Transparent, open … and popular

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Amy Starlight Lawrence of the Knight Foundation has a great piece on how open data has helped at least a few news orgs boost page views, whether it’s through the Texas Tribune’s Prison Directory or embeddable widgets exposing bill sponsorship. It’s all great work, and a bit risky, particular for the Tribune, because traditionally opening up these databases, which often come at the price of costly court battles or countless hours of data entry drudgery, has been seen as giving away a competitive advantage. It might become a competitive advantage instead:

The Texas Tribune has figured out one way to draw and keep readers on their site. The state-focused news source publishes on average onedatabase a week. Combined, the data pages get two and a half times the traffic of the narrative journalismpages, helping to draw the 200,000 unique monthly visitors to their site.

Opening databases was a hot topic at yesterday’s Open Journalism & the Open Web session, and it’s nice to have some statistics that opening up databases to the public has some return beyond, as one participant worried, “playing all your cards at once.”

Our belief at MuckRock is that more public data should be back in the public domain (Your tax dollars paid for it, after all!), and we couldn’t applaud these initiatives more.

With FOI requests, waiting is the hardest part

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With Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, sometimes waiting is the hardest part (unless you get involved in litigation, massive print data dumps, arcane formats … well, OK, one of the hardest parts). That’s why each request you make is timestamped, color coded and tracked, leaving you to deal with only that 2% of time when something actually happens:

But just because something stays green (or even stays red) doesn’t mean nothing is happening; just nothing you need to worry about. For example, many agencies, swamped (or at least claiming to be swamped) with FOI requests file a provisionary note, telling you that they’ve received your request and our working on it. We’ve received two such reqeusts recently:

Initial Response from Federal Bureau of Prisons From the Federal Bureau of Prisons (original request):

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is in receipt of your Freedom of Information Act/Privacy Act request. It has been assigned a number which you will find above. Please make a note of it as you will need to include it in any correspondence or inquiry regarding your request.
Due to the large number of requests received by the Bureau of Prisons for disclosure of records pursuant to the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts, and due to the limited resources available to process such requests, the Bureau of Prisons has adopted a first-in/first-out practice of processing all incoming requests.

Suffolk County Jail initial response From the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department (original request):

This letter will confirm receipt on August 19 of your letter seeking disclosure of public records maintained by the Suffolk County Sheriff ‘s Department (“Department”), and it has been forwarded to to me for a response. Your request specifically seeks the disclosure of all written documentation or policy guidelines on preventing inmate self- injury and/or suicide, including policies on contraband, qualifications for suicide watch and suicide watch policies and procedures. ‘

Please note that I am currently determining which documents are responsive to your request.

Neither request is, yet, what we’d call a rousing success, and the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Department is now almost two weeks late, but at least both agencies gave us a heads up. Now, it’s just time to wait them out, sending them the occasional “ping” update and shaming them by pointing out that, currently, the Suffolk request is the third-longest overdue request we have.

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