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A surge in FOIA requests brings new business to open records specialists

Legislation and initiatives for open government have yielded greater expectations for data availability. With the FOIA market seeing new life, open records software companies are partnering up with e-discovery companies to help meet the demands.

Solutions providers in the open records space have seen an uptick in demand among government agencies dealing with a surge of document requests from the public.

Information access laws have been on the books for a while. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which covers access to federal agency records, was signed into law in 1966. The Privacy Act of 1974 lets individuals access and request amendments to federal agency records that pertain to them. In addition, every state government and the District of Columbia have enacted freedom of information laws, which are sometimes called "sunshine" or open records laws.

More recently, legislation and initiatives around open government and open data have emerged at the federal, state and local government levels. Those efforts have boosted the public's expectations for data availability.

John Dilenschneider, CEO of WebQA Inc., a Woodridge, Ill., provider of software as a service-based open records and customer service systems, said a growing records request workload is fueling demand for FOIA solutions. He said he recently spoke with a city of more than 200,000 residents that reported a 34% year-over-year uptick in the volume of records requests. Overall, Dilenschneider estimated that 80% of the company's state and local government customers are reporting an increase in open records activity.

"There's a lot of push on the transparency side," Dilenschneider said. "Citizens are becoming more engaged."

That increase in engagement means more business for FOIA and open records specialists. The rise in interest has also attracted the attention of E-discovery solution providers, who see strong parallels between open records and e-discovery tasks. Some e-discovery vendors have entered the FOIA market, while the market may also see partnering arrangements between e-discovery and open records solutions companies.

Market drivers

WebQA's government division, GovQA, offers its Open Records Request software to state and local governments. The company's platform covers a population base of 80 million citizens nationwide through hundreds of customers, such Salt Lake City, Harris County in Texas, Las Vegas, Miami, San Antonio and Chicago Public Schools.

Some of that customer demand stems from open government laws that call for agencies to make data more readily available.

In a recent example, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on August 7 signed two transparency bills into law. One piece of legislation requires the Department of Citywide Administrative Services to post a searchable and downloadable online version of the City Record within 24 hours of the print version. The City Record is New York's journal for announcing upcoming public hearings, procurement bid solicitations and other information. The second law will require the city to publish its charter, administrative code and rules online.

In another move, in July Washington, D.C. announced its first city-wide online FOIA system for submitting and processing records requests. AINS Inc., an IT solutions and services provider based in Gaithersburg, Md., provides Washington, D.C. with its FOIAXpress application, which processes FOIA and Privacy Act requests.

In a statement, Vincent Gray, mayor of Washington, said the new FOIA system aims to "improve government transparency and accountability."

However, the city has received criticism regarding its handling of FOIA requests. Last year, the D.C. Open Government Coalition, a group that seeks to improve public access to government information, noted that more than one-third of the public's FOIA requests were delayed beyond 15 business days -- the standard required under the city's FOIA law. Half of the delayed requests took 26 days or more, according to the coalition.

These state and local governments are now drowning in these requests and don't have the right tools to go through them.
Andy WilsonCEO and founder of Logikcull

Manual methods for handling requests and a lack of automated tools contribute to the slow response time among some governments.

"These state and local governments are now drowning in these requests and don't have the right tools to go through them," said Andy Wilson, CEO and founder of Logikcull, a Washington, D.C.,-based company that provides a cloud-based discovery and investigation platform.

When responding to a records request, much of the information a government entity needs to round up is contained within email messages, Wilson explained. An agency will pull together a number of personal storage tables (PSTs) -- files that house Microsoft Outlook messages and attachments -- and put them on a USB thumb drive. The drive is then shared around the office so employees working on the request can look at the emails and identify the information responsive to FOIA, he noted. Responsive messages and attachments are converted to PDF format and circulated in the office for redaction. That job involves the removal of personally identifiable information and other confidential data.

Wilson said Logikcull provides an alternative to manual processes. Files are uploaded into the Logikcull cloud, where they are organized and made searchable. Agencies can review and redact files in the cloud as opposed to passing around a thumb drive.

Logikcull in July reported a multiyear agreement to provide its platform to the City of Baltimore. The cloud technology will centralize the city's document discovery and Public Information Act (PIA) requests. PIA is Maryland's freedom of information law, which also applies to local governments.

Wilson said one Baltimore user recently called to say Logikcull will shave at least 40 hours off of each PIA request.

E-discovery parallels

Logikcull has pursued the FOIA market since March, Wilson said. E-discovery has been the company's main target, but Wilson noted that the company's e-discovery solution also covers the freedom of information use case.

"As it turns out, the same technology applies to FOIA," Wilson said.

Peter Coons, senior vice president at D4, an e-discovery services provider based in Rochester, N.Y., also noted the parallels between the e-discovery process and the FOIA request process.

"The two are almost exactly the same," he said.

Both processes involve identifying IT systems and individuals that may possess responsive information, creating a plan for extracting and collecting data, organizing the data to make it searchable, editing confidential information, and preparing the responsive data for delivery to the requesting party.

The similarities encourage alliances between e-discovery and FOIA providers. Partnerships are also in the works between FOIA specialists and other companies offering citizen-outreach solutions.

GovQA, for example, partners with other software vendors operating in the citizen engagement space. The company's Open Records Request software offers a knowledge base and a rules engine along with workflow and payment technologies for managing FOIA requests. The solution also includes administrative and public records request portals, which are available in Web and mobile versions.

The company aims to work with e-discovery vendors to complement those functions. Dilenschneider said his company is talking to a number of e-discovery providers. Will Repole, COO at WebQA, said the company provides the transport component of e-discovery. That is, an e-discovery solution identifies responsive records and the Open Records Request product lets government agencies deliver those documents via the Web or a resident's mobile device.

Managing complexities

While a single FOIA law covers the federal sector, other levels of government employ a patchwork of legislation. The lack of uniformity creates a challenge for solutions providers in this market.

Dilenschneider said FOIA solutions must be able to accommodate differences in state open records laws. Some states have a specific timeline for turning around an open records request, while others are held to a "best effort" standard. Different laws also introduce variations in FOIA workflow. Each state has different rules around what constitutes an exception, such as documents labeled "confidential" or as containing sensitive information. These documents may go to the state's Attorney General for an opinion, Dilenschneider noted.

"Everyone wants some customization," Dilenschneider said, adding that the company's goal is to achieve these customizations, while keeping processing simple.

Joanna Belbey, social media and compliance specialist at Actiance Inc., a Redwood City, Calif.-based e-discovery and compliance provider, cited the expansion of electronic communications channels as another complication. She said business records not only exist in email, but also in social media, unified communications and collaboration systems.

"The landscape has become much more complex," she said.

Actiance solutions pull together data from a range of sources. In one example, the Florida Bar Association tapped Actiance to help the organization respond to information on past cases in a timely fashion. Actiance's Alcatraz product aggregates data from the association's social media sites, collaboration environment and other communications channels and funnels it into a secure cloud, according to the company.

The Actiance approach lets users directly query the data housed in the cloud. In the past, a request would go to a bar association records manager, who would formulate a search query and hand it to the IT department, Belbey said. Such queries would tend to be broad and result in massive searches, she noted. The Actiance searches, however, are more user-friendly and more specific, she said.

Belbey said she believes other organizations charged with handling records requests will turn to automated FOIA request solutions.

"You will see more and more come on board as institutions see the cost savings and time savings," she said.

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