1. Transparencia: bringing transparency to Belgium

    “Every citizen has the right to consult every administrative document and make a copy of it”

    That’s article 32 of the Belgian constitution. Pretty clear, isn’t it?

    But until the process is put into the public arena, it’s not that easy to see whether it’s actually being upheld.

    Thanks to the latest Alaveteli launch, that’s about to happen. Anti-corruption NGO Anticor Belgium have just launched a Freedom of Information website Transparencia.be, running on our Alaveteli platform, with our hosting and development support.

    Not only should it make any lapses in authorities’ responses highly visible (acting as a “transparency barometer” is how AntiCor put it), but, as with every Alaveteli website, it will also make the whole process of submitting and tracking a response super-easy for citizens.

    AntiCor strongly believe that increasing transparency of public authority documents will benefit Belgian society as a whole.

    In their experience, most Belgian authorities haven’t respected the country’s access to information laws and often ignore their obligations. AntiCor hope that by exposing these bodies through the new site (and via their extensive network of media contacts) they will improve transparency across the board.

    Volunteer lawyers are on hand to help with tricky cases. This initial launch covers all public authorities in the Brussels region, but AntiCor hope to include all Belgian bodies eventually, too. They also plan to translate the site into Dutch.

    Launching with a splash – and some serious questions

    AntiCor are marking the launch with six requests for information which, they think, ought to be in the public domain, ranging from the release of safety registers for social housing and schools (“Has asbestos been found in your child’s school? By law you are entitled to see the inspection documents”), to analyses of bids for public contracts. You can read more (in French) here.

    Belgian media has been eager to give the new site publicity, an indication of the collective desire for more transparency in the country.

    “It’s a good day for democracy” begins Le Vif, while public broadcasting authority RTBF quotes AntiCor: “Transparency is a basic instrument for improving society – and sometimes the only defence against corruption, the abuse or misuse of public resources”

    La Capitale note that “governments themselves are sometimes unaware of their obligation to transparency to citizens”.

    News outlet Bruzz also underlines AntiCor’s stance on authorities who neglect their duty towards transparency: “In some cases it’s due to careless negligence, but in many cases, it’s down to willful default. [By refusing to disclose documents, authorities can] keep things like a poor use of public money away from public attention, and politicians can go about their business without sufficient democratic control”.

    Let’s hope that Transparencia is the first step towards implementing some of that democratic control. We wish Anticor all the best.

  2. Celebrating 250 years of FOI in Sweden with the launch of FrågaStaten

    Today is a pretty special day. Not only is it International Right To Know Day, but this year also marks the 250th anniversary of the world’s first Freedom of Information legislation, adopted by Sweden in 1766.

    Open Knowledge Sweden have chosen this significant day to launch the beta version of FrågaStaten, the 28th installation of our Alaveteli Freedom of Information software.

    This would always have been an extra special launch for us: Alaveteli is named after a small town, at that time Swedish, which was home to FOI’s forefather Anders Chydenius.

    Anders Chydenius played a crucial role in creating the 1766 constitutional Freedom of Press legislation, which included a Freedom of Information law in Sweden.

    This legislation enshrined the abolishment of political censorship, and gave civil servants the right to Freedom of Whistleblowing in order to expose corruption. Crucially, it also established the first law of public access to government documents (including the right to anyone to access records anonymously) – the first intimations of what we know today as Freedom of Information, or the Right To Know.

    So, 250 years later, we are thrilled that Alaveteli is now being used in the country where Chydenius, and others, fought hard to establish the world’s first access to information law.

    FragaStaten

    Above all, we’re delighted that Swedish citizens now have an easy way to request information from public authorities; which, in turn, is creating an online archive of public knowledge that anyone can access.

    We asked Mattias from Open Knowledge Sweden, who is coordinating the project, their reasons for setting up the site:

    Why did you decide to set up FrågaStaten?

    Sweden has created a narrative of itself as being one of the most open countries in the world. Rightly so, as we have one of the strongest constitutions on Freedom of Information.

    However, throughout the last century and up until the present day, we’ve been going backwards. Most journalists, lawyers and historians have brought attention to this state of affairs, but it has not changed. This threatens our democracy and is more of a danger to our society than we might initially perceive.

