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Comment Re:How this works (Score 1) 601

Uh, actually I'm much more conservative than most of the Slashdot crowd and I'm not an Obama supporter. I did RTFA and I was agreeing with it - despite the administration's stated intent to increase granted requests under the FOIA by the mechanisms I described, it ain't happening (at least in the previous fiscal year). If you read carefully instead of freaking out when you see the word "Obama", you'll see that nothing in my statement that you quoted disagreed with the article. The changes proposed to the FOIA is one of the ONLY positive things I've seen so far from his administration and even that little something isn't working. I thought the previous policy was a little too closed minded and caused more trouble for FOIA officers and requesters.

Comment How this works (Score 5, Informative) 601

I've done some work with federal agencies and how they process FOIA requests:

A request for information under the FOIA can be granted, partially denied, or denied. If the request is granted, the exact records requested are returned unedited. If the request is denied, one or more reasons (exceptions) must be stated from a list of allowed exemptions. If a request is partially denied, one or more exemptions must be stated and what the requester receives back will either be a subset of what was asked for or will be redacted to remove sensitive information. For example, PIA (personally identifiable information - like SSNs, birth dates, medical records, etc.) is an exemption and is grounds for a partial denial, but it usually only means that this information will be redacted from the requested records.

So if you are looking at statistics (annual FOIA reports are required by law from every government entity and the reports themselves are either published or available via FOIA request themselves), you need to know the total number of new requests, the total number of requests held over from the previous fiscal year, the number of requests granted, the number partially denied, and the number totally denied. There are also individual statistics for denials and partial denials broken down by exemptions. There isn't anything on the annual report about how many exemptions were applied to individual requests - that would just have to be averaged out.

The Obama administration did encourage more release of records under the FOIA and a relaxing of exemptions. The idea was to assume that any record could be released unless an exemption prevented it. The previous directive was to presume that any record could not released and then try to justify it. If they couldn't justify denying it, they would grudgingly release it. The other thing that has been encouraged is pre-emptive release. For any request that is granted (no exemptions) there is no reason to not put that record on the agency's public web site to avoid processing any future requests for it. Or if there are certain types of records that can be released and that get requested often, go ahead and publish them. Theoretically this will reduce the number of FOIA requests processed, but I think it's probably too early to see a difference based on this policy.

Comment Re:Hah! (Score 1) 303

I like Wolfram|Alpha's capabilities much better when I'm not fighting their "natural language" parsing. The simplest way to get "What time is it?" on W|A isn't to type that question, just do:


More impressively, Wolfram|Alpha can do this:

airspeed of an unladen European swallow in furlongs per fortnight

Google also provides top-ranked sites where this is calculated, but W|A gives a definite answer along with assumptions.

Comment Re:Hah! (Score 1) 303

On the other hand, you can ask W|Q:

Phase of the moon on the day Elvis was born

and it will show and tell you (waxing crescent). Google would only do that if someone had written that down on a page somewhere with sufficient page rank to show up higher than semi-random occurrences of all of the words.

Of course, there is a simple answer to the Google vs. W|A controversy (and one that Wolfram should agree to) - license Google to provide a prominent link to W|A for search phrases that look like they might be appropriately solved by it.

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