Michael: Hi, I’m Michael Morisy, cofounder of the investigative tool site MuckRock.com.
Tim: And what is MuckRock.com?
Michael: So MuckRock.com helps people get government information using public records laws and the Freedom of Information Act, which is traditionally a very tough sort of process to go through. A lot of paperwork, a lot of bureaucratese. We kind of go through all of that. So you just come in and say, I want this information, we help you craft the request, and we file it, track it and get that information on your behalf.
Tim: Now why would somebody use a company to do that? I mean, typically you can theoretically at least just file your own, right?
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. And one thing is, MuckRock has 2000 templates of other requests that people have filed, so that if you don’t want to use MuckRock we are still a great resource for learning more about public records, and how to do that process. But it is a lot of paperwork, it is a lot to remember, and it is daunting process for people. So we really serve as a resource to make that process a little bit easier, to take out all the leg work behind it, so you can just file and forget until you get those documents back.
Tim: Now at different levels of the government, there are different agencies involved. How do states differ from the federal government in this way?
Michael: Yeah. So each state has its own public records laws, and the federal government has its own set of public records laws. And so what we’ve done over the past three years, is sort of reverse engineer all those laws and say this is the best way to file a request in this state, this is the most effective language to use. Now we program that all so you can tailor your request to where you want the information from.
Tim: And you want to do this as a customer or a client. How do you do it, and what does it cost?
Michael: Yes, for $20 we let our users file up to five requests and what we call a community membership. We also have a higher tier for professional users which are journalists or researchers. But for $20, five requests, you just sort of type in, these are the documents I am looking for, or you can say, click one of the templates, and we can guide you through even if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. How to actually get something that might answer your question.
Tim: And once that information comes back, or one of your customers who signed up for these file searches, what happens with it?
Michael: Yeah. So what we’ve done is part of the public records process is, a lot of times government agencies just ignore those public records request and so what we’ve done is made that public. So each agency has its own home page, showing its average response time, and what their likely outcomes are as well as getting each public records request that is filed through our site, its own page, so that you can point people to it and say hey, look the city of Charlotte has taken 90 days to respond to this request, or the city of New York is trying to charge $200 for a very basic document. And what we found is that really actually improves how responsive governments are to these requests.
Tim: Have you found that cities or any other level of government has actually been paying attention to the searches that you’ve been making?
Michael: Absolutely. I mean it is a fairly high percentage, maybe 4 or 5 percent of our traffic is from government IP addresses. And it actually makes a difference. Boston Police Department used to have a terrible response rate for example, they would take 90 or 100 days to respond. Once we put up a tracking page that showed how bad they were, they started responding in 2, 3, or 4 days. That was a huge improvement.
Tim: What sort of things would people ask of a police department?
Michael: A lot of people ask for arrest records, one of our earliest users was actually Aaron Swartz and he actually asked for his FBI records as well as the local Cambridge police department record from his arrest at the MIT JSTOR. But also people are asking at how these agencies are spending money, what sort of arsenal that they might keep, are they using military weaponry for their basic crowd control, those sorts of questions.
Tim: Talking about military weapons, you’ve been tracking one thing is drones. Can you talk about that for a little bit?
Michael: So one thing, there is a lot of discussion about foreign use of American drones. One thing MuckRock has really been doing is we filed 350 public records request just here in the United States about how public agencies in the US, a lot of police departments, emergency response departments are using domestic drones, so usually a couple of hundred dollars to a couple of thousand dollars costing drones. Now predators, you see a lot of police departments will go out and buy a drone that legally they are not even allowed to use. And then they don’t have very good privacy protections on how these drones are used. And so we’ve been really able to dig up a lot of information; for example, in Seattle, the police department went out and bought two drones using the Department of Homeland Security money and the City Council had no idea that they were doing that. So by filing these requests, making this information public, we are able to make very real change in terms of public policy.
Tim: Now if somebody is using your other tier service, what difference do they see from you as a company?
Michael: Yeah so our professional users, we have our community users where everything is public by default. And we think that is a very effective way; if you are just curious about something, you think other people might be curious about it, or if you are an activist or just a regular person who wants this information out there, that is a great choice for you. If you are a journalist or a researcher who wants to make sure that you can analyze this information before it is public, we allow people to keep these requests private, we also give them access to some higher tier OCR. One thing government agencies love doing unfortunately is printing out Excel documents and then mailing them to you. So for our pro users, we can actually turn that back into an Excel document for them.
Tim: Well, they had to print them out to redact.
Michael: That’s debatable. That’s debatable. I mean the level of technical competence in many government agencies cannot be understated.
Tim: What are some bad examples you have seen of that?
Michael: One time an agency took a year-and-a-half to find three PowerPoint presentations; they charged us $400 for this PowerPoint presentation, printed them out with the colors all wrong, and then mailed them to us. And that was a pretty painful one, just because of the amount of time and money we had to pay for those.
Tim: And that wasn’t malfeasance, necessarily?
