Q & A with a FOIA Expert

Beryl Lipton, Projects Editor/Senior Reporter, MuckRock

For anyone who hasn’t heard of Muck Rock, tell us about your organization.

MuckRock is a non-profit news organization that’s dedicated to bringing journalists, activists, citizens together to file FOIA requests in all 50 states and on the federal level to serve the purpose of government transparency and accountability. We also serve as a resource and repository for the responses we receive. As journalists, police surveillance and water service are issue areas we are working on. As activists and citizens advocate, we focus on making FOIA accessible to all and empowering individuals to be able to file requests in a way that doesn’t require them to be journalists and lawyers.

Other products we offer include DocumentCloud, a platform used by a lot of news sites that help journalists share, analyze, and publish source documents that back up their reporting. Our FOIA Machine is a free tool for individuals who want to prepare, file, and track their public record requests to government agencies by themselves, and oTranscribe, also free, is a web app anyone can use to transcribe audio.

Quite a few people were looking forward to your Transparency Science Fair this year, but it was canceled because of coronavirus concerns. How many of such fairs have MuckRock held in the past and what are some event highlights you can share?

This would have been the second Transparency Science Fair. We planned fairs in D.C., Cambridge, and San Francisco for non-profits in the transparency space and beyond to share their work with each other and the public, because sometimes even though people know what government transparency is, it can still be quite an abstract concept. The first event evolved from a public interest potluck MuckRock held in Boston that included American Civil Liberties Union and other non-profits.

There has been a significant uptick in FOIA requests in recent years (with 2018 being a record year). What is contributing to this trend?

The ability to file requests electronically has contributed to the trend. The way agencies respond to requests has also evolved. For example, police departments would typically receive FOIAs from journalists and local gadflies in the past, but they get requests from everyday people now. We also saw an increase in requests after the election of Trump and the Clinton emails controversy. FOIA’s profile in the mainstream has increased and it’s not just journalists and lawyers that are filing requests but activists looking for data to support their mission, separate from even trying to identify wrongdoing.

What are some of the big transparency stories we should be on the lookout for this year?

Things are shifting quite a bit. We are going to see more policing and surveillance-related developments. The COVID-19 pandemic stimulus package will require oversight and will be in the news for a while. We also need to be on the lookout for other policies put in place during this crisis at a time when people are emotional and panicky. The pandemic is also a different backdrop to consider existing transparency concerns related to water issues and power shutoff. There’s also the fight for privacy and consumer rights as we use telecommunications systems like Zoom and Skype now more than ever because of the pandemic shutdown. People are coming to terms with personally holding government accountable and the curtain is being pulled back on government overreach and abuse.

Some federal agencies have hinted about using artificial intelligence to help streamline the FOIA response process. What effect do you think that will have on requests?

I would like to know more about how they plan to use it. Even with AI, there’s the concern that FOIA officers would still have to collect the data manually, but I think there are smart ways AI could help humans focus on and respond in bits and piece to requests. But then again agencies could simply hire more people.  Simply adopting AI is not a benchmark for actual improvement in the quality of responses.

What inspired you to work in the government transparency and accountability space?

I was a student of American History from a rural area and grew up in a community where we would joke about how the problems that affect major cities wouldn’t affect us. But I soon realized if you don’t stand up for your community’s interests, then others, including corporations, will make decisions for you. I think coming from a close-knit immigrant family (on my mom’s side), I very much wanted to put my effort and energy into a profession that was interdisciplinary and solution-oriented and that would bring good to the highest number of people because if we don’t address these societal problems, human rights violations will persist.

What’s the most beneficial part of being part of OTG as a coalition partner?

The transparency community is relatively small but quite dispersed, so it’s great to have friends in this space. OTG provides an opportunity for partners to fill in the gaps where there are overlapping interests in different issue areas, amplify each other’s work, collaborate on projects together in an easy fashion. As a small organization, our partnerships have to be efficient and productive to be worthwhile and we’ve had that experience being a part of the coalition. For example, we enjoyed working with OTG on a facial recognition citizen’s guide as part of a broader records request project on the use of the technology by law enforcement around the country that led to a front-page investigative New York Times story.