Records Access Clearinghouse
The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) is a data gathering, data research and data distribution organization at Syracuse University.
- TRAC's Purpose
The purpose of TRAC is to provide the American people — and institutions of oversight such as Congress, news organizations, public interest groups, businesses, scholars and lawyers — with comprehensive information about staffing, spending, and enforcement activities of the federal government. On a day-to-day basis, what are the agencies and prosecutors actually doing? Who are their employees and what are they paid? What do agency actions indicate about the priorities and practices of government? How do the activities of an agency or prosecutor in one community compare with those in a neighboring one or the nation as a whole? How have these activities changed over time? How does the record of one administration compare with the next? When the head of an agency or a district administrator changed, were there observable differences in actual enforcement priorities? When a new law was enacted or amended, what impact did it have on agency activities?
An essential step in the process of providing this information to the public is TRAC's systematic and informed use of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
- TRAC's Use of FOIA
In a working democracy that was consistent to its principles, government data collected and maintained by our tax dollars would be freely and readily made available to the American people. But in 1966, Congress found that a vast quantity of government information was being withheld and reacted by passing a law - the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This Act established the broad legal requirement that most government information must be made public.
The basic principle of FOIA is very simple: since the records of the federal government should be generally public, all you need to do is ask. For a variety of reasons — including the sheer number of records, the vast complexity in how information is recorded and stored, and the uneasiness many agencies feel about the public examining their day-to-day performance — the actual process of obtaining federal records is far from simple. Indeed, the systematic collection of such information usually is a difficult and time-consuming task. So difficult, in fact, that many news organizations, public interest groups, scholars and others do not bother to exercise their rights under FOIA. And even when they do, they often are not successful.
Because comprehensive and relevant records about what an agency is doing — and not doing — are essential to meaningful oversight, TRAC continuously uses the law to obtain new data about government enforcement and regulatory activities. Some agencies are remarkably open. Other agencies are not. In some circumstances TRAC has to file suit in federal court to force the release of vital data. Critical to TRAC's use of FOIA is a small army of lawyers who donate their time and energy to represent us in court. See http://trac.syr.edu/foia to read more about these efforts.
- TRAC's History
TRAC was established in 1989 as a research center jointly sponsored by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Martin J. Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. It has offices at Syracuse University, in Washington, D.C. and a branch office on the west coast. TRAC's work has been supported by numerous foundations such as the Rockefeller Family Fund, the New York Times Company Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, Ford Foundation, JEHT Foundation, Haas Foundation, the Beldon Fund, Herb Block Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. Additionally, support from Syracuse University, research grants and contracts, individual donations, and user fees (see Why Do We Charge?) help offset the costs of providing services to academics, reporters, attorneys and others.
- TRAC's Analyses of Data
Once TRAC obtains data through its FOIA efforts, processing can begin. With the use of a variety of sophisticated statistical techniques, the raw information obtained from the agencies is checked and verified. Where possible, data from one agency is compared with another for general consistency. Through the addition of relevant population figures and staffing counts, the data is placed in an understandable context. County-level data obtained by TRAC on significant local community features can provide useful background about specific federal enforcement activities. For example, information on the relative number of persons 65 and over living in an area could add perspective to a report on the prosecution of fraudulent medical providers who often prey on the elderly.
The focus of these efforts is to develop as comprehensive and detailed a picture as possible about what federal enforcement and regulatory agencies actually do, to describe what resources (staffing and funds) they have to work with to accomplish these tasks, and to organize all of this information to make it readily accessible to the public.
- TRAC's Services
TRAC offers a large variety of information services with more being added:
- TRAC Public Web Site.
Since 1996, TRAC has mounted and updated a series of specialized sites on the World Wide Web with highly detailed but easy-to-access information on selected federal enforcement agencies, special topical reports, and "bulletins" about federal enforcement, staffing and expenditures. The sites — featuring colorful maps and graphs and tens of thousands of pages of tables and other supporting material — are available without charge to anyone with access to the web. Currently featured are separate TRAC Web sites describing the enforcement activities and staffing patterns of the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Another area, TRAC-Reports, features TRAC's most recent reports, access to the archives, and bulletins detailing the most recent data updates. From here, for a minimal charge, it is possible to access detailed data and reports formerly available to subscribers only.
And still another area, TRAC-Immigration, deals in-depth with how our nation's immigration laws are enforced in administrative and criminal courts by a wide variety of agencies. Reports include records of individual judges. A reference library containing government immigration studies and a glossary are also maintained.
