1. From the horse’s mouth: chatting to MaDada

    One of the great joys of working on Alaveteli is that we also get to meet and collaborate with all kinds of organisations around the world who care about transparency, helping them set up their own Freedom of Information websites on our open source codebase.

    MaDada logoOne such project is MaDada, the French FOI site which launched in the autumn of 2019, helping citizens navigate the bureaucracy around submitting a request for information. The name is a pun: ‘dada’ being a kids’ word for horse — hence their equine logo.

    Thanks to ongoing support from the Adessium fund, we’ve recently equipped MaDada with the ‘Pro’ add-on that allows journalists and other professional users of FOI to access specialised tools.

    We took the opportunity to speak with Laurent Savaete and Eda Nano from the Ma Dada team, to learn more about how the site has been received by the French populace and what the hopes are for this new Pro functionality (or ‘Plus Plus‘ as they’re calling it over there).

    FOI in France

    But first, we wanted to know more about the background of FOI in France. The Alaveteli community consists of so many organisations pursuing the same types of aims, but always against different cultural backgrounds, and there’s always an opportunity to learn from one another’s experiences. Eda and Laurent filled us in:

    “The French FOI law is one of the oldest around — it dates back as far as 1978. It’s often referred to as the CADA law, based on the ‘Commission d’Accès aux Documents Administratifs’ which is the official institution in charge of overseeing how administrations comply with it. One good thing is that in both 2016 and 2018 the law was reinforced to require all documents to be released as open data, in open standards and easy-to-use formats.

    “But unfortunately the right to information is not so strong here in France. For example, CADA doesn’t have a power of mandate. When an administration fails to respond to a request, CADA’s decisions are no more than advisory opinions, though they can be crucial if you want to take the administration to court for lack of response.

    “Not everyone’s able or ready to take administrations to court, though. I mean, it’s not that the process is difficult, but it’s far more complex than filing an FOI request via MaDada.

    “Also, while anyone can ask for documents, and the service is always free, we can only request documents that already exist and ‘do not require too much work from the authority’. There is of course no clear definition of ‘too much work’, but it’s often used as a reason to reject a request, along with the exemptions around matters of defence and official secrets which are too easily brandished in response to requests.”

    Wait, ‘of course’ there’s no definition — did we hear that correctly? Apparently so:

    “The exact wording of the French law is that a request must only be fulfilled if it ‘does not require so much work that it could impede the officer or the administration from doing their main work’.”

    We were astonished to hear this — here in the UK, we have the same exemption, but it comes complete with an upper cost, which can also be expressed as hours of work, which must be undertaken before the authority can refuse the request due to ‘exceeding the appropriate limit’. We’ve also got a bunch of other exemptions! But at least they are all clearly defined.

    Plan for an Open Government

    When it comes to other problems with FOI, there’s a story that’s familiar to many in the Alaveteli network:

    “The key problem in France is the gap between the law, and how the law is actually applied or enforced. Incentives for public officers tend to push against transparency: nobody will get in trouble for ignoring a request for documents, but they could if they disclose documents which shouldn’t have been published. So erring on the side of safety means less transparency.

    “More and more, journalists and activists have been pointing out the complete lack of FOI responses or the overrun in delays from administrations in providing a legally required response.”

    “Transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool!”

    On the other hand, something’s in the air: “What we’ve seen in recent years and especially months, is that after the mid 2020 elections, municipalities started appointing deputies on transparency matters. For example in Marseilles, we now have a Representative for Transparency and Open Data for the town.

    “France signed up for the Open Government Partnership initiative in 2014, but its first action plan in 2018-20? Frankly the results were not spectacular at all: it was more words than action.

    “Last month, the Government launched a second two-year ‘Plan for an Open Government’: this one’s set to run until 2023. They said it will be better, with more money to serve it, more concrete actions, more collaborations with citizens. And they’ve asked MaDada to give feedback and tell them what we’d like to see realised in the next few years.

