State FOIL Ombudsman Confirms: Agencies Must Provide Machine Readable Data in Machine Readable Format

August 6, 2015

opencapitolWe are getting an earful from public interest groups, academics and think tanks who are tired of state and city agencies responding to Freedom of Information requests with data locked in a near useless pdf format. It is not clear whether FOIL officers are doing this out of woeful ignorance or on purpose to spitefully waste the public’s time or hide data, but the result is the same: the public is not getting the information it is entitled to under the law.

In February, the New York State Committee on Open Government issued another advisory opinion confirming that agencies must provide machine-readable records in a machine readable format if that is what is requested in a Freedom of Information Law request. Robert Freeman, the director of COOG wrote to the requestor:

Although a printout of the record sought was made available, you previously requested and obtained not only equivalent, but additional material, in an Excel spreadsheet that included color codings. You asked in your recent request that the data be made available, again, in Excel with the same color codings.

It is clear that the agency either maintains the data at issue in Excel format or that it has the ability to disclose the data in that format. Because that is so, I believe that it is required to do so to comply with FOIL. It is emphasized that section 89(5) of FOIL states that: “An agency shall provide records on the medium requested by the person, if the agency can reasonably make such copy or have such copy made by engaging an outside professional service. Records provided in a computer format shall not be encrypted.”

Freeman doesn’t need to cite case law to interpret a particularly vague section of the law; he just reads the law. It’s pretty straightforward. Despite this, when Reinvent Albany files FOIL requests and specifically asks for machine-readable files, we often receive PDFs of spreadsheets. Tables in PDF files cannot be sorted, filtered, or – in many cases – searched; data stuck in PDF files is useless. This is just one more way agencies can stymie the freedom of information law and process.