FOI Advocate News Blog

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The NFOIC open government blog is a compendium of original concepts and analysis as well as ideas, edited excerpts and materials from a variety of sources. When the information comes from another source, we will attribute it and provide a link. The blog relies on the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited; we will correct errors and inaccuracies when we become aware of them.

For Advocate posts prior to July, 2011, visit http://foiadvocate.blogspot.com/.
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July 14, 2014 10:23 AM

A Florida circuit court judge ruled the state legislature’s redistricting of U.S. congressional seats violated the Florida Constitution.

Judge Terry P. Lewis of the Second Circuit Court in Tallahassee ruled the boundaries drawn by Florida’s legislature amounted to a “secret, organized campaign to subvert the supposedly open and transparent redistricting process.”

The Thursday night decision stems from two cases brought against Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner and Attorney General Pam Bondi challenging the state’s congressional redistricting. In the ruling, Judge Lewis says the redistricting approved by the Republican majorities in Florida's House and Senate in 2012 violated Florida’s Fair District Amendments, which require redistricting irrespective of political party or incumbency. Continue>>>
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July 14, 2014 10:22 AM

President Barack Obama promised to create “a new era of openness” on the first day of his first term. It’s a sad irony that his administration has continued the 20-year trend of being less and less open to journalists. It has prosecuted leaks and leakers, threatened journalists with jail, denied credentials, and established policies that restrict federal officials from talking to reporters.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which I belong to, sent the president a letter July 8. It said, “You recently expressed concern that frustration in the country is breeding cynicism about democratic government. You need look no further than your own administration for a major source of that frustration – politically driven suppression of news and information about federal agencies. We call on you to take a stand to stop the spin and let the sunshine in.”

Even today the White House website trumpets the beauty of openness. It says, “President Obama is committed to making this the most open and participatory administration in history. That begins with taking your questions and comments, inviting you to join online events with White House officials, and giving you a way to engage with your government on the issues that matter the most.” Continue>>>
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July 14, 2014 10:21 AM

It’s not every day that NASA creates a position just for you. NASA did just that for Chris C. Kemp in 2010. The tech pioneer became the space agency’s first Chief Technology Officer for Information Technology, appointed to lead and nurture IT innovation at the U.S. space agency.

NASA created a CTO role for Chris C. Kemp to lead.
Kemp focused on cloud computing, open-source software and open government, and prior to becoming CTO for IT, partnered with Google and Microsoft to help create Google Moon, Google Mars, and Microsoft World Wide Telescope. He also led the development of OpenStack, an open-source cloud project, with the goal of enabling any organization to create and offer cloud computing services running on standard hardware.

Kemp went on to found Nebula, which makes cloud computing hardware appliances, and now serves as the company’s chief strategy officer. He is one of several tech thinkers who will speak at Interzone, a Canadian Cloud Council event in Banff, Alberta, next year. He’ll partake in a fireside chat titled, “From Old To New Order Technology At Breakneck Speed.” Continue>>>
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NASA, open source, Software
July 14, 2014 10:20 AM

OGIS recently set up a pop-up shop, of sorts, on the West Coast offering one-on-one mini ombuds sessions with journalists and gathering ideas for improving the FOIA process.

I’m pleased to have represented OGIS at the annual conference of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving investigative reporting. The conference, June 26-29 in San Francisco, came on the heels of the inaugural meeting of the FOIA Advisory Committee, which is mandated with studying FOIA across the government and advising on ways to improve FOIA. The committee’s first meeting included brainstorming on legislative, policy and process changes to improve the FOIA process.

Journalists attending the IRE conference had some ideas for improving the process, which they shared with me and others at a session titled “Help Shape FOIA Reform & Join the #FOIAFriday Community.” Several of the ideas include, in no particular order: Continue>>>
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IRE, OGIS
July 14, 2014 10:19 AM
Senators Patrick Leahy of Vermont and John Cornyn of Texas, leaders of the Judiciary Committee, have long shown an admirable commitment to open government, and their recent bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act is winning a ton of praise. Some of its reforms make sense, but, unfortunately, its key provision is a horrible idea. By reducing the protection now given to deliberations within the executive branch, it would have a chilling effect on those discussions.
 
To see the problem, suppose that officials at the State and Homeland Security departments are vigorously discussing a new approach to immigration reform before important decisions are made. If the process is working well, officials will exchange a lot of views and disagree with one another in significant ways. Assistant secretaries at State might argue energetically for an idea that the secretary ultimately rejects. The deputy secretary of Homeland Security might object to a position that both departments endorse in the end.
 
Under the Freedom of Information Act, such internal discussions usually need not be disclosed. Like senators and U.S. Supreme Court justices, officials in the executive branch are allowed to have confidential conversations as they work toward their decisions. Continue>>>
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amendment, FOIA, legislation
July 14, 2014 10:18 AM

Regulating is an inherently legislative exercise, in that it entails the promulgation of rules that control private behavior. Indeed, most policy now is rendered via regulation, thanks to the geometric growth of the executive branch during the post-war years.*

However, unlike legislators in congress, executive agency bureaucrats are unaccountable to the electorate. As a result, there’s a danger that executive agencies are effectuating policy absent a popular mandate and away from the public eye.

In theory, the hazard of unaccountable policy-making could be mitigated largely by the 1966 Freedom of Information Act, which enables any person to request, without explanation or justification, access to existing, identifiable, and unpublished executive branch agency records.

