1. Our research into the impact of technologies on FOI

    by Tom Longley and Savita Bailur, on 03 July 2014

    In March this year mySociety put out a call for a research consultant to look at the place that Alaveteli – mySociety’s open source freedom of information (FOI) filer – might have in creating cultures of transparency and accountability. So, eventually, mySociety chose us – Savita Bailur and Tom Longley. Since we’re the strangers here, we’d like to introduce ourselves, give you an idea of the approach that we’ll be taking, and what we’ve found in the first weeks of the research.

    Who are we?

    Savita is a consultant who has previously worked for the World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, USAID, and Panos and taught at the University of Manchester and London School of Economics. She has a personal interest in freedom of information as her family in India successfully used the Right to Information Act in India to find out about violations of building regulations (although the legal process to change things is taking more time). If there’s one thing of Savita’s to read, it’s Closing the Feedback Loop : Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap?, which she wrote in and co-edited.

    Tom is a human rights and technology consultant who’s worked on field investigations of crimes against humanity. After years wading through stacks of documentation and interview transcripts, he became interested in how data and technologies could help this work. He has since worked for investigation organisations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Zimbabwe and others helping building up their ability to use data and technologies safely and effectively. Tom also consults for Tactical Technology Collective, Global Witness and Open Society Foundations. If there’s one thing of his to read, it’s probably “Deadly Environment”, a report about murders of environmental defenders.

    What are we doing?

    The top level question we’re addressing is: “In what circumstances, if any, can tools like Alaveteli be shown to have measurable impacts on the ability of citizens to exert power over underperforming institutions?” To get at this, we’ll be doing three things:

    • First, a review of the studies so far on the impact of the internet on FOI. Our early findings flag a lot of research into the mechanics of FOI, but very little on its impact, other than anecdotal evidence. There are some great points and questions raised in the literature however, which we combine into roughly ten areas of impact. These include FOI’s role in aiding the transition from transparency to accountability, the role of different groups (like the media, movements, non-governmental and community groups), public and institutional perceptions, security and privacy. We find that the overall challenge is that the technology is only part of the FOI value chain – governments also need to respond, and sanctions/enforcements put in place which ensure governments are transparent and accountable.
    • Second, a field scan of practitioners. There are nearly 20 FOI websites running Alaveteli. Some sites are just getting started, like Доступ До Правди (“Access the Truth”) in Ukraine. By talking with the people setting up and using these sites, we aim to pull together a view of what makes a successful implementation, what the challenges are, and what can be learned for future implementors of FOI sites.
    • Third, a list of critical success factors, pulled together from both the literature and practitioner reviews, which will be translated into major languages.

    All these documents should be published this September, along with something brief and readable with the topline findings.

    What are we asking of you?

    If you run an Alaveteli site, we may have already emailed you or will do very soon asking if you can spare some time to talk with us as part of the practioner review. More generally, we’re continuing to look for more articles and ‘grey’ literature, in particular any quantitative studies, about the role of technologies in FOI. We have a shorter list of articles we have found so far here, and a longer list here – have we missed any? Please let us know.

    To wrap up, this is first generation research into this area. We hope to have material that can be useful to you and mySociety. Any questions, get in touch via the comments field, or via twitter at any of our handles (@alaveteli_foi, @tlongers, @savitabailur).

    Short reference list

    Baisakh, Pradeep. 2007. “India Together: Villagers Push for Work Benefits in Orissa.” http://indiatogether.org/egarti-human-rights.

    Bauhr, Monika, and Marcia Grimes. 2014. “Indignation or Resignation: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability.” Governance 27 (2): 291–320. doi:10.1111/gove.12033.

    Bertot, John C., Paul T. Jaeger, and Justin M. Grimes. 2010. “Using ICTs to Create a Culture of Transparency: E-Government and Social Media as Openness and Anti-Corruption Tools for Societies.” Government Information Quarterly 27 (3): 264–71. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.001.

    Birkinshaw, Patrick. 2010. “Freedom of Information and Its Impact in the United Kingdom.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 312–21. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.06.006.

    Brooke, Heather. 2011. “Fess up – or Face a Future of Leaks.” British Journalism Review 22 (1): 17–19. doi:10.1177/09564748110220010601.

