1. Alaveteli Release 0.23

    Earlier this week, we released Alaveteli 0.23, the latest version of our Freedom of Information software for usage anywhere in the world.

    This is another big release with lots of general improvements.


    Martin Wright, one of our enterprising designers, has been hard at work giving Alaveteli a new default homepage which explains how the site works. He’s also been improving the HTML to make the site easier to customise without needing to be a CSS guru.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.07.41


    Liz Conlan has joined the Alaveteli team, and we have been hazing welcoming her by getting her to tackle some of the annoying little bugs that have been around for a long time – so the site should now be smoother to use and more of a joy for admins to run. Petter Reinholdtsen also chipped in here with better handling of the graphs that show how much new installs are being used.

    Code Quality

    We’ve continued to refactor the code for simplicity, clarity and extensibility. We plan for Alaveteli to be around for many years to come – that means it needs to be easy for new developers to understand what it does, and why (nerd alert, our Code Climate score continues to inch its way up and test coverage is now over 90%). This isn’t glamorous work, but it is an important investment in the future of the code that mySociety developers are lucky enough to be in a position to consider. Its not just us though – Caleb Tutty and James McKinney both contributed substantial code refactorings to this release.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.14.43


    We’ve also been working to improve the process of translating Alaveteli into a new language – standardising the way phrases for translation appear to translators, and, thanks to Gareth Rees introducing support for language-specific sorting, ensuring that “Åfjord Municipality” will now appear after “Ytre Helgeland District Psychiatric Centre” in Mimesbronn, the Norweigian Alaveteli site, as it should.


    We’ve dipped our toes into the water of two-factor authentication to keep accounts secure. As Alaveteli runs all over the world, on all kinds of devices, we’ve kept it simple without introducing the need for apps or other technologies. Users now have the option of activating an extra one time passcode that they’ll need to supply if they ever want to change their password in the future.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.18.25

    Spam spam spam spam

    We continue to fight the good fight against spam – in this release we introduce a configuration parameter that allows site admins to adjust the period in which requests remain open to responses – closing the window in which spammers can target them. We’ve also extended our use of reCAPTCHA to keep spambots at bay.

    Alaveteli, don’t phone home

    Thanks to Ian Chard, Alaveteli now uses a local GeoIP database by default to find the country for HTTP requests (and tell users if there is an Alaveteli in their country), rather than the mySociety Gaze service. This should improve performance and reliability.

    The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

    Image: Steve Smith (CC)

  2. What happens when you restrict Freedom of Information? Experiences from around the world

    Alongside several UK organisations, we’re campaigning against the proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act.

    Now, the changes are just that – proposed ones – so you might think that it’s hard to do more than speculate over what they might mean for Freedom of Information in this country.

    But wait! Here at mySociety, we are in touch with people and organisations who run Freedom of Information websites all over the world. Many of them have seen the introduction of such restrictions (and some have successfully challenged them).

    So in this post, we gather together their experiences along with existing research, to provide evidence and context to the changes currently being discussed.

    Perhaps you’d like to use some of the following examples when you write to your MP.


    Image by Brad Herman. A rainbow over a river in Dublin.

    For a government to desire such restrictions is nothing new: a 2011 report by Toby Mendel for the World Bank* examines several countries which have been through exactly that (and, more cheerfully, lists those where the law was changed to extend FOI rights). One statistic stands out from that report:

    Emily O’Reilly, the Irish information commissioner, noted that the impact of the amendments had been to reduce the rate of requests by 50 percent, to decrease requests (other than those for personal information) by 75 percent, and to cause a drop of 83 percent in requests by the media—all within one year.

    Ireland introduced fees for initial requests, and also for any subsequent internal and independent reviews. They also extended protection to some government records showing the workings of civil servants, and to documents referring to security, defence and international relations. The decision was later reversed in order to “restore the balance”.

    *Amending Access to  Information Legislation:  Legal and Political Issues by Toby Mendel, 2011


    Image by Roger Matthewes: Hessenpark in Germany

    In Germany, we are told by Arne from the FOI website Frag den Staat, bodies may charge up to 500 € for the processing of information requests.

    Fair enough, you might think — but let’s look at a couple of examples.

    Like when the Ministry of Transport charged the maximum fee for the provision of data on railway infrastructure. They said that the fee covered the required inspections; they didn’t mention that the data could be found in PDFs that already existed internally.

    Similarly, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection charged 500 € for answering eight questions about their website, asking about costs, usage and data protection: it’s hard to comprehend how that could have required quite so much effort.

    Arne points out that the fee isn’t applied consistently, either: the same request made to a number of similar institutions (for example universities) will result in some information being provided for free, while others charge.

    Finally, he says it’s clear that some people are intimidated by the mere possibility of being charged. Auto-replies from the Foreign Office include details of possible costs, whether or not they apply, which can be very off-putting for inexperienced users.


    Image of Budapest by XaviHungary recently saw the introduction of very similar restrictions.

    In response, FOI-championing website Atlatszo.hu got together with other NGOs to put together this damning assessment:

    The new law gives state institutions the option to deny information requests [..] if they involve preparation for “future decision”, but most importantly, it introduces a requirement that those who approach various institutions for information may have to pay for their queries.

    The various state bureaus may charge a fee if they decide that the request for information places an unwarranted additional workload on the staff. Besides being highly arbitrary grounds for denial, the financial costs are a natural deterrent to even attempting to find out important information.

    The organisation also predicts that fees will lessen the will of average people to file requests. Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Atlatszo.hu’s Editor-in-Chief :

    “They are charging fees so people won’t file so many requests,” says Bodoky, adding that while Atlatszo isn’t very happy with the situation, it won’t be deterred. “We will pay the small fee and continue to make requests, but citizens and activists who have started to use freedom of information quite a lot may not want or be able to.”

    Czech Republic

    Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic - panormaic image showing buildings and trees

    Richard Hunt, who runs the FOI site Informace Pro Všechny, as well as actively using FOI here in the UK, tells us that in the Czech Republic, there is no statutory charge for requests. However a clause states that costs can be recovered.

    There have been high profile cases reported by the press, because the press were the requesters.

    When HN (a leading financial daily newspaper) asked the finance ministry to provide the details under the Freedom of Information Act of the Kč 6.2bn in tax payments and penalties that have been forgiven since 2006, the ministry asked for processing fees of more than Kč 250,000. (£6,500).

    Richard also tells us that the costs requirement both adds to the bureaucracy around requests, and acts as a disincentive for people making requests. In order to collect the money, public bodies require the name, address and date of birth of all requesters.

    In a post-communist society people remain wary of showing themselves, especially in causing potential trouble for the authorities.


    Times Square by Hien Nguyen

    In the USA, fees may be levied based on the amount of work required, as calculated by the public body receiving the FOI request.

    Our friends at Muckrock highlight two cases where the costs would have been at levels far beyond the reach of ordinary requesters: $270,000 for details of contracts between the FBI and a contractor, and $452,000 for summary information on a mail surveillance program.

    While we imagine that the cost structure would differ here in the UK, these cases serve as an extreme example of how, if bodies wish to, they can use restrictions to ensure that their information remains inaccessible.


    Brisbane skyline by Andrea Ferrera

    A similar story comes from RightToKnow in Australia, who were stymied by this move when trying to investigate the treatment of immigrants in detention centres:

    While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.

    In Australia, the exact clause is “the work involved in processing the request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the agency from its other operations”—and we’re told that this is one of the most-commonly used reasons for refusing access.

    Sometimes it’s used fairly but more often than not it’s used by agencies to interpret the request in such a way as to create the “practical refusal reason”.

    In the UK, we’re looking at a lowering of the threshold for requests to be refused because of cost, which equates to the effort, or manhours, involved.

    Fees are not applicable across all kinds of request in Australia, but where they are, they can be used in a way that’s contrary to the spirit of the law:

    At the state level there are application fees across every state and territory (except the ACT). RightToKnow has a number of examples where it appears agencies are deliberately using application fees to frustrate requesters.


