Enabling FOIA: Getting Better Access to Government Data at a Lower Cost

28 May

Freedom of Information Act is vital for holding the government to account. But little effort has gone into building tools that enable fulfilment of FOIA requests. As a consequence of this underinvestment, fulfilling FOIA requests often means onerous, costly work for government agencies, and long delays for the requesters. Here, I discuss a couple of alternatives. One tool that can prove particularly effective in lowering the cost of fulfilling FOIA requests is an anonymizer — a tool that detects proper nouns, addresses, telephone numbers, etc. and blurs them. This is easily achieved using modern machine learning methods. To ensure 100% accuracy, humans can quickly vet the suggestions by the algorithm along with ‘suspect words.’ Or a captcha like system that asks people in developing countries to label suspect words as nouns etc. can be created to further reduce costs. This covers one conventional solution.

Another way to solve the problem would be to create a sandbox architecture. Rather than give requesters stacks of redacted documents – often unnecessary – one can allow people the right to run certain queries on the data. Results of these queries can be vetted internally. A classic example would be to allow people to query government emails for total number of times porn domains are accessed via servers at government offices.