Great news from the Copenhagen Democracy Summit this week, where AskGov, the Access to Information website for Georgia, was recognised with an award for Democracy Tech.
The civic tech organisation ForSet runs AskGov, using our Alaveteli platform, and you may remember that we had a valuable exchange of views and experiences with their cofounder Teona Tomashvili in London last year.
In Copenhagen, fellows of the the Alliance of Democracies’ Democracy Tech Entrepreneurship Program, of which Teona is one, were invited to ‘pitch’ their project in a Dragon’s Den-like set-up. Teona gave an excellent explanation of the website — which would apply equally to any FOI site running on our Alaveteli platform — and you can watch it for yourself in this video:
Along with the glory of winning came a very useful prize in the shape of a cheque for $10,000 to be put towards the project, as you can see in the image below. This was presented by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who founded the Alliance of Democracies.
Massive congratulations to Teona, whose pitching skills and determination were key to AskGov’s success in these awards.
At our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow, when faced with requests to remove material, we operate on the principle of removing the minimum amount possible.
Alaveteli, the codebase which underlies WhatDoTheyKnow and a number of other FOI sites around the world, gives moderators a range of options for removing content – with the ability to surgically remove text ranging from individual words and phrases, to individual messages, or even entire request threads. This is useful when we spot misuse of our service, for example.
What we’ve been lacking, up until now, was a way to apply these types of removals to attachments.
Back in the early days of WhatDoTheyKnow, attachments were less common, but now we see many more: there can often be several attachments to one individual message.
Over the last few years, there have been occasions where we’ve had to remove an entire message, which may contain several useful attachments, just because of a small issue with one of them.
We’d then go through an annoying manual process to download the publishable ones, upload them to our file server, and then annotate the request with the links – here’s an example.
Back in 2013, when the original suggestion for enabling finer grained control was raised, the site contained around 400,000 attachments. There are now more than 3,500,000! We don’t remove content often, but at this scale it’s inevitable that we need to intervene now and then.
After a little code cleanup we were able to make individual attachment removal a reality. This allows us much more control over how we balance preserving a historic archive of information released under Access to Information laws, and running the site responsibly and meeting our legal obligations under GDPR.
As an example, let’s imagine that the FOI officer replying to our request inadvertently makes a data breach when releasing some organisation charts in `organisation chart b.pdf`.
Previously we’d have had to have hidden the whole response. Now, we can go into the admin interface and inspect each individual attachment.
We can then set our usual “prominence” value – offering a few options from fully visible to completely hidden – and include a reason for why the content has been hidden. We always seek to run the site transparently and explain any actions taken.
On saving the form, you can see that only the problematic attachment has been removed, with the remainder of the response intact. This saves us considerable time when reviewing and handling material with potential data issues, and keeps as much information published as possible while we do so.
As an extra bonus, since the main body text of emails is also treated as an “attachment” in Alaveteli, we’re now able to hide potentially problematic material there without affecting the attachments we present.
We’ve already used this feature several times to republish material where we’d previously had to hide the entire message due to the technical limitations at the time.
Image: Kenny Eliason
Alaveteli is our platform for running Freedom of Information websites — it underpins WhatDoTheyKnow as well as many other sites around the world. It’s made up of many interconnecting elements, but a key part is the database of public bodies.
On WhatDoTheyKnow, we list over 42,000 public bodies that are subject to FOI and EIR – possibly one of the largest databases of public bodies in the country. Along with their name, we record information like their FOI request email address, publication scheme and disclosure log URLs, and we categorise them so that they’re easier to browse and make requests to.
We often want to add additional insight to help citizens understand more about the public body. This can vary from body to body, from describing the information they hold, what they don’t hold, guidance around how to challenge their poor FOI-handling practices or why we list them when they’re not currently subject to FOI.
We do this via what we call “notes” – a free-text field per authority that admins can update with whatever information is useful for the particular body.
We often find we need to add or update the same note for a group of authorities — for example, we added the same note to all Business Improvement Districts to explain our reasons for listing them.
This can be a major challenge. We list nearly 300 BIDs, and updating each manually, one at a time, would be a several-hour ordeal. An alternative is for our developers to write a quick one-off script to update the text, but that comes with a coordination cost, and can be tricky to work around other text that may be present in the free text field that we want to preserve.
One of the behind-the-scenes ways we manage the categorisation of authorities is through tags. Many of our other records have the ability to add tags too.
