If You're Looking For A Laborious, Unresponsive Way To File FOIA Requests, The DHS Has An App For You
from the Y2K-COMPLIANT! dept
The DHS isn’t the most responsive government agency when it comes to FOIA requests. In fact, this government in general isn’t very responsive when it comes to FOIA requests. So, it’s completely understandable why its brand new FOIA app is similarly unresponsive.
First off, searching the Google Play store for “DHS” or “FOIA” will NOT find the app. If you use both those words together, however, you’ll find it at the top of the list. Clicking through brings you to the app’s page, which shows that whatever the DHS paid for its development, it’s going to be awhile before it ever returns whatever passes for ROI in publicly-funded app giveaways. 10+ downloads. That’s hardly a sign of widespread adoption.
Once you click Install, you’re given some information that makes no sense. Why would a government app need your location info? The question is unanswered anywhere in the app’s notes. Yes, you do need to turn over a certain amount of personal information to file an FOIA request, but the location it’s being sent from is irrelevant.
Now, the idea behind the app is a good one. If you’re the inquisitive type, ideas for FOIA requests may strike at inopportune moments. Rather than holding onto it until you’re in front of a proper computer, you can just fire one off immediately. IN THEORY.
The app doesn’t store your personal information (probably a good thing), so this means every FOIA request will require you to type in your name, address, etc. all over again.
The app’s shortcomings become apparent immediately. You’re given a list of agencies you can request from, but it’s far from complete. Most noticeably, the TSA is not on the list of available agencies and there’s no option to add other DHS agencies to the list. Presumably, the TSA will be added when (or if) its FOIA system is told to play nice with the DHS app.
As for the actual entry of personal information (the thing you’ll be doing EVERY SINGLE TIME YOU USE THE APP), it’s a complete travesty. The UI seems to have been created by a person who knows what a fill-in-the-blank form looks like, but has never actually performed the act on anything but paper.
Look closely at this screenshot. I’m currently in the Zip Code field. You know how I know this? Because when I start punching in numbers, it starts filling up the field. There’s no blinking cursor to let you know what field you’re in. (Nor does it show up when you need to edit something. It only provides the little teardrop indicator underneath wherever it is [approximately] that you tapped the screen.]
The fields themselves are, um… not smart. Not a single field entry triggers uppercase letters, despite almost every field being the sort of information one normally capitalizes.
It gets worse.
Clicking on State gives you a menu of states to choose from. But not 50 of them. Not even a dozen of them. You’d better hope you live in states None-Colorado because there is no way to scroll down the list (it’s static) or even manually enter your state’s name.
At this point, I gave up. It’s not even worth using as a last resort. You’d be better off writing a reminder in a functioning app and using the DHS’s website (or a clearinghouse like MuckRock) to do this twice as fast with half the hassle. The fields are unresponsive, your keyboard routinely covers what you’re trying to type in, and, for no apparent reason, the government now knows approximately where you last angrily yelled at its terrible app.
I am hoping this app improves over time — not because I plan to make use of it, but because it will show the agency is actually trying to make its agency more accessible and transparent, rather than just settling for a “Will this do?” app that actually won’t do. Not at all. And I guarantee the development of this app costs more than the development of apps with twice the capability and with at least a passing knowledge of common UI features.