    “So transparency and open data are clearly becoming cool. But at the moment it’s too young to be judged. The words are there and we need to see concrete actions. Let’s hope that things really will change drastically towards openness and transparency and that that we do not only have words to rely on.”

    Enter MaDada

    That’s all very interesting and helps us understand the background details. Now, into this mix a new FOI site for the general public appeared 18 months ago. So how has MaDada been received?

    “When we launched in October 2019, the French FOI law was quite an unknown topic for the public at large, and the need for transparency and open data were still, somehow, something only discussed internally.

    “In our first year of existence we had something like 200 requests (see MaDada’s blog posts about their first year online – in French).

    “We are now at 800 public requests. So numbers picked up pace: something’s happened recently.

    “It’s not just that the platform recently improved — with better user support and the addition of the Pro feature: we can also see that the topics of open data and transparency are becoming more and more popular. Several activists and organisations have been campaigning around these matters, sometimes via MaDada. The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.

    “We list 50,509 public authorities (I think France has the world record here). A lot of our support time is used up trying to keep the email addresses for these authorities up to date. And that’s tricky: there’s not much proactive updating from the authorities themselves, we’re constantly having to ask them for new addresses. We hope that the Project for an Open Government will make this easier for us.

    “As of today we’ve reached 955 requests, of which 794 are public — the rest are still embargoed. Out of those, just 126 have been successful so far. That’s very low: many authorities in France just ignore the law, and sit on incoming requests until the one month time limit to reply is over. We’re at around a 15% success rate, which is probably not too bad in the average French context. We’re obviously hoping to work to improve this!

    “We’ve just seen an incredible growth in the number of users and requests in the past five months: more or less an exponential growth, which is pretty exciting! We hope this trend continues.”

    Plusplus good

    And as for the addition of Pro, allowing for the MaDada++ service? We were interested to hear the organisation’s experiences and hopes around this add-on.

    “The public is more and more aware of our existence and of their ability as citizens to actively participate.”

    “The Madada++ feature is working so well: it’s been attracting journalists mostly, as well as data scientists and activists. The biggest appeal is the batch requests, and also the temporarily embargoed requests, allowing them to keep their news stories exclusive, or giving them time to analyse data before publishing.

    “We’re happy to see that despite this ability, they still follow our advice to publish data as soon as they can.

    “Since the MaDada++ feature went live, we’ve clearly seen more in-depth analysis and journals publishing reports on data obtained through it. We hope to see more coming in the next months.”

    What’s France asking for?

    Finally, we were curious about the type of information that’s been released on MaDada. Anything of interest here?

    “Well, recently, as you might expect, there have been a lot of requests related to COVID-19: data around the analysis of COVID in sewage water; about the circulation of COVID variants in France; metrics showing the usage of our national COVID app.

    “Let us also mention the publication of a report on poverty and conditions in accessing minimum social aid in France by the Secours Catholique and Aequitaz organisations: this report used responses to batch requests made via MaDada++.

    “And another journalist, who uses MaDada extensively, just published a report on the fees of deputies, pointing out the lack of and need for transparency  —  that the French law already requires!

    “Also, we’re very proud to begin our collaboration with La Quadrature Du Net, the French organisation defending digital fundamental liberties, who are intensively using MaDada for their legal analysis and for their Technopolice campaign that reveals the encroaching police surveillance powers.”

    And on that last note, there’s the proof of the assertion we made at the top of this post: that the international community of Alaveteli users have so much in common. Privacy International have been looking into exactly this same issue, as we covered in a blog post.

    We want to thank MaDada so much for sharing their experiences in deploying and running the Alaveteli codebase and offering the people of France an easier route to accessing information. While we’re all unable to travel, we can still have these useful and interesting discussions. May their project go from strength to strength.


    Image: Amy Barr (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  2. A Million Moments for Democracy: using FOI to campaign against corruption

    Info Pro Vsechny (IPV) is the Freedom of Information site for the Czech Republic, run on our Alaveteli software.

