One of the great joys of working on Alaveteli is that we also get to meet and collaborate with all kinds of organisations around the world who care about transparency, helping them set up their own Freedom of Information websites on our open source codebase.
One such project is MaDada, the French FOI site which launched in the autumn of 2019, helping citizens navigate the bureaucracy around submitting a request for information. The name is a pun: ‘dada’ being a kids’ word for horse — hence their equine logo.
Thanks to ongoing support from the Adessium fund, we’ve recently equipped MaDada with the ‘Pro’ add-on that allows journalists and other professional users of FOI to access specialised tools.
We took the opportunity to speak with Laurent Savaete and Eda Nano from the Ma Dada team, to learn more about how the site has been received by the French populace and what the hopes are for this new Pro functionality (or ‘Plus Plus‘ as they’re calling it over there).
FOI in France
But first, we wanted to know more about the background of FOI in France. The Alaveteli community consists of so many organisations pursuing the same types of aims, but always against different cultural backgrounds, and there’s always an opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences. Eda and Laurent filled us in:
“The French FOI law is one of the oldest around — it dates back as far as 1978. It’s often referred to as the CADA law, based on the ‘Commission d’Accès aux Documents Administratifs’ which is the official institution in charge of overseeing how administrations comply with it. One good thing is that in both 2016 and 2018 the law was reinforced to require all documents to be released as open data, in open standards and easy-to-use formats.
“But unfortunately the right to information is not so strong here in France. For example, CADA doesn’t have a power of mandate. When an administration fails to respond to a request, CADA’s decisions are no more than advisory opinions, though they can be crucial if you want to take the administration to court for lack of response.
“Not everyone’s able or ready to take administrations to court, though. I mean, it’s not that the process is difficult, but it’s far more complex than filing an FOI request via MaDada.
“Also, while anyone can ask for documents, and the service is always free, we can only request documents that already exist and ‘do not require too much work from the authority’. There is of course no clear definition of ‘too much work’, but it’s often used as a reason to reject a request, along with the exemptions around matters of defence and official secrets which are too easily brandished in response to requests.”
Wait, ‘of course’ there’s no definition — did we hear that correctly? Apparently so:
“The exact wording of the French law is that a request must only be fulfilled if it ‘does not require so much work that it could impede the officer or the administration from doing their main work’.”
We were astonished to hear this — here in the UK, we have the same exemption, but it comes complete with an upper cost, which can also be expressed as hours of work, which must be undertaken before the authority can refuse the request due to ‘exceeding the appropriate limit’. We’ve also got a bunch of other exemptions! But at least they are all clearly defined.
Plan for an Open Government
When it comes to other problems with FOI, there’s a story that’s familiar to many in the Alaveteli network:
“The key problem in France is the gap between the law, and how the law is actually applied or enforced. Incentives for public officers tend to push against transparency: nobody will get in trouble for ignoring a request for documents, but they could if they disclose documents which shouldn’t have been published. So erring on the side of safety means less transparency.
“More and more, journalists and activists have been pointing out the complete lack of FOI responses or the overrun in delays from administrations in providing a legally required response.”
“Transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool!”
On the other hand, something’s in the air: “What we’ve seen in recent years and especially months, is that after the mid 2020 elections, municipalities started appointing deputies on transparency matters. For example in Marseilles, we now have a Representative for Transparency and Open Data for the town.
“France signed up for the Open Government Partnership initiative in 2014, but its first action plan in 2018-20? Frankly the results were not spectacular at all: it was more words than action.
“Last month, the Government launched a second two-year ‘Plan for an Open Government’: this one’s set to run until 2023. They said it will be better, with more money to serve it, more concrete actions, more collaborations with citizens. And they’ve asked MaDada to give feedback and tell them what we’d like to see realised in the next few years.
“So transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool. But at the moment it’s too young to be judged. The words are there and we need to see concrete actions. Let’s hope that things really will change drastically towards openness and transparency and that that we do not only have words to rely on.”
That’s all very interesting and helps us understand the background details. Now, into this mix a new FOI site for the general public appeared 18 months ago. So how has MaDada been received?
“When we launched in October 2019, the French FOI law was quite an unknown topic for the public at large, and the need for transparency and open data were still, somehow, something only discussed internally.
“In our first year of existence we had something like 200 requests (see MaDada’s blog posts about their first year online – in French).
“We are now at 800 public requests. So numbers picked up pace: something’s happened recently.
“It’s not just that the platform recently improved — with better user support and the addition of the Pro feature: we can also see that the topics of open data and transparency are becoming more and more popular. Several activists and organisations have been campaigning around these matters, sometimes via MaDada. The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.
“We list 50,509 public authorities (I think France has the world record here). A lot of our support time is used up trying to keep the email addresses for these authorities up to date. And that’s tricky: there’s not much proactive updating from the authorities themselves, we’re constantly having to ask them for new addresses. We hope that the Project for an Open Government will make this easier for us.
“As of today we’ve reached 955 requests, of which 794 are public — the rest are still embargoed. Out of those, just 126 have been successful so far. That’s very low: many authorities in France just ignore the law, and sit on incoming requests until the one month time limit to reply is over. We’re at around a 15% success rate, which is probably not too bad in the average French context. We’re obviously hoping to work to improve this!
“We’ve just seen an incredible growth in the number of users and requests in the past five months: more or less an exponential growth, which is pretty exciting! We hope this trend continues.”
And as for the addition of Pro, allowing for the MaDada++ service? We were interested to hear the organisation’s experiences and hopes around this add-on.
“The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.”
“The Madada++ feature is working so well: it’s been attracting journalists mostly, as well as data scientists and activists. The biggest appeal is the batch requests, and also the temporarily embargoed requests, allowing them to keep their news stories exclusive, or giving them time to analyse data before publishing.
“We’re happy to see that despite this ability, they still follow our advice to publish data as soon as they can.
“Since the MaDada++ feature went live, we’ve clearly seen more in-depth analysis and journals publishing reports on data obtained through it. We hope to see more coming in the next months.”
What’s France asking for?
Finally, we were curious about the type of information that’s been released on MaDada. Anything of interest here?
“Well, recently, as you might expect, there have been a lot of requests related to COVID-19: data around the analysis of COVID in sewage water; about the circulation of COVID variants in France; metrics showing the usage of our national COVID app.
“Let us also mention the publication of a report on poverty and conditions in accessing minimum social aid in France by the Secours Catholique and Aequitaz organisations: this report used responses to batch requests made via MaDada++.
“And another journalist, who uses MaDada extensively, just published a report on the fees of deputies, pointing out the lack of and need for transparency — that the French law already requires!
“Also, we’re very proud to begin our collaboration with La Quadrature Du Net, the French organisation defending digital fundamental liberties, who are intensively using MaDada for their legal analysis and for their Technopolice campaign that reveals the encroaching police surveillance powers.”
And on that last note, there’s the proof of the assertion we made at the top of this post: that the international community of Alaveteli users have so much in common. Privacy International have been looking into exactly this same issue, as we covered in a blog post.
We want to thank MaDada so much for sharing their experiences in deploying and running the Alaveteli codebase and offering the people of France an easier route to accessing information. While we’re all unable to travel, we can still have these useful and interesting discussions. May their project go from strength to strength.
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