    Alhambra on a hilltop surrounded by trees, by Javi Muro

    The Spanish site Tu Derecho A Saber tells us that costs and bureaucratic processes have a severely dampening effect on the number of citizens who are willing to make requests. They draw a parallel with WhatDoTheyKnow: in our first year of operation, we processed over 19,000 FOI requests. But in the same time period, Tu Derecho A Saber saw just 3,400 requests.

    Spain’s FOI law also protects internal discussions, along with drafts, communications and papers considered before writing up any regulation.

    They’re also fighting against a general lack of adherence to the FOI laws by public bodies. The result of all of these impediments? A drop in the number of requests processed, which have gone from 160 a week, to around 6.

    Inevitably such restrictions have an effect on how FOI is perceived:

    Frustration makes people see FOI laws as useless or too relaxed.


    Jerusalem panorama of rooftops by Ilya Grigorik
    • In Israel, requests are limited to whatever can be gathered within four hours’ work. This effectively limits responses to information which has already been prepared.
    • In Ukraine, the ability to mark information as ‘for internal use only’, and a highly bureaucratic system for making requests, led to a culture of concealed corruption.

    Why this matters

    London from the air by Anders Sandberg

    We’ve already written about what the proposed changes would mean for us here in the UK: see our blog posts here and here.

    But there are wider implications, too. At AlaveteliCon, we learned that other countries look to the UK (and WhatDoTheyKnow) as a shining example of how things could be. Any change in our laws will have an effect far beyond our own boundaries.

    If we’re to keep what, as became evident when we listened to the stories of others, for all its faults is a world-class FOI system, we need to take action now. See below for how you can do that.


    View across the rocks at Punta Del Diablo in Uruguay by Joãokẽdal

    Changes to the UK Freedom of Information Act are not a foregone conclusion. We can win the fight against the proposed restrictions — and we have examples to prove it.

    At AlaveteliCon the Freedom of Information technologies conference, we heard of successful protests in:

    Australia and Uruguay, where bodies were obliged to accept requests via email

    Hungary, where the government’s attempts to label requests as ‘vexatious’ was overturned

    What next?

    If you feel strongly that your right to information should not be impeded, check these simple actions you can take right now.

    SaveFOI: sign a petition1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition

    Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.

    If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.

    #SaveFOI: write to your MP2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP

    Use WriteToThem.com to tell your MP why Freedom of Information is important and how restrictions would affect you, or society as a whole.

    submit an FOI story #SaveFOI3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story

    SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.

    Banner image: Andy Arthur (CC)

    Ireland: Brad Herman; Germany: Roger Matthewes; Hungary: Xavi; Czech Republic: Abejorro34; USA Hien Nguyen; Australia: Andrea Ferrera; Spain: Javi Muro; Elsewhere: Ilya Grigorik; Why this matters: Anders Sandberg; Successes: Joãokẽdal (all CC)

  3. Bienvenida to two new Alaveteli sites

    Welcome to two new Freedom of Information websites now running on the Alaveteli platform: Derecho A Preguntar (Right To Ask) in Nicaragua, and QueremoSaber (We Want To Know) in Paraguay.

    Alaveteli is our software that makes it easy to set up and run an FOI website; with these two recent launches, it’s now powering 25 Freedom of Information sites all around the world.

    Both countries’ constitutions enshrine their citizens’ right to information from public authorities, but, just as here in the UK, that right isn’t always widely known. So for both sites the aim is to help increase awareness of FOI among citizens.

    In Nicaragua, Fundación Violeta B. de Chamorro set up their site with the aid of Hivos (and with hosting and development support from us). Paraguay’s TEDIC are the organisation behind QueremoSaber, and they’ve set it up with very little help from our side. Always good to know that can be done!

    As a side note, take a glance at both sites to see how thoroughly Alaveteli can be ‘skinned’ to each organisation’s own design preferences. In fact, you only have to cast you eyes over all 25 deployments to see how each has its own very distinct character. Derecho A Preguntar actually took the foundation of its design from Spain’s TuDerechoASaber, which is one of the great benefits of the Alaveteli community: the chance to share, in this case, not just support and advice, but a design template.

    We’re very glad to see these two sites up and running. Together with Alaveteli sites in Uruguay and Panama (where the government uses the platform for its official FOI provision), they’re helping bring better access to information to Latin America.

  4. Apply for support and development help

    There are websites built on mySociety code in many countries across the world.

    If your country doesn’t already have one, perhaps you’re thinking of setting up a FixMyStreet site for your area, or maybe a Freedom of Information site run on Alaveteli?

    Possibly you’re looking at WriteInPublic or YourNextRepresentative.

    Whatever the site you’re planning, you’ll find it a lot easier with our support and development help.

    Our quarterly call for applications closes on October 30, so make sure you have yours in soon. Want to know exactly what’s involved? Start here.


    Image: Damian Gadal (cc)

  5. Freedom of Information in glorious ink

    Outside of her work for mySociety, our very own marketing and communications manager Myf somehow finds time to illustrate and sketch. She runs a popular personal blog (Myf Draws Apparently) which often includes sketch diaries of her adventures. The most recent one she’s just published is a lovely record of a trip to Madrid earlier this year.

    Only, it wasn’t just a trip to Madrid — she was there as part of the mySociety team at AlaveteliCon 2015.

    Alaveteli is mySociety’s Freedom of Information (FoI) platform, and AlaveteliCon was the second conference we’ve held on Freedom of Information technologies. It brings together people from all over the world who are involved in running sites like the UK’s WhatDoTheyKnow.

    One of the pages Myf drew is this wonderful flow diagram of the way platforms like Alaveteli actually experience Freedom of Information.

    Not everyone at the conference was running an Alaveteli-based site, which was sort of the point: the business of running FoI sites like these is not about the technology, it’s about the culture of citizens’ Right to Know. There’s a lot of variety in the FoI laws around the world, and they are regarded with wildly differing levels of enthusiasm by the authorities who ought to be bound by them. The groups running FoI sites invariably consist of individuals who are passionate and articulate on all aspects of Freedom of Information. At the conference, they shared tales of frustration in the face of intransigent or occasionally devious public authorities; anecdotes demonstrating beatific levels of patience in the face of obdurate official departments; and, of course, some wonderful stories of success.

    Myf has captured some of this in her sketch diary. Although she didn’t create it for mySociety, some of us think that flow chart is too delightful and too relevant not to share here.

    To see all of Myf’s Madrid diary (it’s in five parts), start at part one.

  6. Videos from AlaveteliCon

    Earlier this year, the AlaveteliCon conference brought together people with an interest in online Freedom of Information technologies.

    It was an event quite unlike any other, and left a lasting impression of many dedicated people making good things happen for their communities, in places across the world.

    That impression is reflected in these short videos, which came about when we yanked attendees away from their lunches and asked them questions in a darkened room.

    Thanks very much to everyone who responded so amiably, as well as giving us such useful insights into what it’s like to run an FOI site in all sorts of circumstances. We’ve named them at the foot of this post, along with links to their sites.


  7. Alaveteli Release 0.22

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.22!

    Its a big one, with over 400 commits and lots of general improvements.


    Luke Bacon improved the design and accessibility of the search form.


    Code Quality

    Code quality came top of the list at AlaveteliCon 2015. This release includes contributions from James McKinney, Henare Degan, Caleb Tutty, Petter Reinholdtsen and Gorm Eriksen – all helping to clean up code, make Alaveteli work even better and make it easier to translate.


    WhatDoTheyKnow’s Public Authority pages were suffering, so we took a dive in to the code around this area. Improving it had a huge impact on the page we were looking at and should have benefits across the application.


    Maintenance & Security

    We’ve added fixes for CVE-2015-3225, CVE-2015-3227 and CVE-2015-1840, and updated xapian-full-alaveteli for Ruby 2.1 compatibility.

    HTML Widgets

    We’re always trying to think of more ways to promote an Alaveteli site, so this release includes new feature developed by Jody McIntyre for the AskTheEU Alaveteli site.

    When enabled, each request has a “Create a widget for this request” action available in the sidebar.


    Any visitor can copy the iframe embed code to paste on their own website.


    It’s just a flick of the switch to enable widgets for all requests on your site!

    Waving Goodbye to the Past

    Alaveteli 0.22 is the last release to support Ruby 1.8.

    We’ve got an upgrading guide available, and we’re always here to help on the alaveteli-dev mailing list.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed.

