About this project
Some of America’s top investigative reporters are building a sophisticated and open online platform to give people a legal way to get these secrets from the government. It’s called FOIA Machine, it's almost ready to launch and we need your help.
STRETCH GOAL: We quickly met our initial goal after we launched our Kickstarter project on July 16th. We now have a new stretch goal of $50,000, which will allow us to build out FOIA Machine more robustly, adding additional features and working more closely with the community of users to make FOIA Machine even stronger. Read more about our stretch goals in Update #3.
MATCHING GRANT IF WE GET TO 2,000 BACKERS: The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which gave the first prototype grant to FOIA Machine, is offering CIR an additional $10,000 grant if we get to 2,000 backers. Building the FOIA Machine community will be essential to making the project a success. The fact that you are donating, in this case, is just as important as the amount of money you give.
Thank you to the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri for matching every dollar you donated up to our first $15,000.
"Free" information is not always free
The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), called “FOY-ah” by journalists, is at the heart of public demands for government accountability. This federal law says anyone can make a freedom of information request. Many states have similar legislation, often called sunshine laws.
Sounds easy, right?
But there’s a catch: FOIA is riddled with exceptions, its rules differ widely from agency to agency and state to state, it often requires legal expertise to surmount bureaucratic brick walls, and “free” requests can end up costing a bundle of money. Those who have abused public trust often are able to hide behind all of this bureaucracy. Their secrets, held in millions of government documents, simply won’t reveal themselves.
An open online solution
Meet FOIA Machine, an integrated web platform developed by veteran investigative reporters and technology pros. It's sponsored by the award-winning nonprofit The Center for Investigative Reporting.
It’s like TurboTax for government records. 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.
This new platform is open and free for anyone, from citizen groups to reporters, the public, commercial media and educators. And it can be used to extract documents no matter the issue – human rights, the environment, political reform, public safety, privacy and more.
If this sounds like a smart idea to you, you’re not alone. At last count, almost 800 reporters have signed up to start using FOIA Machine when it launches publicly. The seed money for the project ($47,000) was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
“FOIA Machine will aid journalists and private citizens in accessing millions of important governmental documents around the world that are covered by freedom of information laws which exist in more than 90 countries.” – The Knight Foundation, announcing its 2012 funding for the prototype “to advance innovation in media and journalism”
So what's left to do before launch?
When we started this project in late 2012, it was called BirdDog and we thought it was only going to collect statistics on government response times to public records act requests. With the support of the Knight Foundation, we were able to expand our scope to include sending and generating information requests.
Over the next few months, we built out new features and tested them in the newsroom of CIR until we had a workable prototype, now called FOIA Machine.
Today, FOIA Machine can generate, edit and send requests to government agencies fairly well. It's useable but it's not ready for the general public.
That's where Kickstarter comes in: we're asking for your help to finish development, improve design and pay for servers and data curation.
We have 15 users currently sending real freedom of information requests through FOIA Machine, but almost 800 people are still waiting to use it. And when we launch, that number will grow.
Here's what we need to do to open this up to everyone:
- We need to build a notification system to tell users when an agency responds to a request and to notify users when they need to follow up on outstanding requests.
- We want to better track requests sent using FOIA Machine, allow users to override the status of a request, and then add data if they choose to follow up with an agency outside of FOIA Machine.
- We need to expose more permissions so users can share their requests with whomever they want to.
- Our designer will help smooth over some of the user interface quirks.
- FOIA Machine lives on data and we need to continue adding into the database laws and information on government agencies that we're missing.
- We need $55 - $150 per month, depending on traffic demands, for servers and a database.
- Users will need a page to change their passwords and update their account information. We'll build that!
- Oh, and it'd be great to get rid of bottlenecks that would stop us from expanding when FOIA Machine is used heavily.
Got more questions? See our FAQ at the bottom of this page and read Update #3 to see what we plan to do with the extra funding beyond our initial Kickstarter goal.
Who are we?
FOIA Machine is currently housed at CIR (more about us in a minute) and is being built by a team of people working at a variety of news organizations:
- Djordje Padejski is FOIA Machine's founding director and community manager. He is a founder of Serbia’s Center for Investigative Reporting and was a 2012 Knight Journalism fellow at Stanford University.
- Shane Shifflett is FOIA Machine's developer and a data reporter at The Huffington Post. Before that, he was a data reporter for CIR.
- Michael Corey, a news applications developer for CIR, is an advisor to FOIA Machine and occasionally contributes code to the project.
- Coulter Jones is FOIA Machine's project manager and a data journalist at WNYC. Before that, he was an investigative reporter for CIR specializing in data analysis.
- David Suriano is CIR's master of user interface design. He is working to make sure FOIA Machine looks good and is easy to use.
The FOIA Machine advisory group includes Chase Davis of The New York Times, David Herzog of the University of Missouri, T. Christian Miller of ProPublica, and Martha Mendoza of the Associated Press.
CIR has taken on FOIA Machine because we believe that journalism that moves citizens to action is an essential pillar of democracy. To correct injustices, people need to know what's really happening. FOIA Machine is all about bringing previously hidden information to light.
Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, CIR’s reporters, editors, producers and data analysts produce deep investigative stories that make an impact. CIR’s staff are experts at using freedom of information laws for investigations into important issues such as the mistreatment of U.S. veterans, abuse in state hospitals, incompetence and corruption at the U.S. border, and charity fraud.
