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Free Government Information (FGI) is a place for initiating dialogue and building consensus among the various players (libraries, government agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, journalists, etc.) who have a stake in the preservation of and perpetual free access to government information. FGI promotes free government information through collaboration, education, advocacy and research.

CRS to release reports in September

Steven Aftergood reports that the Congressional Research Service (CRS) will begin publishing some of its non-confidential reports on a publicly accessible congressional website by September 18, 2018.

“For the initial public release, the Library will make available in PDF format all of CRS’s R-series of ‘active’ reports that were published since the enactment date, as well as the Appropriations Status Table,” CRS said in a new memorandum for congressional staff. The “R-series” refers to the primary CRS reports that have a report number beginning with R. It does not include CRS Insights, Legal Sidebars, or In Focus reports. Over time, older R-series reports as well as some other product lines will be added to the public collection, CRS said.

Tracking the unlawful or accidental removal of government records

In the age of digital information, it is easier than it ever has been for government agencies to alter or delete official records at the flick of a switch. The U.S. Code (Title 44) and Code of Federal Regulations (Title 36) require agencies to “prevent the unlawful or accidental removal, defacing, alteration, or destruction of records.” But the official government guidelines for Managing Web Records are 13 years old and are subject to interpretation by political appointees in individual agencies.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) investigates allegations of violations of this law and will assist agencies in retrieving records. Its Performance Accountability Report has, for for many years, provided an end-of-year snapshot of cases investigated.

This year, NARA has created a web dashboard, which it will update monthly, listing the “Unauthorized Disposition of Federal Records.” More information about this is available from the Sunlight Foundation:

The dashboard lists the agencies and records involved, the status of the investigation, and provides links to documentation about the events.

Recently listed events include the “Suspicious-activity reports (SARs)” (which were widely reported as being absent from the database maintained by the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN)), and the use of private (non-.gov) email accounts by officials of Homeland Security. There are currently 24 open cases and 46 cases closed cases.

Time Use Study of Reading in America

It is nice to see an article in a popular magazine make good and explicit use of government data. This article has a couple of added bonuses for government information librarians: It is about reading and it does a very good job of explaining how to avoid being mislead by sloppy use of data. It also uses one of my favorite datasets, the Bureau of Labor Statistics' American Time Use Survey!

Here there’s a little bit of good news: the average American reader spent 1.39 hours reading in 2003, rising to 1.48 hours in 2016. That’s the very gradually rising blue line in the graph above. In other words, the average reading time of all Americans declined not because readers read less but because fewer people were reading at all, a proportion falling from 26.3 per cent of the population in 2003 to 19.5 per cent in 2016.

Modernizing the FDLP Modernization Act

The so-called FDLP Modernization Act of 2018 (H.R.5305) corrects many of the flaws of the 1993 law. It catches the law up to what it should have been in 1993 and conforms to current GPO practice. Specifically, it requires GPO to provide free access to digital content; it requires GPO to have a program of digital preservation; it changes the scope of GPO and FDLP with new definitions of “Information Dissemination Products” (IDPs) — a term used by OMB since 1996; and it requires GPO to abide by existing privacy laws (going back to 1974 and 2002).

These are welcome improvements, but they fall short of “modernizing” the law to the conditions of 2018 and beyond. A few small changes can go a long way to truly modernizing the law. These changes will create a collaborative, digital FDLP; guarantee long-term, no-fee access to government information insulated from federal political and economic pressures; and enhance services to users.

Suggested Changes

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Dept. of Commerce must release data under FOIA, not charge $174,000

Many federal government agencies are allowed (and in some cases are required) by law to charge fees for access to data they collect.

The US Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration (ITA) maintains a database of U.S. visitors by their origin, age, residency, port of entry, visa type, and initial destination. ITA charges from thirteen to sixteen thousand dollars per year of data for access to this Visitor Arrivals Program [I-94] Data). ITA claims that the fees are justified because the revenue is essential to its operation and has resisted a Freedom of Information Act (FOAI) request for release of the data. The multi-year data the journalist requested would cost $174,000.

"… we rely upon sales to keep them running. If we gave the data away for free to one, we would have to do it for all. But, since ITA requires that we charge a fee and work to make the program funded by sales and appropriated funds, there would be no data to provide and it would also terminate several other programs we have that rely upon this data as well…."

http://data.qz.com/2016/ita-emails/#email-29

A US District Court has ruled that there is no legal basis to charge such exorbitant fees to access government data and has directed the agency to reevaluate how much to charge for responding to the FOIA request.

The government could appeal the decision.

Hat Tip to the Sunlight Foundation!

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