If you are using Freedom of Information for a campaign, and you need to request the same information from several different bodies, or a variety of information from one body, it can be useful to put your supporters to work for you.
We recently profiled the Detention Logs project, which is using Freedom of Information requests to uncover conditions in Australia’s detention centres. Anyone can use the information already uncovered to request further documents or clarify ambiguous facts.
One aspect we didn’t mention is that, in order to make this process as quick and simple as possible, Detention Logs provides users with a pre-written FOI request which they can tweak as necessary before sending off to the relevant authority. This is linked to from a button on the Detention Logs website
This nifty bit of functionality could be useful for all kinds of campaigns. If yours is one of them, read on to discover how to set it up.
As you can see, this unwieldy web address contains all the information that RightToKnow, Australia’s Freedom of Information site, needs in order to create a pre-filled request.The URL tells it who the request should go to, what the title of the request is, and what should go in the main body.
It’s quite simple to create these yourself. Just build the URL up in steps:
- Begin by telling the site that this is a new request: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/
- Add a forward slash (/) and then the body you want the request to be sent to (exactly as it is written in the url of the body’s page of the website): https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force
- Add a question mark: This tells the website that we are going to introduce a ‘parameter string’. Now our URL looks like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?
- Input a title: we need to indicate that the next part should go into the ‘title’ field, like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title= and then dictate what the title should be: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title=Police%20brutality Notice that if there is a space between words, it should be shown as %20. To make the process of encoding the URLs easier, you can use an encoder tool like this one: http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/dencoder/
- Input the body of the request, again using ‘%20’ between each word. This is where your URL can become very long! We use the parameter default_letter and the salutation (Dear…) and signoff (Yours…) are automatically wrapped around this by the site, so there’s no need to include them:
So, there you have it. A customised URL that you can set up if you need supporters to send a pre-written request to a specified body or bodies.
As mentioned above, the Detention Logs project used this method to help their supporters request detention centre incident reports, attaching a different URL to each report so that the title would contain the relevant report number. To see the technical details of how they set this up, visit their GitHub page.
Here are some other parameters that can be used in addition to the ones above:
- body – This is an alternative to default_letter which lets you specify the entire body of the request including the salutation and signoff.
- tags – This allows you to add a space-separated list of tags, so for example you can identify any requests made through your campaign or which refer to the same topic. For example, the Detention Logs project used tags like this: &tags=detentionlogs%20incident-number%3A1-2PQQH5
A tag can have a ‘name’ and an optional ‘value’ (created in the form “name:value”). The first tag in the above example is ‘detentionlogs’ (‘name’) and the second tag is ‘incident-number:A1-2PQQH5’ (‘name:value’). The encoder tool above changes the colon to ‘%3’.
If you use this pre-written request tool we’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch if you do.
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.26! Here are some of the highlights.
Request page design update
After some research in to where people enter the site we decided to revamp the request pages to give a better first impression.
We’ve used the “action bar” pattern from the authority pages to move the request actions to a neater drop-down menu. We’ve also promoted the “follow” button to help other types of users interact with the site.
Since lots of users are entering an Alaveteli on the request pages, it might not be obvious that they too can ask for information. We’ve now made an obvious link to the new request flow from the sidebar of the request pages to emphasise this.
The correspondence bubbles have had a bit of a makeover too. Its now a lot more obvious how to link to a particular piece of correspondence, and we’ve tidied the header so that its a little clearer who’s saying what.
The listing of similar requests in the request page sidebar has been improved after observing they were useful to users.
Also in design-world we’ve added the more modern request status icons, made the search interfaces more consistent and helped prevent blank searches on the “Find an authority” page.
Admin UI Improvements
As an Alaveteli grows it can get trickier to keep an eye on everything that’s happening on the site.
We’ve now added a new comments list so that admins can catch offensive or spam comments sooner.
For the same reasons, we’ve added sorting to the users list and made banned users more obvious.
The CSV import page layout and inline documentation has also been updated.
The new statistics page adds contributor leaderboards to help admins identify users as potential volunteers, as well as a graph showing when site admins hide things to improve the transparency of the site.
Extra search powers
Conversion tracking improvements
The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!
Australia: land of sand, surf and koalas. Renowned for its laid-back attitude and a friendly welcome for all… or so those up here in the northern hemisphere might believe, spoon-fed our preconceptions via the squeaky-clean medium of Aussie soaps.
What’s not so well-known is Australia’s decades-long resistance to people seeking asylum. Since the early 1990s, Australian Prime Ministers have implemented, upheld and strengthened laws to hold refugees in mandatory, indefinite detention, and to forcibly turn boats away from their shores. Australia has been repeatedly condemned by the UN for inhumane treatment of people in its immigration detention system, and people held inside have maintained continuous protest for years.
