A sneak peak at the first 3-D FOI adventure?

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We’re still holding out for Bruce Willis to help bust out public documents, but for now OpenGovernmentRecords.net has produced a trailer of what they promise will be the “epic story of a Freedom of Information Legislation Mage on a her first quest to the Land of the Gatekeepers.” Goofy? A bit, but anything that promotes Freedom of Information education and awareness gets two thumbs up in our book.

The link economy: Four reasons we’ve replaced comments with trackbacks

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An illustration of community comments.One feature we’re asked about occasionally is comments. Currently, where and how you can comment on MuckRock is very, very limited:

While we’ve greatly appreciated the feedback, support and ideas we’ve received on the blog via comments and through UserVoice, we very specifically wanted to minimize discussions about the documents and data itself happening on our site. What we’ve found is that a lot of sites with active commenting communities end up having, well, low-value comments.

On the other hand, we truly believe that data without context is only a very small part of the story, and it’s our community members and the wider web that can help give the documents we help publish that context, whether it’s proper statistical analysis, an inventive mash-up, a local understanding or simply a personal anecdote to make it come alive. So we’ve launched an experiment where we highlight the stories, blog posts and other media that mentions the documents and data we’re serving up.

We believe this does a few really valuable things.

1) It helps our community understand the data more fully. If a reader comes and reads through, for example, the 2009 Somerville Campaign Finance Reports, they’re not seeing the whole story. Not by a long shot. Did the interests who donated to various officials benefit from their relationship? Did a sudden change of vote coincide with a $2,000 donation, or does a politician have a personal relationship with their official campaign caterer? None of this is obvious in the documents, so we’re delighted to partner with organizations like Post Somerville who provide the expertise that is needed to answer these questions.

2) It sets the bar for discourse a little higher. Sure, not every blog is a winner. But blogging does require a more concerted effort and energy than drive-by comment sniping, and we believe that even for anonymous blogs that have a following, when they write something they stake a bit of their reputation on it. We believe this leads our community with less noise and more thought-provoking writing, no matter the viewpoint from which its based.

3) You’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. A few years ago, a book entitled True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society came out, with the central tenet that in today’s world, there’s so much information that one group of people can cherry pick the facts they wish to base its world view on, while another group can cherry pick its own facts and have not only different opinions, but a fundamentally different understanding of what the truth actually is. The thesis is, fittingly, true enough, but one we believe is worth fighting against. By supporting different interpretations about a single source of facts, we hope we allow others to debate interpretations while agreeing on at least some fundamentals surrounding their debate. We believe the SNAP data we released was a perfect example: Some commenters argued the costs were driven up by fraud; others, by lack of opportunities. Both hypothesis are quite possible, but at least we can now examine the extent of the problem from some neutral ground and, hopefully, make more rational decisions based on it.

4) Tis better to give than receive. Finally, we think we’re simply being good net citizens. Jeff Jarvis has regularly argued, in his discussion of the “link economy,” that Internet users return to where they’re sent from. See: Google’s early days, when it was a plain search box, with one of two buttons kicking you off their site immediately to some (hopefully) useful destination. We believe that if we become the best resource for finding not only interesting government documents, but excellent explanation of those documents, our community will grow.

Right now, our implementation is fairly crude: A simple trackback mechanism (see left) on every document page that that highlights websites that use MuckRock data. As we develop MuckRock’s features, however, we hope to provide better functionality to send you to the best analysis, both from the original requester and from other sources who might have a particular credibility in that department, whether it’s a statistician, journalist or everyday citizen who knows the neighborhood like the back of his hand.

If you have thoughts or ideas, we’d love to hear them. In the meantime, keep the conversation going.

A big thank you to Robert Bertsche and the Online Media Legal Network

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Online Media Legal Network Now would probably be a good time to give a quick, public “Thank You” to Robert Bertsche, who has generously donated his time and wisdom in advising us on the legal issues around freedom of information laws, and the Online Media Legal Network, which connected us with Mr. Bertsche and other attorneys willing to work pro bono to help our little operation get off the ground.

Particularly with recent events, it’s quite comforting to have top-notch legal minds accessible even on a boot-strapped budget. If you’re working on a similarly bootstrapped media project, I highly recommend getting in touch with the OMLN early on.