This led to the thought that it would be great to be able to apply a note based on a tag, rather than only having one note field per authority. This would allow us to more quickly add useful information to groups of authorities.
Another issue we wanted to solve was to be able to add notes to content other than public bodies, like FOI requests for specific types of information and our category lists. In particular we wanted to be able to celebrate requests that led to particularly useful public interest information being released or having wider impact, and also to add clarification around requests that may be misinterpreted.
We’ve received funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to help support marginalised communities to make more well-formed requests, and to more effectively use the information they obtain to engage with and influence authorities in a way that contributes to fairer decision-making. Thanks to this, we were able to add this underlying capability, which we can use to continue to help users more easily understand how to navigate the complexities of public authorities and what information they hold.
The first step was to extract the existing notes to a new generic Note model that could be attached to any other record. Ruby on Rails makes this easy through its polymorphic associations.
We then needed an interface to allow admins to list and search tags for each type of record that has them, and browse all records that are tagged with a particular tag.
As well as it being generally useful to be able to browse our database through our tags, this gave us a place to add our new functionality for adding a note based on a tag.
While Rails’ polymorphic associations make creating a link between one record and another really easy, they don’t cover creating the link through a free-text tag. Fortunately, it took nothing more than a few lines of code to link up notes that are directly associated with a single record, and notes that are applied via a tag.
Now our public bodies can have notes applied to them and only them, and also notes applied to several authorities based on their tag.
In this example, the Environment Agency has some specific notes about it, but since it’s also a local lighthouse authority, we can apply the relevant notes simply by tagging the authority record and the notes for local lighthouse authorities will automatically get applied. Magic!
We’ve also applied this pattern to information requests. Now, we can add notes to individual requests, like this example that points to another source for obtaining the information…
…or applied via a tag so that we can point citizens interested in the climate response to the authority’s CAPE page.
So far we’ve created 46 notes that get applied via a tag. These notes are applicable to 7,998 requests and 15,283 authorities. Using a rough guess of 30 seconds to manually apply a note to a record, it would take 11,640.5 minutes – 8 full days, or 25 working days – to do so for each of these requests and authorities. This just wouldn’t have been possible before.
This new feature unlocks a whole new avenue for us to support citizens and users that we just wouldn’t have had capacity for otherwise.
Image: Keila Hötzel
We’re big on open source: much of the software we create at mySociety is freely available for anyone to use, and there are sites all over the world underpinned by our code.
While we try to ensure that our codebases are as easy as possible to self-serve, in practice installation can be complex enough that those wanting to use them often get in touch with questions.
Not so much with AskGov.ge, the Alaveteli-based Freedom of Information site for the republic of Georgia. Yes, there had been an email in the Alaveteli Developers Google Group seeking a developer, but the first we knew that a brand new fully-formed service had successfully launched was when Teona Tomashvili, from NGO ForSet, emailed to say she was planning a trip to the UK and would love to meet up for a chat.
And so it was that we spent a happy couple of hours in London, finding out more about AskGov and the context in which it is providing an FOI service for the citizens of Georgia, as well as offering as much advice and experience from running the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow as we could cram in without overwhelming our visitor.
A fragile democracy
Talking FOI may not be the obvious way of learning more about a country’s history, culture and politics, but it’s a surprisingly effective one. Teona explained that Georgia joined the Open Government Partnership in 2012, and the country is keen to do all it can to improve transparency.
They’ve actually had an operational FOI Act since 2000, five years earlier than ours came into force in the UK. But as an ex-member of the Soviet Union, she says, the country is not used to democracy and open government.
“Georgia had never been a fully democratic state”, she explained. “It’s only 30 years since we were part of the Soviet Union and our democracy is still very fragile. There’s a new impetus towards teaching people that open government and open data are important, but citizens are not used to these things. They have never felt like that, ever!”
With the site relatively newly launched, ForSet have seen their main task as increasing public understanding of FOI and normalising its use. This is something we were interested to talk about: over time we’ve come to the conclusion that while some people here in the UK are ‘super FOI users’ who might put in several requests a month, the majority of the population are unlikely to feel the need to use it more than a couple of times a year, if that.
Even so, there’s always room for awareness-raising and we agree that everyone should know they have a right to information, for the times when they do need it.
Whenever we’ve been able to gather together an international group of people who run FOI sites, we often find that the core challenges they face are very similar — though they may come embellished with some unique local colour.
When Teona told us of their woes with bureaucracy, it was definitely a story we’d heard before: authorities required not just a name, but personal details such as the address and phone number of the person making a request before they would process an FOI request.