    Czech civil movement Million Moments for Democracy (Milion Chvilek Pro Demokracii) is currently using the platform to run a campaign, making for an interesting example of how such groups can leverage FOI sites to mobilise support, and to encourage citizens to engage in the democratic process.

    Million Moments approached IPV, who were able to advise on the best way to allow their supporters to get involved, as the FOI site’s team explained when we chatted to them recently.

    But first, to make sure we understood the context, we had a quick read of the Wikipedia page on the Czech Republic’s Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. It’s fair to say that Babiš is a contentious figure, as demonstrated by no fewer than eight entries in the ‘controversies’ section of that page.

    Conflict of interest

    Top of the agenda today, though, is a scandal currently under investigation by the European Commission. Babiš was instrumental in decisions to award EU grants to the massive Agrofert conglomerate, a holding company with over 250 subsidiaries across forestry, farming, food, construction and logistics industries, among others.

    In doing so, he breached EU legislation. Why? Because he just happens to be the previous CEO of Agrofert.

    While Babiš’ shares were subsequently transferred to a trust fund, as IPV told us, the European Commission has ruled that there is still a case to be answered: “They stated that the main fund beneficiary is still Babiš and the conflict of interest has not been resolved. And while they’ve asked the Czech government to act upon their recommendation, things are moving very slowly.”

    This was the impetus behind Million Moments FOI campaign, which is currently encouraging their followers to use IPV to ask pertinent questions about this conflict of interest, and to potentially dig up others.

    “They want to ensure that the Czech authorities are asking the right questions on behalf of the country’s citizens, rather than sweeping it under the carpet,” explain IPV. “So they’re encouraging people to ask all the institutions and semi-owned-state companies to what extent they deal with companies in the Agrofert holding.

    “More questions, more people engaged, more institutions involved — it all puts greater pressure on the Prime Minister and owner of Agrofert.

    “And one never knows, we might learn further things about how the state institutions co-operate with Agrofert companies.”

    Providing a platform for a campaign

    Million Moments provide example texts of the kind of requests their followers could make, pre-written on Google Docs, together with instructions on how to use IPV.

    This request is designed for state authorities, typically ministries, while this one is designed for state-owned companies, of which there are still quite a few”, explains the team.

    “For example the state still owns a majority share in the globally famous Budvar brewery (brewers of Czech Budweiser, the real original according to many patent law victories around the world!)”

    A site for everyone

    At mySociety, our charitable status means that we must remain resolutely non-partisan, providing tools for anyone and everyone to use. This doesn’t mean that our partner organisations abroad have to stick to the same principles, though — they will be led by their country’s laws and their own funding structures.

    Nonetheless we were interested to ask IPV whether it was a concern for them to be working with a campaign that has a clear political agenda.

    They say, “We discussed at some length with Million Moments that the platform should only be seen as a technical facilitator of the campaign. As individuals we might or might not support their goals — but that is irrelevant, really. As an organisation, we’re only interested in providing a clear path for anyone who wants to use FOI to uncover information.

    “That comes with some responsibilities. In particular we were concerned that the same few authorities would not be flooded with requests with exactly the same wording, which could incite the dangerous criticism that the platform facilitates spamming or politically motivated harassment.

    “We initially suggested the possibility that one “master question” could be put to each authority, and all the other followers could just sign up to follow the requests. However, Million Moments wanted to let people feel they were actively participating, so the compromise is that some  examples are offered as suggestions for questions, but in the end  individuals decide for themselves.”

    You can see the campaign page here (in Czech – here’s the same page on Google Translate).

    A swell in users

    The campaign started with a mailout to Million Moments’ 400,000 followers, and this alone has brought a great result for IPV, a site which was operating with a fairly small userbase. When we spoke to them, it had been live for six days.

    “We’ve already got over 400 new users”, they say, “which means we’ve increased our total userbase by nearly 25%, and many of these will likely use the site in the future as they are obviously active citizens. Between them, they look to have placed around 200 questions already.