    Cabo, David. (2012). “Tu derecho a saber” David Cabo at TedxMadrid. Accessed June 25. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okta1VjTM0I.

    Cherry, Morag, and David McMenemy. 2013. “Freedom of Information and ‘vexatious’ Requests — The Case of Scottish Local Government.” Government Information Quarterly 30 (3): 257–66. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2013.02.004.

    Consumer Unity and Trust Society. 2010. Analysing the Right to Information Act in India. Jaipur: Consumer Unity and Trust Society.

    Costa, Samia. 2013. “Do Freedom of Information Laws Decrease Corruption?” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 29 (6): 1317–43. doi:10.1093/jleo/ews016.

    Dunion, K. 2011. “Viewpoint: In Defence of Freedom of Information.” Information Polity 16 (2): 93–96. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0233.

    Etzioni, Amitai. 2010. “Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?” Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (4): 389–404. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2010.00366.x.

    Finel, Bernard I., and Kristin M. Lord. 1999. “The Surprising Logic of Transparency.” International Studies Quarterly 43 (2): 325–39. doi:10.1111/0020-8833.00122.

    Fox, Jonathan. 2007. “The Uncertain Relationship between Transparency and Accountability.” Development in Practice 17 (4-5): 663–71. doi:10.1080/09614520701469955.

    Gandhi, Shailesh. 2007. “The RTI Movement Will Lead India to Swaraj.” Accessed June 24. http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/oct/11guest.htm.
    Global Right to Information Rating. 2014. “Country Data.” http://www.rti-rating.org/.

    Government of India. 2005. “Right to Information, Planning Commission, Governement of India.” http://planningcommission.gov.in/rti/index.php.

    Grimmelikhuijsen, Stephan. 2012. “A Good Man but a Bad Wizard. About the Limits and Future of Transparency of Democratic Governments.” Information Polity 17 (3): 293–302. doi:10.3233/IP-2012-000288.

    Hazell, R., Benjamin Worthy, and M. Glover. 2010. The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK: Does Freedom of Information Work? London: Palgrave Macmillan. http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=407804.

    Hazell, Robert, and Ben Worthy. 2010. “Assessing the Performance of Freedom of Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 352–59. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.005.

    India Together: RTI: An Enormous Power with the People: Vinita Deshmukh – 07 August 2006. 2006. http://indiatogether.org/arvind-interviews.

    Jaeger, Paul T., and John Carlo Bertot. 2010. “Transparency and Technological Change: Ensuring Equal and Sustained Public Access to Government Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 371–76. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.05.003.

    Joshi, Anuradha. 2013. “Do They Work? Assessing the Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives in Service Delivery.” Development Policy Review 31: s29–s48. doi:10.1111/dpr.12018.

    McDonagh, Maeve. 2013. “The Right to Information in International Human Rights Law.” Human Rights Law Review 13 (1). http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2446424.

    Meijer, Albert Jacob. 2003. “Transparent Government: Parliamentary and Legal Accountability in an Information Age.” Information Polity 8 (1): 67–78.

    Michener, Greg. 2011. “FOI Laws Around the World.” Journal of Democracy 22 (2): 145–59. doi:10.1353/jod.2011.0021.

    Michener, Greg, and Katherine Bersch. 2013. “Identifying Transparency.” Information Polity 18 (3): 233–42. doi:10.3233/IP-130299.

    Minihan, Mary. 2014. “Cabinet Abolishes €15 Freedom of Information Fee”, July 1. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/cabinet-abolishes-15-freedom-of-information-fee-1.1851481.

    Nye, Joseph S., Philip Zelikow, and David C. King. 1997. Why People Don’t Trust Government. Boston: Harvard University Press.

    Roberts, Alasdair. 2010. “A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act.” Public Administration Review 70 (6): 925–33. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2010.02224.x.

    Shepherd, Elizabeth, Alice Stevenson, and Andrew Flinn. 2011. “Freedom of Information and Records Management in Local Government: Help or Hindrance?” Information Polity 16 (2): 111–21. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0229.

    Spence, Kate, and William Dinan. 2011. “Healthy Tensions? Assessing FOI Uptake in the Voluntary Sector in Scotland.” Information Polity 16 (2): 97–109. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0228.

