MuckRock.com: Now with 50% more features, free!

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We’ve been pretty quiet lately (ok, extremely quiet) but that’s only because we’ve been hard at work behind the scenes to improve the MuckRock experience for you, and the past two weeks have seen a number of important features roll out. I’m highlight the biggest ones here, but there have been lots of smaller surprises that you’ll just have to come across yourself. We hope you enjoy, and huge kudos to Mitch for pushing these all through.

Instant Filing

While this has almost zero impact on the visible user experience, Instant Filing is probably the biggest new feature. Previously, every request submitted through MuckRock was hand copied-and-pasted into an e-mail program or fax software before being sent out. Now, that’s all automated. This means less downtime between when you want something and when it gets to the agency, and it covers about 96% of the agencies we have in our database. Those pesky remaining 4% only accept mailed-in requests, but since we have less administrative busy work, we can get to those faster, too. Better yet, replies to these instant requests go directly to the request page (each request now has its own secret e-mail address), speeding up the whole process by hours or, in some cases, days.

Tagging Requests

Working on a big story? Want to quickly see all the documents that the government used a particular exemption on? Want to share a collection of requests on a particular topic? Then are tagging tool is perfect for you. At the top of every request you’ve submitted will be our intuitive tagging tool, which lets you quickly just type in whatever category you want to place this request in and hit enter to start your collections.

Each tag also has its own landing page, giving you a new way to share or review multiple requests.

Improved Request Management

Speaking of reviewing multiple requests, we’ve vastly improved the “inbox” view of all your requests. Now, with one click you can see all of your completed requests, drafts, items needing attention and more. You can also pull up all of the requests you’ve sorted into a given tag, or tag multiple requests all at once. We’re pretty excited about this update: MuckRock made managing a few requests much easier right from the beginning, but for our power users juggling dozens of requests, things could get hairy. We think this puts much more power at your fingertips minus all the confusion, and we’d love to hear what you think.

Better Error Reporting

Previously, when you noticed something wrong on the site or if you wanted to perform an action the site wasn’t yet ready to handle, you had to fire up your favorite e-mail program and send us your request manually. No longer! Once logged in, every request page now has a “Submit Correction” link right next to it. Want to submit an appeal or clarification when the request is marked “Processing”? Worried your document is missing a page or two? Need some help crafting an appeal letter? Just click “Submit Correction”, tell us all your worries, and we’ll help you get back on the right track. Eventually, flagging typos and other errors will even earn you accolades, but for now you’ll have to settle for the warm fuzzies of making the site better and getting your own problem solved.

Follow Other Users’ Requests

See something you wish you’d filed? Or maybe it just piqued your interest? Happens to us all the time. Now, after you’re logged in, you can click “Follow” on any public request, and you’ll get instant updates as soon as there’s something new going on, just as if you’d filed it yourself. Never miss a breaking news flash again!

Improved Deadline Handling

Previously, our deadline handling was fairly “stupid”: We set the date 5, 10 or 20 days in the future after submitting your request, and simply counted down. This missed out on a lot of realities: Holidays, responses from the agency that required a “fix” and any other number of odd cases. We haven’t addressed them all quite yet, but we’re now a lot better about not counting holidays against the agency time frames and, when the requests require you to submit a fix or pay a fee, we put the timer on hold until you respond. This is very helpful when you later want to appeal onerous fees.

But wait, there’s more!

We don’t want to spoil all the surprises, but we’ve also added:

  • Alternate embedding options if you can’t include IFRAMEs.
  • Spam filtering on blog comments.
  • Non-document files (Images, Excel databases, etc.) now get attached inline, instead of up top where it was hard to see where they came in, or that they came in at all.
  • Unread updates are now highlighted when you check in on your requests page.

This is by far our biggest feature update in some time, and we’re already finding bugs to squash on it so please let us know if you come across some, either by using the “Submit Correction” button or simple e-mailing us at info@muckrock.com. We think the new tools go a long way towards our vision of empowering citizens to effectively ask the questions they want to, but if you have more ideas we’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, keep digging up more great data! I can’t wait to see what you come up with next, particularly as we head towards to the 10,000 page mark.

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FOIA Friday: At Least Baseball’s in Full Swing

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That’s how you know it’s spring, in spite of the rain outside. That, and the continued presence of FOIA Fridays in your life. As usual, most of the stuff we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Now to the news:

Trends in Parking Ticket Appeals: First off, some local color for all you MA MuckRockers out there, as from Somerville comes this report of odd dismissal patterns for parking ticket appeals. After Watertown native Mark Pickering’s appeal of a parking citation was responded to with a rejection, plus an additional $5 fine, author Barry Rafkind filed a request (through MuckRock!) for data on the rejection rates for traffic citation appeals over the past four years. The results themselves are laid out in graphs in the article, but suffice it to say that Somerville’s appeals process has been quite inconsistent in its results for similar appeals based on such unimportant factors as whether the person appealed online or not.

