FOIA Data Models for Everyone [If You Are Going To Ask]

FOIA Data Models for Everyone by Jeremy B. Merrill.

From the post:

Listen to two FOIA practitioners describe their request strategies and you’ll probably get two very different answers. I know because I’ve done it. As someone with not much of a personal FOIA strategy—besides “wait and hope”—I was surprised that journalists skilled at prying obscure records from the government have wildly different approaches.

These differences in how to engage with the FOIA process can cover questions that are flashy—to us nerds—like whether to ask for “any and all” documents or to call the officer every week or so. But the idiosyncrasies in journalists’ mental models trickle down even into the little details, like how they keep track of agencies’ contact info.

When I began an internal FOIA tracker app for the New York Times, I knew I’d have to understand different mental models of the FOIA process in order to represent that process in a database. So, I put out a call to the friendly community of news nerds on Twitter and in the NewsNerdery Slack:

Tracking your FOIAs with a spreadsheet (or an app) is a best practice. But everyone’s chart is a little different and probably encodes different nuggets of hard-earned wisdom. Care to share the column headers from your spreadsheet?

Computers don’t know anything about FOIAs. Bless their hearts, but they’re dumb; data modeling is how we imbue computers with little morsels of our human wisdom hidden in row 1 of a spreadsheet. I collated the results—from eight individuals’ spreadsheets and two open-source FOIA tracker apps plus my own, so hopefully a lot of little morsels of wisdom—and analyzed them to see what I might have missed. I want to share the results back to the community.

A gold mine of curated advice and practices on FOIA data models.

Old pros and newbies at FOIA requests are going to benefit from Merrill’s post.

Be sure to ping him @jeremybmerrill to show your appreciation for this summary.

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