    Srivastava, Smita. 2010. “The Right to Information in India: Implementation and Impact.” Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences 1 (1): 1–18.

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2012). Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2012. Accessed June 25. http://blog-tdas.s3.amazonaws.com/blog-tdas/2013/04/informe2012.pdf

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2013). Silencio masivo de las instituciones en el año de la transparencia: Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2013. Accessed June 25. http://blog.tuderechoasaber.es/informe2013/.

    UNDP. 2006. A Guide to Measuring the Impact of Right to Information Programmes; Practical Guide Note. New York: UNDP.

    Worthy, Ben. 2010. “More Open but Not More Trusted? The Effect of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 on the United Kingdom Central Government.” Governance 23 (4): 561–82. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0491.2010.01498.x.

    Long reference list

    Baisakh, Pradeep. 2007. “India Together: Villagers Push for Work Benefits in Orissa.” http://indiatogether.org/egarti-human-rights.

    Bannister, Frank, and Regina Connolly. 2011. “The Trouble with Transparency: A Critical Review of Openness in E-Government.” Policy & Internet 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.2202/1944-2866.1076.

    Bauhr, Monika, and Marcia Grimes. 2014. “Indignation or Resignation: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability.” Governance 27 (2): 291–320. doi:10.1111/gove.12033.

    Bentham, Jeremy, and Sir John Bowring. 1839. Works of Jeremy Bentham. W. Tait.

    Berliner, Daniel. 2014. “The Political Origins of Transparency.” The Journal of Politics 76 (02): 479–91. doi:10.1017/S0022381613001412.

    Bertot, John C., Paul T. Jaeger, and Justin M. Grimes. 2010. “Using ICTs to Create a Culture of Transparency: E-Government and Social Media as Openness and Anti-Corruption Tools for Societies.” Government Information Quarterly 27 (3): 264–71. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.001.

    Birkinshaw, Patrick. 2010. “Freedom of Information and Its Impact in the United Kingdom.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 312–21. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.06.006.

    Breton, Albert. 2007. The Economics of Transparency in Politics. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

    Brooke, Heather. 2011. “Fess up – or Face a Future of Leaks.” British Journalism Review 22 (1): 17–19. doi:10.1177/09564748110220010601.

    Cabo, David. (2012). “Tu derecho a saber” David Cabo at TedxMadrid. Accessed June 25. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okta1VjTM0I.

    Cherry, Morag, and David McMenemy. 2013. “Freedom of Information and ‘vexatious’ Requests — The Case of Scottish Local Government.” Government Information Quarterly 30 (3): 257–66. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2013.02.004.

    Consumer Unity and Trust Society. 2010. Analysing the Right to Information Act in India. Jaipur: Consumer Unity and Trust Society.

    Costa, Samia. 2013. “Do Freedom of Information Laws Decrease Corruption?” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 29 (6): 1317–43. doi:10.1093/jleo/ews016.

    Douglass, Frederick. 2014. “(1857) Frederick Douglass, ‘If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress’ – The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” Accessed June 24. http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress.

    Dunion, K. 2011. “Viewpoint: In Defence of Freedom of Information.” Information Polity 16 (2): 93–96. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0233.

    Etzioni, Amitai. 2010. “Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?” Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (4): 389–404. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2010.00366.x.

    Fenster, Mark. 2010. Seeing the State: Transparency as Metaphor. SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1562762. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida. http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1562762.

    Finel, Bernard I., and Kristin M. Lord. 1999. “The Surprising Logic of Transparency.” International Studies Quarterly 43 (2): 325–39. doi:10.1111/0020-8833.00122.

    Fox, Jonathan. 2007. “The Uncertain Relationship between Transparency and Accountability.” Development in Practice 17 (4-5): 663–71. doi:10.1080/09614520701469955.

    Fung, Archon. 2006. “Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance.” Public Administration Review 66: 66–75. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2006.00667.x.

    Gandhi, Shailesh. 2007. “The RTI Movement Will Lead India to Swaraj.”
    Global Right to Information Rating. 2014. “Country Data.” http://www.rti-rating.org/.