  8. Well what do you know? It’s a new look for WhatDoTheyKnow

    Our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow has a fancy new frontage.

    Coming hot on the heels of TheyWorkforYou’s new homepage, the fresh look is part of our rolling process of design improvements. Out goes the rather sober grey and burgundy colour scheme, and in comes a fetching cobalt blue paired with banana yellow.

    As you might have guessed, though, there’s more to this than a new palette. Yes, in the fast-changing world of web design, fashions change and dated sites can run the risk of looking irrelevant—but we are also keen to ensure that any new design works for its keep.

    Not just a pretty face

    It’s important, when we invest time and resources into a redesign, that there are tangible improvements. So, like almost everything we do these days, the changes will be subjected to scrutiny from our Research team.

    They’ll be checking that we’ve:

    • Improved the site’s usability, making it more obvious how to browse or file FOI requests;
    • Encouraged users to take the step of making an FOI request, even if the concept is a new one for them;
    • Enabled people to understand what the FOI Act is, and what rights it confers.

    That’s a lot to expect from a simple redesign, so let’s take a look at how we hope to achieve it.

    The title

    Of course, the first thing visitors see is the title text. It may seem pretty simple, but, as anyone who writes will know, the shorter the sentence, the harder it is to get right.

    Take it from us, this deceptively simple piece of copy represents quite a bit of anguished brainstorming:


    It tries to distill a complex idea into something that absolutely everyone can understand, even if they’ve never heard of FOI before. Meanwhile, the subtitle highlights your legal right to information.

    The count

    Alaveteli, the software this and many other FOI sites around the world are built on, has always included two figures on its sites’ homepages: the number of requests that have been made through the site, and how many public authorities it has contact details for. The image below displays WhatDoTheyKnow’s stats at the time of writing:


    It’s a nice way of showing that the site is both useful and used, but there’s something else, too: when users see that other people have taken an action online, they’re more likely to take the plunge themselves. It’s the same thinking that informed our byline on WriteToThem: “Over 200,000 messages sent last year.”

    How it works

    The homepage now includes a simple graphic to show the path you can expect to take if you go ahead and file an FOI request on the site:

    howitworks with link

    Breaking the process down into just three steps makes it look manageable, and there’s a link deeper into our help pages for people who want to understand the FOI Act better.

    For those who prefer to browse

    Some content remains the same. We’ve still included links to the latest successful requests—albeit lower down the page, so as not to distract from the page’s main message, that you can make a request. These show, more graphically than any piece of copy could, that you can get results:


    They’re also a great way into the site for people who just want to browse: they are a random assortment of requests that have recently been marked as successful, and can often throw up some surprising and interesting subject matter.

    Sharing the benefits

    Provided that we discover that the design has been effective in the areas mentioned above, we hope to roll it out as an option on the wider Alaveteli codebase, so it can be implemented by anyone running an Alaveteli site.

    Meanwhile, the open source code can be accessed on Github by anyone who would like to use it.

  9. Learnings from AlaveteliCon (2): the challenges are the same

    The Freedom of Information technologies conference, AlaveteliCon, provided an excellent chance to share experiences and advice.

    We heard from people who run Alaveteli sites all over the world, and we learned that many of the challenges in running FOI sites are similar, no matter where they are. That’s great, because it means that we can combine our knowledge and share our experience to overcome them.

    Alaveteli is designed to work anywhere. The ideal is of a website which shows users how to make an FOI request, and sends it off to the right recipient to get it answered, then publishes the reply, ensuring that the information becomes truly open. But in many places, local circumstances interrupt that process at various stages.

    Here are some of the sticking points that were brought up. We may not have immediate solutions for all of them, but there were plenty of ideas mooted at the conference.

    If you’d like to add some more, please do comment on the Alaveteli mailing list. It would be great to see further discussion and ideas.


