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Could FOIA's 'Beetlejuice' Provision Save Public Access to Gov't Data?

'Beetlejuice,' Tim Burton's 1988 chef d'ouevre, tells the tale of one titular ghost who is called into existence to fright and delight when his name is repeated thrice over. Just say 'Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice,' and he's transferred from the netherworld to your dining room.

The Freedom of Information Act works in a surprisingly similar way. Under the Act, government agencies that have received three or more requests for public records must make those records available on their websites. Now, public interest groups are turning to that Beetlejuice provision to help preserve public access to government data, data they fear could be removed by the current administration.

Beetlejuicing Government Data

The federal government creates and collects immense amounts of data, much of it available to the public through sources like data.gov. This includes data on everything from ecosystem vulnerability, to youth tobacco usage, to affordable housing availability. Some worry that, with President Trump now in charge of the executive branch, the government may remove this data from the public, or scrub federal websites of information that runs counter to Trump initiatives.

That's where "Beetlejuice" comes in.

Under FOIA's "frequently requested record" provision, federal agencies must provide public, electronic copies of records that have been successfully requested more than three times. In essence, the provision keeps federal agencies from completing similar requests over and over -- three successful requests and the records become public to all.

Environmental and government transparency advocates are now relying on those provisions in a coordinated attempt to preserve government data in the public. The Center for Biological Diversity, the Center for Media and Democracy, and conservation biologist Stuart Pimm, have submitted separate FOIA requests for government datasets from the EPA, NASA, Department of Agriculture, and other agencies. The requests seek "hundreds of data sets on energy usage, renewables, oil and gas projections, coal reserves, climate data, sea-level rise, human population, environmental justice and the status of scores of endangered and threatened species and other wildlife," according to a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity.

The "Beetlejuice" approach isn't the only tactic open government advocates are taking, either. The Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a network of academics and nonprofits, has organized "guerilla archiving" sessions to download government information to preserve "uncrawlable" data -- that is, data that can't be downloaded by a simple computer program. Similarly, the End of Term Web Archive seeks to create a record of government websites before and after the presidential transition, while the University of Pennsylvania's Data Refuge Project seeks to protect what they view as vulnerable government information.

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