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Transparency Watch: What journalists need to know about FOIAonline

Federal agencies have launched FOIAonline, a tool that journalists can use to file, track and appeal requests for documents and data under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. Here's what you need to know about the service, which was announced just last week.

Not all federal agencies are participating. Here's who's on board:

  • Department of Commerce, minus the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Federal Labor Relations Authority
  • Merit Systems Protection Board
  • National Archives and Records Administration

You can search for other FOIA requests. This search for "pollution" turns up 31 results.

You can download documents and data that have already been released to other users through the system. For example, one of the results under the pollution search includes a PDF document that government provided to the requester.

If you use the site to request information, other members of the public -- that means your sources and competitors -- can see it and may even be able to read about what you're seeking.

Anyone can file a FOIA request using the system's form. However, if you register on the site you can:

  • View your requests, which are assigned a unique tracking number, in a dashboard
  • Correspond with the FOIA staffers who are processing your request within the system
  • Appeal request denials via the website, instead of by regular mail
  • Opt to receive electronic copies of your documents and data through the system
  • Modify or withdraw requests in the system

So there's a potential upside in getting to keep tabs on your request and communicate with the people who are in charge of filling it. Whether you want to expose the details of your request is another matter.

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