Delivering on the Promise of Freedom of Information Laws
How a strategically tailored open-source tool helped deliver on open government.
In recent years in New York City, thousands of citizens every month made Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to access government data and information across a wide array of issues—and navigated a wide array of city agencies and processes to do so. The Administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, demonstrating its strong commitment to transparency, planned to upgrade and centralize the FOIL management system. The Department of Records engaged Reboot for the strategy, multi-agency coordination, and design of a public-facing touchpoint for these transactions, which are vital to open government.
Reboot served as a user-centered design partner, collaborating deeply with the Mayor’s Office and other relevant city agencies on a bespoke design sprint to support the launch of the new tool: OpenRecords.
From early in the project, we served as a thought partner for the City’s team. A free and open-source tool for the project, RecordTrac, created by a Code for America fellow, was being adapted for implementation in the city. We led a design charrette with city workers who respond to FOIL requests, along with a group of collaborators from City and State government and open government advocates. Exercises like “product in a box” helped the team identify and understand the people who would use the system. Reboot used these insights also in creating the logo, design, and branding; in creating a web platform for the tool; and in supporting the City in preparing for implementation. The City has since launched an early “version 1” of the tool.
The process not only rapidly surfaced actionable insights, but challenged our assumptions. For example, the majority of FOIL requests did not come from journalists, as expected, but from a diversity of citizens seeking information on school budgets, zoning, criminal cases, and other issues. These findings not only helped tailor the tool, but reinforced its widespread importance for New Yorkers from all walks of life. By allowing New Yorkers and agencies to make, track, and manage FOIL requests, OpenRecords is an immediate and visible demonstration of New York City’s nationwide leadership in transparency.