    “We’ll be looking to use this campaign as a platform to build up interest from journalists, who are one of the categories of people who can really benefit from using FOI.

    “The Million Moments campaign has definitely given us some momentum! The next burst of interest will probably come when we see how the questions are answered…or not.

    “But we have to be pleased with such an increase in our userbase in the space of a single week, especially as we’d expect many of these people to return.

    “They are the type of citizens we believe the site is made for.”

    We share IPV’s interest in this campaign, and will watch with interest to find out how it develops, and what it might uncover. Thanks to the team for keeping us informed — we always love to hear stories from our many Alaveteli partners about how their sites are making change.

    Image: Anthony Delanoix

  3. Want to run an Alaveteli site? The time is now

    We have the opportunity to help one organisation in Europe set up and run their own Freedom of Information website. Could you be that organisation?

    The background

    Thanks to ongoing funding from Adessium, we’ve been working with a number of partners right across Europe to set up new Alaveteli websites, and upgrade existing ones with the Pro functionality. The ultimate aim is to increase the quality, quantity and simplicity of European and cross-border Freedom of Information based investigations.

    So far we’ve helped organisations in France and Netherlands to launch their own sites, and we’ve added Pro to AskTheEU, Belgium, Sweden and Czechia.

    Now we have space to provide technical help and support for one more organisation who would like to launch their own brand new Alaveteli site.

    What would that involve?

    Running an Alaveteli website is no light undertaking, we’ll be the first to admit it. While we can help you with all the technicalities of getting the site up and launched, there is an ongoing commitment for the recipient organisation, who will need to factor in significant time to administer it, moderate content and help users.

    On the plus side, we have masses of experience that will get you set off on the right footing; we’ll do most of the technical stuff for you; and there’s a global community of other people running Alaveteli sites who are always quick to offer friendly advice when you need it.

    OK, sounds good – can we apply?

    There’s just one important detail: we’re looking for organisations in European countries or jurisdictions where there isn’t already an existing Alaveteli site. Take a quick look at our deployments page to see whether your country is already on the list.

    That’s the main requirement — but there are also a few details that the ideal organisation would fulfil.

    • So that you understand the service you’d be offering to citizens, you’d already have transparency or freedom of information as a remit or strand of your work
    • You might include some people with at least some basic technical or coding skills amongst your workforce;
    • You’ll have a source of income (or plans for how to secure one) that will allow you to keep running the site after we’ve got you all set up.

    We’re looking to start work in April, with a probable build phase that would take us to December 2021. All work is conducted remotely, and we’d have regular check-ins with you via video call to keep you updated.

    We’d then give you all the support you needed in the first few months after your site’s launch, then from March 2022, you’d be all set to take the training wheels off — although, as we say, we and the rest of the Alaveteli community would be around to offer help and advice on an ongoing basis.

    Right, that’s everything — so it only remains to say that if you’re still interested, please get in touch to have an initial chat. Or, if you know any organisations that might be a good fit for this opportunity, please send them the link to this post.

    Alaveteli sites launched or upgraded in 2020

    Banner image: Gia Oris

  4. How you’ve been using our services to help the climate

    mySociety services help people be active citizens, whether by speaking truth to power, communicating directly with politicians, or demanding change on your doorstep —  and that’s true for the area of climate activism as much as it is for any other burning issue.

    By listing some of the ways you’ve been using our services to help the climate, we hope to inspire others to do the same, and to consider new ways in which you might be able to use them to push the climate agenda even further.

    At the beginning of 2020, mySociety made a commitment to the planet, adding Climate to our existing workstreams of Transparency, Democracy and Community.

    There are many experienced and knowledgeable organisations already working to fight the climate crisis. Accordingly, much of our work in this area has involved teaming up with these existing institutions, to offer the skills we do have and which they are often lacking: data wrangling, service design, site development, research and so on.

    But there’s another way in which we can be useful, with no extra development or resource required from us: thanks to our established suite of services, we can help individual citizens to take action. mySociety’s UK websites are already set up to help people find out facts, ask politicians questions, check how MPs are voting, and demand better for their local communities — all useful tools when you want to tackle climate change.

