An estimated 100,000 people in the UK live in tower blocks. If you’re one of them, mySociety’s current project will be of particular interest — and please read on to the end of the post, where you’ll find out how you might get involved.
mySociety has been working with the campaign group Tower Blocks UK to explore how residents across the country could have more input into the management of their buildings.
Back in June 2017, when the news of the Grenfell disaster broke, we expressed our desire to help. This partnership with Tower Blocks UK provides a tangible way for us to do just that, empowering tower block residents to understand their rights, and leverage those rights to increase the safety of their own homes.
Since Grenfell, fire has, understandably, been at the top of the nation’s consciousness. It’s not the only risk in tower blocks, however: by their nature, they’re subject to a range of distinct safety and maintenance issues which, if not identified and dealt with properly and at an early stage, can be at best a nuisance and at worst, life-threatening.
We were approached by Tower Blocks UK to provide a digital tool that would help address these issues. Beyond that, we didn’t want to make any assumptions about what was needed, so we began with a completely blank canvas.
Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. We had a few ideas about what sort of service we might build. A kind of ‘FixMyStreet for buildings’ was was talked about, but we know that it’s never a great idea to simply start creating the service you assume will be useful, without speaking to the people who would actually be using the finished thing.
So, we agreed our aim in fairly loose terms: to research and develop a pilot service that demonstrates the potential for tower block residents in a few select areas to have a greater say over the safety and maintenance of their blocks.
If judged successful, the service could be scaled up and made available for residents in tower blocks all across the UK.
Where we are now
At the time of writing, we’ve completed the discovery phase. We’ve asked residents how they currently report and track safety issues in their buildings; and with the additional help of sector experts, we’ve examined how legal pathways and housing provider case management processes affect the outcomes.
We wrote this stage up in a report which you can read here, identifying four key areas where we feel we have the opportunity to make a difference to how safe and happy residents feel in their homes.
Once we’d gathered and processed this knowledge, we were able to start building some simple digital prototypes and test our theories with residents in user design workshops. Here we’re thankful to Phil Murphy and Stuart Hodkinson, the London Tenants Federation, and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, for helping us reach a selection of tenants with different background and experiences.
Resident feedback at these sessions has helped us uncover real needs in this space, including the desire to make maintenance reports that have real impact, the value of tried and tested “next steps” during the complaints process, and a need amongst tenant organisers to see the bigger picture across multiple blocks in their area.
Our prototypes so far have included: a tool that helps tenants report problems in their flat by giving prompts and generating a letter of complaint based on best legal practice; a personal case log to aid with follow-up complaints and potential escalations to the housing ombudsman or the courts; and a reporting dashboard for tenant organisers to spot patterns and help their fellow residents make effective reports.
Over the next few weeks, we’re hoping to test the prototypes further, including through a simple, online survey.
If you’re a resident of a tower block in the UK and can spare us ten minutes to use a website and answer some questions about your experience, we’d be more than grateful. Get in touch with Jen or Zarino on email@example.com.
Top image: Jimmy Chang
WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, mySociety’s subscription service offering extra tools for journalists and other professional users of FOI, has been running in the UK for just about two years.
During that time we’ve launched, worked closely with users to refine the service, and — happily — watched it play a vital part in the making of several important data-driven news stories, on topics as diverse as Brexit campaign funding and the results of austerity cuts on councils. Journalists, in particular, have appreciated tools such as the ability to send and manage bulk requests to multiple authorities; and the embargo tool that keeps requests and responses hidden until the story has been published.
Now, thanks to support from Adessium Foundation, we are able to bring the same benefits to countries across Europe, and — we hope — some additional synergies that will be borne of organisations working across boundaries. The same functionality that extends WhatDoTheyKnow into the Pro version will be available to FOI sites run on the Alaveteli platform, under the name Alaveteli Pro.
The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.
We’ll be focusing on three areas in order to achieve this aim:
- We’ll give selected existing Alaveteli sites in Europe the technical help they need to upgrade to the Pro version;
- We’ll be helping organisations in three new European jurisdictions to launch brand new Alaveteli sites, making access to information easier for citizens in these countries. The first site will be launched by VVOJ from the Netherlands.
- We’ll encourage cross-border collaborations between journalists and organisations using the sites (both the existing ones and the new ones) to investigate stories that span more than one EU country.
So watch this space: we’ll be sure to keep you posted as the work progresses. The planned start date is next month, and the project is set to run for three years.
We’re looking forward to sharing stories resulting from this initiative once they start rolling out, and supporting the incredible work that journalists do in putting them together.
Image: Emiliano Vittoriosi
The Democratic Republic of Congo: low internet penetration, and low awareness about Freedom of Information. In short, not the most obvious place for an FOI site on our Alaveteli platform.
And yet, here’s tunabakonzi.org, brand new last month.
Henri Christin from Collectif24 is TuNa Bakonzi’s founder, and we were keen to talk to him about his reasons for launching a site when the prevailing conditions are apparently so adverse.
How did you find out about the Alaveteli platform?
“I discovered Alaveteli through AFIC, the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. When Collectif24 organised the National Symposium on Access to Information in Kinshasa, there was a presentation on askyourgov.ug [an FOI site for Uganda, also run on Alaveteli]; that’s what gave us the idea to do the same for the DRC. And that prompted me to get in touch with mySociety!”
Why does DRC need such a site?
“In DRC, everything is centralised on the capital city, Kinshasa. The country is very large, and while there’s been good efforts towards political decentralisation, there hasn’t been the same in terms of administration. So TuNa Bakonzi should help with that.
“It’ll facilitate the demand for easy information in a country where access to basic social services, access to authorities’ offices, is just not guaranteed to everyone.
“This service will promote accountability and give citizens control in the fight against corruption. In a country where there are no public policies on internet governance and journalists are regularly exposed to false information, it will also allow requests for information directly from the source.
“Finally, it’s a barometer for transparency. It will show whether a public institution is transparent, by way of the answers it gives — or does not give — to citizens’ requests.”
There’s not yet an FOI Act in DRC — can the site still have a purpose?
“Although there is not yet an Access to Information law, Collectif24 has published a collection of international, regional and national instruments on the right of Access to Information in the DRC.
“With regard to these instruments and the DRC’s Constitution, which guarantee the right of Access to Information for every person, the public administration is, in principle, supposed to give information to citizens.
“In addition, the Government of the Republic is committed to the principles of governance and transparency. As a result, we’ll be adding the public institutions of local, provincial and central governments to the site, as well as private institutions that have a public function. The site can also support the implementation of the law, once it’s actually been passed.”
Are you using the site to campaign for a change in the law?
“There’s a precedent when “the facts precede the law”. Through this site, we want to promote access to information in practice, and through this we’ll advocate for the vote to be passed in law.
What is awareness of FOI like in the DRC?
“Collectif24 has been working on the question of FOI in DRC since 2009. Previously there was a general perception that FOI really only applied to journalists; but thanks to our work we believe that DRC citizens now know that it’s a fundamental human right.
“It’s also worth noting that we’re the only organisation in DRC that works in this area, but we have no funding to develop awareness programs covering the whole country. We also need to publicise the site, but it’s a technical and financial challenge for us.”
How was the launch?
“We officially launched in partnership with the Catholic National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO). Representatives of civil society organisations, parliamentarians, journalists, students and members of the public administration were invited to CENCO’s Saint Sylvestre Hall.
“After presenting the project and the importance of the site, the computer scientist who did all the site development made a presentation. Q&A was followed by a session to show how to use the site. All the participants appreciated the initiative and the service. The ceremony closed with thanks to OSISA [The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa] for the funding and to mySociety for the creation of the Alaveteli platform”.
Who do you think will use the site?
“Everyone can use it. Yes, we have to recognise that internet penetration and connection in the country is weak. So at first we expect users to be the groups that have more access to the Internet: we definitely expect actors in civil society, journalists, researchers, politicians, international organisations, professionals and administration staff to use it”.
What are your hopes for the project?
“My wishes and dreams for this innovative and unique site in the DRC are that it becomes the place of contact between the governors and the governed; that it is a tool of citizen control and accountability which contributes to the fight against corruption and improves the governance of the DRC.
“For that to happen, we must publicise it as much as possible, but we do face security, technical and financial constraints:
“In terms of security: Collectif24 is not yet able to protect the site in the case of cyber attack; technically, we need a permanent expert for maintenance. And then, financially: we need funding for increasing awareness, hosting, better storage space, and updating of the institutions’ details, and so it goes on!”
How’s it going so far?
“Right now, we’re seeing a start. People are asking the questions they want answers to.
“But the authorities are not responding because they have not yet been sensitised to the concept of FOI.
“Additionally, we need to increase the number of institutions available on the site — but most Congolese institutions do not have official or reliable email addresses. There’s no documentation in the DRC to provide information on institutions at all levels and their contacts.
