Tech just democratized the #WatchDog process.

FOIAMapper.com allows easy navigation of government records.

OK, I concede. Knight Foundation isn’t all bad. They supplied Max Gilka, a career data journalist, with a $35,000 Prototype Grant to build this wonderful new tool. Gilka has democratized the watchdog process and, even though the tool is meant mainly for journalists, he has made it much easier for the public to hold their media and government accountable. Allow me to explain.

What’s a FOIA?

It’s basically a verb for requesting almost any record from the government using the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by LBJ in 1966. You can imagine, this can be a difficult process and take months to complete properly. Well, those days are coming to an end thanks to technology.

What’s the FOIA Mapper exactly?

I’m going to use an internet/computer analogy to break it down.

A visual demo of FOIA Mapper. Courtesy of Youtube user Metrocosm.

Think of it as a basic search engine that allows anyone to search for almost any record based on an untold number of keywords in two databases that Gilka has built. Each database has its own search bar. The first database is for records that are already available at request. It will tell you which agency has information that contains your keyword and exactly what kind of information it is.

For example, I searched ‘Twitter,’ and it returned a handful of records titled in some way or another, ‘Social Media’. The first link was from the Dept. of Transportation. From that document I found out that the Dept. of Transportation keeps records of all their official social media accounts’ data. So, they have all posts ever posted, plus more. That’s useful information. And it told me which agency I could contact for further exploration.

 
Screenshot of the document detailing social media records kept in FHWA. Photo/FOIA Mapper

One can then use that information to make a physical FOIA more specific or relevant records.

The second database is for FOIA logs. Think of those as very detailed sign-in sheets for requests. You can search with a keyword then it will crawl all FOIA logs, searching categories for your keyword.

For example, I searched ‘Hillary Clinton,’ and it returned a long list of every request containing the words ‘Hillary,’ or, ‘Clinton’. It provides you with the name of the agency, the name of the person/organization making the request, the date, the description, and the final response.

There’s also another tool separate from the search engine. This is a browser. Think of this as Windows Explorer for government departments and agencies instead of the files in your desktop. Keeping with the analogy, a government department, i.e., Dept. of Justice, would be like a disk folder, like ‘C:\’ on your computer. And inside that disk folder you’d find all the little programs, those are agencies and sub-agencies. You can then look inside those and find agency contact information, which information is available for request, and the agency’s FOIA logs. The browser cannot search for things. It only surfs.

Needless organization and reduced but sometimes substantial time investment. Photo/stock.tookapic.com

There’s still some shortfalls.

First, you can’t sort the results in either database. Not in any meaningful way. You’re forced look through each page of results manually.

Second, if the information has already been requested and released it should be immediately available. But I didn’t find any way to access that information.

Thirdly, it’s a bit counter-intuitive. Google has conditioned us to expect the most relevant, or popular results. But FOIA Mapper isn’t that complex and searches purely for keywords. That means some of the results won’t be what you’re looking for.

Finally, when using the search engine with FOIA logs, there is no quick way to access specific logs in the results. They’re just summaries. This forces you to track them down using their IDs. Maybe that’s a dead end, maybe not. But FOIA Mapper’s creator acknowledges that the website is only in its infancy.

“What I’ve gathered together is the low hanging fruit: the biggest record systems with the most documentation from the big federal government agencies,” he told Poynter. “When you consider that every state, city, and town in the country are also subject to Freedom of Information laws, what I’ve put together hardly scratches the surface.”

Ok! I get it, but how does this democratize watchdogs?

It’s a relatively easy-to-use tool that allows less-convoluted access to the information you need or just want. And we all know information is power. In this case it is the power to fight discrimination in bullshit traffic tickets. It is the power to fight wasteful government spending and deficiencies. It is the power to fight misinformation from media channels and pandering politicians. It is the power previously held by a few lawyers and even fewer journalists.

Now, this wealth of information is all yours. Have fun with it.


Originally published on Medium.

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