1. Introducing QueremosDatos: making access to information easier in Colombia

    Access to information is a particularly powerful tool in countries like Colombia, where corruption is high and vital peace treaties are underway.

    To make accessing information easier for citizens and public authorities alike, a group of journalists in Bogotá including DataSketch, have recently set up the Freedom of Information request platform QueremosDatos (the name of which translates as “We want data/information”).

    The platform uses our Alaveteli software, and we thoroughly enjoyed working with the Colombian team to set the site up with them.

    We asked María Isabel Magaña, who is coordinating the QueremosDatos project, about the site and its impacts so far:

    Why did you decide to set up QueremosDatos?

    I first learned about Alaveteli in Spain while I was doing my Masters in Investigative Journalism. There I was introduced to the platform TuDerechoASaber.es and to the power that FOIA and transparency had. I just knew Colombia needed something like that, especially since the Congress had just approved the first law regarding this matter.

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

    What I love about Alaveteli is how easy it is to use for both users and admins. Designing the platform and making it useful for any type of person was the most attractive feature Alaveteli had. But also, because of the people behind it. Gemma, Gareth, and so many more people were ready to help me achieve this goal despite the different time zones and how much time it took to get it up and running.

    What impact do you hope the site has?

    It has been almost six months since we launched the site. The impact has been great! We have helped people make 274 requests to more than 6,000 authorities. The Government has been interested in the project and has helped us get in touch with different authorities to help them learn about FOIA and the Colombian law and how to work with people through the platform. Users love it, especially journalists.

    Which responses on the site have you been most excited about seeing?

    My favourite response so far has been one regarding victims of the Colombian conflict. It was very exciting to get the information because of what it meant for the person who was requesting it, and because of the historical context my country is going through. I also enjoyed seeing the transformation the police had when giving their answers: at first they always sent a response asking the user to call them. After a few explanations, they’re now sending complete answers to the requests via the site.

    Do you know of examples where information obtained through the site has been used?

    Yes! Journalists have used it mostly in ongoing investigations regarding medicines, drug trafficking, and abortion. Students have used it for journalism classes and homework too.

    What are your future plans for QueremosDatos?

    We are confirming an alliance with the government to promote the site in public offices and to teach public servants about what the Right to Know is, and their responsibilities with it. This pedagogy will be replicated in universities to teach different users about their power to request information.


    Many thanks to María for answering our questions. It’s been great to see the impact the site has already had on authorities and citizens alike, especially the change in behaviour by certain public authorities.

    We’re really looking forward to following the project’s continuing work, and wish the team the utmost success in their quest to make Colombia a much more transparent society!

  2. TICTeC@Taipei: Agenda now online, early bird tickets still available

    As we shared back in April, this September we’ll be hosting an extra edition of our TICTeC research conference, in Taipei.

    TICTeC, or The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, is the Civic Tech sector’s only conference that’s dedicated to promoting and sharing research into the impacts of online technologies and digital democracy around the world, to share what works and (crucially) what doesn’t.

    TICTeC@Taipei will be the headline event at the Open Culture Foundation’s Civic Tech Fest,  a week-long festival featuring a series of conferences, workshops and hackathons related to open data and open government. And Civic Tech Fest itself is an official parallel event of the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT), one of the world’s largest gatherings of the IT industry.

    It’s a really unique opportunity to bring together researchers and practitioners from across the globe in Asia’s Civic Tech hub, and to showcase our sector’s initiatives to the wider IT industry.

    We’re delighted to announce that the TICTeC@Taipei agenda is now online. The conference will feature speakers from the Omidyar Network, UNICEF, the Web Foundation, government ministries of France and Taiwan, leading universities, and many more.

    Early bird tickets are still available until 21st July and registration includes entry to all Civic Tech Fest and WCIT events. We’ll even be having the TICTeC after party in the Taipei 101 building (the tallest building in the photo above), at Google’s Taipei offices. Pretty cool huh?

    Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity — book now!

    Image: sama093 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

     

  3. Why we believe a digital FOI tool can improve Kenyan journalism, and empower citizens at the same time

    Back in December we told you about our application to innovateAFRICA, for funding to launch our Alaveteli Professional project in Kenya.

    Well, we’re delighted to say we’ve been shortlisted for a grant. innovateAFRICA judges will take a few weeks to consider shortlisted applications, and winners will be announced on 30th January.

    In the meantime, we thought we’d ask the project’s coordinators, Henry Maina from ARTICLE 19 East Africa and Louise Crow from mySociety, to describe the project in a bit more detail and explain why they think it’s so important.

    What is the Alaveteli Professional project?

    Louise: Alaveteli Professional is a new toolset that we are currently building as a companion service to our existing Alaveteli software. Alaveteli is mySociety’s open-source platform for making public freedom of information (FOI) requests to public bodies.

    Alaveteli Professional will provide journalists and those who use FOI in their work with extra functionality and training to ease the process of raising, managing and interpreting FOI requests, which can be a very time consuming and overwhelming task. This is so that they can spend their valuable time on creating more high-impact journalism and research that holds public authorities to account.

    Why bring the Alaveteli Professional project to Kenya?

    Henry: The project will enable more Kenyan journalists to utilise one critical tool in their armoury: namely the Freedom of Information law enacted on 31st August 2016. It will also complement our earlier training of 25 journalists on the FOI law.

    Louise: innovateAFRICA funding will allow us to bring our newly developed toolset to the Kenyan context. The toolset will have already been tried and tested by journalists in the UK and Czech Republic, so we’ll use examples of how these European journalists have successfully used the platform to generate stories in our trainings with Kenyan media. Simply building these tools is not, on its own, enough. For this reason, the Alaveteli Professional project in Kenya will also involve refining the tools for the Kenyan context, the training of journalists, the creation of support materials and the provision of direct assistance in making and analysing requests.

    From ARTICLE 19’s experience of training Kenyan journalists on the new FOI law, how will the Alaveteli Professional project help them with their work?

    Henry: ARTICLE 19 has trained journalists on the Freedom of Information laws in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. In all our past training, we created manual request protocols and follow-up required making telephone calls. The Alaveteli Professional project will help most journalists to easily file, track and share information about information requests in an easy to engage, review platform.

    Why is it so important for journalists and citizens alike to hold authorities to account in Kenya?

    Henry: First, journalists and citizens are keen to understand why and how their public servants and officials take decisions. Second, citizens have a right to participate in the management of public affairs and effective engagement is only possible if the citizens are well informed.

    Will the project also benefit Kenyan citizens who aren’t journalists?

    Louise: Yes. Providing journalists with the extra toolset requires us to first install a standard version of Alaveteli. Therefore, alongside citizens in 25 other countries in the world, Kenyan citizens will be able to use the platform to easily send requests to public authorities, or, as all responses to requests are published on the site, browse already-released information.

    Citizens will also benefit even if they don’t use the site at all: they’ll benefit from news stories that expose corruption and mismanagement or missing funds and so on, and thus hold those in power to account.

    What impact will the project have on Kenyan information officers/civil servants?

    Henry: The project is likely to have great impact on Kenyan information officers and public officials. First, it will offer an objective platform to recognise and reward civil servants that enhance access to information as they will be able to manage requests more efficiently. Second, given the trend in questions, officers will be aware of the information that they can and should proactively disclose to lessen individual requests. Third, it will bolster ARTICLE 19’s ongoing work of training information officers that seeks to help them better understand the law and their obligations under it. Four, most of the government decisions will gain traction with citizens as there will be publicly available information on why and how such decisions were arrived at.

    What lasting impact do you hope the project will achieve?

    Henry: The Kenyan government will be more transparent and accountable, journalists will be more professional and their stories more credible and factual, allowing the country to entrench democratic values.

