Leveraging FOIA: Websites Shine a Bright Light on Government Records

Two new websites recently launched that give the public unprecedented access to government documents acquired through the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other public disclosure, or "sunshine," laws: GovernmentDocs.org and GovernmentAttic.org.

GovernmentDocs, a joint project of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Sunlight Foundation, allows the public to "to browse, search, and review hundreds of thousands of pages" of documents collected by these non-profit groups.

According to the site,

citizen reviewers can engage in the government accountability process like never before. Registered users can review and comment on documents, adding their insights and expertise to the work of the national nonprofit organizations which are partnering on this project. This new information then becomes instantly searchable. The text of each document is searchable, as well, thanks to a powerful Optical Character Recognition (OCR) functionality.

At GovernmentAttic, which doesn't have quite the pedigree of GovernmentDocs, their motto is "rummaging in the government's attic." The site is simple and streamlined:

The aim of this web site is to make available materials unavailable elsewhere. There is no topic-oriented theme to our content. If we have a theme, it is one of openness, hence the motto: Videre licet.

FOIA and its state counterparts are powerful tools (albeit flawed at times) for keeping government in check and the public informed. Every professional journalist I've known has used these sunshine laws at one time in their careers. Much of the information collected, however, ended up getting filed away after it had been read and incorporated into a story.

These new sites leverage the power of digital distribution, inexpensive server space, and lightning fast searching to provide a new level of government transparency and accountability. They also demonstrate the value of using freedom of information requests to gather and share information. As non-traditional journalists learn to use these sunshine laws, we can look forward to many more sites like these popping up.


Subject Area: