1. Ask Your Government Uganda

    Once a country has a Freedom of Information act in place, the battle for citizens’ Right To Know is pretty much over, right?

    Er… that would be nice, wouldn’t it? But in fact, as those who have read our previous blog posts will know, all sorts of factors can stand between citizens and information about their public authorities — here in the UK, and all around the world. Factors like complex legislation, reluctant officialdom, bureaucracy… and a host of other impediments.

    In Uganda, FOI has made a tangible difference to the level of corruption from officials, but a lack of resources and their politicians’ reluctance to perform the duties requested of them by the act mean that access to information is still a struggle.

    Find out more about the people running Uganda’s Alaveteli site, Ask Your Government, and how they’re tackling these issues, in our latest case study.

  2. Asking questions in public: the Alaveteli experiments

    Suppose we sent an automated tweet every time someone made a successful Freedom of Information request on WhatDotheyKnow — would it bring more visitors to the site?

    And, if you get a response to your first FOI request, does it mean you are more likely to make a second one?

    These, and many more, are the kind of questions that emerge as we refine the advice that we’re offering partner organisations.

    Our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli underpins Freedom of Information sites all around the world. When we first launched it, our only priorities were to make the code work, and to make that code as easy as possible to implement. But, as a community emerged around Alaveteli, we realised that we’d all be better off if we shared advice, successes and ideas.

    And that’s where we began to encounter questions.

    Some of them, like how to get more users, or how to understand where users come from, are common to anyone running a website.

    Others are unique to our partner structure, in which effectively anyone in any part of the world may pick up the Alaveteli code and start their own site. In theory, we might know very little more than that a site is running, although we’ll always try to make contact and let the implementers know what help we can offer them.

    There were so many questions that we soon saw the need to keep them all in one place. At mySociety, we’re accustomed to using Github for anything resembling a to-do list (as well as for its primary purposes; Github was designed to store code, allow multiple people to work on that code, and to suggest or review issues with it), and so we created a slightly unusual repo, Alaveteli-experiments.

    Screenshot of the Alaveteli Experiments repo, showing a table of experiments and summaries of their results

    This approach also gives us the benefit of transparency. Anyone can visit that repo and see what questions we are asking, how we intend to find the answers, and the results as they come in. What’s more, anyone who has (or opens) a Github account will also be able to add their own comments.

    Have a browse and you’ll come across experiments like this one and this one, which attempt to answer the questions with which we opened this post.

    Some of the experiments, like this one to analyse whether people click the ‘similar requests’ links in the sidebar, we’re running on our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow. Others, such as this one about the successful requests listed on every Alaveteli site’s homepage, are being conducted on our partners’ sites.

    Our aims are to find out more about how to bring more users to all Alaveteli sites, how to encourage browsing visitors to become people who make requests, and how to turn one-off requesters into people who come back and make another — and then pass all that on to our partners.

    We hope you’ll find plenty of interest on there. We reckon it’s all relevant, especially to anyone running an FOI website, but in many cases to anyone wondering how best to improve a site’s effectiveness. And we’re very happy to hear your ideas, too: if we’ve missed some obvious experiment, or you’ve thought of something that would be really interesting to know through the application of this kind of research, you’re  welcome to let us know.

    You can open your own ticket on the repo, suggest it in the Alaveteli community mailing list, or email Alaveteli Partnerships Manager Gemma.


    Image: Sandia Labs (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)


  3. When funds go missing: how FixMyStreet is helping fight corruption in Malaysia

    Anyone who lives in public housing will know how frustrating it is when maintenance issues just don’t get fixed.

    Imagine how you’d feel, though, if you knew that funds had been allocated, but the repairs still weren’t being made — and there was no sign of the money.

    That’s the situation for the residents of public housing blocks in Kota Damansara, a township in Selangor State, Malaysia, whose problems range from termite and rat infestations to poor water sanitation, broken balcony railings, and beyond.

    In Malaysia, there’s no obligation for authorities to publish data on how public funds are spent, so it’s easy for corruption to thrive. The Sinar Project, an organisation that might be called the Malaysian equivalent of mySociety, are trying to tackle this state of affairs with a two pronged approach. They recently wrote it up on the OKFN blog.

    As you might expect, we pricked up our ears when we reached the part mentioning their use of FixMyStreet. Sinar already run aduanku.my, a FixMyStreet for Malaysia, using our open source code. Hazwany (Nany) Jamaluddin told of how a part of the site has been used to help provide concrete proof that repairs are not being made, and to put pressure on the authorities to do something about it.