    Government of India. 2005. “Right to Information, Planning Commission, Governement of India.” http://planningcommission.gov.in/rti/index.php.

    Grimmelikhuijsen, Stephan. 2012. “A Good Man but a Bad Wizard. About the Limits and Future of Transparency of Democratic Governments.” Information Polity 17 (3): 293–302. doi:10.3233/IP-2012-000288.

    Hazell, R., Benjamin Worthy, and M. Glover. 2010. The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK: Does Freedom of Information Work? London: Palgrave Macmillan. http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=407804.

    Hazell, Robert, and Ben Worthy. 2010. “Assessing the Performance of Freedom of Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 352–59. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.005.

    Hood, Christopher. 2006. “Transparency in Historical Perspective.” In Transparency: The Key to Better Governance?, edited by Christopher Hood and David Heald, 3–23. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. http://www.oup.co.uk/.

    India Together: RTI: An Enormous Power with the People: Vinita Deshmukh – 07 August 2006. 2006. http://indiatogether.org/arvind-interviews.

    Jaeger, Paul T., and John Carlo Bertot. 2010. “Transparency and Technological Change: Ensuring Equal and Sustained Public Access to Government Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 371–76. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.05.003.

    Joshi, Anuradha. 2013. “Do They Work? Assessing the Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives in Service Delivery.” Development Policy Review 31: s29–s48. doi:10.1111/dpr.12018.

    Lathrop, Daniel, and Laurel Ruma. 2010. Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

    Linders, Dennis. 2012. “From E-Government to We-Government: Defining a Typology for Citizen Coproduction in the Age of Social Media.” Government Information Quarterly, Social Media in Government – Selections from the 12th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research (dg.o2011), 29 (4): 446–54. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2012.06.003.

    McDonagh, Maeve. 2013. “The Right to Information in International Human Rights Law.” Human Rights Law Review 13 (1). http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2446424.

    Meijer, Albert J. 2012. “Introduction to the Special Issue on Government Transparency.” International Review of Administrative Sciences 78 (1): 3–9. doi:10.1177/0020852311435639.

    Meijer, Albert Jacob. 2003. “Transparent Government: Parliamentary and Legal Accountability in an Information Age.” Information Polity 8 (1): 67–78.

    Michener, Greg. 2011. “FOI Laws Around the World.” Journal of Democracy 22 (2): 145–59. doi:10.1353/jod.2011.0021.

    Michener, Greg, and Katherine Bersch. 2013. “Identifying Transparency.” Information Polity 18 (3): 233–42. doi:10.3233/IP-130299.

    Minihan, Mary. 2014. “Cabinet Abolishes €15 Freedom of Information Fee”, July 1. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/cabinet-abolishes-15-freedom-of-information-fee-1.1851481.

    Nye, Joseph S., Philip Zelikow, and David C. King. 1997. Why People Don’t Trust Government. Boston: Harvard University Press.

    Official Information: Your Right To Know — Ministry of Justice, New Zealand. 2014. Accessed June 24. http://www.justice.govt.nz/publications/global-publications/o/official-information-your-right-to-know.

    OneWorld. 2011. ICT Facilitated Access to Information Innovations.

    Press Association. 2009. “Telegraph Reveals Cost of MP’s Expense Story.”

    Roberts, Alasdair. 2010. “A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act.” Public Administration Review 70 (6): 925–33. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2010.02224.x.

    Schedler, Andreas. 1999. “Conceptualizing Accountability.” In The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies, edited by Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner, 13–28. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

    Shepherd, Elizabeth, Alice Stevenson, and Andrew Flinn. 2011. “Freedom of Information and Records Management in Local Government: Help or Hindrance?” Information Polity 16 (2): 111–21. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0229.

    Smith, Matthew L., and Katherine M. A. Reilly. 2014. Open Development: Networked Innovations in International Development. Ottawa: MIT Press.

    Spence, Kate, and William Dinan. 2011. “Healthy Tensions? Assessing FOI Uptake in the Voluntary Sector in Scotland.” Information Polity 16 (2): 97–109. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0228.

    Srivastava, Smita. 2010. “The Right to Information in India: Implementation and Impact.” Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences 1 (1): 1–18.