    The issue is that our constitutional Freedom of Information was written for an analog and paper-based society.

    Since the advent of computers, IT and the Internet, FOI is yet to receive the much needed digitisation — even though this would create as much value today as FOI did back in 1766 when it was introduced. Why? Because it would force Swedish authorities to release information digitally.

    Today they are still clinging on to the last remains of a paper-based society, stubbornly releasing public information on physical documents. Coincidentally Sweden has one of the highest use and coverage of the Internet among its citizens, but digitisation of the public sector is lagging behind the rest of society and other countries.

    At the same time, the development of open data is currently very slow or non-existent. This is a situation which could be completely flipped to the positive if political representatives truly committed to digitising our Freedom of Information Act and system, as open data is much more valuable today in our information age than it was 250 years ago.

    FrågaStaten will shine a light on this and demonstrate the multiple positive outcomes of this scenario — so that is also why we are doing this.

    What made you choose to use Alaveteli software for your platform?

    I am a strong believer in open source, its flexibility, compatibility and potential and I saw that Alaveteli was the option which had the most development, maintenance and also a global community.

    What are your future plans for the site?

    Our mission is to accelerate the open digitisation of Sweden and transition to an open government in which its people truly can hold their government accountable. This platform is an important experiment and a key foundation to our strategy to connect projects, communities and initiatives, enabling open and social innovation.

    We have just applied for funding for a side-project to FrågaStaten which intends to make a systematic scrutiny of how the Swedish state and public sector performs when it comes to following the constitutional Freedom of Press and Freedom of Information. We hope it will connect more people to the cause and help shine light on the dark spots of our Freedom of Information Act, and the health of our Swedish constitution.

    We wish Open Knowledge Sweden and FrågaStaten the best of luck in bringing Freedom of Information in Sweden into the 21st century. If you know anyone who would like to request information from Swedish public authorities, let them know about FrågaStaten!

    If you fancy hearing more about Anders Chydenius and the first FOI law, please check out these upcoming events.

    Image: Ian Insch(CC)

  3. Spain: Right to Know Day ‘requestathon’ highlights frustrating FOI process

    Is there anything you’d like to know from the Spanish authorities?

    In advance of International Right To Know Day, three organisations are collaborating to make the process of submitting an FOI request in Spain a little bit easier.

    Access Info Europe, Civio Foundation and the Transparency Council of Spain are calling it “an access to information requests marathon”, and their aim is to help people navigate the tedious process of requesting information from Spanish public authorities.

    As explained in this article by Access Info Europe, the Spanish Government has established a very complicated system for filing access to information requests. This includes the requirement to log in to a government-run portal using an electronic certificate or digital identification in order to request information. These certificates and IDs are not easy to obtain.

    This, and the unwillingness of Spanish authorities to accept information requests via email, led to Civio Foundation and Access Info Europe shutting down their Alaveteli request site, TuDerechoASaber (YourRightToKnow) in December 2015 in protest. You can read more about why they did this here.

    But they still believe that citizens everywhere should be able to request the information they require. In order to help people who don’t have the required electronic certificate or digital identification, Access Info Europe, Civio and the Transparency Council of Spain will use their own electronic certificates to file requests on users’ behalf.

    From now until 28th September (International Right To Know Day) anyone wanting to obtain information from Spanish authorities can send requests to them via:

    Do let us know what you ask — we’d love to hear.

    Photo: Duncan Creamer (CC)

  4. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 5

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been opened up to the public thanks to Freedom of Information requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two, part three and part four.

    This edition features examples from New Zealand site fyi.org.nz, Hungarian site KiMiTud and UK site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Auckland residents can now visualise future development in their community

    Sometimes data released via FOI requests can be pretty incomprehensible, and frankly quite dull. That is, until someone makes a handy visualisation tool that makes the data come alive and easier to understand.

    That’s exactly what happened with this request made on the New Zealand Alaveteli fyi.org.nz. The data released was picked up by the New Zealand Herald, who have used it to make an interactive map (see screenshot below) of Auckland Council’s proposed neighbourhood development plan.

    Now Auckland residents can see at a glance how their council plans to change their local neighbourhood.