“So this is the next piece of work that Collectif24 intends to do: we’ll produce a directory if we can get a sponsor to fund it, and this will of course facilitate adding institutions to the site.
“Collectif24 must work to raise awareness among the population and the administrative staff; organise training on the use of the site. We want to create online user manuals to help people understand how to use it; add public institutions on a regular basis.
“To do all of this, it’s important to develop a program of advocacy and lobbying to the authorities to get the site recognised. We must work to make this site the official FOI service for the DRC.”
Thanks so much to Henri for talking to us — as always it was fascinating to hear about the challenges Collectif24 are facing: some unique to the country, and some universal across all FOI sites the world over. We wish him the best of luck with this brave but clearly worthy and much needed project in the DRC.
Can you help the international FOI community?
mySociety helps people run Freedom of Information sites in 25 jurisdictions around the world, on our Alaveteli platform.
These partners are usually keeping their sites going with little resource or funding, and we want to upgrade everyone to the newest version of Alaveteli so that they won’t need to manage this substantial task for themselves.
There are improvements and new features in the updates, which is exciting for our partners and their users — but of course, with every new feature come new, small strings of text that help explain it to users, label the buttons, describe any errors that occur, etc, etc.
And although we’re good on coding languages, sadly we can’t say the same about most of the actual spoken languages that need translation. So if you are fluent (ideally as a native speaker or equivalent) in any of the languages listed below, and you would like to do something both interesting and extremely worthwhile, we would be very grateful!
Translation is done via a system called Transifex. Those who are able and keen to contribute to the global Freedom of Information movement should drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org with an idea of your availability and commitment, and we can get you set up.
We need translators fluent in:
- French (France and Rwanda versions)
- Spanish (Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua versions)
- German (Germany)
If you speak languages other than these, you can find the full list of languages here and we’re sure any of our partners running sites would be grateful for the translation help — but the above languages are our priorities as these are the sites we help by hosting ourselves.
We’re aiming to get things upgraded as soon as possible, and certainly in time for International Right To Information Day in September, so we’re looking for translators with availability over the coming three months (May, June and July 2019). If this sounds interesting and fun to you please do get in touch.
Image: Yogi Purnama
It’s been a few months since we first announced our Democratic Commons project under the banner of “shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit” — but if we’ve been silent since then, it’s certainly not for a lack of activity.
Quite the reverse, in fact: we’ve been busy bringing new team members on board and getting stuck in with the time-consuming and often fiddly process of data gathering and sharing.
When we’re in the midst of all this hard work, it’s sometimes hard to remember to talk about how everything’s going; but it’s always interesting, so here’s a snapshot of where we are now.
Those of us working on Democratic Commons are only a small team within the smallish organisation mySociety. Gathering in-depth data on politicians all around the world takes more time and more local knowledge than we have ourselves, so we’re working with partners located within our target countries.
Distintas Latitudes have been handling Latin America – they’ve been great at gathering data and explaining the various differences between the political systems in each country we’ve worked together on.
In India, Factly and Gender And Politics have done the most amazing job in gathering a full national and state level dataset for politicians right across the country. We were astounded, as that is a LOT of data (over 3,500 records and counting so far).
And in South East Asia we’re working with OCF, with whom we’ve had a long association (you may remember TICTeC Taiwan, for example). OCF have helped us with data for Taiwan and South Korea so far, and are set to work with us on seven more countries before December 2018.
Finally, a special mention goes to OpenLeb of Lebanon, who are working hard to start finding data in a country where data is not usually open. We genuinely could not do this work without our partners and we are eternally grateful for their help.
As is probably clear from the above, we often select which countries to work on by our ability to find a community or organisation that will extend help. A nice side effect of this is that we’re strengthening the connections and bonds between mySociety and organisations with similar missions in many different places.
Growing the community of such organisations across the world is going to be the primary focus of our new Community Manager Georgie, whom you will no doubt hear a lot from over the next few months.
She’s going to be finding out who’s already using data like this, who’s maintaining it, who’s interested in running projects with it or doing research — and seeing if there’s also an appetite there to keep the data up to date. This is because the data will really only be useful to people if it’s well maintained and current!
Working with Wikidata
Early on, we recognised that improving the political data available in Wikidata, rather than ringfencing it all within EveryPolitician, was going to be an efficient way to maximise the benefits of the Democratic Commons project.
