FOI Friday

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In our quest to make information a little more free, we keep an eye out for interesting requests and uses of FOI information. All of the stuff we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Moving on to the main event:

Has The Charlotte Observer’s ‘e-mailgate’ eroded your trust in the media? In a recent scandal in North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer filed a FOI request and received nearly 20,000 e-mail addresses of citizens and businesses signed up to government newsletters. Though they now insist that they have no intention of using the e-mail addresses, the fact that they were able to acquire them seems to be a misuse of the FOIA, which exists to further government transparency, not to give anyone access to individuals’ information. What do you think? Is what the Observer did okay in your book? Do you think they should be allowed to file such requests? Who watches the watchdogs?

High Price for India’s Information Law: India’s FOI law has been in effect for five years now, but the controversy over it still rages. Just over a week ago, activist Amit Jethwa was murdered after he filed a request for information about the illegal mines near Gir National Park. Over several years, Mr. Jethwa had been attempting to discover who owned the mines and what action was taken against them. After discovering that one of the mines’ backers was influential politician Dinubhai Solanki, Amit was beaten by unknown assailants. His assassination came just after he filed a lawsuit against the mines.

SEC transparency faulted by watchdog group: A recent report filed by watchdog organization the Project on Government Oversight revealed that, thought the SEC has released documentation of their investigations of, for example, Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, they have not previously released reports on a series of conflict-of-interest situations. According to an SEC spokesperson, the SEC is dedicated to transparency and releases all audits to the public.

Documents raise questions on treatment of detainees: The ACLU has released thousands of documents on prisoner conditions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay that detail the harsh treatment and what the ACLU considers to be “unjustified homicides” from the prisons. The requests, obtained from a 2009 FOIA request, show 190 prisoner deaths, 25-30 of which the ACLU says were arbitrary and unjustifiable. The DoD denies any unlawfulness, saying that it takes the fair and ethical treatment of prisoners very seriously.

Looking for area innovation? Head to the new Boston Tech Meetup

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Modeled on the famous New York Tech Meetup, Boston now has its very own Boston Tech Meetup. We were flattered to be invited as one of the inaugural speakers, with Mitch demoing MuckRock in front of a new audience, fielding questions and getting some great feedback (see photo above, courtesy Blogcastr).  The meetup’s organizer, Dave Rafkind, deserves a round of applause: It was a fantastic showing for a first meetup, particularly considering the outside conditions were a deep orange on the French Toast Alert System. After the jump, the other featured companies who are all worth checking out.

  • NetBlazr A peer-to-peer alternative to traditional telco: Customers not only host an end point, but help route traffic in order to build out a wireless infrastructure at a fraction of the cost of traditional operators, savings which NetBlazr plans to pass on to its customers (it’s currently aiming at the SMB market).
  • Blogcastr If Twitter and CoverItLive had a lovechild, it might turn out something like Blogcastr, which hopes to organize the rather scattered hashtag experience on its new platform.
  • Relay Technology Relay applies AI to help organize and flag likely bio-investments, with an aim to generalize the platform into other fields to help companies plow through massive data sets and find the diamonds in the rough.
  • iCreate to Educate Stop motion made easy, for the educational sector. It helps kids get hands on in making movies with paper mache and other classroom staples to make fun, innovative educational videos.
  • Abroad101 A review site for study abroad programs, it helps match students with international opportunities, with the primary revenue stream being leads generated as students request more information.

Sound like something that would float your boat? Check out the next meeting on February 15th at Microsoft’s NERD Center.

FOI Friday: Internet News Roundup

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Looking for inspiration for future requests and templates, we regularly scour the web to find out what’s going on in the world of FOI, be it a groundbreaking new request, a cool bit of advice or a fun opinion piece. All of our links can be found here anytime, and if you find something you think we’d be interested in, drop us a line at tips@MuckRock.com.

And now, without further ado, your FOI Friday:

  • ACLU questions Missouri’s limited supply of lethal drug as execution draws near: Via a Freedom of Information request, the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri has found that the state lacks the sodium thiopental necessary to guarantee a painless execution to convict Richard Clay. The finding might have even lead to the unusual commuting of Clay’s sentence to life in prison.
  • Suit Against HHS to Obtain Documents Regarding Obamacare Waivers: Government watchdog group Judicial Watch has filed a FOIA request with the Department of Health and Human Services, hoping to shine a light on what they believe to be corruption in the health care overhaul’s waiver process.
  • Richmond police: Give that back: Last month in Richmond, a citizen filed a FOI request for, and received, copies of the various police training manuals for the city. However, as soon as the city realized that the request had been filed by an anarchist and member of the group Richmond Copwatch, they demanded the documents back and ordered the Copwatch group to remove them from their website. They initially filed for an injunction that would permanently prevent the online dissemination of the documents, but the police eventually dropped their case.
  • Maine sheriff sues for info on deputies’ drug work: Donnie Smith, Sheriff of Washington county, Maine, believes that some of his deputies have been misusing money while on drug agency assignments. He has filed a FOI request to find out where the money–around $3,000–ended up.
  • Giffords Shooting Raises Questions about Security for Lawmakers: In more somber news, this article at National Journal online explores the dangerous game politicians now play in the aftermath of the shooting of Rep. Giffords. POLITICO has released information showing that the FBI has, in the past 10 years, investigated 236 threats against politicians’ lives. We’ve filed a similar request for the complete documents.
  • Heated Debate: In Memphis, a feud between the city and the local firefighters’ union escalated after the union, filing a FOI request with the city’s General Services Division, discovered extremely high charges for simple maintenance procedures, such as switching a battery. The city government has responded by claiming an issue in the General Services Division’s computers.

A peak at MuckRock’s improved document timelines

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One thing we weren’t really happy with was how “seperated” out scanned-in responses were from the general request timeline. It meant you had to flip back and forth between tabs to get a good understanding of the request process, or worse had to scroll up and down, downloading PDFs and opening them just to figure out what the fix required was for your current request. Particularly for embargoed requests, in which we’re restricted in how we use DocumentCloud (the document display software we use), the following was a fairly common sight:

What dreck! It didn’t even give you the download link there: You had to scroll up and find the right attachment. Well, Mitch and I got together, came up with a mockup for a better way, and he pulled it together. Ta-da!

Much more useful. If you click view, you’re taken to the full document view in the “Documents” tab. If you click download, you download the PDF directly. But you don’t have to do either, since there’s a nice little summary telling you what the document is all about. If your request is embargoed, you’ll see a generic document thumbnail, but you’ll still see the request summary and be given the download link.

This has actually been live for a few weeks, but we’ve been kicking out the bugs in the meantime. It now seems to work just how we want it to for both embargoed and non-embargoed requests, even if you switch the request’s status.

Two last notes: This feature probably won’t be ported back for old requests, unless you specifically ask by e-mailing me the requests you’d like updated to the timeline view. I’m perfectly happy to do it in these cases, but it’s a manual process. Also, this does not apply (yet) to non-document attachments, like databases and Excel files. We’ve received surprisingly few of these so far, and we’d like to get some more before we figure out how to integrate them consistently into the MuckRock system.

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