    We’re always going on about how flexible FixMyStreet is: in case you don’t already know, it’s been used in projects as diverse as reporting anti-social behaviour on public transport to a tie-in with a channel 4 TV programme. One use that’s often been suggested is for housing estate management: if the maps showed the floorplans of housing blocks rather than the default of streetmaps, the rest of the functionality would remain pretty much as it is, with reports going off to the relevant housing maintenance teams rather than council departments.

    Sinar’s project does not try anything quite that ambitious, but nonetheless they have found a system that enables them to use FixMyStreet as part of their wider accountability project. They began by creating a new boundary for the Kota Damansara area on the website, and taught community leaders how to make reports for the public housing blocks within it.

    Since the map does not display the interior of the buildings, reporters must take care to describe precisely which floor and which block the issue is on, within the body of the report, with pictures as supporting evidence. It’s a step away from FixMyStreet’s usual desire to provide everything the user needs in order to make an actionable report — and everything the recipient needs to act on it — but it is serviceable.

    Ideally, Sinar would have liked the residents themselves to make the reports: after all, they are the ones facing the problems day to day; they know them more intimately and would describe them with more accuracy — but as Sinar’s social audit found, these residents are all under the poverty line: most do not have smartphones or internet connectivity at home.

    Instead, the community leaders make the report and this is then also processed manually, because the housing management company requires submissions on paper.

    You may be thinking, why go to all this bother? How does FixMyStreet play its part in the project, especially if you then have to transcribe the reports onto paper? It’s because FixMyStreet, as well as processing reports, has another side.

    We often mention how FixMyStreet, by publishing reports online, can give an extra incentive to councils to get problems fixed. In Kota Damansara the effect will hopefully be greater: this small section of the wider Aduanku website stands as a visible record of where funds have not made it to where they are needed most —  to fix those rat infestations and broken balconies.

    Nonetheless, the management companies continue to deny that there is strong enough evidence that funds have been diverted. And so Sinar, undaunted, move on to their next weapon against corruption. The incoming and outgoing of funds have been, and will continue to be, examined via a series of Freedom of Information requests.

    We wish Sinar all the best with this project and look forward to hearing that it has brought about change.

    Image: Tinou Bao (CC by/2.0)

  4. I created a template for writing to an MP, and then I deleted it

    Twitter comment

    We were glad to see this tweet back in July, when @adebradley identified WriteToThem as the place to go for information on how to write to your MP. We do try to make that process as easy as possible, so it was a fair assumption that we’d have such a template1.

    But in fact, it was also a mistaken assumption, although we do have some more general advice in our FAQs. Basically, we offer lots of help on how to use our service, but we assume that the user can manage perfectly well once they’ve got to the ‘compose’ screen.

    So I did what I always do when a user points out a ‘nice to have’ feature for one of our sites: I ticketed it on Github, our issue-tracking system. And then, when I got round to it, I sat down and did some thinking, and read some other websites which offer advice on writing to your MP.

    And then I created a template to show people how to compose a letter that would be clear, readable, and likely to get a result.


    As I was doing so, something felt wrong.

    Firstly: who was going to visit this template? Even if we linked to it from the FAQs, would anyone ever find it? We know (without having to check our analytics, merely from the kind of messages we often get in our support mail) that the FAQs are not universally read. They’re more widely read since we moved the ‘Help’ link to the top right of every page, but all the same, it seems many users would rather drop us a line than find the answer on an FAQs page.

    Then secondly: my template began to feel very patronising. Here was I, someone whose job is copywriting, handing out tips to… well, who? Presumably, our more educated, literate, eloquent users were not staring at a blank screen wondering how to begin a message to their MPs.

    No: the people who need help writing to their MPs are going to be people who find it hard to express themselves in writing, and probably have never contacted their representatives before. And they are also the people least likely to wade through my sanctimonious examples and admonishments about what kind of language to use.

    So, what now?

    I took the issue to my colleagues, who were very helpful in sorting through this thinking. One of them led me to this link, which underscored the uneasiness over whether anyone ever reads FAQs, with wisdom like:

    FAQs are convenient for writers […] But they’re more work for readers.

    And between us, we reached the conclusion that the problem of people not knowing what, or how, to write to an MP wasn’t going to be solved by copywriting after all: if it was going to be solved at all, it was going to be with design and development.

    If we were really going to help our users, it’d have to be right there on the page, at the moment when they get stuck.

    Just as FixMyStreet gives discreet tips about what kind of content is appropriate in a report, WriteToThem might also guide a user to start with a clear statement about what the writer wants or needs, and to follow up with concise details. Or it might detect bad language and alert the user that their message is likely to disappear into an MPs’ anti-abuse filter. Maybe we could have an optional template within the ‘compose’ box which could be toggled on or off.

    We haven’t got any further than that yet, and we promise not to build the 21st century equivalent of Clippy — but what started with a tweet may end up as some in-browser guidelines.

    Meanwhile, if you’re looking for some help writing to your MP, here are our under-visited FAQs, and here’s an excellent guide to writing to your MP from Open Rights Group.


    1 It’s probably worth clarifying that, when we talk about templates for letters to MPs, we are not talking about the sending of identikit messages – rather, we mean guides as to what sort of content to include. We have always, and will always, encourage users to write in their own words, and block mass messages from those who don’t. Here’s why.

    Image: Grant Hutchinson (cc by-nc-nd/2.0)


  5. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: corruption in student unions

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Some journalists focus on very specific areas in their use of FOI.

    Dániel G. Szabó is an editor on Hungary’s Atlatszo Oktatas, a blog hosted on the major news outlet Atlatszo, and run largely by students. He revealed how FOI has been the key to exposing corruption in the country’s student unions.

    Dániel G. SzabóOur project Transparent Education was established on freedom of information.

    It’s a blog focusing on corruption in higher education in Hungary, with a very heavy reliance on freedom of information requests and the analysis of the data acquired through FOI.

    Hungarian student unions, where future political elites learn the basics of democracy, are infected with corruption and our blog works to reveal it.

    We established the national jurisprudence on the accountability of student unions: courts ruled in our cases for the first time that student unions are to respond freedom of information requests and their expenditures should be transparent.

    We sued many state-financed and also religious schools, and tracked the fate of several million euros spent by student union officials who are in their twenties. Without freedom of information laws and court rulings, the data on these funds would have never came to light.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Bicanski (CC-0)


  6. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: Croatia

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Today, we hear from Danela Žagar, a journalist by profession and currently working at the Croatian NGO the Centre for Peace Studies. Danela says:

    In Croatia unfortunately, there still remains a culture of secrecy, left over from the previous regime when everything connected with the state, public authorities, local governments and public companies was enveloped in a thick veil of secrecy. To a great extent, it still is.

    But the paradigm is changing and the public are beginning to demand and expect the important principles of transparency and openness, for data to be available to the public and in an accessible format.

    That said, the government still has a fear of citizens as the people who vote them in. It’s clear that many facts are still hidden despite the existence of the Information Commissioner. We still have not reached the level of openness that many other countries enjoy as standard, or at least are on their way towards.

    The FOI Act is a valuable tool for journalists, and in Croatia its true potential is just being discovered. We have the right to access accurate information in a timely fashion thanks to the Media Act, but unfortunately it often happens that spokesmen for the public authorities hijack access to information.

    FOI allows journalists to obtain this information — and by using the Alaveteli website imamopravoznati.org journalists can follow their own requests, and also track other interesting questions and answers from public authorities.

    Since transparency is key to democracy and a fundamental prerequisite for ensuring public confidence in the work of institutions and politicians, the right of access to information is an important tool in all fields of social engagement in Croatia.

    Journalists and civil society organisations often expose the bad work of politicians through this tool.

    Check the next installment to learn how a journalist in Hungary uncovered a mire of corruption… in Student Unions.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Andi Weiland | berlinergazette.de (CC by 2.0)

  7. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: Hungary

    Today is International Right to Know Day! 2016 is also the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information and we’ve been marking these two facts all week with insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Here’s Katalin Erdélyi, a journalist who works with Atlatszo.hu. That’s the news service that’s closely affiliated to Alaveteli site KiMitTud.

    We began by asking Katalin to tell us about a memorable story that had been written with the aid of FOI.

    Katalin ErdélyiThe Museum of the Fine Arts in Budapest lent 10 antique paintings to a company tied to the PM’s personal advisor Arpad Habony.

    The value of the paintings was HUF 400 million (~ GB £1.06 million) but the company paid only HUF 150,000 (~ GB £400) per month for them, and they hadn’t insured the paintings either.

    We filed a lawsuit because the museum refused my request to publish information on where the paintings were.

    After a year and a half in court we won the case, and the museum had to publish the information that during the whole lending period the paintings were in a private apartment where the PM’s advisor is a frequent visitor.

    After my article was published the Minister of Culture issued a written notice to the director of the museum because he hadn’t asked for his permission for the loan. The director of the museum later admitted he was on friendly terms with the PM’s advisor. He was the best man at Habony’s wedding which was held at the museum. Habony wasn’t charged any rental fees.

    What’s the significance of FOI in your opinion?

    Freedom of Information is important because citizens have the right to know what, why, how and at what costs are things happening in the country where they live and work.

    The state spends their taxes, therefore it is right to expect it to operate in a transparent way. And if someone knows they can be checked up on at any time, they will pay attention to what they do.

    The right to information is a foundation of democracy, a check on power, and it pays an important role in fighting illegal activities and corruption.

    What has Freedom of Information meant to you, as a journalist?

    FOI is very important for investigative journalism.

    If contracts of public spending weren’t open to public, many corruption cases would never be revealed. The Hungarian government has amended the FOI law several times in the past few years, and always in the negative direction.

    Each time they limit the data that falls under the scope of the FOI Act, so that they can keep dubious affairs secret. This causes the risk of corruption to rise even higher, and our work has become even more challenging.

    When the right to information is wide, and public spending is transparent, it’s much easier to notice suspicious cases.

    Do you consider FOI to be a vital tool for the future?

    It’s very important to apply FOI in as many places and as widely as possible. If there’s no FOI, there’s no democracy.

    If we let political interests become more important than FOI we will end up in a dictatorship. The task and interest of the non-governmental organisations is to check on power, and this is only possible with freedom of information.

    We have to stand up for it everywhere, every time.

    Read the next installment to learn how a journalist in Croatia has used FOI.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: KovacsDaniel CC BY-SA 3.0

  8. TICTeC 2017 – save the date

    It’s official: TICTeC 2017, our third conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Florence, Italy, at the beautiful Firenze Fiera.

    Please block out the dates in your calendars now: 25th and 26th April 2017. And watch this space, as we’ll be putting out the call for papers soon, with plenty more details to follow.

    We’re looking forward to seeing you in April! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse last year’s highlights here.

    Image: Ben McIver (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  9. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: UK (part 2)

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Today we hear from Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s Freedom of Information specialist.

    Martin Rosenbaum

    Since 2005 I and my colleagues in the BBC have used FOI as the foundation for certainly hundreds and hundreds, possibly thousands, of news stories and investigations at national and regional levels, across a wide range of topics — health, education, policing, environment, transport, foreign policy, and so on.

    Image by Ben Welsh Martin Rosenbaum discusses British open data laws on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011.This has included revelations on important issues from staff shortages in A&E departments to how officials wrongly dismissed predictions about levels of Eastern European immigration, from which makes of cars are most likely to fail MOT tests to the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from schools, from the cost of policing football games to the identities of individuals who have turned down honours.

    Journalism is based on asking people questions, but of course much of the time there’s no guarantee you will actually get them answered.

    Freedom of information is a rare and valuable tool because it provides a legal right to some information — a right that can be enforced when necessary by independent bodies, the Information Commissioner and the Information Rights Tribunal. And that means FOI provides the power to obtain certain material in the public interest that otherwise could not be squeezed out of reluctant public authorities.

    FOI has made a crucial difference to what the media can find out and what the public knows about what central and local government and the public sector is doing.

    Read the next post to learn how FOI has been used by journalists in Hungary.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.


    Image: Martin Rosenbaum by Ben Welsh CC BY-2.0

  10. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: UK

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Here in the UK, two names are particularly linked to FOI: Professor Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, and Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI correspondent.

    Today we hear from Heather about the importance of FOI and how she’s used it, and tomorrow you can read Martin’s views.

    Heather Brooke

    I took two important FOI cases through the legal appeals process: one seeking the minutes to a BBC Board of Governors Meeting after the Hutton Inquiry1, and my notable legal victory against the House of Commons for details of MPs’ expenses2.

    Paul Clarke [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThis victory in the UK High Court fundamentally changed law and policy, and for the first time in its history Parliament had to account to an outside body over how MPs’ claimed expenses.  The court ruling and subsequent leak of the data led to a number of high-level political resignations as well as full-scale reform of the parliamentary expense regime and passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. A new government was elected in May 2010 on a mandate of transparency in part due to the scandal

    I made extensive use of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, filing about 500 FOIs and writing some 60 newspaper and magazine articles about the law and its impact on democracy from 2005-2010. I used the law to map and monitor public bodies for the first time in a citizen-friendly way in Your Right to Know. Through FOI I was able to flag up current and future problems such as secrecy in food safety regulation, the postcode lottery for criminal justice, the amounts police spend on public liability claims and propaganda.

    Freedom of Information, rooted in Enlightenment values, contains within it a key principle of democracy that there must be access to information (and knowledge) for all equally. My approach in my 25-year journalistic career has been to use FOI as a means of testing the promise and practice of democracy.  By their responses to FOI requests, we see how agencies truly think about citizens’ rights to access and participate in the political system.

    Read the next installment to learn how Martin Rosenbaum’s use of FOI has underpinned hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories at the BBC.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    1Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Heather Brooke v IC and the BBC (2007) EA/2006/0011; EA/2006/0013
    2Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner & Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman, Jonathan Michael Ungoed-Thomas [2008] EWHC 1084 (Admin) (16 May 2008)

    Images: Cameramen at the Hutton Inquiry by Ben Sutherland CC BY-2.0; Heather Brooke by Paul Clarke CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.