Don’t be a fool, FOIA your school

I have always been a classical liberal at heart, in the sense I enjoy liberty. I kept up with the Snowden leaks, I watched how my congressman voted and publicly called him out on the way he voted, and so on. However, when I first saw United States of Secrets published by PBS, it blew me away. I finally decided I needed to take action, because what is going on is insane. Just one example, is the NSA’s siphoning off of all internet traffic from Room 641A, located in the SBC Communications building at 611 Folsom Street, San Francisco.

Handles Door to Room 641A
Handles Door to Room 641A, From Wikipedia

However, I realized that little of my fears, my anger, my horror, was shared. To be honest, few cared. After surveying and contemplating, it seemed it was just too large to imagine, and even if they could imagine, they felt helpless. Everyone, including myself, felt powerless. According to a Pew poll:

Nine-in-ten adults feel various dimensions of control over personal information collection are “very important” to them.

Yet with the Snowden leaks, we now know our government is actively gathering all of the information on us, we don’t even know how much information they have.

That’s when the light bulb went off in my head!


Teaching a Man to Fish

Why not teach people to empower themselves? I brainstormed. I could support a political party with my web development skills or I could write a political blog. None stuck with me. Except one. I could teach people to get information from the government via FOIA or Freedom of Information Requests.

I thought it was a neat idea. The trick was giving people an incentive to complete a FOIA request, what did people really care about? I thought about what I knew best and what I could build that would make people want to FOIA request a government entity. That’s when it struck me: a university!

4261349141_289c4f7993_zI knew what I wanted to build. I was about to graduate from UIUC, but I had always wanted a way to optimize my schedule to get the easiest A’s possible while still learning the most. Hence, Easy A was born!easy-a-beta-halfUsers would need to be able to select a university, then find courses and professors they were thinking of taking and view their grade distributions by average or semester granularity. To do this, I used the following FOIA requests template found here.

Within days I had all of the information requested, and was able to build a website described in a weekend. Every time I shared the website I had to teach people about how the data was obtained, and in turn I saw them sharing how the data was obtained with others.

Quite frankly, it surprised most students that all of this data was at their fingertips.

Oblivious to Success

I announced Easy A about a year ago and posted it probably 20 times in a 10 day period in April 2015. After that, I left it alone. I never touched the page, or looked at the analytics. The website only supported the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and was only shared among CS and ECE. Below is what the analytics looked like, it was way better than I thought and actually had stayed pretty steady.

easy_a-1-yearThe website, which often broke, was still being used regularly. To you this may not look like success, but to me it looked like I had achieved my goal. You have to realize I only made this website for maybe the 5000 CS and ECE students at UIUC. People were sharing it by word of mouth enough that people were still using it, and new users were joining as well.

I only discovered this because I went back to UIUC to do a recruiting event in February 2016, and was complimented and asked about Easy A. I was taken aback, as I hadn’t even thought about it in months. During that weekend I was back at UIUC, I also happened receive an email on my personal email from a PhD student at Northwestern University asking me about Easy A.

I figured that meant I should check the Easy A email. Oh boy, was I in for a surprise!

The FOIA Requesting Masses

Over the last year I had missed over 200 emails from students, I checked the optional evaluation form and had received 395 responses, even 39 people filled out the contact form… which I regretfully forgot about, oops.

Half of those that contacted me asked me were asking me to fix the website, the other half were sending me FOIA requested data. Seriously, I had oodles of students from other universities sending me data they gathered themselves, from UCLA, UCBerkely, NYU, etc. Total I had well over one hundred students email me saying they had submitted a FOIA request, and either sent me data or thanked me.

All of this made me realize I had done exactly what I set out to do. I had even gotten people from other universities to submit FOIA requests and teach others the same!

What I had failed at was actually making a decent website, as it didn’t work on Firefox or Safari and was down probably 30% of the time. Moreover, the website was only available for one university. Thus, the next weekend I set to work!

Continue reading this series…

  1. Don’t be a Fool, FOIA your school
  2. Lessons Learned FOIA Requesting Over One Hundred Universities – Next Post
  3. Easy A: Alpha to Beta

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