1. Forward into alpha: what we’ve learned about Alaveteli Professional

    As we recently mentioned, one of mySociety’s current big projects is Alaveteli Professional, a Freedom of Information toolset for journalists.

    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

    Alaveteli Professional process diagram drawn by Mike Thompson

    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 alaveteli-professional@mysociety.org.


    Image: Goodwines (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  2. Tweet if you’d like to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya

    We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.

    So with Article 19 East Africa, we’ve applied to innovateAFRICA, which is seeking disruptive digital ideas to improve the way that news is collected and disseminated.

    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.

    Thank you.

     

    Image: Innovate Africa

     

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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)

  6. 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)

  7. 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)

  8. Spain: Right to Know Day ‘requestathon’ highlights frustrating FOI process

    Is there anything you’d like to know from the Spanish authorities?

    In advance of International Right To Know Day, three organisations are collaborating to make the process of submitting an FOI request in Spain a little bit easier.

    Access Info Europe, Civio Foundation and the Transparency Council of Spain are calling it “an access to information requests marathon”, and their aim is to help people navigate the tedious process of requesting information from Spanish public authorities.

    As explained in this article by Access Info Europe, the Spanish Government has established a very complicated system for filing access to information requests. This includes the requirement to log in to a government-run portal using an electronic certificate or digital identification in order to request information. These certificates and IDs are not easy to obtain.

    This, and the unwillingness of Spanish authorities to accept information requests via email, led to Civio Foundation and Access Info Europe shutting down their Alaveteli request site, TuDerechoASaber (YourRightToKnow) in December 2015 in protest. You can read more about why they did this here.

    But they still believe that citizens everywhere should be able to request the information they require. In order to help people who don’t have the required electronic certificate or digital identification, Access Info Europe, Civio and the Transparency Council of Spain will use their own electronic certificates to file requests on users’ behalf.

    From now until 28th September (International Right To Know Day) anyone wanting to obtain information from Spanish authorities can send requests to them via:

    Do let us know what you ask — we’d love to hear.

    Photo: Duncan Creamer (CC)

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

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

    Why are we doing this project?

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

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

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

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

    What we’re doing

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

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

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

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

    What’s next?

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

    Image: Dean Hochman (CC by 2.0)

  10. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 5

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been opened up to the public thanks to Freedom of Information requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two, part three and part four.

    This edition features examples from New Zealand site fyi.org.nz, Hungarian site KiMiTud and UK site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Auckland residents can now visualise future development in their community

    Sometimes data released via FOI requests can be pretty incomprehensible, and frankly quite dull. That is, until someone makes a handy visualisation tool that makes the data come alive and easier to understand.

    That’s exactly what happened with this request made on the New Zealand Alaveteli fyi.org.nz. The data released was picked up by the New Zealand Herald, who have used it to make an interactive map (see screenshot below) of Auckland Council’s proposed neighbourhood development plan.

    Now Auckland residents can see at a glance how their council plans to change their local neighbourhood.

    Insights The New Zealand Herald

    A similar use of data released via FOI laws occurred a few years ago in the UK after this request on WhatDoTheyKnow. The request asked for the location of every post box in the UK. The data released has been used to create useful tools like this one (developed by our very own Matthew Somerville), which helps citizens easily locate the nearest place to post their letters:

    Find Your Nearest Postbox

    Hungarian utility provider consciously allows pollution of major river

    Another great way to help people visualise the real-life effects of the data they see in an FOI response is to video it, like investigative journalists at Atlatszo did. Their short clip graphically shows a river clogged up with four times as much sewage as the treatment plant has the capability to process.

    Sewage

    Atlatszo used KiMiTud to obtain local government audit reports of a sewage works company.

    The documents reveal that five audits have been carried out in the last few years, and serious deficiencies were found each time: harmful untreated sewage was being pumped into the nearby river Tisza.

    These findings led to the company being fined by the regulator. It is claimed that the company would rather pay these fines than spend the money updating their equipment.

    According to Atlatszo’s investigation, the company could not and did not refute that the quality of water leaving their plant is often more polluted than legally allowed, and admitted that their equipment is not up to date. Let’s hope Atlatszo’s pressure on them will make them change their practices.

    In a recent similar case in Australia, the use of FOI revealed evidence of neglect at a landfill site, with the potential for environmental harm and drinking water contamination.  

    The above examples yet again show the real diversity of information you can obtain via FOI requests, and highlight what an amazing tool FOI is for both data journalists, and investigative journalists.  

    In fact, we’re so passionate about journalists taking full advantage of FOI laws, that we’re about to launch a project that will develop a set of tools to help journalists (and others) to use FOI more easily in their work.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Header image: KOMUnews, CC