Making documents smarter

FOIA requests, dreaded FOIA requests. My friends at the State Department

tell me that in some offices Freedom of Information Act requests are reserved

as some kind of hazing for newly arrived interns. When interns are not available,

the professional staff members view FOIA processing as the lowest form of

bureaucratic drudgery. And State is one of the few forward-looking agencies

that have made public access to government information a priority.

Does making government more accessible need to be so difficult? In the

Information Age, shouldn't there be an easier way to locate documents and

to pre-designate what is public and what is not?

For some time now, information managers have recognized that creators

of digital documents tag each document with coding that could contain invisible

but computer-searchable descriptions or details about the document. This

so-called metadata could streamline the searching, cataloging and public

disclosure of information.

To date, efforts to get federal agencies to use metadata have started

ambitiously — and failed. There are several theories on this, but many experts

believe that the government has too many computer systems speaking too many

different languages to make tagging information feasible.

But now, a solution to the document-tagging dilemma seems possible:

The medium that has revolutionized how we communicate across computing platforms — the World Wide Web — offers new hope.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the main standards-setting body

for the Internet, has created a standard called Extensible Markup Language

(XML) that already is widely deployed in many business products. XML enables

users to encode detailed information within documents and other data resources.

Among the many advantages of XML is the ready creation of metadata. In fact,

the W3C is now finishing up a standard called Resource Description Framework

(RDF), which sets up a metadata framework within XML.

Simply put, we now have a standard medium for communicating (the Web),

a standard way of organizing our communication (XML) and a standard structure

for expressing what our communication is about (RDF).

These technological developments offer another opportunity to take advantage

of the democratic potential of the Internet. The concept of electronic FOIA

requests takes on entirely new meaning if citizens can use Web-based systems

to search for and retrieve government documents using tags that identify

their subject matter and whether they can be publicly released without further


No longer should agencies waste resources on document searches in response

to FOIA requests. No longer should documents that merit public release wait

in line behind requests that require processing.

The metadata possibilities of XML can produce greater public openness

and accountability, taxpayer savings and more efficient service to the public.

Goodbye, FOIA drudgery.

—Schwartz is a policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology,

Washington, D.C.


"JetForm unveils 'Jaguar'" [, April 20, 2000]

"First Y2K, now 'Titanic' " [Federal Computer Week, March 20, 2000]

Recent Columns by Ari Schwartz

"What feds need to know"[Federal Computer Week, Security Supplement, April 10, 2000]

"Making the Web safe" [Federal Computer Week, March 13, 2000]

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