June 9, 2017

Many journalists know the feeling: There could be a cache of documents that might confirm an important story. Your big scoop hinges on one question: Will the government official responsible for the records respond to your FOIA request?

Now, thanks to a new project from a data storage and analysis company, some of the guesswork has been taken out of that question.

Want to know the chances your public records request will get rejected? Plug it into FOIA Predictor, a probability analysis web application from Data.World, and it will provide an estimation of your success based on factors including word count, average sentence length and specificity.

FOIA Request

FOIA Predictor in action.

It’s a two-step process: Paste the request of your Freedom of Information Act request into FOIA Predictor’s text field, then select the government agency you’re requesting the documents from. FOIA Predictor will then check it against than 9,000 previous FOIA requests from the open government site MuckRock and apply an algorithm to determine how successful you’re likely to be.

It’s tricky to boil down the workings of the algorithm into any specific pieces of advice for aspiring FOIA filers, said Rachel Downs, a former intern at Data.World who created FOIA Predictor. That’s because each factor — word count, presence of hyperlinks, inclusion of email addresses — is related to each other factor.

“The model takes in the text and agency selection,” Downs said in an email to Poynter. “It then analyzes the text to create the features that are output on the results page. Those features are used to find the most similar previous FOIA requests that we know the outcome for and averages their success rate to get your prediction.”

One lesson from FOIA Predictor is that the success or failure of a FOIA request has more to do with the agency being FOIA’d than the language of the FOIA itself, said Ian Greenleigh, head of brand at Data.World. If you’re querying an organization that is responsive, your request is more likely to get fulfilled. If it’s not, you’ve got a tough road ahead.

“You can do everything else right,” Greenleigh said. “You can follow every best practice. But if it’s not one of those agencies, it’s going to be very difficult for you to get the documents you want.”

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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