Democratized Data: How Your Government Can Go Above and Beyond the Technological Mandates of the FOIA Improvement Act

Published on

August 9, 2016

Category

Federal Law

Author

Jan-alfred Aquino

In an earlier article, we noted the inception of the FOIA Improvement Act of 2016. The Act would bring all federal agencies up to a technological standard appropriate to the 21st Century, allowing for a more streamlined FOIA request process and furthering the goal of a more open government.

The Act’s commencement also leads to possible consequences for freedom of information generally. The mandate for records in an electronic format agrees with the growing trend of bringing documents online. As citizens continually prefer to request and view their documents online, the FOIA Improvement Act would allow them to access more information faster and more feasibly. Further, information that is frequently requested is made available on agency websites, which should lead to a decrease in FOIA requests as more information is made available. The result is democratized information: information that is available, accessible, and presentable.

Of course, there are still obstacles to a truly open government. Even when data are available in an electronic format, documents may be difficult to read, such as paper documents that were simply scanned and published online as image files. Also, government websites that are difficult to navigate make it difficult for citizens to access data that may be available online: the result is that citizens fill out FOIA forms to request information which may already be online.

States like New York and California have undertaken initiatives for open governments, including extensive websites for all data available to the public. Data are available for download as Excel spreadsheets and are machine-readable, making them easily manipulable for analysis. Cities, states, and federal agencies can take these steps for making data available in a machine-readable format. Agencies can develop and leverage application programming interfaces (APIs), similar to those used by Twitter, Google, or Facebook, to allow citizens to search for information relevant to their request, and also to allow governments to publish their data after FOIA requests are filed.

It’s the 21st century and governments are taking steps to improve their transparency under the FOIA Improvement Act. What steps are your government taking according to the Act?

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