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There are several questions regarding making a US "Freedom of Information Act" reqest (FOIA) for data:

FOIA is something I often hear about from journalists and in the media. I just submitted my first request, related to this question, but I feel that I did everything too quickly and probably sloppy. For someone like me, someone data-centered but not a journalist and with no goverment experience:

Are there any guidelines, suggested practices or tips for making a sucessful FOIA request, especially related to data?

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    The one time I've done it was for something that I knew existed, and in a releasable (non-sensitive or classified) format. (I asked for the summary of each of the bidders for the contract replacing the one I was one ... I knew that they sent a summary of the others to each of the bidders.) In that case, I had a useful identifier (for the contract), which I assume shortened the response time. I can't remember if I was charged $14 or $40 for it. – Joe Apr 10 '14 at 18:23
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The basics for FOIA are:

  • be very clear in your request
  • be respectful
  • be tenacious

Remember that while there are government officials who are hostile to records requests, not all of them are. There are many people in government who want to do the right thing.

There are a few websites designed to help you file FOIA requests. In the US, Muck Rock has been around for several years, and FOIA Machine is another newer one. In preparing this answer, I also learned about iFOIA.org. There is also a project called Alaveteli, an open source project to make it easier to set up sites like these. Their GitHub wiki has a list of running sites around the world.

One way to have a hint about data systems that must exist is to consider forms that you already know are filed. You can use what you infer from the existence of the form and the fields it collects to explain what you are requesting, and to make your request more confidently. As mentioned in the other answer, requesting data schemes or other system documentation can also sometimes be helpful.

In response to Albert's answer: While there are always going to be cases where people in power work to contain information, there is a long history of important news being broken based on information obtained via FOIA. Here are just a few lists:

But also, in respect for Albert's point, I offer this tweet from ProPublica's Jeff Larson:

Don’t use ‘related to’ in your FOIA request. Just got: ‘all documents 'relate' to others in some remote fashion’ as a reason for denial.

  • +1000 - being pessimistic isn't always a good thing. i like your answer much more than mine. – albert Apr 21 '14 at 13:36
  • @philshem Thank you. If you consider this a good answer, consider marking it as such. But if you want to hold out for more answers, of course that's your choice! – Joe Germuska Apr 21 '14 at 18:29
  • @albert, I like your answer too. It's less conventional but also valuable. Thanks. – philshem Apr 22 '14 at 7:06
  • lol. thanks. when it comes to open data we need all types. i'm a destroyer. not optimal typically, but useful when needed ;) – albert Apr 22 '14 at 19:50
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the only successful foia is the one that you do not make...

OR

the one that you make, but only after acquiring a hard-copy of the data you seek prior to making it. that way, when feds say, we don't have it, parts are missing, or they just white out 99% of the document, you can pull out the ace up the sleeve and blammo: you can prove it with cold, hard evidence.

but you really have no chance at a "successful" request. feds have proven time and time again that they will fight tooth and nail, over the most miniscule, arbitrary details, to prevent you from accomplishing your mission(s).

its actually set up to be intimidating, as the feds view anyone asking for data as an adversary. of course that's not what they say, but its overwhelmingly obvious to all peoples interacting that someone does not like being asked anything about their job. that you pay for. and they do not like being asked to do their job (that you still pay for) even more. i'm being snarky, but that is reality. there's a bunch of stories where feds acted unjust/illegally in regards to foia, but my favorite just happened, after the naval yard shooting in dc (i think the beginning of 2014), where a journalist foia'd some info, and the navy's foia point woman, literally her job to handle foia's, writes out her plan to avoid and elude the reporter's questions for as long as she can....she's writing to her peers for advice, thoughts, etc., on how to avoid doing her job, and avoid giving you, the american tax payer, that makes all of this possible, the request that you have every legal right to have.
so smart foia lady cc's the reporter on the email, which he naturally publishes.

there is no formula for how to overcome that...corruption, deceit, sloth, pathetic displays of character, etc., whatever you want to call it...it's what we are facing when we foia: the other side is actively working against you, regardless of what they say to you, or anyone else.

another thought: define success...i'm sure we have very similiar goals/agendas/etc., but what you deem a success, i may not. that's just life. for example: no foia for nsa/snowden/prism will be successful in my opinion until we have the chats between the nsa and microsoft, google, etc., where they are talking about how they are going to spy on us, while destroying the constitution. but that's my definition of success....idk what yours is.

i do like the question, just don't think there's any methodical way to make them successful; when the system is stacked against you, sometimes the best play is to not play...

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