    We’ve had a look at the ways in which you’ve been using our websites in service of the climate, and we’ve found a huge variety of examples. Take a look through, and you might be inspired. And, if you’ve taken another type of climate action through our websites, do let us know so that we can add it to our list!

    Changes in your neighbourhood

    On FixMyStreet, we’ve seen people pointing out eco-unfriendly practices to the council, and asking for new amenities that would help locals to pursue a greener lifestyle.

    Trees filter air pollution, absorb carbon and provide shade, so it’s possible to argue that every tree is a benefit to the community. As Friends of the Earth advise, that’s all the rationale you need to lodge a request for a Tree Preservation Order, which means that an existing tree cannot be removed without reason. 

    Or perhaps there simply aren’t enough trees where you live? Then you can write to your council and request that new ones are planted.

    We know that climate change is driving bees away, so those who ask their councils to leave roadside verges unmown and allow wildflowers to grow are also doing their bit to help offset the damage. 

    Campaigning

    Meanwhile, WriteToThem can be used by any campaign which wants its supporters to email their politicians, and there are many with an environmental or climate agenda who have done just that. 

    Hyperlocal groups are campaigning against the loss of green spaces; the Possible organisation regularly rallies its supporters for innovative climate issues such as ground source heat from parks and better spaces for walking or cycling

    Badverts wants to stop the advertising industry from pushing high-carbon products, and Power For People is pushing for non-profit clean energy companies.

    And it’s not just campaigns that use WriteToThem, of course — tens of thousands of you use the site every month to tell your politicians what is important to you, how you’d like them to vote, or to alert them to wrongs that need to be set right. 

    Emails sent through WritetoThem are private between you and your representative, though, so unless you tell us about it, we can’t know what you’re writing about. All the same, we can say with absolute certainty that many of you are expressing your concerns about the climate — it’s such an important topic that you must be. 

    Requesting information

    Many councils declared a climate emergency in 2019 — but what does that mean in real terms, and what comes next? If your council hasn’t published its Climate Action Plan, and you want to ascertain whether they actually have one (or are perhaps working on it) then a Freedom of Information request might yield answers, and plenty of people have used WhatDoTheyKnow for just this purpose.

    Or, if the plans are already written and available to the public, there’s still lots more that might need disclosing: are they being adhered to and working as intended? And are the budgets accurate and adequate? How is money actually being spent? 

    This request enquired whether the commitment to the climate went as far as divestment from fossil fuels, and this one dug into whether a council was using renewable energy sources.

    FOI can be used in a huge variety of ways: for example, to collect disparate data from multiple authorities to make up a coherent dataset showing a nationwide picture — like this one, on behalf of Amnesty International, finding out how local authorities were reacting to childrens’ climate strikes.

    Thanks to our Alaveteli software, organisations all over the world are running sites like WhatDoTheyKnow that allow their citizens to ask for information. In Hungary, the KiMitTud site uncovered a river pollution scandal; and on AskTheEU the VW emissions misconduct was hinted at long before the story hit the public consciousness.

    Holding politicians accountable

    FOI requests can take a while to be processed by authorities, so while you’re waiting you might like to do something a bit more immediate and look up your MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou

    Each MP’s voting record includes a section on the environment, containing all parliamentary votes since 2010 that we’ve identified as relevant. The data — on policies from selling state-owned forests to higher taxes on air fares — comes from the Public Whip website, where votes are analysed and categorised. 

    In the interests of stressing the importance of the climate emergency, we’re keen to give this Environment section more prominence and detail, but of course we can only include the votes that have been held, and even then only the votes that were recorded in Parliament — not those that were just ‘nodded through’ (see more about this here). However, we’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the key climate-related votes of the future.

    Data

    The open data accessible through our sites can often be useful for researchers: one example of this is the TheyWorkForYou API, which allows for the analysis of everything said in Parliament, among other uses. 