For an Alaveteli site, the problem with that is, of course, that both the request and the response are made publicly available online, and this information would publish out too.
While the issue might be familiar, we don’t think we’ve previously come across the particular solution that ForSet put in place: when someone makes a request, they can fill in all their personal details in a form on the website. This is used to create a PDF which is attached to the email that the authority receives; meanwhile the personal data is automatically destroyed at ForSet’s end — desirable both for users’ privacy and to avoid any worries about data retention.
Teona said that they’d only had this system in place for a couple of weeks, so it’s too early to know if it’s really working. As Gareth pointed out, in Alaveteli we always try to model the law as we believe it should work — for example, when WhatDoTheyKnow started out, some authorities didn’t accept FOI requests by email; eventually, things changed enough that official ICO guidance now states:
“Requests made through the whatdotheyknow.com website will be valid”
“we consider the @whatdotheyknow.com email address provided to authorities when requests are made through the site to be a valid contact address for the purposes of Section 8(1)(b).”.
On the other hand, not all countries have an overseer, and even if they do, change may not be quick to come, so we are keeping an eye on Georgia’s method to see if it’s one we might recommend to other sites.
ForSet is a social enterprise like mySociety: their commercial activities support their charitable ones. They started life as a data visualisation organisation, and that provenance informs much of their activity. This gives them a different angle to come at FOI from: it’s a data collection mechanism, the results of which can feed into infographics and visualisations that inform the public, often with an ‘expert’ in the middle to transform the raw data into something the public can follow at a glance.
Knowing all this, it’s understandable that when they started thinking about how best to promote their new site, ForSet landed on the idea of competitions, asking entrants to create a data visualisation from one or more FOI responses.
The regular contests have had an enthusiastic take-up. Topics vary, but, Teona says, “Of course, thanks to current events, there have been lots of stories regarding Russia in the last couple of months: how dependent the market is on Russia; what authorities’ electricity consumption is; lots about defence.
“Before the war broke out the topics were more varied: there were visualisations on domestic violence, economics, socially important issues. One nice one that we hadn’t foreseen was on the grape and wine history of Georgia!
“We found that out of all the authorities, the National Statistics Bureau and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are the most responsive — they always send lots of data.”
Because ForSet have such relevant experience, once a contestant has decided which data they’re going to use, they can tap into advice from the organisation’s designers and analysts. So these contests are creating a new generation of data visualisers and journalists who can use FOI in this way – win/win!
Some examples of the data visualisations: click to see each one at a larger size.
You can also find an interactive visualisation here.
And ForSet are not stopping there: they’ve also been thinking of running focus groups for FOI officers and citizens — again not something we’ve done very much of at WhatDoTheyKnow, but further proof that there’s always plenty for FOI site runners to learn from one another.
And one final thing: why did we hear nary a peep about AskGov until Teona made contact?
We would love to have believed her first explanation, that the site documentation is so clear that there was no need to enquire about anything — but there was another factor at play, too, as Teona explained:
“The first challenge for us in installing the site was that it’s written in Ruby. There aren’t a lot of Ruby developers in Georgia and they are in high demand — they tend to work for private US companies, and we couldn’t afford to hire them.
“But as an NGO, you never have enough money anyway, so we can always think of ways to get around things. We looked around our neighbouring countries Moldova and Ukraine, and saw that there was an existing Alaveteli site in Ukraine.
“We sent them an email and introduced ourselves. It turned out that the organisation Internews was giving them tech support, paying for a web developer – and they offered to share that resource with us! They said they’re always looking for partners.
“We never got stuck at any point because the developer knew what she was doing, and actually we benefitted from the fact that she’d learned from prior mistakes setting up the dostup.pravda site for Ukraine. And Ukraine and Georgia are very similar countries in terms of the legislation etc, so it was simple.”
So in other words, ForSet had done what we would have encouraged them to be doing if they had got in touch – networking and learning from others in the Alaveteli community!
Talking of community, we weren’t the only organisation that Teona would chat with while she was in London. We introduced her to several other civic tech and transparency organisations in the UK, so she had a busy few days ahead of her, and no doubt plenty to discuss, all of which, we hope, will feed into the success of AskGov.ge.
Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?
Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.
This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.
If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.
“The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.”
And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.
Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.
The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.
And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.
This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.
This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.
So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?
Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).
It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.
The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.
Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.
Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”
Divide and conquer
So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”
And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”
So things were looking positive — and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”
Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:
(Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)
We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.
