The FOIA dilemma – what can I ask for and how do I ask for it?
Making a Freedom of Information Request is a burdensome process that may involve days or even weeks of work to identify what records are available and enough information about how they are stored to property phrase the request.
Government agencies are required to disclose a list of their “Major Information Systems.” However, this data represents only a small fraction of the universe of public information accessible via Freedom of Information.
For most government record systems, identifying them typically requires scouring an agency’s website for pages relating to the topic, in the hope to finding small clues to help you infer or make educated guesses about what information an agency may have.
Since first discovering FOIA a few years ago, I have made hundreds of Freedom of Information requests across a wide range of topics. And in that time, I have learned a few ways of identifying these hidden record systems.
In some cases, information about these record systems can be inferred from online documents (for example: public RFP documents, Federal Register notices). In other cases, information about record systems can itself be obtained via FOIA (for example: database relational schema, lists of FOIA requests made by other people).
FOIA Mapper compiles this information into a centralized catalog of government records, searchable by topic.