Friday, December 6, 2013

FOIA Friday: FOIA audits, crowdsourcing, and the Drone Census

FOIA Friday is a weekly column by Edward Vielmetti about the Freedom of Information Act.

FOIA Audits

A FOIA audit is a journalistic strategy for unearthing evidence of Bad Government. The basic approach is that you come up with a mostly innocuous request for records, and then you send it to dozens or hundreds of government agencies at once. By tabulating the results, you can see which ones are prompt, which ones want you to pay lots of money, and which ones are slow and obstructive. It makes for a good story and it's easy to teach to journalism students. There's almost always one or two outliers that have poor records handling practices that you can expose.

The Detroit Free Press did such an audit this summer, where it asked cities and townships across the state for records regarding the city manager or township supervisor for November 7, 2012. What happened afterwards was unusual enough to merit notice. The email list MAMA, run by the Michigan Municipal League,  lit up with queries - did you get such-and-such a letter from the Freep? How should we respond? What are they after?

How do I know this? The Free Press sent a follow-on FOIA request to the City of Ann Arbor, asking for records referencing this request, specifically from city legal staff. This unearthed the mailing list discussion, and it's always of interest to hear how municipalities reflect on their own FOIA behavior. The discussion included this gem from Ann Arbor Chief Assistant City Attorney Abigail Elias, who is one of the people at City Hall most likely to have written your FOIA denial letter. Quoting now from her email of May 31, 2013:
At the risk of being paranoid, I would assume that the reporter is not actually interested in the workings of any particular government. 
The mind of government at work. Note to anyone considering a FOIA audit: the organizations you request documents from will know that something is up if you reach enough of them at the same time with the same letter.

Crowdsourcing and the Drone Census.

The opposite of a FOIA audit in some sense is the crowdsourced approach to FOIA, where a number of individual requesters each ask for one small part of a bigger whole, coordinating their requests to avoid duplication and minimizing the size of each individual request to avoid fees.

This brings us to the Drone Census, a project of Muck Rock News and Motherboard, which is asking citizens from all over the country to submit a FOIA request (a rather detailed one, at that) asking if their local police force has purchased unmanned aerial vehicles or "drones". And not just their local police force - Muck Rock wants you to ask your local dog catcher or university if they have bought drones and how they plan to use them.

Why this project? They plan to write the book on drones, and how they are deployed in the USA. Their hunch that not just big cities are considering drones paid off when the previous year's Drone Census unearthed the small town of Brunswick, Georgia's purchase of a $750 hobbyist drone with Justice Department money. "The Feds have no idea who's flying drones"is the Motherboard story, and it points out the wide gap between stated Federal policy and actual oversight.

Does your township own a drone? The FAA doesn't know. Maybe this FOIA project will help find out, if you want to participate. ("At the risk of being paranoid", I'm going to let someone else play with this, preferring myself to deal with more mundane and pedestrian local issues.)


  1. We should have more articles about drones on Damn Arbor.

  2. Yes. We should. Are any Washtenaw County governmental bodies buying drones?

    I so appreciate the FOIA work of Ed Vielmetti!

  3. I have to wonder if the University of Michigan has any drones.