    Insights The New Zealand Herald

    A similar use of data released via FOI laws occurred a few years ago in the UK after this request on WhatDoTheyKnow. The request asked for the location of every post box in the UK. The data released has been used to create useful tools like this one (developed by our very own Matthew Somerville), which helps citizens easily locate the nearest place to post their letters:

    Find Your Nearest Postbox

    Hungarian utility provider consciously allows pollution of major river

    Another great way to help people visualise the real-life effects of the data they see in an FOI response is to video it, like investigative journalists at Atlatszo did. Their short clip graphically shows a river clogged up with four times as much sewage as the treatment plant has the capability to process.

    Sewage

    Atlatszo used KiMiTud to obtain local government audit reports of a sewage works company.

    The documents reveal that five audits have been carried out in the last few years, and serious deficiencies were found each time: harmful untreated sewage was being pumped into the nearby river Tisza.

    These findings led to the company being fined by the regulator. It is claimed that the company would rather pay these fines than spend the money updating their equipment.

    According to Atlatszo’s investigation, the company could not and did not refute that the quality of water leaving their plant is often more polluted than legally allowed, and admitted that their equipment is not up to date. Let’s hope Atlatszo’s pressure on them will make them change their practices.

    In a recent similar case in Australia, the use of FOI revealed evidence of neglect at a landfill site, with the potential for environmental harm and drinking water contamination.  

    The above examples yet again show the real diversity of information you can obtain via FOI requests, and highlight what an amazing tool FOI is for both data journalists, and investigative journalists.  

    In fact, we’re so passionate about journalists taking full advantage of FOI laws, that we’re about to launch a project that will develop a set of tools to help journalists (and others) to use FOI more easily in their work.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Header image: KOMUnews, CC

  5. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 4

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been unveiled thanks to FOI requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two and part three.

    This time, we’re featuring stories from EU-wide site AsktheEU, German site FragDenStaat (Ask the State), Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy (Access to Truth) and Australian site RightToKnow.

    Emissions test cheating: European Commission warned five years before VW scandal

    Responses to FOI requests on AsktheEU reveal that back in 2010 the Commission’s own experts told it that they suspected a car maker was cheating emissions tests. This was five years before last year’s scandal that revealed Volkswagen had cheated in emission tests by using ‘defeat devices’, which made its cars appear far less polluting than they are.

    The documents revealed on AsktheEU were shared with the Guardian, which has published this article.

    This new information contradicts the Commission’s claim that no concrete evidence on the use of defeat devices was ever brought to their attention.

    It is yet to be seen how these latest revelations will affect Commission officials involved.

    What’s 10,000 euros between friends?

    FragDenStaat is the FOI platform run by Open Knowledge Foundation Germany. It doesn’t run with Alaveteli code, but was originally inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow.

    One response received via FragDenStaat revealed that Joachim Sauer, the husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been paid 10,000 euros annually since 2011 to sit on the board of billionaire Friede Springer’s charitable Foundation. Merkel and Springer are close friends.

    This raised eyebrows in the German media (see this Spiegel article). Merkel has been criticised for her close relationship with Springer, whose company, Axel Springer AG, controls the largest share of Germany’s market for daily newspapers and runs Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper.

    This has sparked allegations of cronyism. Does Sauer’s position grant Springer unfair influence on German governmental affairs? Some would say so.

    Say it with flowers

    A response by Ukrainian State Administration to a request on Dostup do Pravdy has revealed that the President’s office has spent $1.85 million USD of taxpayers’ money on flowers since 2014.

    Flowers certainly are lovely, but with poverty rates nearly doubling in the last year, it can be argued that they really aren’t a high priority right now.

    61 agencies want Australians’ personal data

    In 2015 the Australian government passed controversial laws that vastly increased the amount of citizens’ personal phone and web data that telecommunications companies were required to hold.

    The government also restricted the number of agencies who could freely access this data, but allowed rejected agencies to re-apply for access. An FOI request on RightToKnow revealed that over 60 have done just that. This discovery was reported by most major news organisations in Australia, including the Guardian.

    You can read the full story, as told by RightToKnow, here.

    The above examples show the diversity of information that is revealed thanks to Freedom of Information around the world, and the types of information that get picked up by mainstream media organisations.

