Alavetelicon, or how to give a voice to the people

This guest post by Romina Colman from Argentina is a translation of her original article at La Nacion

Attending the first Alaveteli World Conference reminded me why I am dedicated to promoting access to public information in my country.

At the University of Oxford, where the event was held, I found not just 50 delegates from 33 countries, but a group of people who, like myself, are convinced that only by working together will we bring the Right to Information to light.

In this place I gained an understanding of what Alaveteli is. You can define it as open source software for creating sites that solicit information from the State. But that is the very least of it, and does it a disservice.

Alaveteli is, above all, a community, a group of people willing to get the word out to help citizens improve their quality of life, to understand that Freedom of Information is a right and as such, must be respected.

This is the goal of the team. It’s a difficult task if it’s anything. However, no obstacle seems to stop those who have chosen to take the project forward.

During the first day of the conference, a panel discussed access to public information in different countries. The general conclusion was that much remains to be done: there are still national territories with no FOI law instilled, as in our case, and there are places with long lead times for delivery of a response, a problem most evident in the U.S., for example.

With lunch came a series of flash talks, in which we shared the situation in our countries, but in most cases, the talks ended with “count on us for what we need.”

I was also pleasantly surprised to talk to Tom Steinberg, director of mySociety, the NGO which built Alaveteli, and to find that he was unlike anyone else in the room. Tom is one of those people that it is impossible to ignore: he has the contagious spirit of a student, and a welcome for everybody. He makes it impossible not to get involved, because he has complete belief in what he does. He’ll always listen to criticism and he knows the best way to help people move forward when they hit an obstacle.

All the workshops for activists focused on the need for collaboration, open discussion and teamwork. Monday’s session, by Daniel Silva, one half of the duo behind the Brazilian Alaveteli, highlighted the main problems facing those who wish to promote the project in their countries: the initial resistance of the authorities, and non-response to requests.

Beyond that, in jurisdictions where Alaveteli is already up and running, positive change has been achieved.

In the UK, some public bodies are interested in the possibilities offered by this open source software. No wonder. Alaveteli is not just a technology for transparency, but it also promotes a new type of relationship between the State and the people.

Any technological advance without a body of stakeholders to promote it is doomed to failure before it even begins. Therefore, to develop the initiative, always and without exception, you have to get the public sector behind you.

The very best type of civic leader understands that Alaveteli is not anti-government. On the contrary, it presents a unique opportunity for citizens to talk to them. When public information is in the hands of the people, it contributes to a democracy that is no longer experienced in the abstract – it is felt to be tangible and real.

This is the main challenge for all of us who met in Oxford earlier this week, already feeling like  part of a great community that mySociety had brought together.

Perhaps for this reason, on the last day of the event, a list of all proposed improvements to Alaveteli was put on the wall.

Which got the most votes?
–  A way to generate statistics, with a league table of institutions, showing which bodies are the most, or least, responsive;
– Advice for users where they are given no information, or requests are denied;
– Functionality to allow the use of these sites in countries where FOI requests have to be submitted on paper, rather than by email.

My participation in the conference, without doubt, has changed my understanding of what it means to be an activist, a word which is often loaded with negative meaning.

In my case, being an activist for Freedom of Information means asking the state questions every week, walking, taking the subway, approaching the front desk of an agency to make my request, taking home my sealed copy, sitting and waiting, in some cases receiving a request for an extension… and finally having the answer in my hands.

This is what I call “literally getting access to public information.” Because as an excellent teacher of journalism once said, a journalist’s work is not done from the desk. Neither is the FOI activist’s.

If we want our voices heard, we must cry out, until the echo is so intense that they can not ignore it. Alaveteli does that, and much more: it gives voice to those who did not know they had one. It allows you to ask, not only in order to get an answer, but to show public information can improve the lives of people.

And indeed it does. Only a few people know that everyone has the right to ask about scholarships, neighborhood plans, grants, and many other things. This is where Alaveteli’s power lies.

For all this, it was really hard for me to leave Oxford. Everyone who took part in this first world conference of activists and hackers showed that if one is truly convinced of a project like those that mySociety have instigated, you can achieve. The most important thing is to find a team that believes in this aim, and wants to pursue it.

The rest is secondary. After all, in the Alaveteli community we are a couple of crazy people who want to change access to public information, nothing more and nothing less. A couple of people that nobody can ignore.