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How to request government data (03/13/2013)
By Sarah Squires
From property records to child protection reports, local governments maintain a wide variety of information, and there are plenty of reasons a person might want to see it.

Knowing the best way to request government information can save money, since in Minnesota, a government unit can charge a fee—sometimes, hundreds or thousands of dollars—if a person doesn't ask the right questions.

State law allows a government unit to charge fees—and not just for printing—if a person asks for copies of information. Requesting copies of public data in Minnesota opens a door that can grant the government the right to charge for things such as staff time spent locating data, so the first rule of thumb is:

1. Don't ask for copies. Ask to "view" the data, and then copy the relevant information yourself. If you absolutely need copies of the data, that leads us to rule number two:

2. If you need copies, do not ask for more than 100 pages of black and white printed material. If your request for copies is 100 pages or fewer, "actual costs may not be used, and instead, the responsible authority may charge no more than 25 cents for each page copied" (Minnesota Statute 13.03 Subd. 3). The government unit may not charge you for separating private data from public data (redaction). If you request more than 100 pages to be copied, the government unit can charge for employee time used to search for and retrieve the data.

3. Try to keep the request simple. A broad request can create more work for the government unit, and it could mean that the request will take much longer than it would with a narrower scope. If all information on an issue is sought, it might be a good idea to limit the request to a certain time period. Once you have viewed a portion of a request, how the request could be narrowed or specified could become more clear for future requests.

4. Refer to the Minnesota Data Practices Act (MDPA) in your request. Example: "Pursuant to the Minnesota Data Practices Act, I would like to view the following information…." In Minnesota, all government data is considered public unless otherwise classified as private. The statutes dictating what information is public and what is private are complex, but the relevant law providing for public data requests is contained within the MDPA.

5. Ask questions. Make sure the government official understands the request, and keep communication open, if possible. 


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