What does this mean in practice? Well, in our first phase we’ve targeted 13 places in which to locate the data and load it into Wikidata: Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Canada, Italy, Estonia, Lebanon, India, S Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Ultimately, we want to help make any and all information about politicians at every level freely and openly available via the Commons; but for now, our initial scope looks at representatives at national, regional, and city legislatures.
Now that a lot of this work is being done on or in Wikidata, we’re creating tools to make processes smoother and faster. The main ones of these are around verifying data and creating statements in Wikidata; we hope that when we’ve completed these they’ll be valuable to the whole Wikidata community beyond just the Democratic Commons project.
Step by step
We’re focusing on getting what we’re terming ‘Outline Data’ for each place loaded into Wikidata first. This type of data helps us model the political system, as it tells us what the legislature looks like — for example, whether it is unicameral, bicameral or different to those; what it calls members of the legislature; what term the legislature is on and how long that lasts; and often how many seats that legislature contains.
Once we have that outline data, we then need some information about people holding seats in those legislatures. We try and start with five examples of each type of role at each level, then we can send this ‘Seed Data’ off to hopefully crowdsource the rest of the data: more on that in a bit!
Meanwhile, our GIS expert Will is working on boundaries. Boundary data is hard — like, really hard! This is one of the most challenging areas of the project but it’s also one of the most important. Without electoral boundaries we don’t know what area a politician is representing and a lot of the tools we think this data would be useful for just won’t work.
However, boundaries aren’t always released openly or completely, especially when it comes to local level constituencies, and even when we do find them, understanding whether we have all the data we need to represent politicians correctly can be really tricky.
Because we like to keep really busy, we’ve also been starting to collaborate with other organisations such as Open Knowledge and CLEA on how to raise the visibility of the availability (or lack, more likely) of open sources of official boundary data.
Working with Facebook
You may remember our ongoing work to connect Facebook users with their politicians after an election, in countries around the world.
We’re also working with Facebook to run some crowdsourcing experiments that will gather more data on politicians. I mentioned ‘Seed Data’ above. For each country, this gets fed to Facebook, and allows them to create questions which they can send to users to ask them who their representatives are at different levels of government.
We then get this data back and our partners help us verify it and put it into Wikidata so it becomes open and available for anyone to use. Facebook has a reach we would never be able to manage on our own.
So that’s where we are
As I’ve hopefully demonstrated in this post, the work is extremely challenging. That’s why we’re sometimes a little slow in updating where we’ve got to — but we genuinely believe that that having this data out there in the open will pave the way for so many exciting new political data-based projects and research. And so, onwards!
Image: Ben White (Unsplash)
Researching in an unstable environment
It’s been nearly two years since the InfoLib Liberia project with iLab Liberia started. In that time the project has faced many hurdles, some predicted, and some completely unforeseen.
The iLab team have seen their country devastated by Ebola, only 11 years after the end of their second civil war, bringing tragedy and instability along with it. As you can probably imagine, the impact of curfews, fear and death in communities has made it difficult for people to continue with their daily lives. The social impact of such a disease is wide-reaching. Distrust, marginalisation and exclusion can be directed at those who show symptoms, or even who suffered and survived.
These are challenges that our local partners have had to contend with every day, both when holding training sessions and more crucially when researching the impact of the project on people’s lives.
However, by far the largest hurdle for this particular project has been a mixture of low internet penetration and lack of government will to release information. The team on the ground have been working tirelessly to create an ecosystem of requesting and training Public Information Officers (PIOs) to reply – even providing them with tablets to scan documents without needing electricity, let alone a computer. But if those officers have no access to the information that has been requested, their jobs become virtually impossible.
The project is now drawing to a close and we’re undertaking our final research survey. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what we’ve learnt about the impact of our joint Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
When designing the project we decided that impact could best be measured in terms of whether or not the project increased confidence in government transparency.
We carried out surveys in January 2016 and April 2016, to provide a baseline picture and then an assessment of impact at midline. The final survey is being conducted in August 2016 just as the project ends.
The first survey – the baseline – was carried out mainly in the rural areas. iLab Liberia teamed up with LFIC to survey 152 participants who had been involved in the FOI workshops that LFIC had held in the counties.
We had to attempt the second survey twice, as it turned out to be more challenging than we’d expected. We needed the participants from the first questionnaire to answer the same questions we’d asked them initially, in order to measure change — but it proved hard to locate all of them.
There were many factors which caused this, but the main one was economic drivers, forcing people to move to where the opportunities are. It’s a problem many researchers must run into working in the field.