    Alaveteli, in its basic form, doesn’t cater for certain FOI processes. We heard of cases where:

    • A small fee is payable for each FOI request;
    • Making a request requires an electronic ID or digital signature, which most people don’t have and which is not trivial to apply for;
    • Responses are only provided by post, on paper, thus circumventing publication online;
    • Requests are not accepted by email (although this ruling has also been turned around successfully in at least one country—Uruguay—and indeed it is an issue that WhatDoTheyKnow faced in the UK);
    • Authorities will not reply to the email addresses that FOI sites generate, because they are not “real” (ie they are not attached to the requester’s own personal email account);
    • The requester must give their name, phone number and address. This is already a potential disincentive to making a request, but then the response often includes them and they must be manually redacted by the site administrator.

    Here are a few of the solutions which were mentioned:

    • Where digital signatures are required, site admins are sending off requests on behalf of users: it’s not ideal and it takes a lot of time, but it is doable.
    • Similarly, the (non-Alaveteli) Russian FOI site RosOtvet passes users’ requests by a panel of lawyers, who make sure they are correctly worded in order that they stand the best chance of being considered.
    • Frag Den Staat, which is a German non-Alaveteli FOI site, includes a function where users can scan and upload their responses, where they’ve been provided on paper. It also allows users to redact any parts they’d like to keep private.
    • Additionally, in response to authorities complaining that their email addresses weren’t ‘real’, Frag Den Staat set up their own email provider called Echtemail (which translates as ‘real email’) and started sending requests from there instead. It hasn’t changed things yet, but they are continuing to campaign.
    • In Australia, this same “not a real email address” policy was challenged—and overcome—by a volunteer at RightToKnow.org.au, who got a new ruling put in place.
    • In places where any type of email has been refused as a legitimate channel for an FOI request, that should be challenged. There are examples elsewhere (for example, in the UK) of requests being accepted via Twitter! Uruguay and Australia have shown that rulings can be overturned; let’s share experiences and see if we can do the same in other places.
    • Keep highlighting the barriers and absurdities as you come across them, on your blog, in press releases, in whatever interviews you can get. There may be a general, unquestioned belief that your country has a functional FOI law: if your experience says otherwise, that narrative should be challenged. If you can position yourself as an expert on the niceties of FOI, the press will keep returning to you—and the better known you become, the more weight your campaigning will carry.
    • …Other ideas? Let the  Alaveteli mailing list know.

    And some solutions we don’t recommend:

    While it might be possible to add, say, a payment facility through a bolt-on service like PayPal, it tends to be our policy not to recommend this kind of adaptation.

    Why? Because our general advice is to run the site as if we lived in an ideal world—in other words, run your Alaveteli site as though Freedom of Information were truly open to all, at no cost and with no barriers.

    It’s the same philosophy that leads us to advocate for an ‘applicant blind’ FOI system, where it doesn’t matter who’s making a request because everyone has an equal right to information under the law.

    In a more extreme example, it’s also why we advise people to set up Alaveteli sites even if there is no legal right to information in their country.


    In some places, there’s no law in place obliging authorities to respond to requests. In others, the law exists, but it’s not very well adhered to. The result is the same: requests get sent, but for some, no reply ever arrives.

    Clearly this is a fundamental problem in itself, but it also has a knock-on effect for the site as a whole: people lose faith in the system if they can see that it’s not getting results.

    This is a harder nut to crack, but here are some thoughts:

    In countries such as the UK, Croatia, and Czech Republic, there is a system in place to pre-empt non-compliance. In our view, this is the sign of an FOI law that is treated seriously by the authorities.

    In these countries, the right to Freedom of Information is backed up by an independent ombudsman. Additionally, anyone who doesn’t get a response within the statutory amount of time is entitled to seek an internal review: that process is automatically embedded in Alaveteli, with a reminder going out to the user if they haven’t received a reply in time.

    If you do not have such a system in your own country, the advice was to campaign and highlight poor practices: again, this is an area where successful campaigners should be able to share knowledge with those who need it.

    Data about the percentage of requests that are going unanswered can make a compelling story for the press, and also help with campaigning and advocacy. Highlight success stories, and show the public value of FOI.

    For a great example of this, see this report from TuDerechoASaber in Spain. Need a quick way to get at your site’s statistics? Foie-Graphs will do just that for any Alaveteli instance.

    If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.