    Louise: As with all our Alaveteli projects, we hope the project will amplify the power of Freedom of Information and open government, by giving a broad swathe of citizens the information they need to hold those in power to account, and to improve their own lives.

    How you can help

    So there you are — a little more detail on why we hope to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya. We hope you can see the value as much as we can! If so, and you’d like to help support the project, please do tweet with the hashtag #innovateAFRICA: every such public show of support brings us a little closer to winning the grant.

    Image: The iHub (CC)

  4. Alaveteli for campaigners: How to create pre-written requests for your supporters

    If you are using Freedom of Information for a campaign, and you need to request the same information from several different bodies, or a variety of information from one body, it can be useful to put your supporters to work for you.

    We recently profiled the Detention Logs project, which is using Freedom of Information requests to uncover conditions in Australia’s detention centres. Anyone can use the information already uncovered to request further documents or clarify ambiguous facts.

    One aspect we didn’t mention is that, in order to make this process as quick and simple as possible, Detention Logs provides users with a pre-written FOI request which they can tweak as necessary before sending off to the relevant authority. This is linked to from a button on the Detention Logs website

    This nifty bit of functionality could be useful for all kinds of campaigns. If yours is one of them, read on to discover how to set it up.

    Instructions

    This method will work on any Alaveteli site that is running a recent version of the code: for our example, we’re using RightToKnow but you could substitute WhatDoTheyKnow.com or any of these.

    Here’s an example of a pre-filled request — follow the link to see what it looks like on the page:

    As you can see, this unwieldy web address contains all the information that RightToKnow, Australia’s Freedom of Information site, needs in order to create a pre-filled request.The URL tells it who the request should go to, what the title of the request is, and what should go in the main body.

    It’s quite simple to create these yourself. Just build the URL up in steps:

    1. Begin by telling the site that this is a new request: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/
    2. Add a forward slash (/) and then the body you want the request to be sent to (exactly as it is written in the url of the body’s page of the website): https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force
    3. Add a question mark: This tells the website that we are going to introduce a ‘parameter string’. Now our URL looks like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?
    4. Input a title: we need to indicate that the next part should go into the ‘title’ field, like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title= and then dictate what the title should be: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title=Police%20brutality Notice that if there is a space between words, it should be shown as %20. To make the process of encoding the URLs easier, you can use an encoder tool like this one: http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/dencoder/
    5. Input the body of the request, again using ‘%20’ between each word. This is where your URL can become very long! We use the parameter default_letter and the salutation (Dear…) and signoff (Yours…) are automatically wrapped around this by the site, so there’s no need to include them:

    Remember to include a ‘=’ after each parameter name (e.g. title=) and to separate parameters with an ‘&’.

    So, there you have it. A customised URL that you can set up if you need supporters to send a pre-written request to a specified body or bodies.

    As mentioned above, the Detention Logs project used this method to help their supporters request detention centre incident reports, attaching a different URL to each report so that the title would contain the relevant report number. To see the technical details of how they set this up, visit their GitHub page.

    More parameters

    Here are some other parameters that can be used in addition to the ones above:

    • body – This is an alternative to default_letter which lets you specify the entire body of the request including the salutation and signoff.
    • tags – This allows you to add a space-separated list of tags, so for example you can identify any requests made through your campaign or which refer to the same topic. For example, the Detention Logs project used tags like this: &tags=detentionlogs%20incident-number%3A1-2PQQH5

    A tag can have a ‘name’ and an optional ‘value’ (created in the form “name:value”). The first tag in the above example is ‘detentionlogs’ (‘name’) and the second tag is ‘incident-number:A1-2PQQH5’ (‘name:value’). The encoder tool above changes the colon to ‘%3’.

    If you use this pre-written request tool we’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch if you do.

    Image: Gabriel Saldana (CC 2.0)

  5. 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.

  6. 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)

  7. 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)

  8. 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

  9. 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).

  10. 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).