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2012). Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2012. Accessed June 25. http://blog-tdas.s3.amazonaws.com/blog-tdas/2013/04/informe2012.pdf

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2013). Silencio masivo de las instituciones en el año de la transparencia: Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2013. Accessed June 25. http://blog.tuderechoasaber.es/informe2013/.

    UNDP. 2006. A Guide to Measuring the Impact of Right to Information Programmes; Practical Guide Note. New York: UNDP.

    Wilson, Woodrow, and William Bayard Hale. 1918. The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People. Doubleday, Page.

    Worthy, Ben. 2010. “More Open but Not More Trusted? The Effect of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 on the United Kingdom Central Government.” Governance 23 (4): 561–82. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0491.2010.01498.x.

    Xiao, Weibing. 2010. “The Improved Information Environment as a Key Rationale for Freedom of Information Reform in China.” Information Polity 15 (3): 177–87. doi:10.3233/IP-2010-0214.


    If you have any questions, or problems installing the code, please do get in touch, or post on our mailing list.

  2. Release 0.9, and a new development roundup

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.9 – hopefully the last release before we upgrade to Rails 3. The last few months have meant a bunch of behind the scenes upgrades, bugfixes and refactorings to get us to this point – with some highlights being:

    • Alaveteli now has better support for running entirely over SSL – as can be seen at WhatDoTheyKnow and the new Australian Right to Know site.
    • Upgrade to HTML 5
    • Preliminary support for running under ruby 1.9 (full support to come with the Rails 3 upgrade)
    • Better isolation and testing of the mail handling code
    • A more consistent admin user interface using Bootstrap by default
    • Better support for responsive front end themes and sqlite on the back end
    • A clearer and more consistent format for translations

    Thanks to everyone who’s contributed!

  3. New for developers: deploying with capistrano, handling mail with Postfix.

    It’s been a long time since the last post, but we’ve been busy! We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.6.8. A full list of changes is available on github. For developers, there are a couple of bits of good news – Alaveteli can now be easily deployed using Capistrano, and has support for using Postfix as an MTA, as well as Exim. Both of these features come courtesy of @matthewlandauer and @henaredegan of the Open Australia Foundation, who are getting very close to launching their own Alaveteli-based FOI site.

  4. API update: now you can create and update requests

    Version 0.6.1 of the software was recently released with an urgent security update.  Also included in this release was an extension of Alaveteli’s API, which allows developers to write apps that create and update requests on a per-public body basis.  There’s the start of some documentation on the website.

  5. New for developers: bundler support

    Thanks to lots of hard work from @mckinneyjames, Alaveteli now uses Bundler wherever possible to satisfy its dependencies.

    We have a few such dependencies, like recaptcha and rmagick.  Previously we installed these from system packages on Debian.  The advantages of using Bundler are:

    • We can upgrade to newer versions more quickly than Debian packages allow
    • It’s the standard way of packaging software in Rails 3, to which we will migrate in due course (in fact, we will probably skip straight to Rails 4…)
    • It brings the process of getting a working setup in OS X closer to that of building the same thing on a Linux-based system

    It’s not utopia — the first run of “bundle install” on a new system will take a very long time, because Xapian has to be compiled from scratch; and we can’t remove our non-rubygems dependencies like gnuplot and memcached.  However, as part of the slow process of moving to a modern Rails setup, this is a major step forward.

  6. New feature: “following” and the “wall”

    You’ve always been able to subscribe to email alerts about requests.  However, since WhatDoTheyKnow (the predecessor to Alaveteli) was first conceived, certain well-known websites have become the primary way many of us interact with the internet.  So we decided to use some of their technology.  Instead of subscribing to alerts, you now follow topics.  And when you follow a topic, by default this still means you get email; but you can turn email alerts off, and choose to view updates on a new “wall” area.

    Here’s the “Follow” button:

    following a topic

    …and here’s the “wall”:

    the new "wall" in alaveteli
  7. New feature: easier request moderation

    WhatDoTheyKnow has been criticised in the past for not doing more to discourage frivolous or abusive requests. The vast majority of requests for information are sensible, but we get a some citizens using the site to vent their anger or frustration at something, and a reasonable number of requests which are not really FOI requests at all, made by people who misunderstand the purpose of the site.

