Pile of paper
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A platform which journalists in the United States can use to file Freedom of Information (FOI) requests more efficiently, and keep track of responses – or a lack of them – has reached its funding targets on crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

The FOIA Machine, which was launched on Kickstarter by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), initially had a "shoestring" target of $17,500, which it reached early on in the campaign, prompting the team to increase its goal to $50,000. It also aimed to receive backing from more than 2,000 donors, so that it would receive a further $10,000 in funding from the Knight Foundation.

And late last night it achieved both those targets, ahead of its deadline later today.

Speaking to Journalism.co.uk yesterday, prior to reaching those goals, news app developer at CIR Michael Corey said the system will help to simplify what can be "a very complicated process" in filing and tracking requests made under the Freedom of Information Act.

"There's been a dream for a long time among journalists and others who do this, to automate this process better and so the FOIA Machine is working on two sides of that equation," Corey explained.

This will include helping users submit "well-formed" requests without having to search for the right contact information and then keeping them up-to-date with the progress of that request.

Thanks to the funds donated in addition to the initial target, the team will be able to build in "a notification system" that will "tell you 'it's been 30 days and no one's called you back', things like that".

Corey added that by offering a clear process to submit a request, it is hoped that this will eliminate the "intimidation factor" some journalists may feel when submitted one, particularly for the first time, as well as keep things organised.

"I know lots of people in my organisation, they track their requests in a Google spreadsheet at best, and it's a mess. It will just keep these things sorted for you so you know where you're at with everything."

The funds raised will also be used to cover costs such as hosting of the platform for another year and further development of its API. The team also want to run "datathon sessions" in a series of US states, which will help them to collect all the necessary information on local laws for that area, and the right contacts.

"There's a lot of exemptions and then if you go down to the state level every state has its own law, on a city level some cities have their own laws, and everyone has their own contacts," Corey explained, so it is hoped that instead the right information will now be collected in one place, and offered to users at the point of filing a request.

Other plans include "an annual report on FOIA compliance with data generated from our back-end," Corey said, as well as video tutorials on how to use the platform.

Journalists can choose to keep their requests private, although Corey added that they can always "request what other journalists have asked for".

"What we hope over time is that we encourage people to publish those things out in the open because we want to reduce some of that duplication and we think that we're in a phase in media now where that competitive pressure gets in the way as much as anything else."

But, he added, "we're not going to expose anyone's records without their permission".

The team hope to launch the FOIA Machine in beta "by the end of the year".

"We also want to open source the code as soon as possible, and we think that's pretty close in reach," he said.

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