Tech tools to help you keep up with your FOIA requests

Reporters: Ever think of a record or document you’d like to get hold of and say to yourself, Wait — haven’t I already FOIA’ed that?

You’re not alone.

In response to a question that someone posed on the FOI-L listserv, let’s talk about some ways you can use technology to help you keep up with your records requests. We’ll look at some pros and cons of each approach.

The simple text file: The most basic way to do it is with a text file on your computer — or, on a shared folder on a server on your network, if you’re trying to share with co-workers or a team. Problem is, only one person can access that document at any one time — which could be a pain if you’re trying to share with a large group or your entire newsroom.

And, if your newsroom’s network is like any of the ones I’ve worked on, you can kiss goodbye the hope that anyone outside your building can ever access the document on the server — that cuts out your statehouse bureau, your guys at the cop shop, or any reporter who ever leaves the office with a laptop. Which is just about everyone these days.

Some better approaches:

Create a Google Doc. Google will let you create and share documents for free if you have a Google/Gmail account — create a word processing document and then “invite” your co-workers to share it. No, you aren’t sharing it with the whole world, just with the invitees. More than one person can be in the same Google Doc at a given time, and it’s easily accessible to people outside the office.

(I should also note: You don’t have to do your FOIA list as a word processing document. You can also store them as a spreadsheet file, with columns for date sent, agency FOIA’ed, description of document requested, status of request, contact person, etc.)

Create an intranet for your team/workgroup as a Google Site. Google also lets you create free sites that you can share with a limited number of invitees. You can create new “pages” in your site, including one using the “list” template, that will allow you to create columns and pull-down menus for the headers I listed above. You can also upload attachments, such as .doc or .pdf files of the actual requests, in case you need to review how you worded something.

Create a wiki, either for yourself or your team. No, setting up a small wiki doesn’t require any coding knowledge or server space — sites including Mindtouch’s Deki Wiki and PBWorks’ PBwiki will let you set up a wiki for a few users for free, which they host themselves and which you administrate entirely through their Web interface. (At my shop, Texas Watchdog in Houston, we have a Deki Wiki for FOIAs, as well as having a Google Site intranet.) The idea is that everyone goes to the wiki and updates it every time they file a FOIA request, giving an accurate reflection of what has been requested and where it is in the pipeline.

You can also try notebook-type storing solutions such as Evernote, which offers free accounts with a maximum monthly upload limit (pay users get more storage), Springnote or even Google Notebook — which still works, even though Google says it’s stopped active development on it.

Again, multiple people can access these repositories at once, and they’re easily accessible to people outside your office, as long as they have an Internet connection. (The caveat: These are only helpful if people take the time to update them with info about their newly filed FOIAs. If that doesn’t happen, well … that’s a human error, not the computer.)

So, how do you keep up with your FOIA requests?

Jennifer Peebles is deputy editor of Texas Watchdog, a nonprofit news site in Houston, and yes, she sends a lot of FOIA requests. Contact her at jennifer@texaswatchdog.org or on Twitter: @jpeebles.

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