2013-08-13

This Machine Kills Government Secrets

The Freedom of Information Act is behind many of the biggest scoops in journalism, but getting access to government data is a lengthy and complicated process. The FOIA Machine is aiming to make it a whole lot easier.

When a journalist wants to hold a politician accountable, The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that gives citizens access to certain information from the federal government, is there. FOIA itself is at the heart of countless stories, like the more than a trillion dollars in secret loans from the Federal Reserve to the U.S. West’s long, expensive wildfires. And even where the act itself isn’t directly involved, it often sheds light obliquely—whether through the state-level sunshine laws that followed its passing, or the general presumption it helped establish that what government does should be visible to the people it represents.

And yet, behind many formal requests is a grueling saga of paperwork and legal wrangling. The FOIA request behind the secret loan story mentioned above was the result of a battle that stretched on for years, going on even until after the reporter who made the original request, Mark Pittman, died. While President Obama has called on all agencies to adopt a "presumption in favor of disclosure," in practice, things have gotten worse.

"The problem with FOIA—not only in the U.S. but everywhere—is the government is trying to restrict as much as they can," says Serbian investigative journalist Djordje Padejski. "That’s sort of the way government acts, to my understanding."

Pajeski is leading a small, technological effort to change that with the FOIA Machine at the Center for Investigative Reporting. It’s an unlikely position for a journalist who is not a veteran technologist. "I started on a typewriter," he says. "And it was not such a long time ago. It was 16, 17 years ago."

Padejski moved to the United States only two years ago, but even working in Serbia as an investigative journalist he was filing FOIA requests with the US government (he thinks his first may have related to the FBI). "The challenge was, of course, all the time where to send it," he says. "That is the first thing." Figuring out where to send requests, how to fill them out to avoid legal exemptions, organizing them in order to follow up at the right time: All of these are the kind of mundane challenges that could make a time-starved journalist decide that chasing down a public record isn’t worth it. These are the issues that the Kickstarter-funded FOIA Machine, an online platform that makes FOIA requests easier to handle, seeks to solve. The project’s Kickstarter page calls it "a TurboTax for government records."

FOIA Machine reached its Kickstarter funding goal of $17,500 in the first 48 hours; a reflection, Padejski thinks, of post-Snowden enthusiasm for greater government transparency. Its stretch goals will go towards educational events, and to building in more social interaction—which may be a way to wield public pressure against government agencies whose reticence can’t ultimately be solved with technology.

"There is no tool that is going to solve all the problems we’re having, but people are solving problems," says Padejski.

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