Michael: I think that’s debatable. But there was another time where an agency was very responsive, they waived all the fees, but they actually printed out hundreds of pages of emails rather than providing us electronic copies of those emails. And I spoke to them, I said you didn’t have to waive these fees, so why did you print them out, and they said, well I am a lawyer, and that is really the only way I know to handle emails, printing it out and hand going through it. So a lot of times, even if the government officials are well meaning, they just don’t have their own training to respond properly.
Tim: Now other than just fascination or curiosity with things in the world, what led you to want to have this kind of a site?
Michael: Well, my background is a journalist, I’ve done a lot of technology journalism as well as lot of investigative journalism, and I am really concerned about how do we promote more investigative journalism, how do we promote more government accountability journalism, whether that’s government waste, police abuse or any number of critical issues where you are seeing a lot less attention paid. And so we created MuckRock to make that easier. Both for professional journalists so that they can file more requests, and work that into the modern workload where they are having to file three or four times a day. We say file these requests, we will take care of all that, and you can still do the accountability journalism that is important. But also a way for independent journalists, independent media, or just regular citizens to do their own journalism even though they might not be a professional paid journalist, they still have the ability to ask the right questions, and hold their government accountable. We want to make it easier and more transparent for them to do that.
Tim: Now you are operating essentially as a three year old startup right now?
Michael: That’s correct. We’ve been around for three years.
Tim: How many people are involved?
Michael: So we have myself, my cofounder, and then we have two project editors, one focuses on large scale projects, and one focuses on ongoing breaking news stories.
Tim: And you do this while you are still serving professionally as an employed reporter?
Michael: Yes, I am also a fulltime employee at the Boston Globe.
Tim: Do you get much sleep?
Michael: I don’t. Not these days unfortunately but it is all fun stuff.
Tim: Are there any really notable success stories that make it worth doing?
Michael: Absolutely. A few years ago when we were starting up, we were able to shed more light on Carrier IQ which was a phonetracking software primarily used by carriers but we were able to show that the FBI also had documents on how to access that kind of data. And I think doing that sort of privacy related reporting is very important. But I think our biggest and most successful project by far has been what we call the Drone Census. We are asking all these local agencies, do you have drones, have you considered purchasing drones, how are you using them. And we’ve really been able to have a huge change to shed a lot of transparency on this issue that people weren’t really talking about before we started exposing how widespread drone usage was actually in the US.
Tim: Do you ever get let’s say informative refusals?
Michael: Yes, I mean one of the things that has been surprising to me is some of the biggest stories we’ve broken are not so much when we get huge interesting documents but rather how government agencies will bend over backwards not to give out documents. So Aaron Swartz one of our early users, filed a request for Osama bin Laden, the pictures of his raid, and the government responded by saying, well we did a thorough search of this one tiny room on an aircraft carrier we weren’t able to find anything, so there is no responsive documents, which was clearly a very incomplete search, and sort of became the story itself was how they denied that request.
Tim: Now if somebody out there says there is a piece of information that I want, that I am looking for, what should be their first step?
Michael: I think the first step is we always encourage users to do some basic background research techniques. Do a search on MuckRock and see if somebody else has requested it before, do a Google search. It is amazing the kind of government documents that are posted online if you do a search site on a dot-gov domain; other good resources are documentcloud.org and governmentattic, which are two other great repositories of government documents. And then I always tell people imagine it is office space, the people who are dealing with this information, and how is the government treating this information that you are interested in, who would have possession of it, what forms are likely detailing where it exists, and then start requesting that, and really focus that likely a bureaucratic papercentric approach.
Tim: So it sounds like a Google search is a smart place to begin?
Michael: Always a Google search is a much quicker way. I think a Google search takes about 0.05 seconds these days, and an average public records request takes on about 55 days, so you are going to get it much quicker and cheaper if you do Google.
Tim: Right. Now I got to ask you I have always heard that the best way to get an FBI file is to ask for your FBI file? Is that true?
Michael: Well, the FBI actually has a lot of very interesting files on other people and just requesting your own file won’t make them start tracking you, but the one thing that has astonished me is how many people the FBI actually does track? It is bad now but in the ‘50s and ‘60s it seems like they were literally just tracking almost everybody, which is a little disconcerting if you care about privacy and government intrusion. But I think one thing we really try and emphasize is asking a public records request isn’t like suing somebody, it is not a legal challenge, it is just exercising your basic rights as a citizen. And we really encourage people whether they use MuckRock or not, to take advantage of this right, because it is a great way to sort of understand more about how your government works, make it a little more transparent, and a little more responsive.
Tim: And if you could choose one or two things to change about the future of public records and how to find them, what would you do?
Michael: Well, I think the government really has a long way to go towards becoming more digital, becoming more accessible and actually treating what the government produces as a publicly owned work. Our tax dollars are what pays for everything that happens in government and so I would really like to see government agencies say from the very beginning, how are we going to make this information public and accessible except as an afterthought. FOI is kind of a stopgap after the fact how do we get this information public, and I would really like to see FOI being made unnecessary, because everything is public by default.