In the spring of 2018, during an Issues in Journalism class he was teaching, Jeff Kelly Lowenstein mentioned a freedom of information festival a dear friend and colleague had started in Chicago several years ago. 

“Oh, we’re doing that here,” exclaimed Allison Donahue, then a junior.  Allison’s words began a chain of events that led about six months later to Grand Valley State University’s first-ever FOIAFest.  

Part of Grand Valley’s Big Data Initiative, the two-hour panel drew close to 100 people and included presentations and sponsorships from university, city, state, national, and international partners. It was part of our effort to help build an open and transparent culture at Grand Valley, in Grand Rapids, and through the region by increasing knowledge and demystifying the public records process.  The ongoing assault on media, civil discourse, and truth only made these efforts and work more urgent. 

FOIAFest 2019 will be hosted by the Big Data Ignite Conference on Election Day, Tuesday, November 5.  This year’s event represents a significant expansion from the initial gathering last year.  Highlights include 

  • Grand Valley alumnus Marisa Kwiatkowski, who was part of the team of Indy Star reporters who broke the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal story, will lead a hands-on session for those people who want to learn how to submit effective requests.  
  • State Senator Jeremy Moss will present about the state of FOIA legislation in Michigan.
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist and Calvin College alumnus John Muyskens will share some of his data visualization work.  
  • An international water data hackathon will bring together journalists and computer scientists from the United States, Africa, and Europe.

The hackathon will be led by Dylan Freedman, a member of non-profit MuckRock, and longtime investigative journalist Matt Kauffman.  Participants will identify, scrape, and clean water datasets. The resulting data will be made publicly available and assist a Grand Valley-led team of faculty, students, journalists, photographers, and data scientists from more than 25 countries on five continents.  Together they are working to carry out a comprehensive investigation of the degree to which the global community is fulfilling or failing the United Nations-guaranteed right to access to clean water that it said is essential to the enjoyment of all other rights.   The project dovetails neatly with Grand Valley Provost Maria Cimitile’s campus wide Making Waves Initiative.

Student group Grand PR will conduct a public relations campaign to let people know about the day’s event.  Led by Emily Gagnon and Brooke Thompson, the campaign is backed by a national grant submitted  to non-profit 1forAll by Grand Valley Advertising and Public Relations Professor Adrienne Wallace.  

In short, FOIAFest has something for just about anyone interested in public records and transparency.