Sunshine Week 2014 - March 16-22

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Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include news media, civic groups, libraries, nonprofits, schools and all others interested in the public’s right to know. Sunshine Week seeks to enlighten and empower people to play an active role in their government at all levels, and to give them access to information that makes their lives better and their communities stronger.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) has collected and posted resources for educators and students for Sunshine Week 2014. Visit their website at www.schooljournalism.org

Click here to download graphic organizers and a list of web resources for teachers about Sunshine Week created by NYNPA NIE Program.

Here is commentary about the importance of Freedom of Information from Robert Freeman, Executive Director of the Committee on Open Government.

Freeman

Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director

Committee on Open Government

Department of State

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can We Have Too Much Sunshine?

It’s Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of the public’s right to know about its government.  We are fortunate in New York to have an expansive Freedom of Information Law (also known as “FOIL”), but increasingly, we’re learning that it may not be easy to navigate through the mountain of information that’s available in an effort to find what you want.

Since 1978, FOIL has applied to all records of state and local government agencies and defines the term “record” to include any information “in any physical form whatsoever” that is maintained by or for an agency.  Based on that provision, it is clear that paper documents, as well as the content of a database, are “records” that fall within the coverage of FOIL.

In brief, FOIL states that all records are available, except those records or portions of records that may be withheld pursuant to a series of grounds for denying access.  The issue most often involves what would happen if the government had to disclose.  Would disclosure result in an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy, damage the government’s ability to do its job well on behalf of the public, or perhaps cause injury to the competitive position of a commercial enterprise?  Unless the answer is “ouch, disclosure would hurt”, usually disclosure should be the outcome.

Statistical and factual data is usually available, and when that is so, it can be sought via a request made to the records access officer at the agency that maintains the data.  FOIL requires that a request must “reasonably describe” the records or data sought.   That means that you don’t have to know the names of the records that you want, but rather that a request should include sufficient detail to enable staff to locate and identify them. It can be important to learn how records/data are kept or filed.  Some may be kept chronologically, but others by last name or location.  If staff can locate and identify the records of interest, the request is proper.

What if you have a good idea of what you want, but the information is contained within database that includes information that you don’t want?  First, an agency is not required to search through the haystack to find the needle, if it is known that the needle is there, somewhere.  Second, assuming that the information can be located, FOIL states that “When an agency has the ability to retrieve or extract a record or data with reasonable effort, it shall be required to do so.”

So far so good.  But what if there’s a mountain of data, and going through it to find what you want would be difficult or time consuming?  The need today involves a search engine or similar mechanism that lets the public focus on specific data that can be located.  Sometimes we have to use more than a word to find what we want.  For example, this office has prepared 25,000 advisory opinions over the years, and they are indexed by “key phrase” alphabetically.  By reviewing the index, you might find exactly what you want.  If you can’t, we have a search box where you can type in the word or phrase that would describe the records of interest.  If you enter “licenses”, you’ll be connected with dozens of opinions.  But if you enter “dog licenses”, you’ll find the three opinions focusing on that topic.

It’s great for the government to provide access to immense amounts of data, but it’s important to make it available in ways that enable the public to find and use it easily and without frustration.

By the way, you can find the Committee on Open Government website by googling “coog.”

 

The illustration below is an editorial cartoon used here with permission created by Adam Zyglis for Sunshine Week in 2006. All rights reserved. Adam works for member newspaper, The Buffalo News.

 

Zyglis_Sunshine

This page was last updated 3/11/2014.

Content created for Sunshine Week 2012 and 2013 are still available for download.

  • Click here to access the eight newspaper in education features created for 2012 (3 column x 8 inches) - an overview of NYS FOIL, Open Meetings, How to gain access to records and one freature on Freedom of Information and NYS Courts.
  • Click here to access the five-part series of features highlights just a few of the websites with reports and other data that may be of interest to students and the general public. The topics included:

    What is “E-Government”? – A brief summary of our “Cyber Sunshine” focus
    Vehicle Safety – Highway Safety Data
    Food Safety – Restaurant Inspection Reports
    School Safety – Violence and Disruptive Incident Reports

     

If you have any questions or comments, please contact Mary Miller at mmiller@nynpa.com or call (518) 449-1667.

 

 

More information about NIE

About NIE | Contacts by Town | Famous New Yorkers | Free NIE Materials

 


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