We are the only nonprofit journalism organization in the country with the in-house ability to produce stories on every available media platform – from print to video, radio and interactive data applications – making our reporting accessible and engaging and presented for maximum impact. We have worked with more than 300 news outlets, including FRONTLINE, ABC, Univision, Al-Jazeera English, The Young Turks, Stars and Stripes, the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, NPR, The Daily Beast, CNN, YouTube and more.
CIR is home to FOIA Machine until it is ready to go public (that’s where you come in!), when it will be handed over to the national, nonprofit Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), which offers its hundreds of members around the world access to its extensive resource center, conferences and specialized training.
What’s this about a match for my Kickstarter gift?
IRE is based at the University of Missouri, which is also home to the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute. The Institute generously offered to match all Kickstarter contributions up to $15,000, enough to launch FOIA Machine publicly.
"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."
Now that we've exceeded that goal, the Knight Foundation is offering CIR an additional $10,000 grant if we get to 2,000 backers on Kickstarter.
Why should humans help build FOIA Machine?
FOIA became law July 4, 1966 – and it’s been fighting for its life ever since. Presidents and Congress have tried to make it harder to use. Sometimes they’ve been successful; sometimes they haven’t. State sunshine laws frequently come under attack as well. CIR and FOIA Machine will help keep the laws strong by using them tenaciously and teaching others how to do the same. Now that you’ve celebrated the Fourth of July with sparklers and picnics, declare your independence from government secrets – help us launch FOIA Machine. Not only will you feel good about helping to strengthen the democratic process, but you'll receive some pretty cool rewards to help you fly your freedom of information flag.
Risks and challenges
The FOIA Machine team is committed to seeing this project through to completion. We are confident in the time and costs we've estimated to launch the project, but as with any software development, complications can occur in writing the code. Development complications could delay the project, but they won't disrupt its final completion. We will, of course, keep all of our supporters up to date on project development.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
FOIA Machine is designed to support requests at any level of government. We plan to support federal and U.S. state requests at launch, and a core feature of FOIA Machine is the ability for users to add support for jurisdictions they care about. For example, if you know the laws and contacts for local requests in your area, it will be easy to add that to the system. Not only will that data be automatically integrated into the request system, users will be able to easily browse applicable laws and contacts for all the jurisdictions in the system.
That contact and statute information also will be available in FOIA Machine’s API.
The system is built to be as generic as possible, specifically with the goal of supporting whatever jurisdiction users want to enter. We’ll be focusing our primary internal efforts on the United States to start, but if you want to adopt your non-U.S. jurisdiction, we want to make it simple for you to add that to the system for everyone to use.
We’ve built in support for language packs with this goal in mind, but to start, we’re primarily focusing on English. The good news in this regard is that there are many countries in which public records requests can be submitted in English (for example, all European Union agencies and most EU countries).
On the technical side, we work with unicode data, which supports many languages, but we don’t currently have plans to translate documents or emails generated by users. However, if you just want to track your request, one option is to write your own letter and upload it to the system. If a user types in a unicode-supported language, she’ll have no problem sending FOI requests in her native tongue to local governments.
If you’d like to help us with that multilanguage support, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org! We will definitely need your help.
The project will be entirely open-source, and we are all huge supporters of open-source software. The code is on github, but in a private repo at the moment. We’re working to get that public as soon as possible, once we make sure we’re not exposing bad stuff like our server login information, and not completely embarrassing ourselves with messy code.
We’ll gladly welcome pull requests and suggestions!
FOIA Machine is written in Python using Django with a lot of Backbone.js / Underscore.js.
Yes, soon. Once we’re public on github, we’ll gladly welcome pull requests and suggestions.
There are several other services that deal with sending and tracking records requests, and they all do great work. We’re committed to making all our data as open as possible so it can be shared as much as possible with users of any service. There will definitely be some overlap in features, because all of these platforms are trying to do some of the same things, but we think the total package is unique.
FOIA Machine is totally free for all users. The code will be open-source, and will work across many jurisdictions and many levels of government. The system is designed to make it easy for users to seamlessly add what they know about local laws and contacts into the system, so that knowledge immediately benefits all users, and also generates an up-to-date, easy to browse database of that information. FOIA Machine also will feature an API of requests, contacts, laws, response times and more.
Our primary focus before we can publicly launch FOIA Machine is to improve the core features of writing, sending and tracking public records requests. The stretch goals we've set, now that we've exceeded our original Kickstarter goal, include features that the FOIA Machine team has always planned to implement if we had additional time and resources. (See our Update #3 for more details.) Our mission is to make public records requests easier and better. Some people have asked if an increase in public records requests through FOIA Machine will slow down processing on the government side. We can't control how governments respond, but in theory FOIA Machine should decrease the administrative workload if journalists and citizens are writing clearer requests and sending them to the correct agencies. We know from our personal experiences that valuable time can be wasted when requests aren't worded clearly or are sent to the wrong agency. Sometimes that process alone can take weeks, both for the requestor and the receiving agency. The community aspect of FOIA Machine also should result in more efficient interactions, as FOIA Machine users share request blueprint, make documents available to each other and reduce duplicative requests. We can all improve from a shared knowledge base.
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