- TRACFED Data Warehouse.
At http://tracfed.syr.edu you will find the dynamic subscription site that allows access to TRAC's data warehouse. The warehouse provides a vast range of information about federal enforcement activities — criminal, civil, and administrative — as well as detailed information about federal staffing, federal funds, and the diverse characteristics of counties, federal districts, and states. Subscribers, with the click of a mouse, can request specific statistics, detailed listings, maps or charts and have the information return immediately to their browser. More advanced web-tools allow users to conduct tailor-made analyses of specific subsets ("data slices") they want to examine in depth. A flash movie allows you to view without charge TRACFED features.
All federal criminal enforcement activities are covered — under any law or Justice Department program category, by any agency, and in any one of the 90 federal judicial districts or for the nation as a whole. The civil enforcement layers allows analysis of civil litigation handled by the U.S. Attorneys where the government sues or is itself the subject of a suit. In either case, broad statistical reviews as well as detailed information about individual cases or matters may be obtained. The administrative enforcement layer, now featuring information about IRS audit and collection actions, focuses upon administrative enforcement activities outside of court.
To place these enforcement activities — criminal, civil, and administrative — into a broader context, another layer provides detailed information on federal civilian employees, where they work, what they do, and how much they are paid. Again, broad statistical overviews including rankings and time trends are available, as well as detailed information on salary, post of duty, and occupation down to the individually named federal employee. A further layer on federal funds provides comprehensive information about where government funds are spent — by program and agency — for each state, federal district, and county. Finally, the community context layer provides demographic and economic information about every county, state and federal judicial district.
- Notification Systems.
To help our users keep up with all we are doing, we have implemented RSS feeds and email alerts. With these you can select specific topics or general news and we will let you know about new data, bulletins, and/or reports as they become available.
- Search and Reports.
With TRAC's search tool, users are able to search the TRACFED Data Warehouse to see if what they want is available. If the data you are looking for is there, you are presented with directions on how to access it. And, if the data relates to criminal enforcement, you can either turn it into a custom report or create a listing file of the first 100 cases found. The search function is free; data access requires a subscription.
Additionally, TRAC provides very timely month-by-month reports and data tracking changes in the government's criminal enforcement activities. With these bulletins the public has been able to document what the government was doing almost as soon as it did it. Many of these bulletins are free (see list), while others are available to subscribers or to non-subscribers for a small fee (see list of all bulletins.)
Using TRAC's Data Interpreter, you can also generate combination reports — for example, combining an agency selection with district, or district with program, etc. — and drill all the way down to specific details of the individual court cases. In addition to prosecutions and convictions, the Data Interpreter lets you create bulletins on prison sentences of 1 year or more. Also, in addition to the current month, you can generate fiscal year-to-date reports. As with bulletins, combination reports are available to subscribers or for a small fee.
- TRAC Training.
TRAC offers training to new site license subscribers and to renewing sites who want to improve their ability to use data to examine the actual policies of individual U.S. Attorneys, agencies, and administrations or to explore how well or poorly a specific law is functioning. Our training does not focus on technical skills like using software-specific commands. Rather, it is designed to give users a solid framework for understanding how they can use enforcement data for constructive oversight. What information is available? How can it be explored? Because our training sessions have become so popular, we've been forced to restrict them to site license subscribers. Individuals who subscribe monthly can use our online help and tutorials to help them get started and to improve their skills.
- TRAC Help and Tutorials.
For monthly subscribers and others who think they might be interested, TRAC has created an extensive Help section with information about all our offerings and tools. Tutorial movies walk you through the "How-To" of using the data warehouse. All are available free of charge.
- TRAC Research.
Six to seven times a year, TRAC conducts in-depth analyses and publishes the findings on the public web site. Selected examples of how these reports and TRAC data have been used by the news media, Congress, and public interest groups are available in the TRAC at Work section on this web site.
- TRAC's Staff
The co-directors of TRAC are Susan Long, a statistician and professor in Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management who as a FOIA pioneer has specialized in federal enforcement issues for more than 25 years, and David Burnham, an investigative writer and former New York Times reporter, who has covered local, state and federal enforcement issues since 1966. TRAC has offices in Syracuse, NY and Washington, D.C., and a west coast branch office.
Other members of TRAC's staff include Paula, our Office Manager;
Michael, our Applications Developer;
Linda, our Senior Research Fellow; and Jeff, our Web Manager.
TRAC also provides employment and educational opportunities for Syracuse University students in the areas of