Court says FOIA request cannot be used in whistleblower lawsuit: The Supreme Court ruled recently on the case Schindler Elevator Corp. v United States, setting a precedent by saying that in False Claims suits, Freedom of Information request results are not admissible as evidence because they count as public information, which is covered by the False Claims Act. After Daniel Kirk sued his former employer over a failure to correctly report the employment of Vietnam vets, his wife confirmed his suspicions with a FOI request. Unfortunately for Kirk, the Supreme Court considered the request’s results “publicly disclosed information” and so sided with his former employer.

DHS Accused of Hiding Fingerprinting Data: In response to controversy over whether the DHS is forcing local law enforcement to hand over or collect fingerprint data from illegal immigrants, critics of the department (specifically the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Immigration Justice Clinic at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law) have filed a FOI request for the metadata (labeling data, list of recipients, formatting information, etc.) of emails sent by and to DHS employees concerning the fingerprinting program. As you may remember from way back, a New York federal judge has previously ruled that agencies must release metadata in FOI requests (in a case that also involved the DHS and the NDLON).

FBI, CIA Must Comply With FOIA Request: Finally, in Salt Lake city, one Jesse Trentadue has won his case against the FBI and CIA, whom he argues have deliberately withheld information and obstructed his FOI requests concerning the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that his brother perished in. U.S. District Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that the intelligence agencies must release all information, videos, or other such things gathered in the aftermath of the bombing, or provide evidence as to why the search for such information would be so difficult as to be exempt.

FOIA Friday: No more “May” puns, dammit!

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This week’s FOIA Friday’s a little shorter than usual because I have to head off to opening night of the production of Hamlet I’m in as soon as I finish. Worry not, however, because it’s still chock full of good information! Basically everything we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please do send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Now to the news:

Top lawmaker protests ‘whistle-blower’ demotion: From AP writer Ted Bridis come the opening chapters of what is sure to be a long fight. After Catherine Papoi, the former deputy unit chief in charge of the Freedom of Information Act for the DHS, reported to an internal whistleblower organization that political appointees were interfering in the FOI process, she was demoted and stripped of her title. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa has called for Papoi to be given her job back, and for the DHS to remind their employees of their whistleblowing rights. The DHS does not consider Papoi to have been demoted because she has not taken a pay grade hit, and they deny all allegations that the change in status was a move of revenge.

If FOIA Request Is Successful, AP Says It Will Decide Which OBL Pictures the Public Will See: From Newsbusters.org, a watchdog site that aims to “expose Liberal bias”, writer Tom Blumer cries foul at the AP’s proposed procedure if their request for the death photos of Osama Bin Laden is fulfilled. AP’s Michael Oreskes has stated, in an interview with The Atlantic, that the AP will “decide what’s publishable and what’s not publishable based on the possibly (sic) that it’s inflammatory.” Blumer is rightfully confused; if the AP objects to the government withholding the pictures, why should they be able to choose what’s shown and what isn’t? Other considerations must enter the discussion, too, if I may inject my own opinion: what if the images are gruesome? Or too numerous to place in an article? The government should simply make the images available to all who want to see them.

Ontario Liberals ‘interfering’ with freedom of information: Opposition: And now for our dosage of foreign news: from the far white wastes of Ontario comes a new political controversy centering around impeded FOI requests. The New Democratic party, currently the opposition, filed a FOI request to discover how their other FOI requests had been handled—always a good idea for those of you taking notes on good requests to file—and discovered that requests from the opposition party were being flagged by Liberal staffers as “contentious”. The New Democrats argue that this indicates a politicization of the FOI process, which is death to fair practice. Liberal Finance Minister Dwight Duncan, however, asserts that the flagging “. . .has no bearing in law or regulation. We see hundreds of things every day and (it means) look at this carefully, it’s contentious, and that’s it.”

See you all next week with a full length FOIA Friday post, and remember: when your murderous, incestuous uncle-king invites you to duel someone. . . it’s probably not just because he wants to see you show off your swordplay.

