Navigating government bureaucracy is painful, but filing Freedom of Information requests can be downright torturous—for journalists and members of the public alike. Requests might be ignored, bounced around, pegged with impossible price tags, or subject to other machinations while requestors wait (and wait) for a response.
Save a little sympathy, though, for the civic staffers inside the walls of government who face their own struggle: floods of FOI requests, many of them overly broad or duplicative, outdated paper-based processing, and no real communication or tracking across departments. The torture can go both ways.
So, too, can the tech-minded attempts to alleviate it. Open-source web applications like FOIA Machine and Alaveteli have built followings among records requestors. Now, another web app is drawing notice for its potential to help government agencies process, track, and release requested information through a public online portal—creating a new level of transparency for governments willing to embrace it.
From the perspective of records requestors, the program’s simple design offers three basic functions. You can generate a public-info request, track that request via real-time updates from the city, and explore others’ requests and the responsive records in a searchable database. Users can choose to remain anonymous, but they’re told exactly who is handling their request and how to contact them.
On the other side, city employees work with the same simple interface, making it easier for them to process and track requests as well. The city estimates requests have more than doubled in the system’s first year.
“It’s more than just an app,” said Karen Boyd, assistant to the Oakland city administrator. “It’s part and parcel of our ability to respond to public records requests and meet our legal mandate. It’s core to our service delivery.”
The program gets good marks from users, too. Cyrus Farivar, senior business editor for Conde Nast publication Ars Technica, routinely files FOI requests at the federal, state, and local level. The Oakland resident doesn’t remember how many he’s sent through RecordTrac, but he doesn’t have to. Search his name and 11 come up, including his correspondence with the city and the records he received.
“What’s nice is you can just do it and somewhat forget about it,” he said. “You’ll get an email saying, ‘Oh the city has done something.’ Whereas with some of these agencies you’re kind of sending it into the void.”
Farivar has some critiques—city staffers receive an automatic reminder when their 10-day response time is almost up but requestors don’t, and there is no clear mechanism for appealing a denial—but he considers them minor.
Brian Hofer, a member of the Oakland Privacy Working Group who has filed nearly 30 requests, thinks the city can still be spotty about compliance, but calls the system itself “amazing. There’s really just nothing like this on the municipal level.”
RecordTrac sprang from the 2013 Code for America fellowship program, which partners web developers with local government to tackle a particular challenge. Oakland had been inundated by public-information requests during the 2011 Occupy protests, and was looking to simplify its disclosure process.
Fellows Richa Agarwal, Cris Cristina, and Sheila Dugan spent a year talking with city employees and residents, researching how requests were being handled, devising code and policy for the app, and testing it out in phases. One of their goals, Agarwal said, was to “make this as easy as possible for the public servant, and then hopefully from there you get what you want as the public.”
Because RecordTrac is built on an open-source platform, any city can adopt it for free. Yakima, WA, began using it Oct. 1, and New York City officials have been in discussion with the creators about adapting it to suit the city’s immense scale. Philadelphia, Chicago, and Washington, DC, have also expressed interest in the program, which will soon also be available for purchase as a cloud-based app from PostCode, a company formed after the Code for America fellowship ended.
RecordTrac does place some demands on municipalities, beginning with someone tech-savvy enough to maintain and, if necessary, adapt the system. In Yakima, Randy Bonds Jr., the city’s web application developer/administrator, saw the open-source software on the hosting site GitHub and was intrigued. He rewrote the code in a programming language he was comfortable with—PHP versus the original’s Python—but kept all the functions and features.
“People seem to love it,” Bonds said. “They like just being told what’s going on. That’s biggest thing of it. They’re not in the dark.”
There are other considerations, too. Does an agency bear greater liability if sensitive information is accidentally posted for all the world to see? Should requestors be identified? Just how much of the process should be shared with the public? The system is so transformative that it probably warrants new policies and guidelines, as it did in Oakland.
Then there’s the basic philosophical question: How open do you want to be? At PostCode, “we aren’t just selling this piece of software,” said Andy Hull, a co-founder. “We have to change the way of thinking with folks in these cities. That’s part of the challenge with this. Presenting a completely open and transparent system is quite a shift. Some people are a little more into that than others.”
Lately, of course, the federal government hasn’t been winning many plaudits from journalists for its commitment to openness—but it has shown an interest in modernizing the Freedom of Information process via its “FOIAonline” portal. In January, RecordTrac’s creators were invited to DC to talk to executive branch agencies about how and why they built the system, and how it might work at the federal level.
Eight months later, a government-drafted group of IT innovators known as 18F announced the launch of an open-source federal FOIA app, offering an “illustrative prototype” of a site called alpha.foia.gov. The URL isn’t yet live and no code has been released, but the prototype looks familiar.
“We think it’s basically just super-RecordTrac, optimized with features that federal agencies want,” said John Kaehny, an open-government advocate who co-chairs the New York City Transparency Working Group and heads up the nonprofit Reinvent Albany, which has dubbed RecordTrac “America’s best” FOI website.
As RecordTrac and programs like it are adopted more widely, it will be interesting to watch just how deeply they can shape a culture of transparency. In Oakland, one of the key differences was qualitative. A few months after the launch, city employees told the developers they were blown away by the changed tone of conversations with residents. They were actually being thanked.
“The idea of RecordTrac is a good one because it’s so visible, because it’s so public,” said Cristina, one of the co-creators. “By being transparent you are actually changing the relationship between citizen and government.”