    Alaveteli has always supported hiding requests that are unsuitable, but in version 0.6 we’ve added some new functionality that makes the process smoother and faster.

    First, we allow any logged in user to report a request for moderation by an administrator. This is important because there’s no way we could support the moderation of requests before they are published on the site:

    Requests that have been reported now appear in a worklist on the home page of Alaveteli’s administrative interface:

    When a moderator clicks through to the edit page for the request, they are now presented with radio buttons to select a reason why the request should be hidden (if any). A text box appears prefilled with suggested text, and when the moderator hits the “hide request” button, this message is emailed to the requestor notifying them that their message has been hidden:

    Let us know if you find this useful, and if you think it needs any more tweaking!

  8. New feature: the new bootstrap admin theme

    One of the major new features in the latest release of Alaveteli is a more attractive (and hopefully more usable) admin theme.  Here’s a before-and-after shot of the home page:

    The theme was started at AlaveteliCon by @wombleton.  It’s based on Twitter’s Bootstrap framework, a CSS-and-javascript foundation for layout and styling of websites.  It tries to collapse the large amounts of data often found on a single page into smaller chunks that can be scanned more easily.

    When I started integrating the new code into the Alaveteli core, I realised that this might be quite a big and potentially unwanted step for users who are used to the old interface.  So I moved all the interface changes into their own theme, which can be installed or uninstalled by changing a line in the configuration file.

    The upshot of this is that instead of specifying a single theme in your site’s configuration file, you can now specify a list of themes.  When Alaveteli needs to display a help page, or a template, or a CSS file, it starts by looking in the first theme on the list.  If the resource isn’t there, it works through the other themes in order, until it falls back to the resources provided in Alaveteli itself.  This may be useful if you want to borrow someone else’s theme but just change the logo or colours; or perhaps if you want to temporarily add a banner at the top of your site to make an announcement about a change in FOI laws in your jurisdiction.

    In new installations of Alaveteli 0.6, the admin theme is installed by default, but existing installations that want to try the theme out will need to add it to their config file, as per the sample config supplied with Alaveteli.

    The new admin theme includes some new functionality that isn’t available in the old theme, and the old theme should be considered deprecated.  You can expect the new admin theme to be merged into the Alaveteli core (and the old theme to disappear) by version 0.7, so if you don’t like the new look, shout out on the mailing list before it’s too late!

  9. Alaveteli 0.6 “fancy admin” released!

    Finally Alaveteli 0.6 is out of the door! Grab it from the github master branch and try it out.  The most obvious new feature is a glossy new administrative interface, based on work started at AlaveteliCon by @wombleton.  If you are upgrading, be sure to read the upgrade notes in CHANGES.md, and the new section in the install docs about upgrading Alaveteli.  Drop a note to the alaveteli-dev mailing list if you need any help with your upgrade.

    A full list of changes is on Github.  Interesting features and bugfixes include:

    • Most Ruby dependencies are now handled by Bundler (thanks @mckinneyjames!)
    • Support for invalidating accelerator cache — this makes it much less likely, when using Varnish, that users will be presented with stale content. Fixes issue #436
    • Adding a GA_CODE to general.yml will cause the relevant Google Analytics code to be added to your rendered pages
    • It is now possible to have more than one theme installed. The behaviour of multiple themes is now layered in the reverse order they’re listed in the config file. See the variable THEME_URLS in general.yml-example for an example.
    • A new, experimental theme for the administrative interface. It’s currently packaged as a standalone theme, but will be merged into the core once it’s been tested and iterated in production a few times. Thanks to @wombleton for kicking this off!
    • Alert subscriptions are now referred to as “following” a request (or group of requests) throughout the UI. When a user “follows” a request, updates regarding that request are posted on a new “wall” page. Now they have a wall, users can opt not to receive alerts by email.
    • New features to support fast post-moderation of bad requests: a button for users to report potentially unsuitable requests, and a form control in the administrative interface that hides a request and sends the user an email explaining why.
    • A bug which prevented locales containing underscores (e.g. en_GB) was fixed (issue #503)
    • Error pages are now presented with styling from themes

    There are some blog posts about some of the new features here:

  10. 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.