When records rock, and when they just aren’t enough

Our community has now filed more than 75,000 requests! So what kind of info are we getting? What are we still missing?
www.muckrock.com/ View this email in your browser (mailchi.mp/muckrock/february-20-2020?e=dc8e3f43d3) Sometimes records are amazing! As of last night, more than 75,000(!) FOIA requests have been filed through MuckRock. That is a lot of potential for informed communities and transparent decision-making. Congratulations to all of us!
We still have so many more records we’d like to help you access. If you haven’t filed a request with us, give it a try (www.muckrock.com/) . If we can be helpful, let us know. And, if you’d like to work together with us on a local reporting project please pitch us!
Also…Sunshine Week —l ike spring break for info nerds!—is fast approaching. Come party with us and learn at our Sunshine Week events in Boston (www.eventbrite.com/e/muckrocks-10th-birthday-transparency-science-fair-cambridge-tickets-94005215129) , San Francisco (www.eventbrite.com/e/muckrocks-10th-birthday-transparency-science-fair-dc-tickets-95738224607) , and Washington, D.C. (www.eventbrite.com/e/muckrocks-10th-birthday-transparency-science-fair-dc-tickets-95738224607)
If you’re not in one of those places but still want to shed a little light, do your part by adding to our facial recognition work (www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2019/nov/04/police-surveillance-facial-recognition-project/) . All you have to do is add your city and we will do the rest. Sometimes records aren’t enough
MuckRock has always been, for obvious reasons, a very FOIA forward kind of organization. Public records are essential to understanding what the government is doing in our name and, yes, with our money.
Still, public-records-driven reporting has limitations. In my reporting last week I came up against some of those, and it brought home why we’re trying to build new systems at MuckRock to identify the kind of reporting we think is most necessary —even when public records won’t get us closer to answers.
One of the areas we’re focusing on in 2020 is government surveillance. A lot of this work, led by reporter Beryl Lipton, is focused on exploring and explaining how governments are using algorithms and artificial intelligence (www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2020/feb/06/smarter-government-algorithm-database-launch/) to automate their decision-making.
These algorithms have been shown to disproportionately harm Black and brown communities, from identifying criminal suspects with facial recognition software known to misjudge darker faces to prioritizing health care for less sick white patients over more sick Black patients (science.sciencemag.org/content/366/6464/447) . Our reporting is driven by wanting to serve these communities in particular. Getting all of the training manuals, contracts and policies that unlock the effects of these decisions are what allows this reporting to happen.
We’re also looking for lower-tech examples of surveillance that could harm people within marginalized communities. An example of this is the way the new “publichttps://www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2020/feb/13/trump-administration-public-charge-rule-errors/charge” rule is attempting to monitor the financial lives of immigrants in order to prioritize immigrants with substantial financial resources for benefits like green cards and visas.
This new public charge rule will go into effect next week even as it seems unlikely to be applied fairly. We learned of mistakes in the instructions for applying these rules (www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2020/feb/13/trump-administration-public-charge-rule-errors/) that could easily lead to green card denials for people who should be able to qualify for them, even under this new and stricter standard. The cost of these mistakes is borne entirely by immigrants as there is no appeals process for green card denials; if a mistake is made, there is no way we, as the public, will know and that makes it much more difficult to demand accountability.
If we are hoping to use records to really understand how the financial lives of immigrants are being surveilled by our government and who is harmed by this surveillance, we can only use records up to a point. At an organization like ours, we request new records every day for our own reporting. We could easily just drop this story and focus on something new, something much more record-based. But we don’t.
We can assist people, newsrooms, and community groups to get the records they deserve more quickly and easily. An unintended consequence of this position is that we have a bird’s-eye view of the FOIA landscape. What we look for in that landscape is the negative space, places where requests aren’t being fulfilled because processes just aren’t public. When those processes are likely to create or perpetuate harm, that’s where we want to push and one of the ways we intend to use our reporting.
If there’s information you need or reporting you want to do and have been frustrated by a lack of records please reach out-we’re here to brainstorm, assist or partner. We still want to give you $$$ for your FOIA ideas!
We’d like to send you $1000 in prizes, including $500 in cash and MuckRock swag bags. If you’ve ever wanted to win a magical unredacting mug, now’s your chance.
If you have an idea for a public records request that could unlock important stories at the state, local or federal level, submit them here (www.muckrock.com/news/archives/2020/jan/10/muckrock-foia-idea-contest-2020/) . Thanks to Government Attic (www.governmentattic.org/) for sponsoring. MuckRock is user-driven and advertising-free. Your contribution matters. Browse Assignments (www.muckrock.com/assignment/) Make a Donation (www.muckrock.com/donate) Browse Crowdfunds (www.muckrock.com/crowdfund/)
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