    As examples of what can be done, Carbon Brief analysed Hansard to see which politicians mention climate change the most; and the Guardian, using TheyWorkForYou, gave a more rounded score to each MP which also took into consideration their votes and interests.

    So – that’s quite a long list, and just goes to show the breadth and diversity of the possibilities afforded by our various online services.

    If you’ve been feeling helpless about the climate crisis, perhaps this will give you a little hope, and inspire you to take a few small online steps yourself, in service of the planet and our future. Please do let us know how you get on.

  5. No boundaries to Freedom of Information

    A forthcoming tribunal will examine the blocking of FOI requests that have been placed by people living outside the UK.

    To those at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow, the matter is quite simple: the UK’s Freedom of Information Act was written explicitly to allow “any person” to request information from a public body. There’s no restriction to say that the requester must be a UK citizen.

    A phrase often used is that the FOI process must be ‘applicant blind’. An authority doesn’t have the right to refuse information because of what it knows about the requester. That applies to nationality as much as to any other characteristic.

    We vehemently defend this principle, not least because we have seen first hand that important investigations can result from cross-border collaborations — right now, we’re working to support journalists across Europe working on several stories that cannot be confined to one territory.

    Associates across the international FOI network are proof positive that this kind of collaboration is invaluable in getting to the truth. Last year, Arne Semsrott of German FOI site FragDenStaat told us of a project they are running in tandem with Spain-based AccessInfo, to find out more about the treatment of migrants in many countries.

    “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe”, he said, “so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

    If each country insisted that its information was only accessible to its own citizens, there would be significantly less opportunity to uncover such cross-border instances of mistreatment, not to mention stories of corruption, malpractice, misspending and cronyism. And as we know, such phenomena are unlikely to respect jurisdictional boundaries.

    For a view from closer to home, we can consult a member of the experienced WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team. Richard Taylor comments, “If UK FOI requests were restricted to British citizens or to those living in the UK, that could, depending on how it was implemented, seriously impact our ability to provide WhatDoTheyKnow’s service.

    “Providing proof of nationality or residence would be a significant additional hurdle for people making requests, and for us in managing them.”

    We question why there is a need for a tribunal to examine a point of the Act that is already quite clear — and, since there is to be one, call upon them to make a judgement that adheres to the letter, and spirit, of this country’s information law.

    Image: Max Böhme

  6. Improving access to information in Europe: everyone’s a lottery winner

    We’re delighted to announce that we’ve received funding from the Swedish Postcode Foundation that will help us extend our work on Freedom of Information in Europe.

    The Foundation uses proceeds from the country’s lottery sales to help fund projects that support democracy and freedom of speech, as one of three areas where they believe they can help bring about long term positive change to the world.

    The connection is particularly apt, as it was in Sweden that the world’s first FOI law was passed in 1766. From that beginning grew a worldwide good: since then, access to information has been recognised as a fundamental right by the European Court of Human Rights, and has been adopted in countries around the globe.

    Matched up

    In May 2019 we received funding from Adessium Foundation for a three-year project to increase access to online FOI tools across Europe. The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.

    Now this new match funding will allow us to dig further and build better within the main elements of the project, which are:

    • To help partners to launch new FOI sites in the Netherlands, France (already completed) and another jurisdiction (coming soon).
    • To upgrade existing sites to include the Alaveteli Pro functionality: AskTheEU already has this and five others will gain it shortly. By 2022 there’ll be 13 Alaveteli sites in Europe, 10 of which will have Pro.
    • To improve the Alaveteli Pro software with new features that’ll make it a more powerful tool for investigations and campaigns (so far we’ve worked on exporting data from batch requests and enabling users to add links to news stories).
    • To support journalist and campaigning organisations to use Alaveteli tools as part of their investigations (such as Privacy International’s use of FOI in their investigation into surveillance technologies used by police in the UK).
    • To monitor government compliance with FOI, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

    Get involved

    Now we can spread the goodness even further, so we’re planning to run some online training/learning activities around using Alaveteli tools as part of an investigation or campaign. If your work would benefit from this, and you live in an EU country with an Alaveteli Pro site, do get in touch.

