How not to file freedom of information requests

In researching a story about a devastaing fire in a Toronto apartment building, OpenFile Toronto‘s Stephen Spencer Davis learned a few things about filing Freedom of Information requests. The hard way.

Davis was drawn to a story about a fire in the 200 Weslley St. apartment, where he found this quote from a resident that had ignored the blaze: “They always have fires. Everyone just ignores them.” He wanted to know what, exactly, had happened in the building before. In a piece for OpenFile Toronto, he explains the story behind the story. (Read the story he eventually wrote here).

“My first request was a trainwreck—the product of lots of curiosity and not enough research. At a student journalism conference I attended last year, professional reporters had stressed one basic rule of FOI requests: be precise. Pick a topic and scour the internet for information. Conduct interviews, read reports, and track down elusive sources. Over time, it should become clear which documents you need to submit FOI requests for. If you’ve done your homework and your request is precise, you’ll be more likely to get the information you’re chasing.

“I ignored this advice.

“Instead, I gave Toronto Community Housing a request that read something like this: ‘I’m interested in fires in 200 Wellesley. I need reports on every fire in that building ever, along with detailed information on how residents were compensated for their losses, how security guards dealt with the fires and any other information pertaining to this topic. I don’t know the names of any of these documents or where they are located, but I’d really like to see them soon.'”

A few weeks later, Davis received a bill for $1873, “or, about as much as I have in my savings account on a good day. The Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act states that fees can be waived if releasing the information is in the public interest or if the payment will cause the requester financial strain, but I’d heard that this could be a timely process, and I’d already been working on the story for weeks.”

Thankfully, the bill also included a breakdown of the various databases where the information he requested could be found, which helped him realize the most costly items were the least important. Now, armed with more specific knowledge, Davis filed a request with the proper names of the documents he wanted. “I’d learned the second rule of filing freedom of information requests: FOI coordinators are an asset, not an obstacle.”

After sifting through the reports, Davis realized that “the difference between reading a press release and reading internal documents was like the difference between someone’s schoolwork and their diary. They were the opposite of polished: there were reports of slip-ups and unheeded warnings, things no one would ever tell a reporter wielding a notebook and a tape recorder.”

And in that, he writes, is lesson number three in filing FOI requests: “it’s well worth it.”