Boston Website Helps Users Find Government Docs — Legally

By B. John Campbell

Jan. 3, 2010

A screen shot from Muckrock's homepage.

SOMERVILLE — Wikileaks has dominated news headlines by releasing thousands of confidential government documents online. In Massachusetts, a new website is going about government transparency in an entirely different way. It's helping users cut through bureaucratic labyrinths to obtain government documents legally through the Freedom of Information Act.

Inside a third-floor apartment in Somerville, Michael Morisy types away at his dinning room table. There are vacation photos on his walls, journalism books on some shelves and a sparsely decorated Christmas tree. All in all, it's a rather innocuous place to engage the government for increased transparency.
But that's exactly what Morisy is doing. The Cornell graduate is the co-founder of Muckrock, a website that makes it easy to file requests under the Freedom of Information act.
“Muckrock comes from the old term Muckraker which is the old, sort of derivative term for an investigative journalist who is down in the muck digging up stories," Morisy said. "And that's kind of where we see ourselves."

Morisy says his organization doesn't have its own specific agenda. "But we are digging though the muck. We are digging through the raw government data. And we're letting other people do the same thing,” Morisy said.

Muckrock uses a series of questions to help users quickly locate agencies where specific government documents are found. Once the user finds what they want, they click “submit” and Muckrock automatically drafts a letter for the request. This letter gets sent to the government agency. And when the government completes the request, the documents are sent to the user via email, and are later posted on Muckrock’s homepage.

That means the filing process takes only a few minutes of a user's time when, normally, the process of filing a FOIA request takes hours. “Really, we're trying to make the process easier and open to everyone. We work with journalists. We work with think tanks. We work with researchers. We work with activists who are trying to get information about their communities," Morisy said.

Unlike Wikileaks, which many believe is trying to push a radical political agenda, Muckrock, says Morisy, transcends politics.  

"We have members of the Tea Party using our site. We have members of socialist groups using our site," Morisy said. "People have a common base where we can start discussions."

That, says Morisy, is where he thinks Muckrock's value lies. "You are entitled to your own opinions but you are not entitled to your own facts. And I think we've created a great place to come and see those facts, so you can make those opinions.”

Justin Ellis, assistant editor at Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab, says Muckrock can be a valuable journalistic tool because Freedom of Information Act requests are complicated and time-consuming.

"You have to track the steps and make sure they find the right agencies. And something like this could be useful because it allows journalists to a take a few steps, make the requests, and be able to work on other things while this is being done… sorta on a parallel track through Muckrock,” Ellis said.

"At a time where we are seeing some contraction and reduction in the size of newsrooms and some journalism organizations, speaking mostly of newspapers, this is something that could be real time saver and a helpful tool to newsrooms," Ellis said.

To date, Muckrock has filed 289 FOIA requests. Michael Morisy estimates that about 80% of those requests are for federal documents. And while the government has completed only 35 of the requests, more than 4,708 pages of documents have been made available.

Currently, Muckrock provides both national and a limited number of document requests for specific communities in Massachusetts.

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