I just noticed this post over at Wired Magazine's Threat Level blog, Activists Flood Government Agencies With FOIA Requests in Tribute to Aaron Swartz. Last week, Muckrock, the site that helps journalists, lawyers, and the public submit FOIA requests for a small fee ($20 for 5 requests), waived their fees in tribute to the transparency fights of computer programmer and internet activist Aaron Swartz who committed suicide a few weeks ago. I hope Muckrock will post all of the documents received via these requests. According to Muckrock:
MuckRock has begun processing 153 free FOIA requests submitted in honor of Internet pioneer and transparency activist Aaron Swartz, who died earlier this month at age 26.
Swartz, among MuckRock's first users and supporters, used public records laws to attempt to find out more about why the federal government was pursuing Internet piracy charges against him. He also filed requests related to alleged WikiLeaks collaborator Bradley Manning and the U.S. Mint, among many other topics.
In a Jan. 18 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking about Swartz’s prosecution, U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) asked, “was the prosecution of Mr. Swartz in any way retaliation for his exercise of his rights as a citizen under the Freedom of Information Act?”
As a way to honor Swartz’s legacy and to further his transparency work, MuckRock encouraged users to file requests in his honor free of charge. The requests cover all corners of government, ranging from the Department of Homeland Security’s documents relating to the high profile Tar Sands Blockade to the city payroll for Everett, Mass.
I ran into this odd post recently about the US Census Bureau's census tool called American Factfinder -- odd because it was mix of interesting, fact-based reporting with a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek facetiousness. Nursing a "long-standing grudge against another piece of contractor-built government software," William Hartnett (who may or may not be a journalist) decided to submit a FOIA request to find out how much it cost to build and then wrote a post about it entitled "The U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder, which everyone in the universe hates, cost taxpayers $33.3 million. So that’s great."
Hartnett's FOIA request garnered an amazingly quick response from the US Census Bureau:
The name of the company that developed the current version of the American FactFinder web application is IBM U.S. Federal and the total $33,340,681.00.
While I'm the first to admit that FactFinder is a difficult and confusing tool to use (not to mention that the Census Bureau decided not to host the 1990 census data on AFF2 but instead to only make it available for download on their FTP server!), I would put it in neither the "useless boondoggle" nor even the "steamy pile of sh*t" category. But at least now we now know how much FactFinder cost to build.
Besides that little informational tidbit, Hartnett also provided pointers to 2 Web sites of interest:
Muckrock: This site, for a small fee (not clear if they'll manage your FOIA fees exemption), helps researchers, journalists and the public submit and manage their FOIA requests, and scans and makes them available to the public. Check out the FOIA requests currently in their queue. You can follow @MuckRockNews on twitter.
Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) has a Census project "designed to provide journalists with a simpler way to access 2010 Census data so they can spend less time importing and managing the data and more time exploring and reporting the data." This is a great example of a useful tool built from bulk data supplied by the US Census Bureau! Check out the tool and let us know what you think.