Tag Archives: John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Thoughts on Sunshine Week 2015 – WWJMD?

The sun has shone and the sun has hidden behind many a bureaucratic and political cloud since the launch of Sunshine Week a decade ago. The decade has experienced cosmic change ranging from Wikileaks and Snowden to the emergence of open government groups such as Code for America to the President’s National Action Plan for Open Government to a last minute failure of the 113rd Congress to pass the FOIA Improvement Act.

Constant vigilance inspires Sunshine Week sponsors to join forces to plan for Sunshine Week 2015, March 15-21.

Ten years seems a propitious time to reflect on the basic principles as well as the visible manifestations of Sunshine Week including thoughtful editorials, inside the Beltway events, state and local awards, and the many examples of collaborative focus on a fundamental principle of this democracy.

It’s also a reminder to get back to basics — I think of it as a sort of WWJMD? (What Would James Madison Do?) approach to Sunshine Week 2015.   The focus on Madison stems from the fact that the celebration of Sunshine Week is set to coincide with his birthday on March 16. Besides Madison has always been my go-to thinker on the sometimes elusive permutations of the freedom of information tenet. (http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_14680391)

My reflections have been informed and reinforced by a treasure collected and distributed by FreedomInfo.org. (http://www.freedominfo.org/resources/freedominfo-org-list-quotes-freedom-information/) The thoughtful staffers there have produced a robust collection of freedom of information quotes, arranged chronologically from the 18th Century to the present. “Light on ponderous material from the preambles of laws” the listing of quotes is lively, inclusive, and open-ended, inviting those who care about such things to add their own.   FreedomInfo’s collection is great reinforcement for my personal WWJMD? Challenge and a must for any group grappling with plans for Sunshine Week 2015.

The other indispensable resource for Sunshine Week planners is the abundant assistance provided by Debra Gersh Hernandez who has been the illuminating presence since the pre-dawn of the national Sunshine Week initiative. Deb is responsible for the Sunshine Week website (http://rcfp.org) and for the steady flow of tweets that keep the ideas and energy flowing from Sunshine Week planners around the nation.

A bit of background: Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Prime movers are freedom of information proponents including journalists, civic socity groups, libraries and archives, government officials, schools and universities, and an expanding cohort of advocates for transparency and accountability at every level of government. Key players at the federal level are the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of News Editors, organizations that welcome inclusion of the broadest possible circle of interest and activity. Sunshine Week 2015 is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation along with The Gridiron Cub and Foundation.

Sponsors and past participants in Sunshine Week offer a host of ideas and support materials, including an Idea Bank of “bright ideas” from a decade of Sunshine Week experience and a “Toolkit” rich with op ed pieces, editorial cartoons, logos, icons, sample proclamations and more. There is also a virtual catalog of Freedom of Information in action – samples of how federal and state freedom of information laws have been put to work to expose and resolve real life problems.

Back to my decentennial deliberations — WWJMD?   Admittedly, James Madison would have some catching up to do. On the one hand, he would hold the nation’s leaders feet to the fire, demanding that they move on passage of the bipartisan Freedom of Information Improvement Act sponsored by Senators Leahy and Cornyn. He would stoke up the heat under the President’s commitment to transparency as stated in the National Action Plan for Open Government.

Madison would applaud the unstinting work of state coalitions and national civic society efforts to keep the heat on – and to work with global freedom of information initiatives. And he would welcome the energy and commitment of the nation’s newest open government enthusiasts who are raising issues and developing new tools to make government information more accessible to more people. Most of all, he would work with leaders to make sure that all the players and stakeholders are at the table, talking with, not past, each other.

With specific reference to Sunshine Week 2015 Madison, the global thinker, would concur with British philosopher Jeremy Bentham who wrote that “without publicity, no good is permanent; under the auspices of publicity, no evil can continue.” (1768)







FOIA Machine Lubricates the Wheels of Access

Some holiday time-off-task offers a chance to get back to Poking Around – so where do I start?   With a post about FOIA…. Though I’m eager to poke around a broader sphere, I have been intending to share this newish tool for some time.

Maybe you too have sworn off cookies, shopping, toys that blink and blast, and melodramatic reruns on TV – time to stretch the brain. Admit it, you’ve always wanted to mine the wealth of public information/data — from what’s behind the torture revelations to the fine points of climate change to your personal information trail.

Though widely supported efforts to streamline the Freedom of Information were torpedoed in the waning days of the last Congress, the folks at the Center for Investigative Reporting are pressing on – inviting seekers of government information to participate in the beta test of a promising tool on which they have been working since 2012.

FOIA Machine, a Kickstarted open-source platform, free to the user, offers innovative features that may clear the path to the maze of public records. Initially supported with a John S. and James L.Knight Foundation Prototype grant,with support from the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute, FOIA Machine was put over the top by 2000 contributors to the Kickstarter campaign. In their Kickstarter promo FOIA Machine team leaders describe the project as designed 1) to automate submission of requests, 2) to track FOIA requests, and 3) to aggregate information about FOIA requests themselves.

FOIA Machine was originally designed by and for journalists. Still, the John S. Knight Foundation anticipated that “FOIA Machine will aid journalists and private citizens in accessing millions of important governmental documents around the world that are covered by freedom of information laws which exist in more than 90 countries.”