I’ll also recommend coming to the next Hacks/Hackers meetup in the Boston area: “Legal liability in the age of WikiLeaks.” Even if you’re just interested in the issues at hand, the panel, moderated by media critic/scholar extraordinaire Dan Kennedy and featuring Mr. Bertsche himself.

We’ll definitely be in attendance.

Regarding our SNAP (food stamp) data

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We thought you should know that we received the following e-mail from the Department of Transitional Assistance on Monday:

Dear Mr. Morisy:

I am writing to inform you that certain information found on the website http://www.muckrock.com, which lists individual retailer redemptions for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is posted in violation of federal law.. [sic] This information was erroneously released by the Department of Transitional Assistance to Spare Change News. Federal law prohibits release of such information under 7 U.S.C. 2018(9)(c), and 7 CFR 278.1(q).

Failure to remove this information may result in fines or imprisonment. 7 U.S.C. 2018(9)(c) (“any person who publishes, divulges, discloses, or makes known in any manner or to any extent not authorized by Federal law (including a regulation) any information obtained under this subsection shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned not more than 1 year, or both).

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me. If I should be addressing this communication to someone else, I would also appreciate you letting me know. Thank you.

Koren Christensen
Acting General Counsel
Department of Transitional Assistance
600 Washington Street
Boston, MA 02111

We have engaged legal counsel to advise us on this issue, and in the meantime we have not removed from our site any of the documents (here and here) provided to us by the DTA.

FOI Friday: Our favorite document-based reporting

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We constantly scour the web for what the best uses of freedom of information requests in the media to drive compelling journalism, whether it’s a hard-hitting investigation, a light feature, or just a wacky piece to draw your interest. You can follow all of our finds on Delicious, but we’d love your suggestions and additions, too! Just e-mail Michael@MuckRock.com. But for now, on with the show!

  • Part-timers dominate Roswell Fire Department: This piece examines how  most of a small town’s fire department is actually moonlighting professionals from other departments. It’s a common practice, and while in this story Ralph Ellis uses a freedom of information request to discover that residents have only had positive things to say about the fire department, a request in your town might help uncover the same basic information about whether your local fire department is “double hatters.”
  • Memos Detail TSA Officer’s Cocaine Pranks:  The FOI-jitsu masters at the Smoking Gun have a great (and slightly terrifying) series of TSA memos detailing how a security worker “pranked” a civilian by accusing them of finding cocaine in their luggage … when the powdery substance was his.
  • Fail rates vary for driver test centres: From our neighbors up north, an interesting look at failure rates in driving tests. Some good feature fodder for your town?
  • Betraying the Badge: This hard-hitting piece about an allegedly corrupt cop uses a Freedom of Information to show how much he’s earned while on “administrative leave,” being paid to do nothing.
  • Bids rarely allowed on city audit contracts: Sole-sourced contracts are an easy target for government waste finders, bu this Ottawa Citizen article finds the practice rampant.
  • Being charged huge fees for your Freedom of Information request? Here’s what to do: The Vancouver Sun’s Chad Skelton has a great guide to ditching high fees by negotiating, threatening, pleading and just plain being smart when it comes to FOI.

A big thank you and a small milestone

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We’ve been really late in this post, but it’s just a factor of our efforts to actually get the documents rather than a sign of any ungratefulness: We owe a HUGE thank you to the 22 people who helped fund our request for the 2009 Somerville Campaign Finance Reports. Each and every one of you rocks in ways you cannot imagine. We’d like to give special thanks and recognition to PostSomerville.com’s Tom Nash, who originally filed the request and agreed to un-embargo it so we could try this crowdsourcing experiment; to SomervilleVoices’ Barry Rafkind, who not only donated but helped promote the fundraising; to Ward5Online‘s Courtney O’Keefe who also helped promote the assignment; and particular to Spot.us and David Cohn, who encouraged us to try the program.

In all, the Spot.us experience was a resounding success and we look forward to helping fund similar, local FOI requests many times again in the future.

We also hit a minor milestone we’ve been celebrating: Our hundredth FOI request filed. So far, in response, we’ve received 15 completed requests, over 4,000 pages of documents, several spreadsheets and database and only three out right rejections. We’re looking forward to pushing all of those numbers up, with your help and direction, over the next few months.

Thanks again for helping us hit both these milestones.

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