Once you learn all this, it seems perhaps unsurprising that immigration detention is, as website Detention Logs puts it, one of the most “hotly debated, contested and emotional topics in Australia”.
Getting it out in the open
Detention Logs is among the most purposeful and systematic uses of Freedom of Information we’ve seen yet.
It’s not a mySociety-affiliated project (although one of its founders is also a member of Open Australia, who use our Alaveteli software to run the RightToKnow site), but it is one that’s very much in our sphere of interest. We wanted to write about it because it’s a great example of putting FOI to work in order to get truth out into the open, and make societal change.
At the time the project was set up, Australia’s detention centres were run by the British companies Serco and G4S; access is, as you might expect, limited. However, contractors to the government must report to them, and the report documents fall under the citizens’ Right To Know via Australia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Reports are made whenever an ‘incident’ of note occurs in one of the nation’s detention centres; that covers assault, accidents, escapes, riots, the discovery of weapons and several other categories — including births and deaths.
Detention Logs have, at the time of writing, obtained 7,632 incident reports which cover the period between 3 Oct 2009 and 26 May 2011. These may be explored on their site via a data browser, allowing readers to filter by date, incident type and detention centre.
Finding the stories
Like many official documents, these reports were composed for internal eyes only. They can be difficult to decipher, or heavily redacted. Often, they suggest more questions than they answer.
Users are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a report, then submit a further FOI request for more information: a ‘reporting recipe’ guides beginners in how to do this, and how to pull out stories both for the ‘far view’ (looking at all the data in aggregate) and the ‘near view’ (investigating individuals’ stories).
For researchers and the technically-minded, there’s also the option to download the data in bulk.
The result is that the public are gaining an unprecedented understanding of what life is like for detainees — and staff — inside Australia’s detention centres.
Open data brings change
The resulting stories are published on their Investigations page, but the data has also been used by national press and beyond.
Luke Bacon, one of Detention Logs’ founders, told us of a few outcomes:
- The Detention Logs project was a precursor to the Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files — more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. These have been presented in an online exploratory browser tool: the project was led by reporter Paul Farrell who is also a Detention Logs founder.
- In turn, this has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people in the immigration detention system.
- The data from Detention Logs has been used in research to show that the detention system is causing people to self-harm and attempt suicide.
- The immigration department started releasing better information about how many people were in detention.
So — while the issue of detention continues to be an inflammatory topic for the people of Australia, the project has been at least something of a success for transparency.
It all goes to show what can be achieved when information is shared – and when the work of trawling through it is shared too.
If you found this project interesting, you might also like to read about Muckrock’s FOI work on private prisons in the USA.
It’s something we wanted to build, and something we believed there was a need for: but wanting and believing do not make a sound business case, and that’s why we spent the first few weeks of the project in a ‘discovery’ phase.
Our plan was to find out as much as we could about journalists, our prospective users — and particularly just how they go about using FOI in their work. Ultimately, though, we were seeking to understand whether journalists really would want, or need, the product as we were imagining it.
So we went and talked to people at both ends of the FOI process: on the one hand, journalists who make requests, and on the other, the information officers who respond to them.
Since we’re planning on making Alaveteli Professional available to partners around the world, it also made sense to conduct similar interviews outside the UK. Thanks to links with our Czech partner, running Informace Pro Všechny on Alaveteli, that was a simple matter. A recent event at the Times building in London also allowed us to present and discuss our findings, and listen to a couple of interesting expert presentations: Matt Burgess of Buzzfeed talked about some brilliant use of FOI to expose criminal landlords, and listed FOI officers’ biggest complaints about journalists. Josh Boswell of the Sunday Times was equally insightful as he ran through the ways that he uses FOI when developing stories.
These conversations have all helped.
The life of an investigative journalist is never simple
The insights our interviewees gave us were turned by Mike Thompson (formerly of mySociety, and brought back in for this phase) into a simple process model showing how journalists work when they’re pursuing an investigation using FOI.
After conceiving of a story that requires input from one or more FOI request, every journalist will go through three broad phases: research; request and response; and the final data analysis and writing. The more complicated cases can also involve refused requests and the appeals process.
For a busy working journalist, there are challenges at every step. Each of these adds time and complexity to the process of writing a story, which is an anathema to the normal daily news cycle. FOI-based stories can be slow, and timing unpredictable — editors do not particularly like being told that you’re working on a story, but can’t say when it will be ready, or how much value it will have.
During the research phase diligent journalists will make a time-consuming trawl through resources like authorities’ own disclosure logs and our own site WhatDoTheyKnow (or its equivalents in other countries), to see if the data they need has already been released.