FOIA Machine allows inquisitive users to

  • Prepare a request under the FOIA or any other Public Records state law from the agencies databases
  • Send requests to a right officer and agency, or schedule it for later sending
  • Track the status of requests
  • Get the records back to their email and FOIA Machine mailbox
  • Create projects from the group of similar requests
  • Use automated request or request letter templates to prepare requests
  • Search for other users’ requests and responsive documents
  • Share their FOIA experience with other users

As with any request, the toughest step is the first one – formulating the information or data need. FOIA Machine offers a couple of options: Users may use the email-like form to select an agency and contact(s) by simply fillinf out the body of the message. If the user knows the contacts and agencies, or can locate that information in the FOIA Machine data base, that is included – if that information is missing, FOIA Machine promises to lend a hand. There’s also a guided “wizard” option to assist in the process.

When the information/data request is submitted FOIA Machine emails the identified contact(s). It will also send the requester a copy of that information. From that point on the requester and agency staffer are in touch with the requester responsible for follow up. Simultaneously, there is another email address cc’ed by FOIA Machine on every message. FOIA Machine tracks the status of the request and the agency response, then provides a log of each interaction in a central location.

Requesters have a number of options. They may keep the transaction public or private; if it’s public it will appear in FOIA Machine’s listing of public requests. Users may also use the system feature to generate requests if they want to rely on the tool for tracing only. FOIA Machine provides a social support component with an online discussion group and through Twitter @foiamachine.

Clearly, the more users the more robust the pool of shared information. The cumulative knowledge can help users figure out how to improve their chances of getting requests fulfilled. Shared experiences, including the agencies track record, can guide users’ approach – plus the record of past requests may eliminate the user’s need to initiate a time-consuming request.

After this beta testing phase FOIA Machine will be managed by the non-profit  Investigative Reporters and Editors.  Meet the FOIA Machine design team here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/cir/foia-machine




Rays of Hope from Sunshine Week 2013

It’s eight years now since the first Sunshine Week, celebrated this week, March 10-March16.  Sunshine Week  is a national initiative to promote discussion about the importance of freedom of information and open government.  The week was chosen to coincide with the birthday of James Madison (more about the Mr. Madison later).  At the national level the prime mover behind Sunshine Week was the American Society of News Editors, later joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

In those eight years change on every front has transformed the very context in which we celebrate Sunshine Week 2013.   Change has occurred at such a dizzying pace that government, the press, and citizens may be at a loss, seeking for some framework to understand how open government could and should work in the 21st Century.

The fact that it is the press that initiated the concept of Sunshine Week is significant.  The media environment of today bears scant resemblance to what it was a decade ago.  Investigative reporting is more honored in the breach than in the observance.  Warp speed journalism doesn’t allow time for deep investigation.  The print press has faded in the wings as everyone with a smart phone is both a source and consumer of what passes for news.

The flow of information between government and the general populace is totally changed.  The government both gathers and produces information online – and with the change in format come challenges that confound agencies and constituencies alike.

Though the current administration has established policies to promote openness, the wheels of government grind slowly, and a strict diet of transparency is problematic at best.

So it is interesting to note what’s happening this week as the watchdogs of open government grapple with open government circa 2013.  Some examples:

  • Monday morning started with the Fourth Annual Department of Justice Sunshine Week Celebration at which the DOJ’s chief Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) officer led a discussion of federal agencies’ improvements in FOIA administration.
  • Symbolic but important, at the same time there was a rare viewing and discussion of the Freedom of Information Act at the National Archives, including a demonstration of the multi-agency FOIA portal.  Despite the bold pronouncement that “all agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure” charges of recalcitrance on the part of agencies will undoubtedly surfaced at this session.
  • On Tuesday, the Center for Effective Government (formerly OMB Watch) and the Electronic Privacy Information Center  (EPIC) will host two panel discussions examining transparency and national security in the Obama administration’s second term.   These are all-star panels on hot topics.  This is one of two Sunshine Week sessions that will be webcast – reservations requested.  The webcast is Noon-3:00 p.m.  RSVP to www.foreffectivegov.org/webcastsrsvp
  • Also on Tuesday, March 12, the National Press Club’s Freedom of the Press Committee will hold a panel discussion, 6:30 p.m., about the effect on the press  of laws enacted globally after 9-11.
  • On Wednesday, March 12, there will be a hearing of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “We the People: Fulfilling the Promise of Open Government Five Years after The OPEN Government Act.”
  • At the same time Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the George Washington University Law School will be asking the question: Does U.S. Secret Law Threaten our Democracy?
  • Thursday the Brennan Center for Justice will host a panel discussion on the topic “Secrecy and Security: The Future of Classification Reform.”  Meanwhile the Cato Institute is holding a workshop looking at legislative data and Wikipedia and the National Press Club will host a panel discussion on using FOIA.
  • Friday is the Annual National Freedom of Information Day conference, this year at the Newseum.  In morning sessions Open the Government will presents its eighth annual Sunshine Week examination of the state of openness in the federal government, focusing this year on the outlook for the President’s second term.  The day includes a keynote discussion with First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams and a discussion of the new documentary Whistleblowers. The American Library Association will also presents it James Madison Award.  This FOI Day observance is the second of the week’s events that will be webcast beginning at 8:30 a.m. (7:30 CST)

It may tempting to think that these Sunshine Week activities are only for the Beltway Insiders and government geeks.  Still, without these Insiders, the watchdogs, the whistblowers and the faithful attendees at hearings and endless meetings,  the public right to access would surely be thwarted.

We depend on the eyes and ears – and collaborative efforts – of these observers to keep the decision-making processes remains open to the press and to the public.  They keep a watchful eye to be sure that the exigencies of the day do not interfere with the assumption of openness.  Though it may seem remote, consider these stories of the ways in which access to government information play out in the real world, the real world where it makes a difference to every one of us.

We may not be there to keep an eagle eye on the day’s decisions, but we live with the consequences.