FOIA Friday: ‘May’ contain information

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Apparently, my comment in the last FOIA Friday about April showers was presumptive, because at least here in Massachusetts they show no signs of leaving. Luckily for you, neither does FOIA Friday! Basically everything we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please do send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Now to the news:

Debate rages on over releasing bin Laden images: By now everybody’s heard the news about Bin Laden, be it from the strange emergency press conference, online, or various news outlets. Everybody has also probably been exposed to a number of conspiracy theories surrounding Bin Laden’s death, Pakistan’s involvement, the burial at sea, etc. President Obama, seeking to avoid a gloating feel and also to stem further violence, has made the decision to not release the photos of Bin Laden’s dead body, only spurring on the countless theories about the sketchy nature of the whole operation. A MuckRock user was one of the first to file a FOIA request for the pictures and videos, though it may take a while before anything is heard back.

Ex-Justice Department Official: Obama Could Be Forced to Release the Osama Death Photos: One of the voices heard in the maelstrom surrounding the Osama Bin Laden pictures is that of Daniel Metcalfe, the former chief of the Department of Justice’s Office of Information and Privacy. Metcalfe argues that the photos (taken, presumably, by Navy SEALS on the covert mission) are ineligible to be protected from FOIA requests because they come from a request-able agency, are not classified, and were not part of covert ops as defined in federal law. It remains to be seen if and how the government will challenge the requests for the now-hidden pictures.

FBI Lies to Federal Court: In a court case between the ACLU and FBI concerning a request the ACLU had filed in 2006, the court ruled that the FBI had the right to withhold information but that at the same time the judge criticized the FBI for lying to the court. The original request was filed on behalf of Muslim groups in California in response to rumors that the FBI was attempting to infiltrate mosques in Southern California. While it was upheld that the FBI could deny the request for information about the infiltrations, the judge blaster the FBI and DoJ for saying that no results were found that matched the ACLU’s request when, in fact, 120 results were located.

FBI using surveillance software to track suspects online: From Activist Post via Raw Story comes the information that the FBI, utilizing a software known as Computer and Internet Protocol Address Verifier (CIPAV), is able to see huge amounts of information from the computer the software is present on, including the URLs visited by the user. While it’s unclear how the software gets on a computer, it is suspected that it exploits holes in computer security like a regular piece of spyware. This chilling information was turned up by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in a 2007 FOIA request after rumors hinted at government spyware usage.

FOIA Monday: End of April Edition

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Editor’s note: Last week’s FOIA Friday was late through no fault of Philip’s, but due to MuckRock’s travel schedule and sojourn to Transparency Camp. We’ll be returning to our irregular broadcast scheduling presently. -MM

As April showers give way reluctantly to May weeds, the FOI requests don’t stop, and neither do we here at MuckRock. Most of the stuff we’re looking at can be found here anytime you like, and if you have any suggestions, please do send them on over to tips@muckrock.com.

Now to the news:

CREW Files FOIA Appeal Regarding Investigations of Rep. Mollohan: Our old friends at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington—who you may remember from last weeks’ FOIA Friday—are back with another FOI request. After Representative Alan Mollohan was connected to $250 million dollars in earmarks that benefited his campaign nonprofits, the DoJ launched a four-year investigation. In January 2010, they informed him that the investigation was at an end and he would not be prosecuted in spite of clear evidence of his culpability. CREW want to know why he was never punished by the government for his illicit dealings.

19 months and counting: The saga of an Energy Department FOIA request: From the American University School of Communication comes this saga of delays, redactions, and controversies. Author Sam Tranum filed a FOI request with the DoE 20 months ago, seeking information on a $2,000,000 grant sought by private company USEC Inc. from the DoE. After receiving overly-redacted information and lots of stonewalling, Tranum tried to submit a fresh request in order to re-enter the appeals period. However, because his first request is still stuck in pre-decision purgatory, his second request was not processed. As of now, Tranum has filed a request on all correspondence relating to his request and hopes to figure out what the department has been doing with its long delay time.

The Curious Case of Cam Davis: In Cary, Illinois, a longtime village administrator, Cameron Davis, has left the service of the village in a manner that suggest he was ousted without being fired. Don’t pity the man yet, however, as a FOI request by reporter Katie Anderson reveals that Davis will pocket $123,000 and free healthcare for a year after leaving his job. The circumstances of Davis’ departure, as well as that pesky dollar amount, are causing controversy in Cary.

Big Tobacco wields FOI docs against Labor: We round out this FOIA Friday with some international FOI news, this time from the land down under, where the Labor government is seeking to legislate plain packaging for all cigarettes. British American Tobacco Australia (BATA), in an effort to fight back, has filed upwards of 19 requests for various documents and records. Some of the records they’ve received, they argue, show that the proposed legislation would damage the trademark rights of the tobacco companies. More important to their case is the argument that no public benefit is served by plain packaging, an argument BATA hopes will be bolstered by documents currently withheld by the Australian government.