    So next time you have a question about a public body that you can’t find the answer to publicly already, why not consider using an Alaveteli site to ask – and that way, the response you get will then be publicly available for others to see too. You may even unearth the latest political scandal too.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    This was part four in the ‘Stories of Alaveteli’ series. See part five here.

    Image: IceNineJon, (CC).

  6. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 3

    This is Part three in a blog post series highlighting information that has been disclosed thanks to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here are part one and part two.

    In this edition, we’re highlighting stories from Australian site RightToKnow, European Union-wide AsktheEU and Rwandan site Sobanukirwa.

    Australian police use banned restraint technique on asylum seekers

    Detention Logs is a project that publishes data, documents and investigations that reveal information on conditions and events inside Australia’s immigration detention network.

    As part of the project, Detention Logs used Alaveteli site RightToKnow to ask the Australian Department of Immigration to disclose incident reports from detention facilities.

    One such incident report revealed that the Department of Immigration approved the use of a controversial body lock technique on an asylum seeker.

    The incident report describes the restraint as follows:

    “The seat belt was fastened. The client and the escort staff were the first passengers to board the plane. As the client continued screaming and resisting, DIAC staff issued instruction to the escort staff to ‘lock the client down’ by pushing her chest towards her knees. However, the client still continued screaming loudly and attracting attention of the cabin crew.”

    According to New Matilda and Detention Logs, the account of the restraint strongly resembles the “seated double embrace” technique banned by police in Victoria and New South Wales in Australia, and some government agencies in the United Kingdom.

    The United Kingdom Ministry of Justice banned this technique in juvenile detention facilities, following the death of 15-year-old Gareth Myatt in 2004.

    Why the EU’s taking its time on restricting harmful chemicals

    Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals that are present in everyday products – from plastics and cosmetics to pesticides. Because of their ability to interact with the hormonal (endocrine) systems of living organisms, they are suspected of having serious health and environmental impacts.

    The European Union is supposed to regulate EDCs, in order to protect citizens from harmful effects. Both the EU’s 2009 pesticide regulation and the European chemicals package (REACH) demand that the EU take action on these chemicals.

    However, several years later, the European Commission is still no closer to taking concrete action.

    FOI requests made on AsktheEU have led to the disclosure of correspondence between the European Commission and various stakeholders regarding proposed EU legislation on the restriction of EDCs.

    The documents have helped journalist Stéphane Horel and research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) to piece together why the process has stalled, and what has been said behind closed Commission doors.

    To communicate their findings, they produced a book and documentary, which explains how corporations, and even actors within the Commission, are stalling the process of this key public health and environment legislation.

    Now Rwandans can find out when their parliament is in session

    The Rwandan parliament now publish the Chamber of Deputies’ schedule of debates/activities for each day on the homepage of their official website (under ‘Today in Parliament’).

    This follows an FOI request on Rwandan Alaveteli site Sobanukirwa, which urges the parliament to do just that. The Sobanukirwa team don’t know for sure if their request influenced parliament’s decision to publish this information, but we are pretty sure it had an impact.

    The Australian and EU examples above show the power of making a lot of FOI requests, across authorities, and then grouping them together to create/support a project or investigation about a wider issue of public concern.

    The Rwandan example shows that perhaps, just perhaps, a single request can cause a big impact.

    So, what do you want to investigate? What have you always wanted to know? Start your own investigation to unearth truths that may just surprise you, and use an Alaveteli site to help you.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    This was part three in the ‘Stories of Alaveteli’ series. See part four here.

    Image: Jenny Lee Silver, (CC).

  7. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 2

    This is Part Two in a blog post series to highlight interesting and impactful requests that have been made through the 25 websites running our Alaveteli FOI software across the world. You can see Part One here.

    This time, we’re highlighting four interesting stories, from Hungary’s Alaveteli site KiMitTud and the pan-European site AsktheEU.

    The European Commission really doesn’t want us to know about their correspondence with tobacco lobbyists

    Last year, the research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) sent a request for documents relating to all correspondence/meetings between DG Trade officials and tobacco lobbyists from January 2014 to March 2015 on AsktheEU.org.