Carter, the project lead at iLab Liberia told us:
“There are several reasons why this happens […]. People migrate a lot between markets, farms. Several persons who participated in the baseline could not be reached as they [had] travelled to other cities/counties. [Or] the job that allowed them to reside in that city/county is no longer available so they might have left seeking after another job.”
Our second attempt was more successful. We managed to contact a large percentage of the original participants in the survey: 112 of the 152.
We’ve found out some interesting things from doing this research. We saw that 74% of people who use the internet daily say it’s their main source of information, though it is still only a small percentage of the population who have access to the internet.
So the next biggest source of information? Radio! 85% of people with with no access to the internet give radio as their main source of information. Thinking of the migration of workers between cities and counties – you suddenly appreciate why Radio is such an important medium for getting hold of information. Thankfully, as you’ll remember from our original blog post, we’re covering both of these media in the InfoLib project.
In the months since we began studying the impact of this project we also learned that fear of making a request has dropped by 5% in the individuals surveyed . The amount of people who reported that they didn’t know how to ask for information dropped from 24% to 21%. This is pretty great news to us as it shows that our training and our encouragement is working – albeit slowly.
Finally we saw the percentage of people who believe government would be more transparent if citizens could see the information they hold rise by 3% to 93% of the surveyed respondents. Even if this figure hadn’t risen, this demonstrates a clear existing demand from the citizens of Liberia for the Government to release more information about its activities which is great news overall!
No project is without its challenges, and as you’ve seen above one of the big ones is ensuring that the same people respond from survey to survey. Not being able to pin down precisely the same set of people means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that we have a true measure in the difference in attitude.
As a result of the economic and social drivers mentioned above, the workforce in Liberia is very transient. This makes disseminating information through radio and internet mediums even more important. This research has shown that these are the primary sources of news and official information for the majority of Liberians, and continuing to improve knowledge about, and access to, information via these sources will empower the population further.
Finally, it can be challenging to demonstrate impact in projects like these, simply because research is not the main focus for our local partners. We partner with local groups because they are passionate, capable, and able to engage and mobilise citizens around a certain issue. We cannot expect small grassroots groups to have the resources or experience to conduct academic surveying, sampling or interviewing that could detect and definitively isolate the short term impact of a small project. This piece of research has provided some encouraging interim results, but most of all, it has provided valuable lessons to us at mySociety in trying to conduct this kind of impact research remotely and in partnership.
While we wait for the outcome of the final survey we can feel cautiously hopeful that this project has caused a small change in the way access to information operates in Liberia. infoLib will continue to run after the project officially ends, and mySociety will continue to support the work that iLab does in this area . However it may take longer than we had expected or hoped, to see the governmental shift towards releasing information.
Costa Rica will soon be holding elections, voting in mayors and local representatives for each canton — the equivalent of county level. Traditionally these elections have a low turnout — around 20% of the population — and very few people know who the candidates are.
Indeed, voters tend not to be very informed about the differences in role between councillors, representatives and mayors. As a result, many simply vote for family members, friends or people they know who are standing, rather than the issues the parties are campaigning about.
Technology to the rescue
Can technology help? You may remember YourNextMP, the crowdsourcing software which gathered details of every single candidate in the UK, prior to our own General Election last year.
That’s now been made available, as YourNextRepresentative, for international usage. Costa Rican version TusRepresentantesLocales launched a couple of weeks ago as a joint initiative between Accesa and mySociety.
Canton elections are a relatively recent institution in Costa Rica; the first Mayor was elected in 1998 and the February 2016 election will be the first time that all three positions go to ballot on the same day!
Accesa’s goal is to share knowledge about these elections to improve the turnout and have a more informed voter population.
As you may remember from YourNextMP, the data is mainly gathered via crowdsourcing — asking the general public to add verified information from news stories, political parties’ websites, etc. YourNextRepresentative works the same way.
Accesa will work with students from the Political Sciences school, community youth groups and in harder to reach cantons, such as the ones bordering Nicaragua, local government members.
Accesa also want provide something for the candidates that no one else provides: candidates are looking for more coverage of their work around the election — especially the representative candidates because there is generally more focus on the mayoral ones. TusRepresentantesLocales will give them a platform.
Manfred Vargas from Accesa says:
“One of the main challenges that Costa Rican democracy currently faces has to do with how to strengthen public interest in local elections and local governments.
The abstention rates in past local elections have been incredibly high and most citizens don’t even know who their mayors or councillors are. This year, for the first time, elections for all local positions will be consolidated in one single electoral process that will take place on February 7th, and there’s been a big push to make sure that citizens realise that their municipalities really do matter and their vote counts.
