FOIA Machine, backed by CIR, makes it big on Kickstarter

By Andrew Lapin

A Kickstarter campaign has given a boost to FOIA Machine, a project from employees of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting that streamlines the often cumbersome process of filing Freedom of Information Act requests.

The FOIA Machine campaign met its goal three days after launching a bid to crowdfund $17,500 for development and implementation of the software. The campaign has so far earned more than $34,000 and will close Aug. 16.

FOIA Machine is backed by CIR with in-kind support but is not an internal CIR project.

“We thought we’d be fighting all 30 days,” Michael Corey, news applications developer for CIR, told Current, adding that he hadn’t anticipated such a groundswell of support for streamlining FOIA requests. “It’s something that journalists deal with a lot, and it’s really important, but it’s government records at the end of the day. I really think it is the PRISM and NSA stuff — the public wants to know what the government knows.”

The Kickstarter money will add to a $47,000 seed grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Additionally, the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri has pledged to match the campaign’s first $15,000 in donations.

Though CIR managed the Kickstarter campaign, the nonprofit organization Investigative Reporters and Editors will assume long-term hosting of FOIA Machine once coding is finished.

“This is a really good thing to add to their portfolio, and they’ll be really good stewards of it,” Corey said.

The goal is to provide a free resource to help reporters, activists and the general public obtain information from the government — a TurboTax-like service for government records, Corey said. The beta version of FOIA Machine has 15 users, but more than 800 reporters have requested to use the platform once it launches, according to Corey.

Users will be able to have private accounts, but FOIA Machine will encourage them to make their records public so as to keep multiple outlets from filing similar FOIA requests, Corey said.

No one works on FOIA Machine full-time, so development on the project has been primarily “sprint and rest, sprint and rest,” Corey said.

The Kickstarter funds will allow FOIA Machine to integrate more features and keep servers running to handle the expected glut of traffic. The team hopes to use the excess money to add other features and will integrate stretch goals into the campaign to keep donations flowing but has not yet determined how to proceed.

Corey and his team are concerned that FOIA Machine could be too successful. The U.S. government is already slow at processing FOIA requests, and if requests become easier for journalists and other citizens to file, response times may lag further. Corey hopes that by helping people home in on the precise information they’re looking for, FOIA Machine can help streamline the information transfer on both ends.

“This is stuff that people have a right to get, so it’s hard for me to say that if more people want access to the things they have a right to get, that’s a bad thing,” he said.

Questions, comments, tips? lapin@current.org

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