to track requests on dashboards, receive alerts, share request blueprints and get social support and expertise from the FOIA Machine community.
Coulter Jones, a data analyst and investigative journalist at WNYC who helped put FOIA Machine together, said the idea was inspired by a hack-a-thon last summer. Programmers and journalists spent a weekend brainstorming solutions to problems they had encountered, and FOIAs made it onto the list.
Filing public record requests can be difficult and time-consuming, especially since each state has slightly different laws and requirements. Journalists might be experts on FOIA laws in their state, but not elsewhere. And even if they do figure out how to ask for information, keeping track of all the requests they have submitted is hard.
FOIA Machine intends to make the process more straightforward if it makes its Kickstarter goal. Not only does the website help users figure out which laws they need to cite in a specific request, it also allows them to track a FOIA request’s status after it has been submitted.
Jones said he and the rest of the FOIA Machine team, which includes reporters Djordje Padejski and Shane Shifflett, and Web developers Michael Corey and David Suriano, want to “build something that the community can get behind.”
“There’s a lot of great resources that help people with [freedom of information], and we want to consolidate them,” he said.
With 28 days left to go, Kickstarter donations are already well over the $17,500 goal. “It shows how hungry people are for help in this area and how interested they are in improving the public information process,” Jones said.
The Kickstarter runs until August 16.