This site is our contribution to this effort and we believe strongly in it because it accomplishes two very important goals: it lets citizens know who their candidates are, and, by virtue of being a collective effort, it encourages citizen engagement and participation in the electoral process”.
We wish them luck for the elections and can’t wait to see the outcome!
On January 8th Liberia launched their new Freedom of Information platform, infoLib, based on our Alaveteli software — not just by pressing a button to put the site live, but with a public event that reached many sectors of society.
The launch was a great success: it was attended by representatives from groups including university students, government ministries and NGOs, each of which will be able to use the site for their own needs.
The Liberian Government and many of the country’s NGOs are excited about infoLib’s ability to monitor when requests come in and to ensure that they are replied to on time.
Attendees expressed happiness with the platform and excitement about what it means for Liberia. Many have said they’re more optimistic that requests will be answered, now that there is a clear, transparent way to scrutinise the government.
The event featured a Q&A session about compliance and functionality: the many questions from the audience were answered by the newly trained Public Information Officers as well as the team from iLab.
So what’s next?
Focus is on driving usage; iLab will be accompanying the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition on their nationwide tour talking about FOI.
In our last post, we talked about how the site is attempting to reach the country’s offline population as well as those who have internet access. On tour, the team will take requests from users, either on paper or directly onto the site if there’s an internet connection.
Growing usage of the site will be a slow process. While there’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s all very new and people want to see proof that it works — so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the coming months.
In addition to this, iLab are going to be running FOI surgeries on community radio stations in the counties and Monrovia. People will have the opportunity to phone in and make an FOI request, and the answers to previous FOI requests will be shared.
Finally we’ll be working on training up the last PIOs and building their skills to give them the best chance to answer requests promptly, online, and with the relevant information.
Everything’s going to plan so far, and there are many aspects of this launch that people launching Alaveteli sites in the future can learn from. Thanks for sharing your progress, iLab, and best of luck as you go into the next phase of your journey.
Are you thinking of setting up a site using one of these codebases?
If so, you should know that you can apply for our help with development, hosting, and support. Hurry, though: the cut-off date for the next round of applications is 31 January.
Due to our own limited resources, we can’t offer help to every potential project — but if you can show that your planned project will be useful, viable, and resourced for the long term, you’ll stand a very good chance.
Start by reading more about what partnership with mySociety means, and then, if that sounds right for you, you can fill in the application form here.
Next time you sit down at your computer to find out some information, remember that things aren’t quite so simple everywhere.
A new Freedom of Information website launches in Liberia today, hoping for success despite the fact that many in the country have little or no access to the internet. If the idea of running an email-based requesting system under such circumstances sounds slightly ambitious, read on to see just how iLab Liberia will make it work, in collaboration with the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition, and funded by the Making All Voices Count project.
The Liberia Freedom of Information Request Platform – InfoLib – is the latest site to use our Alaveteli software. Like all Alaveteli sites, it will send requests for information to public authorities by email, while publishing both the requests and the responses online. In time, responses build into a public archive of information.
Online services, offline
So how do you run a site like this in a country with low internet penetration? With a little ingenuity and a knowledge of which effective networks already exist, it seems.
The project will make use of an existing network of regional offices and training centres, set up by the Carter Centre and LFIC. In these hubs, staff have been trained up to submit and receive requests on behalf of citizens, and citizens have attended workshops on how FOI can benefit them. There’s no need for users to have access to a computer, or an understanding of how to use a website — there will be staff who can do it on their behalf.
And they’ve also spent time training the Public Information Officers, or PIOs, on the use of technology to make responding to requests easier. iLab are also providing a similar service within Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where they already run successful computer and ICT training programmes for interested citizens.
We’ve seen this offline-to-online approach with other projects. At the AlaveteliCon conference we heard from people running Alaveteli sites in Rwanda and Uganda, also areas with low internet access, and we’ve experimented in the past with a similar system to allow people to make FixMyStreet reports via SMS texts to a central office.
In Liberia, almost everyone has access to a radio. Community radio stations are a part of daily life, and the main source of news for many.
iLab Liberia will be putting out regular radio segments, explaining what FOI is and how you can use your rights under Liberian law to access information. They’ll also highlight the most interesting information that’s been released through the site. This approach should see FOI become an increasingly familiar topic, a right that everyone understands and knows that they have access to.
We wish InfoLib the best of luck — and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how these initiatives work out.