    We’re also keen to partner with membership-based news or campaign organisations to run more pilot projects using our new Projects feature. If you have a project that could benefit from contributors helping to extract and analyse data from FOI responses, let us know.

    And finally: we’ll soon be starting to gather data about FOI compliance in different EU countries. If this is something that could benefit your work, register your interest and we’ll keep you posted.

    Image: Jonathan Brinkhorst 

  7. Learn everything you need to know about FOI, online

    Investigative journalism platform The Ferret has just launched an online training course on using Freedom of Information — and all trainees get a free subscription to our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service for professional users of FOI.

    Based in Edinburgh, the Ferret is a community journalism initiative that describes itself as ‘for Scotland and beyond’. Since 2012 its members’ investigations have rooted out the truth around local, national and international issues including coronavirus, Brexit, dark money —  and much more. They’re a co-operative, so supporters become part-owners. If they want to, they can also access the resources and training to pursue their own stories.

    And now, the Ferret’s online Freedom of Information course shares everything the founders know about the use of FOI for tracking down facts. This resource would be useful for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of the act and how to use it, not just for journalism but potentially for campaigning or research purposes too. And it’s not just restricted to the use of FOI in Scotland: you’ll learn everything you need to know to use FOI across the UK… and beyond.

    The course costs £30, but six months’ WhatDoTheyKnow Pro usage is bundled in. Since that’s worth £60 on its own, you’re ahead before you even begin.

    We’re big fans of the Ferret at mySociety, and we have every confidence that this course will be a springboard for a new generation of great investigative journalists. If you think you might like to be one of them, then why not give it a try? More details here, and in this Twitter thread.

    Image: ConvertKit

  8. WhatDoTheyKnow in Wikidata

    We were glad to see this recent tweet from Andy Mabbett:

    Andy has imported the IDs of every authority listed on our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow into Mix’n’match, a tool for helping to link a dataset with existing Wikidata entities. Once a match has been made, the URL of the body’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is available as one of its identifiers (specifically, P8167).

    This means that anyone running a project that utilises Wikidata will have the option to include WhatDoTheyKnow data in their site or app.

    Andy says, “Wikidata acts as a hub for all sorts of databases and identifier systems. For example, it can be the only way of linking (programmatically, in the linked data sense) an MP’s official parliamentary record to their IMDb entry. I do a lot of work making that happen. As a regular and satisfied user of WhatDoTheyKnow, it appealed to me to add that site’s 24.5K listings of UK public bodies to the mix.”

    The best-known site relying on Wikidata is of course Wikipedia, so in theory it would now be feasible, say, to include a template that automatically pulled the relevant WhatDoTheyKnow link into Wikipedia articles about authorities, or to build a browser extension that provided those links when the user visited such articles.

    It would also be possible for us to pull information back the other way, so for example we might consider importing the first paragraph of a Wikipedia page for a body and using it within the introduction, as a way of providing context.

    The matching of WhatDoTheyKnow authorities confirms which Wikidata URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) relates to each, meaning that these can now be used in “sameAs” metadata headers, scehma.org markup, etc. We think this might have a beneficial effect on the way search engines treat our pages in the future — something we’ll be keeping an eye on to check if that’s true.

    Additionally, this works as a nice proof of concept that we can potentially recommend to other Alaveteli sites around the world, given that the Wikidata project is, of course, international.

    But first, the bodies need to be checked with the Mix’n’match tool. At the time of writing, 1,302 bodies have been resolved, and can be seen here. Anyone is welcome to help by confirming more matches: just log in with a Wikimedia account.

    Thanks to Andy for this initiative — it’s great to see the potential of our data being widened in one fell swoop.