    Slippery authorities

    Henare from OpenAustralia Foundation told the story of Detention Logs, a campaign to bring transparency and accountability to the detention of immigrants by publishing data on conditions and events inside detention centres.

    While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.

    Henare stated that one of Alaveteli’s great strengths is the fact that it publishes out requests even if they go unanswered. That means that they stand testament to the facts that authorities don’t want to release, as well as those that they do. Detention Logs will persist as an archive for the future, and maybe the situation will be turned around in more enlightened times.

    Official government sites

    We heard that in Uruguay, the government are planning to start their own online FOI website. As it happens, mySociety has also been involved with setting up an FOI site for the government in Panama. So it’s interesting to ask whether there is a place for independent Alaveteli sites to exist in tandem with the official sites.

    One thing to note is that Alaveteli was built with the user, the citizen, always in mind. Sites built on Alaveteli make it easy and safe to file an FOI request, while government sites are more likely to have government needs in mind.

    For example, we don’t yet know whether the Uruguayan government site also intends to publish requests and responses. If not, the ‘added value’ of Uruguay’s Alaveteli site would be obvious.

    But! Together we’re stronger

    Any one of these sticking points can seem like a real problem. But as well as a software platform, Alaveteli is a community, and we can work together to get results.

    If you need help or advice, you can always ask on the Alaveteli mailing list, where you will find people just waiting to share their support. There are now 20 Alaveteli installs, each representing a learning curve and a wealth of experience for their implementers. Together, we have more global knowledge on FOI than perhaps any other organisation—let’s use it!



    Image: Particlem (CC)

  10. Ten ways to promote Alaveteli sites

    No matter where you are in the world, if you run a Freedom of Information site, you’ll come up against one common issue: how to get people to use it.

    It’s not just the usual hurdle that any new website faces, of getting publicity. There’s often a lack of knowledge among the general population about the whole concept of Freedom of Information, and the rights that come with it. Not only do users have to know about the site, but they have to understand why it might be useful for them.

    The Freedom of Information conference, AlaveteliCon, was a great place to share ideas on how best to counter that. Here are ten strategies you can put into place right now.

    1. Make FOI concrete

    Freedom of Information can be rather an abstract concept to the average person, so your tweets, blog posts and press releases might not be getting through to them.

    Instead of asking people ‘what would you ask under the FOI act?’ or ‘Isn’t freedom of information a valuable right?’, try asking more concrete questions like ‘what would you like to know about government spending?’ or ‘if you could ask one question about nuclear defence, what would it be?’

    You might make a cheap, fun and informative video by going out onto the street and asking such pre-prepared questions to passers-by.

    2. Use SEO to your advantage

    Alaveteli is built so that it naturally performs well in search engines: the title of any request also becomes the title of the page, one of the main things that Google will consider when deciding how to rank a page for any given search term. And when useful or interesting material is released as a result of a request, that will attract inbound links and again, will be reflected in Google rankings.

    The net result of this is that many users will come to your Alaveteli site because they’re interested in a specific topic, rather than because they want to make an FOI request. They may never even have heard of FOI, but they surely want to know about hospital mortality rates or cycling accidents in their local area.

    A request on WhatDoTheyKnow, about the faulty brakes on a VW Passat, is one of the consistently most visited pages on the site. Even though the request itself remains unanswered, the page has become a place for Passat drivers to exchange knowledge and experiences.

    Pages such as these may even be more frequently visited than your site’s homepage. Look at request pages as a first-time viewer would, and ask yourself if it’s clear exactly what site they have landed on, and what it is for.

    Also: once you have created a community of people with a common interest (like the faults in the VW Passat), what could you do with them? Maybe post on the page yourself, offering to show how they could take a similar request to the next stage?

    3. Make passive users into active users

    The previous point leads to a further question: how can we turn users who land on our sites into active requesters (if indeed that’s a desirable aim)?

    One answer might be to explain the concept of FOI somewhere within the request page template, so it’s seen by every visitor.

    Another would be to build a user path that encourages readers to make their own request or—perhaps more likely to bear fruit, since making an FOI request tends not to be an impulsive action—include a newsletter sign-up button for people who want to know more.

    Alaveteli already includes some actions in the right-hand menu on every request page, but so far they have concentrated on asking the reader to tweet, or to browse similar requests.

