This NewsBreak originally ran on Nov. 21, 2023.
From Oct. 3 to 5, the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) presented National FOI (Freedom of Information) Summit ’23, its 18th annual conference for “access professionals, transparency advocates, journalists and everyone else who knows that open government is good government.” Jeffrey Roberts, NFOIC president, and Denise Malan, FOI Summit coordinator, welcomed 255 attendees to the online event. The social media hashtag was #FOISummit23.
The NFOIC’s mission is “[t]o help establish, support and empower state coalitions in order to improve the laws, judicial remedies, and practice of government information dissemination at the state and local levels.” During the summit, state and regional open government advocacy groups explained how they support the mission.
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE: A SOLUTION FOR U.S. FEDERAL AGENCIES
Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere. In Putting the AI in FOIA: The Agencies Experimenting With AI to Help Alleviate FOIA Workloads, Jason R. Baron, professor of the practice at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, said U.S. federal agencies are testing the use of AI for responding to public records requests, but they are hindered by a lack of knowledge. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee recommended that federal agencies issue a request for information to AI and machine-learning technology companies. “You have to educate yourself,” Baron said.
Baron was enthusiastic about AI’s potential for finding relevant records. Keyword searching is “problematic,” Baron said. Working from a small subset of records, AI learns word patterns, then searches for those word patterns in large records repositories, such as an email archive. Noting that federal agency emails were in the billions, Baron said, “How does FOIA work with that volume? The only answer is AI.” AI can also learn to detect and remove confidential personal identifying information, such as Social Security numbers. Adam Marshall, senior staff attorney at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, added that federal agencies must inform journalists and other requesters about if and how they use AI. “There needs to be transparency,” he said.
ENHANCING ACCESS TO FOIA LOGS AND FOIA LIBRARIES
Sometimes, journalists and citizens don’t know what they don’t know about government information. Two new resources can help anyone learn about an agency’s records.
Derek Kravitz, investigations and data editor at MuckRock, a nonprofit website where journalists file, track, and share public records requests, discussed FOIA Log Explorer, MuckRock’s new tool that searches FOIA logs from 21 federal, state, and local government agencies. A FOIA log is a list of public records requests with responses. MuckRock adds new FOIA logs every week, with plans to add more agencies and have more frequent updates. Journalists can clone an old request from FOIA Log Explorer, and the new request is then submitted and tracked by MuckRock.
Online FOIA libraries are where federal agencies’ final opinions and orders, statements of agency policy not published in the Federal Register, administrative staff manuals and instructions, proactive disclosures, and all public records already requested three or more times are required to be posted. In Using FOIA Libraries to Your Advantage, Lisa DeLuca, assistant dean of public services at Seton Hall University Libraries, presented her dataset with links to the FOIA libraries of almost 400 U.S. federal agencies. Keep searching, said DeLuca, and “you are going to find a lot more than you expect,” including raw data. DeLuca wants agencies to add metadata and tags for better searching. She cited the National Park Service’s FOIA library as one of the best. The number of federal FOIA libraries increased 54% in 5 years, she said.
BRINGING PUBLIC MEETINGS AND WANDERING OFFICERS TO LIGHT
Open government advocacy groups showed how collaboration uncovered elusive public information. In The Citizens Documenting Public Meetings, Max Resnik, director of network services in the Documenters Network of City Bureau, said there were not enough reporters for coverage of meetings of boards, councils, and commissions at all levels of government. To the rescue came the Documenters, who brought sunshine to public meetings that had been otherwise uncovered by the media. Resnik described how City Bureau and its nonprofit newsroom partners train interested local citizens to attend meetings, take notes, collect presentations and documents, and even record audio and video of the meetings. Documenters, who are paid, organize these materials for journalists, making them available to the media through Creative Commons licenses. Journalists get ready-made sources for community news stories. “They practice journalism skills and learn how civics works,” said Resnik.
Documenters began in Chicago and spread nationwide. January Jones, journalist/consultant at the January Strategy, managed the Colorado Citizen Observers Pilot Project, which used AI to analyze online audio and video recordings of meetings. Jones said, “So many meetings are not on the record. AI will be a tool for democratizing those meetings.”
In another team effort, Big Local News, a data journalism project at Stanford University, partnered with MuckRock and the University of California–Berkeley to build a data repository of employment histories of law enforcement officers at police departments nationwide. Police Officer Standards and Training commissions (POSTs) gather data on law enforcement officers’ employment in their states. Justin Mayo, senior data journalist at Big Local News, explained how his team used MuckRock’s platform to request employment history data from all 50 states’ POSTs. Twenty-one POSTs released complete employment history data. The rest released partial data. Data workers at the University of California-Berkeley normalized the data. Eventually, it will be available to investigative reporters through Stanford University Libraries’ Digital Repository. Journalists can use this repository to expose “wandering officers”—officers who, after firings or demotions for misconduct, move to another law enforcement agency in a different jurisdiction.
SUSTAINING THE SUNSHINE
Technology and collaboration have brought more sunshine to public information. There were improvements in laws and regulations too. Jodie Gil, associate professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University, presented The Debate Over Doxxing: Balancing the Public Interest and Privacy Concerns, a follow-up to a session in last year’s National FOI Summit. Her research showed that almost every state has laws making specific types of government workers’ home addresses confidential. Many added election workers to the list after the 2020 election.
Also at last year’s National FOI Summit, I heard that universities could deny access to student-athletes’ name, image, and likeness (NIL) agreements. Since then, the NCAA Division I Council introduced NIL proposals with a degree of disclosure. Universities will be required to report anonymized and aggregated NIL information to the NCAA twice annually. Frank LoMonte, counsel for CNN, said, “It is a half-step towards transparency.”
In Access to Information in Puerto Rico, representatives from nonprofit media company Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI) explained Puerto Rico’s first transparency law, the Transparency and Expedited Procedure for Public Records Access Act. The act applies to Puerto Rico’s territorial government plus all local governments. Puerto Rico’s agencies must proactively disclose certain categories of public information, digitize important records, and respond to public records requests within 10 business days. Check CPI’s Basic Guide for Submitting Public Information Requests in Puerto Rico for more information (translation required).
How can the NFOIC and its member FOIA coalitions sustain this progress? First, by seeking to achieve financial sustainability. Press Forward is a new initiative of several national foundations to inject money into local journalism efforts. NFOIC president Roberts wondered if Press Forward funds could support state FOIA coalitions or pay for lobbying for better FOIA laws. He said, “Think about how we can make a case for our organizations to be part of whatever is coming from [Press Forward].” A second way to sustain the progress of NFOIC and its members is by recruiting new faces. Colleen Murphy, executive director and general counsel of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said, “It’s critical that we pull in young people. Bring in some younger voices and hope they carry the torch forward.”