    Following this, the European Commission ‘released’ very heavily redacted documents concerning their contacts with the tobacco industry on EU trade negotiations, including the ongoing EU-Japan and EU-US trade talks (TTIP).

    In all four documents (correspondence with and minutes of meetings with tobacco lobbyists) virtually all the content is blacked out, including the names of all tobacco lobbyists and Commission officials involved. Only around 5% of the text is visible.

    As CEO points out, the Commission’s secrecy around its relations with tobacco industry lobbyists and its international trade negotiations causes great concern and highlights the lack of transparency within the Commission.

    To read the full story, see this article on CEO’s website.

    (more…)

  8. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 1

    There are now Freedom of Information websites running on our Alaveteli software in 25 jurisdictions worldwide, which between them have processed more than 330,000 FOI requests.

    But what sort of information is being revealed through these sites? And what impact has this information had? In our new series of posts, we’ll be giving you a roundup of some of the most interesting and impactful requests made on Alaveteli sites from across the world.

    To kick off, here are the stories of two interesting requests; one from Australia’s Alaveteli site RightToKnow and one from Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy: (more…)

  9. A new look for AsktheEU.org

    Back last year, we told you about WhatDoTheyKnow’s fancy new redesign, as part of our rolling process of design improvements.

    WhatDoTheyKnow is powered by Alaveteli, the freedom of information software that also underlies 25 other FOI request platforms around the world. A great benefit of this global usage is that when we make improvements to one site, we can make them available for everyone else, too.

    So, using what we developed and learned from the WhatDoTheyKnow redesign, we added the updated look and feel to the latest version of Alaveteli.

    Now any Alaveteli install that upgrades to the latest version can also have a fancy new look!
    And that’s what AsktheEU.org has done. And doesn’t it look great?

    AsktheEU.org is an Alaveteli instance, run by Access Info Europe, which allows citizens to request information from the European Union. So if you need to escalate your request to an EU body and your country’s part of the EU, you should give AsktheEU.org a go.

    Mobile responsive

    A major improvement is that the site is now mobile responsive – so viewing it using a handheld device is ‘a total breath of fresh air’ (to use the words of mySociety designer Zarino!).The site was originally built with the assumption that most users would be on their desktop machines — which was true when it first launched, but certainly isn’t any more. Mobile users make up about 50% of the traffic these days, so this will make it much easier for them.

    These changes also mean that users with visual impairments (or simply those who prefer bigger text on their web pages) can zoom in using their browser’s zoom controls, and use the new site perfectly comfortably, with no degradation in experience.

    Lighter, faster pages

    The new site is now much quicker to load, which should help those on poor connections or mobile devices.The designers achieved this by cutting down the number of files in the pages’ styling.

    Space to breathe

    The new request pages are now also more modern looking, with increased white space and improved contrast and type hierarchy, which should make them easier to quickly scan and find what you’re looking for.

    The base font size has also been increased, making text, especially on the Help and About pages, much easier to read. And links now have underlines, to better distinguish them for users with trouble seeing changes in colour.

    Well done to the Access Info and mySociety teams for making these improvements!

    We’re hoping that, all together, they will make the site more accessible and therefore attract more visitors, so we’ll be keeping an eye on the impact of the new design and will report back.

    There’s a secret message here for anyone running an Alaveteli site: if you’d like your site to benefit from all the improvements above, upgrade to Alaveteli 0.23. There are also loads of other benefits to upgrading, which you can check out here.

    Please do get in touch if you’d like our support to upgrade, we’re here to help!

  10. The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference 2016: Call for Papers Now Open

    barca 2

    mySociety is delighted to announce that TICTeC2016 – or to give it its proper name, The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference 2016 – will be taking place in Barcelona on 27 and 28 April 2016.

    Returning for a second year, TICTeC is the world’s only conference dedicated to exploring the impact that civic technology and digital democracy are having upon citizens, decision makers and governments around the globe.

    The primary goal of the conference is to promote and share rigorous and meaningful research into online technologies and digital democracy around the world. So, if you have completed research on this theme and would like to present your work, then please do submit an abstract / proposal.

    We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme.

    More information on submission deadlines and registration for TICTeC2016 can be found here.

    Hope to see you in Barcelona!

    Image: MorBCN (CC)