Data Acquisition Project:

Pointers on Written Requests for Public Information in This Assignment

Journalism 772 and 472 / Chinoy                                


When trying to get a database, it is best to see if you can persuade the keepers to give it to you without having to resort to a formal written request, which may slow down the process.  However, it will probably be necessary to make a written request if you encounter any resistance to releasing part or all of the database, if someone tells you there will be a fee, if you get the sense that the people with whom you are dealing do not completely understand your request, or if you keep getting shuttled from person to person and office to office without finding someone who can answer your questions and field your request. 


If you end up writing a letter or e-mail to a government agency requesting data for this assignment, that written request must follow the guidelines below, and you must show me a draft of your letter or e-mail and get my approval before you send it out.  This is an essential and critical aspect of the assignment.


Agency officials will sometimes ask you to send them an informal e-mail explaining what you want.  You must run this by me first before sending such an e-mail.  That’s because sending a request for the database in this way – without covering the issues described in detail below – often ends up leading to confusion that takes much more work to undo.


When you are ready to make a written request – following the guidelines here – bring a draft to class or e-mail it to me as an attachment. NOTE: You may communicate in writing with these agencies to request information ABOUT the data without consulting me first – for example, to ask what sort of data they keep and how they keep it.  But when you get to requesting the database itself, I need to see any such written request before it goes out.  Again, this is a critical rule for the assignment.


The pointers below assume you are asking for data from a government agency in Maryland.  You can get some ideas by looking at samples of student letters that you will find in the supplemental materials posted on the class Web site for this assignment.  The notes below will help you structure the letter, and there is some specific language noted below that you should include in your letter.  Follow the guidelines below rather than copying language from the samples of student letters in the supplemental materials (they are there just to give you a sense of what a complete letter looks like).


The opening:

·         More than likely, you will have had a discussion or two with the keepers of the data, identifying who has the database and what the database includes.  And more than likely, if you are at the point of writing a letter, they will have told you that you have to make your request in writing, or you will have decided to make a request in writing for the sake of clarity.  So you can refer to those conversations in your opening.  Here’s an example:  “In the wake of our recent conversation, and am following your suggestion that I make the following request to you in writing…..”

·         Specify that you are making the request “pursuant to the Public Information Act, Md. State Gov’t Code Ann. 10-611 et. seq.” This is a signal to them that they must comply with the law, which does not allow them to be arbitrary or tardy.


The materials you are seeking:

·         Your request should have two parts:  you are seeking data, and you are also seeking the documentation for that data.  I suggest that you order the request in this way:

1)      First, identify the data you are seeking, and identify it by the name of the database if you know what that is.

a)      Note up high that you are seeking records in electronic form – that is, as an electronic database rather than a collection of paper records.

b)      Ask for all of the data in the database unless you already know that you only want some of it.  If the agency has stonewalled you on what is included in the database, then you will probably want to ask for the whole thing.  Where you are asking for the entire database, it a good idea to say that you are requesting the entire database, “including but not limited to the following:” and then follow this with a list of the sorts of fields your want, such as name, address, etc. If you know that you only want specific fields, list each of those fields, and if you know the names they have assigned to those fields, you can also specify those.

c)      Consider specifying the years of the data you are seeking if you are dealing with a very large database that covers many years.  However, in other cases, it makes sense to ask for all records in the database (that is, all years).

d)     Note that the specific form in which you would prefer the database, if possible, is one of the following: a Microsoft Access database, a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet, a *.dbf file, or as an ASCII text file in fixed-length or delimited format. If the database is to be delivered in another format, you would like an opportunity to discuss the format with them before they provide the data.

e)      Specify that you would prefer to get the database on a portable medium, such as a CD or DVD, via e-mail attachment (depending on size limitations) or via FTP. If it is to be delivered in some other way, you would like to consult with them about it first.

2)      Second, indicate that you are also requesting the documentation for the database.  Be specific. For example:  “In addition to the database, I am requesting a copy of the documentation for the database, including the following: the record layout; the data dictionary or code sheets; a sample copy of the paper form used as a source for entering the data; and a printout of a small sample of records to match against the database if it is delivered in fixed-length or delimited text format.” It is useful, depending on the circumstances, to ask for the data dictionary and code sheets in electronic form if available; this can make your work easier if there are fields that have a great many codes.  At some point you will also want to find out what sort of summary reports the agency has generated using this data – for example, annual reports of the agency – which you can use to check against totals in the data you get.  If you have not already obtained such reports and anticipate a hard time prying them out of the agency, you could include this in your PIA request (but you have to use some common sense here since there could literally be hundreds of pages of summary reports).

·         Often, it is a good idea to let them know at this point in the letter (though this depends on the circumstances) that you would like to get the documentation before you get the data.  This is an especially good idea if the database has a great number of fields and if you may want to limit the scope of your request after you see the documentation, or if the agency has refused to give you the documentation so far.  You could include a line such as this:  “I am requesting that you provide me with the documentation first so that I may consider amending or limiting the scope of data I have requested.”


The end:

·         It is often a good idea to include the following line after listing the items you are requesting:  “If it will take longer to comply with some parts of this request than others, I would like to receive these records as they become available.”

·         I don’t believe it is necessary to lecture the agency in such a letter (your first) about the time period the law allows them for responding to your request.  But because there may be a lack of understanding on the part of some government officials about the fact that they cannot use the private nature of some data fields to keep you from getting the rest of the data, I suggest you include the following:  “If you regard any of the requested records as subject to exemption from disclosure at your discretion, I hereby request that you exercise your discretion and disclose them nonetheless.  If you find that any exemptions do apply, please be aware of the specific requirements under 10-614 that you provide any part of the record that is reasonably severable.”

·         Include the following language at the end of the letter to identify yourself and state your affiliation with a news organization so that you can request a waiver of fees:  “I am a student at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism and I am making this request on behalf of the Capital News Service, a news wire that is operated by the college and serves broadcast, print and online clients across the state of Maryland and in Washington, D.C. The records disclosed pursuant to this request will be used in the preparation of news stories for dissemination to the public. Accordingly, I request that, pursuant to 10-621(e), you waive all fees in the public interest because the furnishing of the information sought by this request will primarily benefit the public and is likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of government. If, however, you decline to waive all fees, I request that you notify me of these fees before complying with any portion of this request for which there will be a charge.”

·         Note that the reference above to10-621(e)” is different from the sample letters in some of the supplemental materials for this assignment, which cite “10-621(d).”  That’s how this provision of the statute was numbered before a recent change.  You should now cite “10-621(e)” in this part of your letter.

·         It’s a good idea to close with a line like the following and to include your mailing address, phone number, and email address with your name: “I look forward to receiving your response. If you have any questions about this request, please contact me at the telephone number or email address listed below.”