Image: Pierre André Leclercq (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Alongside many others, we are appalled to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting bloodshed, destruction and assaults on democracy and freedom. We unequivocally condemn this unjustified and unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
Since 2014, we have worked with partners in Ukraine who use our Alaveteli software for the country’s Access to Truth website, where tens of thousands of people have requested information from public bodies. The site was originally started by the Ukrainian NGO Centre of United Actions, in collaboration with the Pravda online news site. In 2017, Centre of United Actions passed the site over to their partner NGO “Human Rights Platform”.
These organisations’ work on transparency and helping citizens to access vital information has been an inspiration to us and many others around the world. Most recently, the Access to Truth site has been used by citizens to find out locations of bomb shelters, a sobering example of transparency laws in practice now being made use of in people’s day to day experience.
We are deeply concerned for the welfare of those we have worked with in Ukraine, as well as users of the Access to Truth platform. We stand in solidarity with them, and stand ready to help wherever we can.
We hope Ukraine’s fight for its own country will be successful and they’ll rise again as a prosperous democratic nation.
It’s always so cheering to hear about campaigns that have had real results, and this week’s TICTeC Show And Tell gave us plenty of inspiration on that front.
We heard how FOI has been at the heart of investigations in Croatia, France, Scotland and the crossborder Lost In Europe project, along with two deep dives into the state of FOI in the UK — all in the name of International Right To Know Day.
As ever, you can catch up with the event in multiple ways:
- All videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
- Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
- We live tweeted as the event happened, including links to reports that were mentioned and previous case studies going into more detail about some of the campaigns mentioned.
The FOI Clearing House: an openDemocracy investigation into freedom of information at the heart of government
Jenna Corderoy (openDemocracy, UK)
openDemocracy’s Jenna Corderoy discussed her recent investigations into the Clearing House, a unit within the UK Cabinet Office that “advises on” and “coordinates” FOI requests referred by government departments.
openDemocracy has uncovered alarming evidence that the Clearing House blocks the release of information and causes lengthy delays; their investigations and subsequent FOI tribunal hearing over Clearing House documents have sparked a UK parliamentary inquiry.
Lost in Europe: deploying the Alaveteli network on a cross-border investigation
Liset Hamming (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists (VVOJ), Netherlands
Ten European FOI sites were used in this Netherlands-based investigation into the thousands of children who go missing as they migrate across European borders. The FOI component of this journalistic investigative research project is led by an Alaveteli insider, running the recently launched Dutch Alaveteli site.
Watch this space (and pay for it): Alaveteli-driven exposure of the misuse of public resources in an election campaign
Dražen Hoffmann (GONG, Croatia)
In April 2021, GONG used the Alaveteli-powered platform ImamoPravoZnati to unveil the practice of funding a YouTube channel by the mayors and country prefect of a county in Croatia, ahead of the May 2021 local elections.
The quaint footage of seaside towns and villages, and boasting of successful projects, in fact concealed a misuse of public resources for the purposes of incumbents’ campaigns. This practice of non-transparent media buying is one that GONG addresses continuously.
Regulating Access to Information
Alex Parsons (mySociety)
The practical reality of Access to Information laws depends on how effective the system of regulation and appeal is.
Alex shares mySociety’s recent work in comparing different systems of regulation in the UK, and parts of our upcoming research that will do the same for regulation across Europe.
Running an Access to Information platform in France: obstacles and success stories
Samuel Goëta (MaDada.fr, France)
Open data in France, says Samuel, looks somewhat like the Tower of Pisa: a beautiful building (open data is mandatory by law), but leaning because its foundations (the Freedom of Information Act) are in bad shape.
Samuel speaks about the weaknesses of FOIA in France, how the French Alaveteli platform madada.fr manages them and the first success stories coming out of the platform. Importantly, MaDada has been responsible for a wider understanding of FOI among French citizens.
A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI
Patricia Anderson (Give Them Time, Scotland)
Patricia from the Give Them Time campaign speaks about how FOI requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed so that more children in Scotland can benefit from more time at nursery school.
Thanks to the campaign, from 2023 all children in Scotland who legally defer their school start date will be automatically entitled to a further year of nursery funding.
If you enjoyed that little lot, do sign up to our Research newsletter and we’ll let you know what we’re planning next. It’ll also be the way to ensure you’re one of the first to know about the new TICTeC Labs we’ve got in the pipeline!
Today is the annual International Day for Universal Access to Information.
