Freedom of information requests are a vital process of doing investigative journalism. Under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and similar state laws, any person has the right to request non-classified documents from governmental agencies.
Modern technology has facilitated the tedious process with tools to collect documents and data, all while saving time and effort.
A one-stop resource for filing, tracking and even sharing requests can be found in iFOIA and FOIA Machine. Both automators make it easier to process FOIA requests at the state and federal level.
To highlight the technology that processes modern FOIA requests, we looked at these two web-based automators. Both are available to anyone, including journalists, at no cost:
- iFOIA – Provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is an online system for filing and tracking federal and state freedom of information requests.
- FOIA Machine – A crowdfunded project supported by the Knight Foundation, Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute.
The two are great, robust FOIA request automators that do the job. Both offer a handful of useful tools to accomplish their mission, including a glossary of state laws and their legally required response time. However, the two also offer slightly different features. To compare the two, we looked at three key features of each web-based system: Letter generator, project management and support.
iFOIA has three ways of generating a letter request:
- Standard Letter Generator – A step-by-step process in which you must spell out the requested documents.
- Upload Letter – If you have a letter already drafted, simply upload and send off.
- Text Editor – Type or copy-and-paste your letter into its web-based text editor.
iFOIA is a project funded by a grant from the Stanton Foundation, and the Reporter’s Committee. The iFOIA letter generator has a few more steps to follow when requesting a document than the FOIA Machine, but these extra steps allow for a more detailed request.
Emily Grannis, a Jack Nelson Legal Fellow with RCFP, said the letter generator offers supplemental information to its users.
“At each stage there’s a box to make suggestions on the law on fee waivers, or what the agency is allowed to charge you, or what you have to prove to have the fee waived.” Grannis said.
Requesting the letter on iFOIA step-by-step:
- Subject – The title of the document that is being requested.
- Type of request – FOIA or Privacy Act Request, and there is another option if a request has already been filed and you would like to file it again.
- Contact information -This section allows you to input your or your contact information or your employer’s contact information.
- Fill out the information of the agency the letter is going to.
- Content – This step enables the sender to upload a letter, create a standard letter or type a letter one out. If you are creating a standard letter, this step allows you to type a few sentences stating what you are requesting.
- Payment – Here the requester has the opportunity to ask for a fee waiver and input an amount they are willing to pay.
FOIA Machine has two ways to make a request:
- Letter Generator – This letter generator can be done either as an automated editor or as a custom editor.
- Upload Letter – If you like to upload your own drafted letter, simply upload the attachment.
A Kickstarter campaign generated more than 2,000 supporters, helping the project continue to develop. Coulter Jones, FOIA Machine project manager and a data journalist at the Wall Street Journal, said while the system is still under development the generator has been well received.
He added that they’re working on a couple of new features like allowing bulk requests, but their priority is on improving on certain aspects of the system to make it more efficient.
Requesting the letter on FOIA Machine step-by-step:
- Subject – The title of the document that will be requested.
- Contact information – You can choose from a list of agencies listed on the database or you can simply add the contact information you need.
- Content – Write a brief description of what you are requesting.
- Payment – Here the requester can ask for a fee waiver and there is an option to have the agency contact you by phone or email rather than mail.
iFOIA and FOIA Machines not only facilitate the task of requesting documents, but both systems allow you to archive documents, track email correspondence, and set reminder alerts.
Jones said the two systems have a lot of similarities, but it boils down to making it easy to write and track records.
“The most important aspect of the generator is being able to track letters… [you] can have a better way to organize work and collaborate with others.” Jones said.
Here is how you can track records through both systems:
- Archive – Both generators help you stay organized with their archive system. You can store requests and correspondence in an easy and safe way. However, with iFOIA, you can import additional documents into the folders so you can have all material to a specific project all together.
- Emails – Automated emails will be sent to your iFOIA and FOIA Machine accounts and or your personal email account.
- Alerts – The generators will send you alerts to remind you when responses are due, but iFOIA has a calendar feature that helps keeps track of the request by setting automated reminders and enables the user to create and adjust additional ones.
By far, the biggest difference between both letter generators is the support offered to its users. Privacy settings are a big selling point for both given the sensitive nature of investigative journalism. Both offer degrees of privacy, which can be controlled by the user. Additionally,
FOIA Machine is safe and private, but you also can share documents with a specific group or with the FOIA Machine forum. After six months of making the request, FOIA Machine sends the user a notification asking if they would like for the request to be public.
Of course, you can opt out and keep your request private or make it public for others to use and learn from.
Jones said that by having the flexibility of making requests public “we want people to get better and writer smarter request and not waste time writing letters.”
iFOIA offers more privacy, yet as a user you can share a specific request with an individual.
“No one can see how many requests come and go—it’s designed to be private—that’s what’s different from FOIA machine, they have an opt out option, iFOIA is not public you can share with anyone you want person by person, request by request.” Grannis said.
And with iFOIA, you get legal support that walks you through the process of filing appeals and they can even get on the phone with you through their legal hotline.
Final verdict: Both are great FOIA automators and we were particularly impressed by FOIA Machine’s effort to let users work together and answer questions in the form of a community forum. iFOIA’s expertise in legal matters in journalism is impressive, and it’s a true testament of its commitment to its mission when it makes legal experts available for journalists.
Have you used iFOIA or FOIA Machine? Tell us about your experience in the comments.