GV partners with Big Data Ignite to educate with “FOIAFest”


Katherine Arnold, Staff Reporter

On Nov. 5, students will be able to gather at the DeVos Place to participate in an event seeking to educate students on how to use the Freedom of Information Act and why it’s so vital to our democracy. The School of Communications (SOC) multimedia journalism major is collaborating with GVSU Big Data Month and the Making Waves Initiative to present the second annual FOIAFest.

In 2018, Grand Valley State University had its first FOIAFest after Professor Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and student Allison Donahue were inspired by a Freedom of Information Act Festival in Chicago, an event where the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was broken down and discussed. At Grand Valley’s first FOIAFest, students learned not only how to submit a FOIA request, but why the act is such an important way for the general public to ask governments and organizations to supply public information. For this year’s event, there will be even more speakers and space for a larger number of students and faculty to attend. 

“During this era of misinformation, it’s more important than ever for all people to know about their rights to public information and how to get it,” said Brooke Thompson, an account executive of GrandPR, which is in charge of generating awareness about FOIAFest. 

Compared to last year’s event, which lasted three hours, this event will run all day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. so that as many students as possible will be able to attend. FOIAFest is hosted by the Big Data Ignite, a conference dedicated to “fostering local and regional expertise in advanced computing technologies and practices.”

The event a great opportunity for students interested in talking and networking with professionals involved with Big Data and top journalists. Outside of socializing, there will also be food, ping pong, Foosball, air hockey and robots. 

Several talented individuals will be presenting a different discussion revolving around the FOIA. Marisa Kwiatkowski, a Grand Valley SOC alumna and the Indy Star reporter who broke the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal story, will be leading those who are interested through the process of submitting an effective request; State senator Jeremy Moss will speak about Michigan’s FOIA legislation in Michigan; Matt Kaufman, an investigative reporter at the Hartford Courant, will speak on his experiences; and Michale Morisy, cofounder of MuckRock (a news site dedicated to providing tools for the general public to use in order to keep the government accountable) will be organizing an international water data “Hackathon.”

The Hackathon aims to bring together journalists and computer scientists from the United States, Africa and Europe to delve into data and water challenges both nationally and abroad, as well as prototyping new ways that everyone would be able to have access to safe water sources. This incorporates Grand Valley’s “Making Waves About Water” Initiative. There will also be featured prizes for innovative data visualization.

This event is perfect for any student interested in learning more about what their right to freedom of speech is and how to use it in the right way. Everyone in attendance will be able to learn what the FOIA is and its effects, how to submit a strong request and even how the FOIA interacts with businesses. 

“The topic of FOIA in general is very important for residents of the United States to be aware of and understand what it is and how it works,”  Thompson said. “This is a valuable experience to be a part of. Not only are we surrounded by technology collecting our information, there is a lot of information about us and corporations that we have no access to. It’s important to realize that we should be informed of as much information and data as we can, since it can be very relevant and personal information.”