    If you have ideas on how to encourage users to make requests, you could discuss them on the Alaveteli mailing list, or, if you’re a coder yourself, you could make the changes on your own branch and then submit it to be merged so that everyone can benefit.

    4. Contextualise FOI

    In the UK we are fortunate that when a news story is based on an FOI request, that’s usually mentioned within the story. It leads to a certain level of understanding of the concept of FOI within the general population.

    Whether or not that’s not the case in your country, you could keep an eye out for stories that were clearly researched via an FOI request. Where FOI is commonly mentioned, setting up a Google alert may help.

    You can then highlight these stories on a regular basis: for example, on a Facebook page, or on your blog. There was also talk of feeding a Facebook stream onto the homepage of one Alaveteli site.

    5. Create a community

    Sharing stories is one thing, but communities are a two-way endeavour. Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts all need regular attention.

    Post often, reply to users’ comments and queries, and soon you may find that you have a responsive community, and can even ask your followers to do a bit of advocacy for you.

    A newsletter is also a useful way of getting your message directly into your supporters’ inboxes.

    6. Write about interesting requests

    Some requests just appeal more to human interest than others do, and they’re obvious candidates to be blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about. You might also consider putting out a press release.

    There was a bit of discussion at the conference about the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘comedy’ requests which are of great interest to the press, but could actually harm the case for FOI. Examples given were:

    In the UK we’ve generally taken the decision not to run these kinds of stories, though the press sometimes pick them up on their own anyway.

    Such publicity can lead to ‘FOI is a waste of public money’ campaigns, and it was suggested that it is useful to have a list of the good things that have come from FOI that you can provide in return: here’s one that @FOIMonkey produced in 2012.

    A middle ground between publicising ‘silly’ requests and trying to promote dry ones is to identify the stories that are in the middle ground: of great human interest, but with a serious point. Make the relevant requests yourself, if necessary.

    As an example, a request such as the menus for food served in prisons can have an underlying political point if framed correctly.

    7. Conduct outreach

    NGOs and campaigning groups can find FOI a useful tool, and the fact that Alaveteli publishes out the responses can also help them with getting their cause known. A mail-out to likely organisations, or even face-to-face visits, may help.

    Muckrock shared that they get users educated early, by conducting ‘FOIA for kids’ outreach (and FOI is also a subject in our own lesson plans).

    Here in the UK, we have visited colleges to talk to trainee journalists. While most are aware of the FOI act, many do not know about WhatDotheyKnow and how it can be used not only to make requests, but to subscribe to keywords or authorities of interest.

    However, such visits are fairly inefficient: they take time and only reach 50 or 60 students at a time. A better way may be to create and promote materials that colleges can use for themselves.

    8. Paid ads

    Although Alaveteli sites perform well in organic search, paid ads can give them an extra swathe of visitors.

    Both Facebook and Google are potential platforms for ads, and you may be eligible to receive a Google Grant if you are a not-for-profit: these give you Google Ads for free.

    mySociety are happy to share our experience in this area, and we will possibly put materials together if there’s enough interest.

    9. Friends in high places

    Some Alaveteli practitioners found it useful to partner up with a newspaper or online news source. The benefit runs two ways, since Alaveteli can be such a useful tool for journalists.

    Dostup Pravda in Ukraine is a part of the country’s most popular news site, and perhaps one of the most expert Alaveteli sites at getting publicity. Pre-launch they ran a sophisticated campaign with celebrities hinting, but not saying explicitly what the forthcoming project would be. Their t-shirt was even worn by an MP on national TV.

    For the solo activist, such promotional activity seems almost impossible, but news outlets have the contacts and resources in place to make it almost a routine task for them.

    10. Create your own buzz

    The press love lists and awards. One FOI site puts out an annual award for the best, the worst, and the most ridiculous  requests made in the previous year.

    This is a great idea for publicity, because as well as bringing the name of the site into the public consciousness, it also encapsulates a little lesson about how to use—and not abuse—FOI.

    Now go and do it

    So there you are: ten ideas to promote your site. Do feel free to add more in the comments below. And good luck!

    Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.