If the CIA gets FOIA, why can’t other government agencies?

Urban Mapping spends a great deal of time and money to access data. Much of our process is part of a special sauce that no ETL tool can replicate–it means a lot of time spent in schema development, custom parsing, data validation, ingestion and maintenance. So when we run across areas where government can improve, we aim to help. Sometimes our practices aren’t universally loved, but when you don’t have a lobbying office with 100+ employees, entrepreneurial tactics are all you have.

Since the wave of open government has taken hold, much of what we’ve been saying/doing over the past six years has been spot on. So when we stumble across the good and bad, we want to share.

So when learning about some recently declassified CIA maps, I stumbled across their FOIA Electronic Reading Room. I feel like I should write this last sentence again for emphasis, but I’ll presume the point is understood. Granted the CIA is subject to numerous national security laws, so you may have no chance of obtaining what you seek (classified material, polygraphs, personnel records, sources and methods, etc…) but for what is released under FOIA, this is a model other agencies should understand. It’s called re-using assets. It’s smart, economical and allows the CIA to say, despite what else you think, it has increased transparency.

In a talk at a conference produced by The Economist in 2011, I bemoaned the state of FOIA legislation in the US. In short, a few key points:

  • What should be released? Current practice is for each agency to make a determination, but often government fails to see the value in what they have. Actual FOIA requests are a very practical measure of what the public sees as desirable and requests could serve as a measure of what to release.
  • FOIA.gov is embarrassing – all the information is presented in a way that says “we are sucking less” but this doesn’t offer anything prescriptive. Seeing the actual FOIA requests would be an insightful way of seeing what researchers, historians, conspiracy theorists and others are seeking. Further, creating public archives of already FOIAed documents would cut down on an administrative burden in FOIA compliance–duplicate requests would not need to be filled, and released info would be archived, making it easily accessible to all. An example of the London Underground following this approach of FOIA disclosure logs.
  • Modernize FOIA to be more in line with the information age. The last substantive change to FOIA that described ‘records’ was in 1996 and included a provision for electronic records. However, fees are still assessed in an antiquated manner and often translate to a $0.10 per page fee and on mainframe compute time. Often government systems aren’t as current as those in the private sector, which has the impact of imposing sometimes onerous fees based on technology limitations.
  • Related to modernizing FOIA, lean on industry to help with the backlog. Establish a group of trusted parties who can act as stewards of sensitive data, allowing these parties to follow policy guidelines and more quickly and efficiently release data to the public. Since so much of government systems are managed by private parties anyway, this is a natural means of being more responsive.

Hello government agencies–take note!