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Knight Grantee Points to One Future of Public Information Sharing

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, June 25 2009

Yesterday's first public meeting of the Food and Drug Administration's new Transparency Task Force was dedicated to brainstorming ways to make the FDA more accessible, knowable, and accountable, and thus the question came up: What can be done about the agency's notoriously glacial response to Freedom of Information Act requests on drug approvals, food recalls, and medical device oversight? One idea floated was that FDA documents, once published once through official channels, be posted on the FDA website for all the world to use and peruse. If the FDA decides to go that route, there's a new model coming out of a different world -- the news business -- that might help to flesh out what public document sharing might look like in the modern age.

It's called DocumentCloud, and it just received a two-year grant for a considerable $719,500 from the Knight Foundation's Knight News Challenge.

Submitted by developers and journalists from the New York Times, the non-profit news group ProPublica, and other organizations, the grant application for DocumentCloud sketches out an approach to document sharing that would draw together the many FOIA-released reports, records, email archives, and other source materials that reporters regular get and toss aside them they've finished their investigation or published their story. DocumentCloud would break those rich resources from the limiting PDF format, making them viewable and searchable using something like the document viewer the New York Times uses for its Guantánamo Docket project. Beyond becoming a deep resource for investigate journalists and bloggers, it opens the door to a flood of collaborative projects like what the Guardian is doing with their "Investigate Your MP's Expenses" financial-disclosure vetting system.

From the DocumentCloud grant application:

Think of it as a “card catalog” of standardized metadata for primary source documents. Once submitted to DocumentCloud, documents can be found, linked to, and retrieved by anyone, anywhere on the Web. Thanks to the metadata, users will be able to search by topic, agency, or location. The project will lower barriers of participation by creating open standards and open-source software. DocViewer, a best-of-class web-based application, will allow even the smallest organizations to publish their documents online and contribute to DocumentCloud. Readers will also be able to quickly search, annotate and bookmark documents -- and for the first time link directly to specific pages or passages.

And here's how Nieman Journalism Lab's Zachary M. Seward describes it:

DocumentCloud’s vision is to collect, archive, and index the text and metadata of all documents used by participating news organizations, advocacy groups, bloggers, and others -- "so they're not just sitting in the corner of a newsroom collecting dust," [New York Times editor of Interactive News Technologies Aron] Pilhofer explained. That way, anyone — from other news outlets to curious readers — will be able to search across all documents in the project to find information that might not have been relevant to the original piece. If it were an animated TV series, the catchphrase might be, With our newsrooms combined -- we are DocumentCloud!

Early partners in the project include the Times, ProPublica (the non-profit investigative journalism outfit) Gotham Gazette (a New York City news site published by Citizens Union Foundation, themselves winners of two Knight News Challenge grants), TPM Muckraker (the investigative arm of Talking Points Memo), and the National Security Archive (home to the largest public repository of declassified government documents). Are you salivating yet?

DocumentCloud will be organized as a stand-along nonprofit. You -- and the FDA transparency team -- can follow along with the progress of the project on Twitter.