1. 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 back tomorrow to learn how more journalists in other countries have 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: Andi Weiland | berlinergazette.de (CC by 2.0)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    FragaStaten

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

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

    Why did you decide to set up FrågaStaten?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    What are your future plans for the site?

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

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

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

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

    Image: Ian Insch(CC)

  3. 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.

    Check back tomorrow to learn how more journalists in other countries have 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

  4. 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.

    Check back tomorrow 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

  5. 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.

    Check back tomorrow 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.

  6. Come and see Finnish Freedom Of Information cartoonists

    Think Freedom of Information is a bit of a dry topic? Not when you mix it with some exuberant inky comic art, it’s not!

    Two Finnish cartoonists, Siiri Viljakka and Lauri Tuomi-Nikula, are visiting the UK to speak about their comic book Last Words. This graphic novella imagines one of the founding fathers of Freedom of Information, Anders Chydenius, returning from the grave to see how his ideas are surviving in the modern world.

    Siiri and Lauri will be speaking at four informal meet-ups in London, Brighton and Hastings — entry is free.

    Image: Siiri Valjakka and Lauri Tumoi-NikulaArtwork: Siiri Viljakka & Lauri Tuomi-Nikula

    If you’d like to hear Siiri and Lauri speaking about comics, FOI, and how the two can interact, you can register now at no cost.

    At the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday events, the talk will focus mainly on comics with a side order of FOI.

    At Citizen Beta on Tuesday, it will be the other way around, with Siiri and Lauri fitting in among other speakers on the topic of FOI and civic technologies – full details here. So take your pick, depending on how you prefer your arts/civic rights balance!

    The trip has been made possible by generous donations from several people via a crowdfunder. Thanks to everyone who donated, but special thanks to Dan Berry’s Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast, the Hastings 1066 Country Cartoon Festival, and my dad 🙂

  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. Alaveteli Professional – learning more about journalistic use of Freedom of Information

    In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.

    Why are we doing this project?

    Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?

    Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.

    Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.

    That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.

    What we’re doing

    The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.

    We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.

    The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.

    There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.

    What’s next?

    At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.

    Image: Dean Hochman (CC by 2.0)

  9. 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

  10. How 350 FOI requests will increase the chance of success for start-ups

    Gavin Chait hates walking past empty shops.

    We’re talking about shops where the only person inside is a bored cashier, waiting for customers. Gavin sees it as a sign that the business should never have been set up in that location, and, more importantly, as something that’s completely avoidable.

    With his company Whythawk, he’s on a mission to get that changed — and he’s using Freedom of Information to do so. It’s a very interesting case study that shows just how WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information platform, can be used for the social good.

    So, if you have a few minutes, sit back and watch Gavin explain what led him to make 350 FOI requests, one to each local authority in England and Wales — and what he did when many of them were turned down.

    You can read more about the whole project at Pikhaya.com.

    Thanks very much to Gavin for taking the time to talk to us.

    Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve used one of mySociety’s sites? We’d love to hear from you: just drop us a line on communications@mysociety.org.


    Image: Dan Thompson (CC)