FOIA Machine could add to agency workloads

A tool to make it easier for reporters to submit Freedom of Information Act requests has rapidly gained support, financial backing.

FOIA Machine

FOIA Machine's Kickstarter page.

Federal agencies might want to brace for an increase in Freedom of Information Act requests. A new online tool called FOIA Machine, which surpassed its $17,500 fundraising goal after just two days on Kickstarter, is intended to make filing the requests easier for reporters and others. Seed money for the project was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. As of early on the afternoon of July 22, the total pledged on Kickstarter was more than $33,000.

This could be a concern for agencies. FOIA has been part of federal law since 1966, yet rules differ between states, local jurisdictions and federal agencies -- and in some sense, even from one presidential administration to the next. During his first two years in office, President Barack Obama's administration granted a smaller percentage of FOIA requests than former President George Bush did during his final three years in office, according to several media outlets. And a watchdog group's December 2012 report found that many agencies had failed to fully implement directives issued by Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder to update FOIA regulations.

For now, FOIA Machine is a working prototype from the Center for Investigative Reporting , but with considerable funding and more than 800 reporters signed on and ready to use the tool, FOIA Machine could be launched publicly by the end of the year. CIR describes it as "TurboTax for government records," combining "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."

When it does go public, FOIA Machine will operate under the nonprofit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors, which offered to match Kickstarter contributions for the project up to $15,000. It will be "open and free for anyone," and is applicable for any kind of open records request. Any extra funding will go to additional features for FOIA Machine, as well as an application programming interface.

"FOIA Machine is a tool that will have immediate and powerful benefits for all news organizations," said Randy Picht, the institute's executive director. "We're excited to help get the project finished and into the hands of reporters and editors."

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