Interim report: researching the international impact of FOI technologies

Notes by  Kamilla Oliveira

We’re always busy at mySociety. Running projects in the UK, and helping international partners get started on their own projects – it takes time and energy. It’s easy to get swallowed up in the day-to-day logistics and never take a step back.

But it’s important to make sure that our projects are actually having positive impacts. To that end, we’ve instigated a number of research projects – and you may have seen our recent ad for a Head of Research, now happily filled and coming on board soon.

One piece of research very near completion involves a review of FOI online technologies around the world, including our Alaveteli platform.

Researchers Savita Bailur and Tom Longley have focused on three areas: a literature review to see what research is already out there, in-depth interviews with people who have installed FOI technologies in many different countries, and the compilation of a list of critical success factors. You can read more about them, and their approach in their introduction over on the Alaveteli blog.

We’ll be publishing their final report in full as soon as it’s ready, but here’s an interim update from Savita.

We’re more than half way through the research on the impact of technologies on FOI around the world.

A literature review of the publications we have found on impact of FOI technologies is now in draft form, and we will share that soon.

The practitioner review is coming along. So far we’ve spoken to people who run Alaveteli installations in the European Union, Australia, Bosnia, Canada, Czech Republic, Guatemala, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Kosovo, Liberia, Macedonia, New Zealand, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Tunisia, Uganda, Ukraine and Uruguay.

We’ve also spoken to non-Alaveteli FOI site implementers such as Acceso Inteligente in Chile, MuckRock and IFOIA in the USA, Open Data Georgia, and FragdenStaat in Germany.

Thanks to all of you who kindly gave your time so far – there’s certainly a lot happening out there and some very inspiring, dedicated people!  We still have a few more people to talk to, but thought we’d give a quick progress report on findings so far:

  • FOI websites are definitely making the process of FOI requests much easier. They help citizens and journalists organise their requests. In publishing all exchanges, they make FOI requests more useful for other people who might be searching for similar information.
  • However, the concept is still new – it’s even seen as exotic and possibly rather rude in places where email is regarded as an informal form of communication – so the first step seems to be public (and government) awareness raising. Without it, there is a risk of “transparency theatre” as one respondent delicately put it.
  • Users vary (everyday “citizen” users and/or activists) but very few sites have much demographic information about their users.
  • One common finding from Australia to Canada and in-between is that the use by journalists of Alaveteli is not as extensive as expected, because it takes too long and they fear losing the competitive scoop (as all exchanges are publicly available immediately)
  • Implementers of FOI sites are mostly funded solely by grants, in-kind contributions or not at all. Some are managing to make a living from running FOI sites. Passion and dedication is a very common theme across all sites!
  • By and large, obstacles to realising effective FOI exist everywhere. There is evidence that governments are unfamiliar with FOI (e.g. Tunisia), can be obstructive (e.g. Canada or more specifically the Quebec site, where online FOI requests were originally considered invalid because they were not “in writing”) or openly unwelcoming (e.g. Germany, where a copyright law prohibits sharing of FOI information, or Hungary, where civil society organizations working on FOI have faced intimidation).
  • Hunting down the email addresses of who to contact in public institutions in the first place is one of the most challenging tasks an implementer can face (e.g. Uruguay). Many aren’t published, are inactive, personal emails or simply respond with “quota full” messages. Conversely, some government officials have started asking for their email to be included in the FOI site.
  • Some “vexatious” or facetious requests actually raise the profile of FOI, e.g. a New Zealand request asking if the prime minster was a “shapeshifting reptilian alien” created great publicity for the site
  • In Australia, RightToKnow used FOI to find out what a government ministry thought about the RightToKnow site itself.  If you can find more of these examples, please get in touch.
  • FOI implementers face difficult decisions of whether to collaborate with (e.g. Uganda and Canada) or confront (e.g. Spain) government.
  • Alaveteli implementers consider the Alaveteli support community one of the most valuable aspects of the software and there is often a regional/cultural assistance, e.g. Spain’s Tuderechoasaber assisting Guatemala in starting Guateinformada, or Uganda working with neighbours. However, the code needs to be more customisable.
  • Sustainability is still an issue. This is particularly the case for implementers in “developed” countries who may find fundraising for FOI work more challenging than in countries where donors are investing heavily in transparency and accountability (e.g. World Bank in Uganda).

… and there are many more interesting findings to follow!

All the interviews are now being transcribed (the interviewees having agreed to being recorded) and we are analysing them through themes in qualitative software.

We have more interviews over the next fortnight. The literature review, report of findings and brief strategy document will be out in September – stay tuned.

Any questions/more info/reports you’d like to share, please contact us! We’re @savitabailur and @tlongers on Twitter.

Image by Kamilla Oliveria (CC)