Data Overload: NYSBA Task Force Reviews State of FOIA

By Christian Nolan

Free Expression Task Force

New York state receives hundreds of thousands of Freedom of Information Act requests each year and state agencies post thousands of pages of documents ranging from criminal justice statistics and campaign spending to MTA turnstile usage and solar energy projects.

With so much information available yet still so many requests for more, questions surface about transparency, public awareness of what is available, and the costs associated with maintaining and providing the data.

Further, municipalities may not have the resources to adequately digitize or provide all requested information. Local governments can outsource these services, but records offices may still be understaffed.

These types of issues and concerns were discussed as part of the March 2 meeting of NYSBA’s Task Force on Free Expression in the Digital Age, which included representatives from state agencies, open government attorneys and journalists.

“We’re putting so much [information] out there it’s almost becoming overwhelming for the public,” said John Rager, acting chief data officer at the New York State Office of Information Technology Services.

Rager is referring to Open Data NY, the streamlined website created thanks to a 2013 executive order from the governor requiring the state Office of Information Technology Services to post and update information at the website. They also publish a reference guide to help agencies stay updated on information sharing and other guidelines such as how often types of data are requested. “The Open Data site assists by providing ways to filter and search by facets such as agency, category, and key words,” Rager continued.

“A benefit of tech is it’s there, but the challenge is how do you find it?” said Carey Merrill, special counsel for ethics, risk and compliance at the state Office of Information Technology Services.

Merrill said people adept at keyword searches on state websites have a leg up. She said that in reviewing 57 agency websites as part of the Governor’s Open FOIL Initiative, there was not much consistency among agency websites, and consolidating access to agency information is meant to help people find information more easily.  There was also an absence of consistent layouts among agency FOIL webpages, and they worked last year to standardize content and layout to make it easier for the public to get information about FOIL requests.  She said anticipating what types of data people may want is also a challenge.

Merrill noted that it costs the state money to maintain data in addition to staff time that is devoted to sharing it. Plus, how long does the information need to be available.

Kristin O’Neill, assistant director of the Committee on Open Government, does not foresee every freedom of information request being posted online. One isolated request important to one person may not be worthy of the manpower to post online.

However, in instances where certain topics are requested repeatedly, it saves future effort by posting online and sharing that link with those who make future requests. Rager recalled how the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority was receiving 100 Freedom of Information requests per year about solar photovoltaic projects. Once they posted the data publicly online, future requests dropped to three.

NYSBA’s Task Force on Free Expression in the Digital Age, chaired by David McCraw, deputy general counsel for The New York Times, and Cynthia Arato, partner at Shapiro Arato Bach, is looking at possible reforms in the state Freedom of Information Law and the legal rules that determine the rights of journalists and other citizens to get access to court records.

This meeting was one in a continuing series as part of a project investigating the crisis in local journalism and what the law and lawyers can do to help ensure that citizens have access to the vital information they need.

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