New FOIA initiative could create opportunity for data miners
We learned this week that the federal government will be trying a new approach to information sharing. A handful of government agencies will be releasing the results of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests not just to the person who requested them, but publicly on their websites as well.
The policy has been dubbed “release to one is release to all.”
For fans of open, transparent government, this is a win. Any time we can get more information from government agencies it has the potential to improve the behavior of bureaucrats, expand participation in the governing process, and provide valuable data for businesses and others.
Of course, it’s not without it’s downsides. Some reporters are disappointed because it will be easier for competitors to see what stories they’re working on. That seems like a small price to pay — and, as noted it has already been possible to “FOIA the FOIAs” to see what requests have been made by members of the media.
The federal government releases millions of pages of documents to requestors under FOIA each year. The Washington Post says that there were more than 700,000 FOIA requests in 2014 alone. This represents a treasure trove for the public. As more agencies begin to release this data publicly, it also presents a potential entrepreneurial opportunity for anyone inclined to mine all of the data being provided.
Of course, as valuable as the information may be, it’s likely to be released in a form that will require considerable massaging to be truly useful. As someone who has used FOIA and related state government “open access” laws many times over the years, I can attest to how little effort is often put into making the released documents easy to consume.
Nevertheless, it will be interesting to watch the progress of this initiative and see what opportunities might arise as a result.