Before making a FOIA request, it’s helpful to know how the information is stored and who maintains it
There is no mystery to what a government record system is. It has the same meaning here as it does in plain English (a system for storing records!).
A record system can take the form of a database, a closet full of audio tapes, a file cabinet of hardcopy documents, drawers of microfilm, or any other conceivable medium the government could use for storing information.
What may not be clear is exactly what you can learn about record systems on FOIA Mapper, and more importantly, how that information can help you access information using the Freedom of Information Act.
To answer these questions, here is an explanation by example.
Example: Finding Information About U.S. Border Apprehensions
Illegal immigration has become a major point of debate in the lead up to this year’s presidential election.
Let’s say you want to look into the topic and find out more about the situation at the U.S. border. How many people were apprehended at the border last year? Where were they attempting to cross? What is the breakdown by nationality, age, gender?
If you go to the Record System Search page and search for border apprehensions, it will return a few links. Click on the first one (Office of Immigration Statistics Program Records), and it will take you to the PDF file below.
This is an information system that stores immigration data. And this document outlines, among other things, the specific information it contains.
Does this system have the information you’re looking for?
Yes. On page 2, it states that this system contains information about border apprehensions.
Which agency does this system belong to?
At the top of page 1 you can see this system is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
What other useful information is here?
The document also states that the information in this system is compiled into statistical reports, which tells you something about the format in which the information is stored.
Some government records are stored in file drawers as hardcopy documents. If that were the case here, requesting a copy of all 2015 border apprehensions would require the agency to photocopy several hundred thousand pieces of paper and send them to you by mail. That would be extremely expensive and ultimately not be very useful for you.
However, since we know the agency compiles the information into statistical reports, that cannot be the case. More likely, the information is stored in a database or a spreadsheet. That is helpful to know because it allows you to specify in your request that you want to receive the information as a spreadsheet.
Using this information to make a FOIA request
Congratulations! You’ve found the information you were looking for, and you have everything you need to make a FOIA request that is likely to be granted.
All that remains is to write an email to the Department of Homeland Security (you can find their contact information here) and in plain English tell them what you would like them to send you, for example:
I request an electronic (Excel) copy of all U.S. Border Apprehensions nationwide in 2015. For each apprehension, it should include: section of the border where the apprehension took place, date of apprehension, the individual’s citizenship, gender, and age.
If you have never made a FOIA request before and aren’t sure what else to include, see: How to Make a FOIA Request.
This request happens to be a real life example. I requested this information a few months ago with the plan of using it for a writeup on my website Metrocosm, something that I still plan on getting around to in the near future. If you’re curious, here are the records I received: 2015 Border Apprehensions. It is an Excel spreadsheet with details about each person that was apprehended at the U.S. border last year.
Bringing it all together: what is a record system, and what exactly can you do with them?
A government record system is as generic as it sounds – any system the government uses to store records.
If you are looking to make a FOIA request for information about a specific topic, but don’t know where to start, try searching the agency record systems. If you can find the record system where it is stored, a document like the one above will tell you where to direct your request (to which government agency), details about exactly what information is there, and likely some idea of the format in which the information is stored.
To get a better idea of what other record systems look like, have a look around.
FOIA Mapper allows you to search through record systems in two ways.
- Browse the record systems of a particular government agency – Go to the Browse by Government Agency page, click on the agency you have in mind, and scroll down to find a list of that agency’s record systems.
- Search all agency record systems by keyword – To find information about a particular topic, go to the Record System Search page. Search for a keyword, and it will return a list of all record systems in which that keyword appears.
If you find information that you would like to request, ask for it by sending the agency a FOIA request.
More about my background
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