U.S. Plans Using Metadata to Improve FOIA Libraries

5 April 2013

The United States Justice Department plans to develop metadata standards “that will facilitate the ability of interested persons to search for and retrieve documents across websites and disparate record keeping systems,” according to a recent announcement.

The plan, included in the Department of Justice’s version 2.0 of its Open Government Plan, envisions creation of a “virtual” government-wide FOIA Library.  This would be accomplished by adding “FOIA” as a metadata tag to all documents posted online in by all departments and agencies. “This will allow members of the public to pair individualized search terms on the topic they are interested  in, such as “Mars rover” or “world population,” with the term “FOIA” and conduct a search of the Internet using a regular search engine in order to identify records that have been tagged with these terms. 

According to an announcement:

Metadata provides a description and important facts about material that is posted online and is itself machine-readable and can be searched by other computers.  When related documents, such as FOIA documents that are proactively disclosed in agency FOIA Libraries, are posted with uniform metadata it is far easier to locate them during a search of the Internet.  Because of the value that metadata adds to search capabilities, the Department’s Office of Information Policy (OIP) is introducing a uniform metadata “FOIA tag” for agencies to use when they post FOIA processed data and documents online in agency FOIA Libraries.

Through the consistent use of this standardized “FOIA tag” in posting records in their own FOIA Libraries as outlined below agencies will in effect create a “virtual” government-wide FOIA Library by allowing the public to run simple, topical keyword searches that will efficiently retrieve documents from across the universe of Federal government FOIA Libraries.  Such searches will be able to be conducted naturally through commercial search engines that are already used by millions of people every day, by combining any topical keyword with the term “FOIA.”  OIP will be issuing further guidance to agencies on this topic in the months ahead and plans to customize features on FOIA.gov so that users have the option to access all FOIA-tagged documents across the federal government from one single location. 

The announcement describes the background of the effort, including the evolution of proactive disclosure standards. President Obama has called on agencies to use modern technology and “innovative steps” to make government more collaborative, participatory, and transparent.  In order to achieve improved transparency, agencies must make information accessible and usable, not just available

The White House’s  Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is leading an initiative on the overall management of government information.  Looking ahead, the announcement said:

In the coming months OIP will issue further guidance providing specific instructions for agencies to follow on the inclusion of the “FOIA” tag in the metadata for documents posted online in their FOIA Libraries.  That guidance will establish the time frame for implementation of the new tagging system.  To prepare, agency personnel should familiarize themselves with this guidance, as well as any other metadata standards required by their individual agencies.  Additionally, FOIA personnel should begin identifying documents of significant public interest that are already available in their FOIA Libraries and which would benefit from the addition of the “FOIA” tag.

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