AskTheEU and Informata Zyrtare at OKCon2011

Last week I travelled to Berlin to meet with @dcabo, @helen_access and @KerstiRu of Access Info Europe and Valon Brestovci of Free Libre Open Source Software Kosova (FLOSSK) to discuss and plan collaboration on the first Alaveteli-driven websites: AskTheEu and Informata Zyrtare.

Open hardware milling machine at OKCon

AskTheEu will help NGOs, journalists and citizens to exercise their right to know at the European level.  Not being an EU politics geek myself, it was interesting (and slightly alarming) to find out more about the baroque structure of the EU.  No longer shall I confuse the Council of the European Union with the Council of Europe… or is that the European Council?

The right to know at a European level is based around access to documents rather than information.  This means that all emails should be accompanied by the correct boilerplate text to ensure that they count as FOI requests.  European-level software also opens up some interesting localisation issues: a request can be made in any language, but the information in the response can just be supplied in the original language.  We agreed that for the initial launch we’ll just invite people to use Comments to provide informal summaries in other languages, but longer term we might consider some kind of community-run translation service.

Another interesting localisation challenge will be providing user support.  A successful Alaveteli site needs plenty of resources to keep it running: responding to legal requests, providing tech support, helping people to progress with difficult requests for information.  WhatDoTheyKnow usually has 3 or 4 active volunteers supporting it at any one time – and that’s just in English.  Providing great support in 21 or more languages will need considerable community involvement.

Informata Zyrtare will launch in three languages: Albanian, Serbian and English.  As the majority of requests are expected to be in Albanian, and there are plenty of bilingual speakers available, support is less likely to be an issue.  The team from FLOSSK has been busy working on internationalising the Alaveteli templates and already has a working prototype site in three languages.

Next steps: AskTheEu will hopefully get an Alaveteli test server running this week and start testing the workflow with some real requests.  Due to internal deadlines, Informata Zyrtare had to get Alaveteli running on their own fork of the software, so for the next couple of weeks I’ll be helping them refactor their fork and return to running off the main Alaveteli software again.