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Outrageous cost estimates for open records requests

This past week, journalists on the NICAR Listserv began discussing the most outrageous price quotes they’d received for open records requests.

Canadian journalist David Weisz started the thread as research for a presentation he was giving to the Information Resource Management Association of Canada on the state of data journalism.

"Having filed ATI requests myself and hearing the horror stories of other journalists, I was curious to hear just how outrageous they got," Weisz wrote via email.

The responses poured in, and the journalists on the listerv agreed to let us share them on the blog. Here's a collection of some of the more expensive -- and unreasonable -- cost estimates journalists have received over the years. Help us add to the list -- if you have a story that should be included, send it to web@ire.org.

Transparency Watch is an occasional series from IRE tracking the fight for open records. If you have a story about a quest for records you'd like to share, email web@ire.org.
  • Weisz said his experience was from a request to the Toronto Transit Commission:

    “Our subways have become notorious as of late due to the high-pitched shrieking they make around turns or while pulling into stations - I figured it would be interesting to map the complaints to find certain hot spots. At the time, I was interning at The Grid, a weekly Toronto publication with a focus on city life and municipal issues. After getting approval from my editor, I submitted a request for all of the TTC noise complaints going back the last four years. The Information Commissioner for the TTC responded and said that the fees for that much data would likely be exorbitant, and being on a time and monetary crunch, I just asked for the 2011 complaints. She eventually responded saying that the costs would be upwards of $1,000, as she would have to have someone print out the complaints, manually redact information and then send me the paper files. I instead asked for the files in an Excel-compatible format, but she said that they didn't use Excel, and cited their own proprietary database, which I had never heard of before. Deciding to do some research before pushing further, I told her I'd call her back.

    “A quick search of the TTC website for the proprietary system (I wish I could remember the name, but I made the request using a now defunct Grid email) I quickly found that it was a custom build of IBM's Maximo Asset Management, database software geared towards larger institutions. A quick search of the Maximo site revealed that files could indeed be exported to .txt files. I called the Information Officer back, and had her confirm with her IT techs that they were in fact running IBM Maximo, and then pointed out it's ability to export to text. Just under a month later, I traveled to the TTC head office and picked up a blank CD with the records I was after, for a comparably cheap $50. In this case, I don't think the Information Officer was intentionally misleading me; dealing with her was quite pleasant. I just think it's another case of Information Officers lacking the proper technical knowledge to accurately assess an ATI request without consulting with their technical support staff.”
  • Lyra McKee, Canadian journalist for Mediagazer, was once quoted  £3,000 (nearly $4,800) for a request, which she later broke into separate smaller requests which were fulfilled. Within the released documents was a train of emails that indicated to her what the high cost might have been used for: “Refusing the applicant's request on cost grounds does not deter them as they simply split the request up into multiple requests to avoid the cost ceiling,” the email read, according to McKee.
  • Glen McGregor of The Ottawa Citizen said he was once quoted $140,000 for data of Ottawa's parking tickets for five years. Those costs including manually redacting personal information from the data. McGregor said he eventually negotiated the cost down to $40 plus the cost of a blank CD.
  • Matt Kauffman of the Hartford Courant said Connecticut state police once asked the paper for $20.3 million for a criminal conviction database in 1999. The state Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the newspaper’s request. Kaufman said he’s usually quibbling over hundreds of dollars, not millions, but added he’s gotten his share of outrageous responses, including a federal agency that “demanded a list of the specific sources I intended to consult in reporting on the information I was seeking.”
  • Brant Houston, Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, said the state of Connecticut asked for $3 million for drivers license records in the early 1990s, based on charging $1 for each of the 3 million licenses, which is the cost of printing them on paper. Houston said that after a few years of negotiation, the final cost was reduced to $1 plus the cost of 9-track storage tapes to store the data.
  • Steve Doig, Knight Chair in Journalism at Arizona State, said he was quoted $33 million for the Florida drivers license database, which was based on a state law that required $3 per record, which was written before computers, he said.
  • The most most outrageous cost estimate for a public records request, at least according to the consensus thus far, was received by the NICAR Database Library. Jeff Porter, the data library’s director at the time, requested a copy of the Department of Justice’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS) database, and received the following in response:



    The response of $2 billion in costs took the agency months  to provide, Porter said. He ultimately went a different route, he said, rewriting the request for similar data that the Drug Enforcement Agency had given to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which was less detailed but also far less than $2 billion.

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