The Art of the FOIA, or, an Art Student Tries Math

investigative, mainstream media, musings

Over the past week, I’ve been scrambling to learn as much as possible about the fine art of FOIA’ing- that is, requesting access to government documents via Freedom of Information Act requests. Oddly enough, today it’s leading me to crunch numbers.

The director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Reporting, Sheila Coronel, emailed a link to this wild story this morning, which talks about the price of obtaining Sarah Palin’s emails. Hard copies of the correspondence between the inquiring media and the government administrators presiding over the FOIA requests are here. 

The explanation about the alleged 15 million dollar cost kind of blows my mind- and here’s why.

First, take into consideration the following sentence, which talks about how Kevin Brooks, Alaskan deputy commissioner of the Department of Administration, determined the amount of time it would take to process the FOIA requests.

From the article: “As for the estimate of up to five hours to search e-mail for a single word or phrase, Brooks said he was just passing along the estimate from the technical staff.”

Why on earth would a keyword search take 5 hours? That doesn’t ring true. In all probability, it would take a few seconds or less to search through each individual email accounts- using email clients like Outlook or Mail or searching mail while online. The article says that the Alaskan State Department does, in fact, use Outlook- but also archives emails in two other systems, which are unspecified.

Secondly, how does this tenuously searchable mass of email constitute five terabytes  of compressed data? I mean- is that even possible?

Kevin Brooks goes on to say, “I don’t know what a terabyte is. I just know it’s a heckuva lot.”

Indeed it is.

One terabyte (TB) is equal to 1,024 gigabytes (gigs) or 1,048,576 megabytes (MB’s). 1024 kilobytes (kb’s ) equals one MB, and the size of your average 500 word email- that’s an email of medium length, mind you, not just a solitary sentence or two- would only take up 10k worth of space.

Taking these equivalents into consideration, one megabyte would contain 102.4 500 word emails. Therefore, one gigabytes’ worth would contain 107,374,182.4 emails.

Multiply this number by five, for the terabytes, and we get the alleged amount of email that Brooks is talking about- which would be 536,870,912 emails.


Now I’m no mathematician. Far from it- I left high school early, took a year off to teach snowboarding, and then ended up at art school, where numbers are for determining color mixtures, not calculations. Keep in mind, too, that we don’t know how many employees up there in the AK State Department are doing all of this emailing back and forth with Palin- she’s not just  sending, but receiving, too.

The idea of over 536 million emails sent by Palin’s office in the time that she was in office- which says was technically from December of 2006 until now, October 2008, or 21 months, is staggering. That would be 25,565,218.5 emails a month. Or, given the average month has 30 days, 852,176 emails per day. Eight work hours in a day? Well, then, that would mean 106,522 emails per hour. 

106,522 emails per hour. That means 1775 emails per minute.

All I have to say is damn- them Alaskans must have some “heckuva” muscles in their typin’ fingers.

2 thoughts on “The Art of the FOIA, or, an Art Student Tries Math

  1. Great job at breaking down the inconsistencies of the story, Erin…
    It struck me as really funny too, but I didn’t go as far to get at the bottom, i.e. 1775 emails/minute!

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