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Can the FOIA.gov code help local governments?

When the Department of Justice launched its new portal for filing Freedom of Information Act requests, it didn’t just release the site -- it also released the code. Can state and local governments use that open source code to build their own portals?

The simple answer is yes.

“It is open and available for reuse,” Department of Justice CTO Ron Bewtra said.

Practically speaking, however, how useful it is depends on what these smaller governments are looking for, according to open government experts.

Michael Morisy, the co-founder of MuckRock, which houses its own repository of government documents, said local governments are often looking for software that can manage the entire process for requesting public records -- including applications that take and route requests, inform requesters of the status of their queries, track the status of requests, search for and identify requested documents and possibly even suggest redactions.

“In talking with local government, what they really want is workflow software that they can use to  manage the entire process," he said. " FOIA.gov doesn’t … try to do that.”

FOIA.gov was built as a way to consolidate the approximately 700,000 FOIA requests the federal government receives every year. There is now one location to file those requests, Bewtra said.

The portal transfers requests through an application programming interface to the specific agency responsible for handling it. The request can be emailed if the agency's system doesn't support APIs. The actual management of those requests is still handled by the individual agency, he said.

“From a state and local perspective they can utilize that [code],” Bewtra said, “but they’d have to customize the framework for their specific components.”

Those customizations would include the specific people that would need to be connected and the list of components that would have to report. So while the code would require substantial changes, it still could cut down on development time by providing state or local governments with a starting point, he said.

“One of the initial things you can clearly see in FOIA.gov is that it is better for requesters than what was there before,” Sunlight Foundation Deputy Director Alex Howard told GCN. “How much better? Well, we’ll see.”

The site's increased functionality will depend on agencies connecting their APIs to it. Otherwise, Howard said, it’s like pouring water down a pipe that’s not connected to anything.

The federal government and localities have different needs when it comes to FOIA management, Morisy said. The federal government has an entire rules-driven bureaucracy with FOIA officers and enterprise software. Localities are less formal, and the process is often handled by people juggling multiple jobs who don’t have time to learn complex software solutions.

If a locality decides it wants an open source solution for its FOIA management, there are also other options.

“We’ve seen some recent innovation in the space,” Howard said. “There was a project that came out of Code for America’s work in Oakland [Calif.] called RecordTrac. It was open source that was then turned into a startup” that is now called NextRequest.

NextRequest is no longer open source, but the code for RecordTrac can still be found and used as a way to start a similar project, he said.

What separates Oakland’s effort from other projects in this space is that it was designed to help both people making requests and government employees who process them, Howard said.

And while open source may seem like a no-cost option, it does require expertise to make it a reality, he said.

“Open source code is free,” Howard said, “but it is not free to use in the sense that you have to have someone that can install it, you have to have someone that can maintain it.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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