Transparency organisations all around the world are celebrating the Right To Know, as embodied in many countries’ FOI Acts: here at mySociety we’re getting ready for our special TICTeC FOI Show and Tell (it’s not too late to register, and you totally should!).
Aptly, it’s also the tenth anniversary of the launch of AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site which allows anyone to send an FOI request to the institutions of the European Union. Many happy returns to this unique project, which is also celebrating its 10,000th full request.
Back in 2011 we wrote: “AskTheEU will help NGOs, journalists and citizens to exercise their right to know at the European level“, while also noting the evergreen fact that “a successful Alaveteli site needs plenty of resources to keep it running: responding to legal requests, providing tech support, helping people to progress with difficult requests for information.”
Well, it seems that any worries about the site’s viability were unfounded, as it’s survived very successfully as a project of AccessInfo for the past decade.
Clearly, a lot has happened since AskTheEU’s launch, not least the UK’s departure from the EU. Do note that users living in the UK (or anywhere) can still submit requests to it, though; there’s no need to be a EU citizen to take advantage of the Right To Know in Europe, and the EU institutions, like all governmental bodies, certainly offer plenty of interesting documents to request.
Need inspiration? Keep an eye on AskTheEU’s social media today as they’ll be highlighting some of the more notable requests from across the past decade, as well as celebrating FOI generally.
To get things kicked off, they’re giving away some Pro accounts, which is definitely a cause for celebration all round. Why not see if you can get hold of one, and start an EU investigation today?
Image: Imants Kaziļuns
A couple of weeks ago, we announced that we’d added new functionality to WhatDoTheyKnow to help people challenge FOI refusals. In fact, this tool had been quietly rolled out at the end of May, giving us a little time to ensure everything was working before we shared it.
It tries to detect which exemptions were applied where information was withheld, and provides advice on next steps. This might involve making a revised request or asking for clarification, and the tool can also provide text fragments to use in a request for an internal review of the decision.
It is early days, but just in the last month users have sent 158 requests for internal review after seeing this advice. Most of these are still waiting for a reply, but around a third (16) of complete internal reviews have led to an improvement in the amount of information released. This is above the monthly average for the last year, but we need to wait for more data to determine if this will represent a sustained increase in the success of appeals.
As time goes on, we will be able to examine whether specific bits of advice or challenges to particular kinds of refusals are more likely to be successful than others. The goal is to give requesters the knowledge required to successfully challenge incorrect use of exemptions, and increase the percentage of internal reviews made through WhatDoTheyKnow that successfully lead to more information being released, either through increasing the quality and substance of appeals, or reducing appeals where exemptions have been applied correctly.
Process Requests Total number of times refusal advice acted on 415 Total number of times internal review submitted after acting on refusal advice 158 Internal review requested and awaiting response 108 Internal review completed, no improvement 34 Internal review completed, improvement over last status 16
Image: Waldemar Brandt
It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.
According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.
Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.
Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.
We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.
These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.
There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.
Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.
This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:
- Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
- Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
- Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership
The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.
In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.
The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.
- On Transparencia for Belgium: request 1 to the General Directorate of the Administrative Police and request 2 to the Federal Police (‘Total number of arrests at or near the border’)
- On Ma Dada for France: Procès-verbaux de la Police Aux Frontières (‘Border Police reports’) to the Ministry of the Interior
- On WhatDoTheyKnow for the UK: Total number of and reason for charges, checks, requests and/or arrests at the border regarding non EU citizens to the Home Office
- On Imamo Pravo Znati for Croatia: Policijskih izvještaja, izjava, optužbi i/ili zapisnika u vezi s provjerama, pretragama i/ili uhićenjima na granici (‘Police reports, statements, charges and / or records related to border checks, searches and / or arrests’) to the Ministry of the Interior, Zagreb
- On Frag Den Staat for Germany: Festnahme an der Grenze (‘Arrests at the border’) to the Federal Police HQ
- On Handlingar for Sweden: Gränshandlingar mellan 1 januari 2014 och 31 december 2020 (‘Boundary documents between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020’) to the Police Authority
- On Arthro5A for Greece (the first four requests ever filed on the brand new Alaveteli site!) συλλήψεις και αρνήσεις στα εσωτερικά σύνορα της ΕΕ (‘Arrests and denials at the Eu’s internal borders’) to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, the Greek Police, the National Coordinating Centre for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum and to the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.
- Requests to the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands had to be made by post, as they don’t accept FOI correspondence digitally.
Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio