Public Information Request 101: Get the Information You Need

By Rory Adams

Rory Adams | July 24th, 2019

Do you want or need to access data or information from an animal shelter? Writing a public information request is easier than you think.

First, gather the information listed below. You’ll need this to draft a request letter. You can read a sample request letter here.

  1. Where to send the request (it’s usually not the shelter itself).
  2. The name of the shelter.
  3. The FOI (freedom of information) law in the state where the shelter is located.
  4. The state law for the amount of time the agency has to process your request.
  5. The amount of money you are willing to spend.
  6. The specific data you want to obtain, ie. all intakes and outcomes for 2018.

    PIR FAQs

    How do I know where to send the request?

    Find what county and state the shelter is located in. Next, use a search engine to find the public information office where the shelter resides. You can Google “Costanza County, OR, public information office.”

    How do I access the law specific to the state the shelter is in?

    Public information laws vary from state to state. You will need to locate the state law to include in your written request. Here is a helpful website that lists laws by state. You can copy the state law. You will also find the amount of time that each state allows for information to be returned to the public.

    How do I know what information to request?

    The first step is knowing what information you need. A good way to determine this is to start with the question you are trying to answer. Be specific. For example: What is the live release rate for dogs and cats in 2018? If this is the question you are trying to answer think of all of the information you will need to make that calculation, such as all intakes and outcomes. Do you want them broken up by month? Do you want them separated by cat and dog? Do you want them separated by intake category? Outcome? Be sure to include every detail of the information you are looking for. If you want details included, list them.

    How long does the request take?

    This varies state by state. Muckrock, an organization dedicated to transparency, houses an interactive map on their website. They say, “... while most states have clear deadlines, 11 are worryingly vague – and five don’t have any timeline at all.”

    Do public information requests cost money?

    Some requests will cost money in labor or printing fees. Including a limit of money you are willing to spend in your request will prompt them to reach out to you before the labor is performed. If you cannot pay the amount they quote you, you can contact the information office to discuss simplifying the request and lessening the amount of money owed. You can use the Muckrock map to see the fees in each state, too. You should expect to be quoted anywhere from 50 cents to more than $1,000 dollars depending on the request and the state. Typically, requests are less than $50.

    Which shelters can I request information from?

    You can request information from any municipal run shelter and all municipal contracted shelters.

    What pieces of information can I request?

    Any records from any department in the shelter, including medical records, yearly data, medical logs, emails, and call logs.

    I have heard so many terms, FOAI, public information request open records, PIR, which do I want?

    All of these terms refer to the people’s right to access of information. The Freedom of Information Act was signed in 1967 and allows for access to U.S. government-controlled documents. Now, every state in the U.S. is required to provide access to public records under state FOIA laws.

    What happens if I get a response that says they don’t have the information I am looking for?

    If this happens, respond to the request asking how they can help you to find the correct office.

    How specific should my request be?

    Be as specific and clear as possible. Know, however, that the more sophisticated your request, the more time it might take to put the request together, and the more money it might cost you in labor fees. Only ask for the information you want and need. If you are looking only for cats that died in-care in the month of July, say that.

    What if I hear nothing back from them?

    Don’t give up. Remember, it is the law that this information is shared with you. Pick up the phone and call the public information office. Call them again if they don’t get back to you. Take note of every effort you have made to get the information, and write down when you called and who you spoke with.

    Can I just search the internet for the public information?

    Before you spend the time submitting a request and waiting for the request to be filled search the internet. It’s best to be sure the information you want is not public-facing on the internet. If you are looking for yearly data for Star’s Hollow Animal Shelter, make sure you search the shelter’s website and try interest searches for things like, “Stars Hollow Animal shelter animal statistics” or “Animal intake Stars Hollow Animal Shelter.”

    Can I just ask the shelter to share information with me?

    You can ask for the information from the shelter by contacting the shelter directly, and we encourage you to do so. Remember, however, to only accept information that is backed by reports and records. You should be able to review records in detail, down to each, individual animal.

    Do I need to live in a state where I am requesting data?

    You do not need to live, work, or be in the state where you are requesting data. Furthermore, I have never been asked to verify any aspect of my identity when submitting requests.

    Can I submit a public information for a private shelter?

    You cannot submit a public information request for a private shelter, unless that shelter has a government contact. Many private or non-profit shelters do hold a government contract, which means you can file a request.

    I wrote it, but I am just not sure it’s right, can you help?

    Submit any PIRs in progress to [email protected]. We will get back to you with tips, feedback, or give you the green light to send.

    Where can I find more detailed information about forcing transparency in animal shelters?

    Nathan Winograd has a great blog that details using public information requests, “Forcing Transparency.”


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