In practice, however, federal agencies routinely circumvent information requests, and the censors’ primary tool for achieving opacity is a statutory exemption from disclosing “deliberative process.” Colloquially, it’s known as the “b(5)” exemption, after its statutory provision (5 U.S.C. §552(b)(5)); among information seekers, it’s known as the “withhold it because you want to” exemption. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 12:14 PM

You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the issues on which there is bipartisan agreement in Congress. Fortunately, strengthening Freedom of Information (FOIA) is one of them.

Earlier this year, the House unanimously approved a FOIA reform bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa (CA), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Democrats, Elijah Cummings (MD), the committee’s ranking member, and Mike Quigley (IL).

This June, another bipartisan team, Democrat and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (VT) and Republican Sen. John Cornyn (TX) introduced their FOIA reform bill. The Senate legislation has a good chance of passage, assuming it is not the victim of procedural fights about other issues. Nothing can be assumed in the Senate, fraught as it is with tussles over process. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 12:12 PM

The state Supreme Court issued a ruling Monday that restricts the amount of information police are required to release about arrests, prompting fears among advocates of open government that the public will not have access to important information about crimes.

The unanimous decision in Commissioner of Public Safety v. Freedom of Information Commission was authored by Justice Richard A. Robinson. The court ruled that police are required only to release basic “blotter” information about arrests, including the name and address of the person arrested, the date, time and place of the arrest, the criminal charges and a news release or narrative of the arrest. Though police reports are considered public records, the police are not required to release them while a case is pending.

“It’s a great day for police departments who want to withhold information,” said attorney Daniel Klau, past president of the Connecticut Foundation for Open Government and supervisor of Yale Law School interns who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:38 AM

Earlier this year, the U.S. Veterans Affairs Administration denied the Tampa Tribune’s Freedom of Information Act request for the names of VA hospitals where veterans died because of delays in medical screenings.

To hide this information, the VA used the “pre-decisional” exemption, simply stating that the requested documents were “preliminary” communications and could thus be withheld. This misapplication was not an isolated incident. Agency use of this catch-all exemption has skyrocketed to more than 12 percent of all FOIA requests, often to prevent embarrassment or hide errors and failures – ignoring President Barack Obama’s clear instructions to the contrary.

Fortunately, U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, working in one of Washington’s last bastions of bipartisanship, have introduced a bill that will stem this abuse. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2014 will make it easier for everyday Americans to use the law to request and receive documents, such as the Veterans Affairs records, in three key ways. Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:36 AM

Open Data Roundtable meetings have begun, a step in the partnership of government agencies with industry to ensure that the data sets the government publishes directly benefit the economy.

In a GovLab Blog, Joel Gurin, senior advisor, explains, “The GovLab’s Open Data 500 study — the first comprehensive study of companies that use open government data as a key business resource — has given us the knowledge, context, and connections to serve as an effective convener for Roundtables like this. Our study, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, has mapped the linkages between federal agencies and the companies that use their data for the first time. Most agencies don’t know who is using their data, beyond the companies that are their largest customers, and most companies don’t have the federal contacts to request data in more useful forms.”

Bruce Andrews, the Commerce Department’s acting deputy secretary, wrote in a blog, “"We know that only by listening to the business community, partnering with industry, and collaborating with fellow government agencies can we best serve our customers and unleash the full power and potential of open data.” Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:35 AM

According to the City of Ann Arbor’s log of FOIA requests submitted between January 2013 and May 2014 519 FOIA requests were submitted to the Ann Arbor City Clerk’s office. Thirty-three of the 519 requests came from The Ann Arbor News and the online news site AnnArborChronicle.com. The A2Indy, launched in October 2013, filed five requests. The Ann Arbor Observer filed no FOIA requests. Fewer than a dozen FOIA requests came from local bloggers. Former Annarbor.com lead blogger Ed Vielmetti is one of those local writers.

The Columbia Journalism Review reported in a September 2013 story about the shuttering of AnnArbor.com and the rebranding of The Ann Arbor News: “To fill that gap, a host of locals have themselves become self-styled news ‘organizations’—like Julie Weatherbee, who has become known for live-tweeting city council meetings twice a month, as well as other local events.

FOIA“Edward Vielmetti is a longtime Ann Arbor blogger and Arborwiki editor who, for about 18 months, was lead blogger for AnnArbor.com. (His position was cut during an earlier round of reorganization and shrinking.) Vielmetti, on his own initiative, leveraged his strong network and became a go-to source of local news. People ‘feed me information, either directly via email or via @ messages on Twitter,’ he wrote via email.” Continue>>>
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July 9, 2014 8:27 AM

Every morning, the first waking task most humans perform is checking email or the latest updates on their social media accounts. For developers, that initial daily fix is GitHub, the social coding platform that has captured the hearts of millions of hackers and tech enthusiasts around the world.

The social network for professional developers and everyday hackers aims to bring distributed, open collaborations to the world, one repository at a time, and it's beginning to find its way into government. Founded in 2008 by P.J. Hyett, Chris Wanstrath and Tom Preston-Werner, the San Francisco-based company claims 6 million people have created more than 13 million repositories to date on its platform.

With an ever-growing population of users, an aggressive expansion of features and more than $100 million in venture capital funding, GitHub is going beyond just a tool for the tech elite and is poised to be Silicon Valley's next big public offering. Continue>>>
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