    There has already been a mutual benefit to this linking. WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Matt has been able to use examples of failed matches to find cases where our database needed to be brought up to date with name changes. At the same time, Andy says it has helped him and his fellow Wikidata volunteers to create new items about councils and other bodies that were in WhatDoTheyKnow but not Wikidata.

    Richard, also one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s volunteer team, says, “I’ve often thought there’s a lot of overlap between what we do on WhatDoTheyKnow and what Wikipedia volunteers are doing — we’re both maintaining lists of public bodies — so any tools for closer collaboration are great.”


    Image: Carl Nenzen Loven

  9. Exporting data from your batch FOI requests

    We’ve added a new functionality to the Alaveteli Pro codebase, allowing you to download a zip file containing all correspondence and attachments from a batch, and a spreadsheet (csv) to show the progress status of every request.

    Alaveteli Pro is our tool for professional users of Freedom of Information. If you’re UK-based, you’re probably most familiar with our local iteration WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — but don’t worry: when we talk about improvements to Alaveteli Pro, you can be sure they’re also part of the WhatDoTheyKnow toolkit.

    How to export

    You’ll find these tools at the foot of the batch container in the requests list.

    zip downloads of batch FOI requests

    Why data exports?

    Of course, we like to think Alaveteli Pro is a useful tool in its own right: there’s a lot you can do within the Pro interface, and it was built specifically to help you keep track of all your FOI activity in one place.

    But sometimes users want to use external tools – either because they’re just more familiar with them, or because they want to do something beyond the functionality we offer.

    Now there’s a simple way to get data out of Alaveteli, allowing you to analyse it with the tools of your choice, or perhaps send a progress report to a supervisor or editor.

    It’s part of a programme of work to support cross border journalism between European organisations, supported by Adessium Foundation, allowing us to refine and improve the codebase for the benefit of all Pro users.

    The technical bit

    Those with a bit of coding knowledge may be interested to hear how we approached the zip download functionality. mySociety developer Graeme explains:

    “With batch requests potentially going to as many as 500 different authorities, each request can receive several responses and attachments in return.

    “All these emails and files mean that compiling the zip for download could be a lengthy job and would normally cause the request to time out. So for this new feature we’re utilising file streaming to send chunks of the zip as they become available.

    “This means that the zip starts downloading immediately and you don’t have to sit watching and wondering whether anything is happening – you can see more and more data being transmitted.”

    We hope you find this new feature useful. Please do let us know how you’re using it and any feedback you may have.

    Image: Startup Stock Photos

     

  10. Freedom of Information during the pandemic

    The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having an impact on response times to Freedom of Information requests. Please see this information from the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Scottish Information Commissioner. You can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any questions about your requests.

    Note: There is now an update to this post, which can be found here.


    At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.

    Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.

    Keeping our rights intact

    At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.

    Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.

    We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:

    • A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
    • In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
    • Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.

    Information is vital

    More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?

    Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?

    In the UK, the government has stated a commitment to transparency: “In fast moving situations, transparency should be at the heart of what the government does”. But the gaps in existing data are noted by Jeni Tennison here, alongside a call for private companies to do what they can.

    And at the same time, we’ve seen a relaxation of authorities’ obligations under the FOI Act in recognition of stretched resources and depleted staff.

    These have taken the form of a notification from the ICO that they will be more lenient towards authorities providing late responses, and messages from authorities themselves that they will be providing a cut-down service.

    Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.

    Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can. [Update: We now account for the new law in Scotland, but there may be a few existing requests or authorities that we’ve missed out, so please get in touch if you have questions about your request.]

    Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.

    A global lapse

    Meanwhile, in countries around the world, the reaction has ranged from New Zealand’s ‘pro-transparency’ response, documented along with less hopeful dispatches from other countries in this post from Global Investigative Journalism Network, to Hungary’s worrying move to rule by decree.

    At WhatDoTheyKnow, we stand by our international community of friends and colleagues who value the citizens’ right to know.

    Access to Information and journalists’ networks are monitoring the erosion or upholding of our rights across the world, and will act to preserve them where we can.

    Image: Dimitri Karastelev