1. Spam attack!

    What happens when your site is the target of a major spam attack? That wasn’t something we were particularly keen to find out —  but it’s a scenario we’re now fully acquainted with. That’s all thanks to a recent concerted assault on our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    All is calm again now, and hopefully, as a user of the site, you’ll have noticed very little. Yes, you’ll now have to complete a recaptcha when creating a new request*, and you might have discovered that the site was inaccessible for a couple of hours. Beyond that, everything is pretty much as it was.

    From our point of view, though, it was an emergency situation that meant that several of us had to put down what we were doing and join in with some quick decision-making.

    Alert, alert!

    It was around 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon when Richard, one of the volunteers who helps to run WhatDoTheyKnow, noticed unusual activity on the site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was created to help people send requests for information to public authorities — a service for the wider good. Unfortunately, at this point, it was also doing something quite the opposite of good: it was providing the means for unknown sources to send those same authorities hundreds of spam messages.

    We’d like to apologise to those who were on the receiving end: clearly, spam is a nuisance for everyone who receives it and we’re unhappy to have played any part in its perpetuation.

    We also had a secondary concern. It seemed likely that recipients would mark these incoming emails as spam. When enough people had done that, email providers would see us as an insecure source, and block all our messages, valid or otherwise, potentially preventing the WhatDoTheyKnow system from running efficiently.

    A little fire-fighting? That’s actually situation normal

    Spam is an obvious example of the site being abused, but it’s perhaps worth mentioning that we work hard on many levels to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is only used for its core purpose: the requesting of information under the FOI Act.

    And note that we’ve always been careful to protect against abuse. WhatDoTheyKnow does already have several measures in place as standard: we only allow one account per email address; we verify that email addresses are genuine; and we cap the number of requests that users can make each day (a restriction that we only override for users who are demonstrably making acceptable use of our service). We reckon that these measures very much helped to reduce the impact of the attacks.

    Action

    After a quick discussion between the volunteer team, trustees and mySociety staff, we took the site offline to give us time to work on a solution while stopping any more spam from being sent.

    Of course, we then removed all the spam requests and comments from the site and banned the accounts that had made them. We also contacted the affected bodies to let them know what had happened and to assure them that we were taking steps to deal with it.

    When we brought the site back up, a couple of hours later, we did so cautiously and with new restrictions and safeguards in place.

    Spam ‘requests’ had been sent over a period of about 13 hours. There were in the region of 800 made, though only about 500 actually got sent to authorities. Additionally, around 368 spam comments were left on existing requests. These relatively small numbers lead us to believe that they were being made manually.

    Time to breathe… or nearly

    Once we’d discovered the issue, dealing with it and getting the site back up and running took us 2.5 hours.

    Job done — so now we could sit back and relax, eh? But no: the next day we discovered that a couple of other sites running on the Alaveteli platform,  AskTheEu and New Zealand’s FYI, were being subjected to the same attacks.

    So we rolled out the changes we’d made on WhatDoTheyKnow to make them available to all Alaveteli users. And then, finally, we could get back to the everyday work we’d been doing before — making our sites better for you, and the other nice non-spamming people who use them.

    * We’ll be looking at removing it as soon as we can, though, as recaptcha doesn’t offer a very accessible experience for many disabled people. Meanwhile, we can manually remove the recaptcha for specific accounts, so if you’re struggling with it, contact the team to implement this exemption.


    Image: Mark Granitz (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  2. Transparencia: bringing transparency to Belgium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Launching with a splash – and some serious questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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)

  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. 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)

  8. 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

  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.