Where a ‘round robin’ request is planned, asking for information from multiple authorities — sometimes hundreds — for information, further research is needed to ensure that only relevant bodies are included. In our two-tired council system, where different levels of authority deal with different responsibilities, and not always according to a consistent pattern, that can be a real challenge.
Wording a request also takes some expertise: get that wrong and the authorities will be coming back for clarification, which adds even more time to the process.
Once the request has been made it’s hard to keep on top of correspondence, especially for a large round robin request. Imagine sending a request to every council in the country, as might well be done for a UK-wide story, and then dealing with each body’s acknowledgements, requests for clarifications and refusals.
When the responses are in journalists often find that interpretation is a challenge. Different authorities might store data or measure metrics differently from one another; and pulling out a meaningful story means having the insight to, for example, adjust figures to account for the fact that different authorities are different sizes and cater for differently-dispersed populations.
Sadly, it’s often at this stage that journalists realise that they’ve asked the wrong question to start with, or wish that they’d included an additional dimension to the data they’ve requested.
What journalists need
As we talked through all these difficulties with journalists, we gained a pretty good understanding of their needs. Some of these had been on our list from the start, and others were a surprise, showing the value of this kind of exploration before you sit down to write a single line of code.
Here’s what our final list of the most desirable features looks like:
An embargo We already knew, anecdotally, that journalists tend not to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make requests, because of its public nature. It was slightly sobering to have this confirmed via first person accounts from journalists who had had their stories ‘stolen’… and those who admitted to having appropriated stories themselves! Every journalist we spoke to agreed that any FOI tool for their profession would need to include a way of keeping requests hidden until after publication of their story.
However, this adds a slight dilemma. Using Alaveteli Professional and going through the embargo-setting process introduces an extra hurdle into the journalist’s process, when our aim is, of course, to make the FOI procedure quicker and smoother. Can we ensure that everything else is so beneficial that this one additional task is worthwhile for the user?
Talking to journalists, we discovered that almost all are keen to share their data once their story has gone live. Not only does it give concrete corroboration of the piece, but it was felt that an active profile on an Alaveteli site, bursting with successful investigations, could add to a journalist’s reputation — a very important consideration in the industry.
Request management tools Any service that could put order into the myriad responses that can quickly descend into chaos would be welcome for journalists who typically have several FOI requests on the go at any one time.
Alaveteli Professional’s dashboard interface would allow for a snapshot view of request statuses. Related requests could be bundled together, and there would be the ability to quickly tag and classify new correspondence.
Round-robin tools Rather than send a notification every time a body responds (often with no more than an acknowledgement), the system could hold back, alerting you only when a request appears to need attention, or send you status updates for the entire project at predefined intervals.
Refusal advice Many journalists abandon a request once it’s been refused, whether from a lack of time or a lack of knowledge about the appeals process. WhatDoTheyKnow Professional would be able to offer in-context advice on refusals, helping journalists take the next step.
Insight tools Can we save journalists’ time in the research phase, by giving an easy representation of what sort of information is already available on Alaveteli sites, and by breaking down what kind of information each authority holds? That could help with terminology, too: if a request refers to data in the same language that is used internally within the council, then their understanding of the request and their response is likely to be quicker and easier.
Onwards to Alpha
We’re currently working on the next part of the build — the alpha phase.
In this, we’re building quick, minimally-functional prototypes that will clearly show how Alaveteli Professional will work, but without investing time into a fully-refined product. After all, what we discover may mean that we change our plans, and it’s better not to have gone too far down the line at that point.
If you are a journalist and you would like to get involved with testing during this stage and the next — beta — then please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.
As of this year, Kenyan citizens are enjoying a new right to know, thanks to their Freedom Of Information Act, pending since 2007 and finally passed this year.
Alaveteli Professional will provide Kenyan journalists with a toolset and training to help them make full use of FOI legislation, so they can raise, manage and interpret requests more easily, in order to generate high-impact public interest stories.
But the project will also bring benefits to all Kenyans. By helping journalists and citizen reporters to make full use of the Act, it will ultimately make it easier for everyone to hold power to account.
How you can help
Now here’s the bit you need to know about: please tweet using the hashtag #innovateAFRICA explaining why you think Alaveteli Professional in Kenya is an important digital solution.
This will demonstrate that you agree that Alaveteli Professional is worthy of innovateAFRICA’s support — every tweet helps to give our application more traction.
Tweets from everyone are welcome, but yours will have extra leverage if you’re a mySociety partner, a Kenyan journalist or activist who would use the project, a funder or a digital innovator yourself.
Please use your 140 characters to help us bring better FOI capabilities to Kenya! And don’t forget that hashtag: #innovateAFRICA.
Image: Innovate Africa
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)