Monday, September 12, 2011

From Depth Reporting Blog

How to learn what databases a government agency keeps

Some tips gathered from old posts on NICAR-L and notes I've kept. This is for when looking at or other more obvious sources fails:
  • Submit an open records request asking for any or all documents containing an inventory of the agency's databases or information systems.
  • Do a site-specific Google search of the agency's website for data-related keywords.
  • Look at forms agencies use to collect information. Typically the information gathered in the forms goes into a database of some kind. Some governments publish lists of forms issued by agencies.
  • If you have a document that looks like it was printed from a spreadsheet or database, it probably was. Ask for it in electronic form.
  • Look in government regulations where databases or data collected may be mentioned. On the federal level this would be the Code of Federal Regulations or the Federal Register. Similar records exist for state governments.
  • Look at enabling legislation passed by the legislature or ordinances passed by a local government body. They may set out what kind of information the agency is required to collect.
  • Annual reports to the legislature may mention databases and data collected by the agency.
  • Look at policy manuals on how government information is to be collected and used.
  • Look at the agency's self-performance assessments for data sources used.
  • Look in the methodology section of government audits of the agency for mentions of databases that were examined.
  • Lawsuits against the agency may reveal databases or data collected in documents turned over in discovery.
  • Look at the sources section of annual or statistical reports from the agency.
  • Look at FOIA logs or record requests made by others to the agency. Often the office that hears appeals will publish their decisions online with a discussion of what was requested.
  • Look at record retention schedules that tell agencies how long they must keep different classes of records.

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