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Getting data from public agencies

By Sarah Morris

In The Art of Requesting and Negotiating Data, David Hunn of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Jennifer LaFleur of ProPublica talked through some strategies for getting data.

LaFleur began by saying that data can come from inspections, licenses, things that are enforced or purchased. If there was a form, then there would be data. But don’t count on what you need being a high-value data set on

She also said that FOIA covers paper, electronic, tape recordings, but does not get you answers to questions.


  1. Ask for the data before filing an official request.
  2. If the organization requires a formal request, find out whom it should go to and what you should ask for.
  3. The letter should describe what you want and the date the request should be filled by. They should also state the law that allows for an exemption. They should also give detailed explanations of the cause for the delay.
  4. Know what you want.
  5. Know what the cost should be, and ask for it before the request if filled.
  6. Get to know the person who handles the data.
  7. Get to know the person or people who does the data entry.

David’s checklist for submitting a request:

  1. Figure out who holds the info.
  2. As for a tour of the office and the data, with a media spokesperson if necessary.
  3. Sit down with the person who works with the data.
  4. Ask them to explain the details, along with the definition of the fields.
  5. Ask how long it would take to create what you want.
  6. Ask for the data dictionary.
  7. Bring a flash drive with you, and ask for the data set.
  8. If that doesn’t work, ask for the name of the custodian of records for the dataset.
  9. Request the record layout.
  10. Figure out which fields you want.
  11. Read the law and case law. Know what is open, clearly closed and what is up for debate.
  12. Weigh legal consequences versus speed.
  13. Write the request, using a form.
  14. Send request to custodian and call to make sure they got it.
  15. Follow-up every day until the data is ready.

Sarah Morris is a graduate student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

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