We’ve just come back from a heady couple of days in Oslo, where our AlaveteliCon event brought together those with a shared interest in the technology around Freedom of Information — in all, around 50 journalists, researchers, technologists and activists from 18 different countries.
As our Head of Development Louise announced in her opening words, AlaveteliCon has always been a slight misnomer, given that we’re keen to share knowledge not just with those who use Alaveteli, but with all the FOI platforms in our small but growing community — including MuckRock in the US and Frag Den Staat in Germany, both of whom were in attendance.
It was a timely event for us, as we embark on work to introduce our Alaveteli Pro functionality to newsrooms, researchers and campaigners across Europe, with an emphasis on encouraging cross-border collaboration in campaigns, research and journalistic investigations.
As well as picking up practical tips, we heard a variety of inspiring and instructive stories from FOI practitioners around the world; brainstormed ways forward in increasingly difficult political times; and shared knowledge on funding, publicity, site maintenance, and how to keep good relations with FOI officers.
Some of the most inspiring sessions came when delegates shared how they had used FOI in campaigns and investigations, from Vouliwatch’s Stefanos Loukopoulos explaining how they had taken their own government to court, to Beryl Lipton of MuckRock explaining why the government use of algorithms can have effects that are unforeseen, and indeed petrifying.
There was an affecting story from freelance journalist Mago Torres, who told us about a long campaign to map clandestine graves of those caught up in the war against drugs in Mexico; and from Camilla Graham Wood of Privacy International, on that organisation’s work to uncover some of the rather sinister but not widely known technologies being put into use by police services in the UK.
So much knowledge came out of these two days. We don’t want to lose it, so we’ll be making sure to update the conference page with photos, videos and the speakers’ slides as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, you can follow the links from the agenda on that page to find the collaborative documents where we took notes for each session.
We’ve just released two new versions of Alaveteli, our open source platform for running Freedom Of Information sites — one which we’ve packed all of bug fixes, new features and performance improvements into, and one with some important technical updates. Here are some of the highlights.
Making your first request easier
mySociety’s designer Zarino has subtly redesigned the authority search page – which is the first thing most users will see when making a request – to make it easier to find the help links at a glance, making the process feel much more approachable.
Encouraging better quality requests
Part of our advice to users of WhatDoTheyKnow is to keep requests concise and focused. This new feature adds a visual reminder when the request text is approaching the point of being too long for an FOI officer to answer it efficiently:
With a second, stronger warning if the request becomes longer still:
We’ve also added an experimental feature on WhatDoTheyKnow to discourage users from making requests for personal information. (As well as not being valid FOI requests, publishing the responses would result in revealing confidential information about the requester.) By asking the user to clarify what they want to ask before sending a request to authorities which attract a high level of personal information requests, we can try to redirect them to the correct official channel instead:
One-click unsubscribe from notifications
An improvement for site owners and end users: it is now possible to unsubscribe from email notifications about requests that you’re following right from your inbox! (Previously – and still the case with other sorts of email that the site sends – you would have to visit the site and log in to change your email preferences.)
Allowing people to unsubscribe with ease – if they’ve forgotten that they signed up for notifications or have created a new track by mistake – should help to cut down on the number of messages being marked as spam which should in turn help improve the site’s mail sender reputation. (It also allows admins – if they receive feedback loop notification emails from email providers – to unsubscribe users who’ve marked these emails as spam, preventing further unwelcome emails being sent.)
In version 0.33, as well as our our features and fixes, we’ve added support for Ubuntu releases Xenial and Bionic and withdrawn support for Debian Jessie. The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Version 0.34 contains our Rails 5.0 upgrade work which we’ve released separately to allow reusers time to adapt to new minimum requirements for operating systems and Ruby versions.
We’re no longer supporting Ubuntu Trusty and have also dropped Ruby versions older than 2.3 as that’s the minimum requirement for Rails 5. Upgrade notes are available in the changelog and, as ever, we recommend updating one version at a time to make sure everything’s working smoothly and reduce the risk of missing essential upgrade steps.
Moving to Rails 5.0 will allow us to retain support for major security issues when Rails 6 is released and dropping older Ruby versions removes some key technical barriers to modernising the Alaveteli codebase and allows us to focus on improving Alaveteli Pro so that it can be reused more widely.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed! Special thanks to Nigel Jones and Laurent Savaëte who contributed bug fixes for version 0.33!
Next week Gareth and I will be heading to Tunis to attend the 8th edition of RightsCon. RightsCon is the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age, so we’re thrilled to be hosting a session at the conference about digital Access to Information platforms with our awesome friends at MuckRock.
If you’ll also be there we’d love to talk to you about your campaigns or investigations and how using access to information platforms could help.
As Jen said in her recent blog post, we’ll be spending time this year developing our software platform Alaveteli Pro so more people across the world have access to its digital tools that help with the sending and management of information requests.
We’d love to get feedback on this work and would love to meet organisations who are interested in setting up Alaveteli Pro instances, in order to make access to information easier for citizens in their countries. We’re also very keen to talk to individuals and organisations who are interested in collaborating on cross-border public-interest investigations and campaigns using FOI-generated data.
We’d also love to talk to RightsCon attendees who might be interested in attending our AlaveteliCon event in Oslo on 23 and 24 September, where activists, journalists, technologists and campaigners from across the world will come together to discuss Freedom of Information technologies for creating public-interest investigations and campaigns.
And of course, our Call for Proposals is currently open for our TICTeC Local conference so it’d be great to chat to people interested in presenting their work using digital innovations to help local communities and/or public authorities to foster citizen engagement, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems.
Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, mySociety’s subscription service offering extra tools for journalists and other professional users of FOI, has been running in the UK for just about two years.
During that time we’ve launched, worked closely with users to refine the service, and — happily — watched it play a vital part in the making of several important data-driven news stories, on topics as diverse as Brexit campaign funding and the results of austerity cuts on councils. Journalists, in particular, have appreciated tools such as the ability to send and manage bulk requests to multiple authorities; and the embargo tool that keeps requests and responses hidden until the story has been published.
Now, thanks to support from Adessium Foundation, we are able to bring the same benefits to countries across Europe, and — we hope — some additional synergies that will be borne of organisations working across boundaries. The same functionality that extends WhatDoTheyKnow into the Pro version will be available to FOI sites run on the Alaveteli platform, under the name Alaveteli Pro.
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.
We’ll be focusing on three areas in order to achieve this aim:
- We’ll give selected existing Alaveteli sites in Europe the technical help they need to upgrade to the Pro version;
- We’ll be helping organisations in three new European jurisdictions to launch brand new Alaveteli sites, making access to information easier for citizens in these countries. The first site will be launched by VVOJ from the Netherlands.
- We’ll encourage cross-border collaborations between journalists and organisations using the sites (both the existing ones and the new ones) to investigate stories that span more than one EU country.
So watch this space: we’ll be sure to keep you posted as the work progresses. The planned start date is next month, and the project is set to run for three years.
We’re looking forward to sharing stories resulting from this initiative once they start rolling out, and supporting the incredible work that journalists do in putting them together.
Image: Emiliano Vittoriosi
We’re delighted to be hosting the third AlaveteliCon, our Freedom of Information (FOI) technologies conference, on 23 and 24 September 2019 in Oslo, Norway.
A few days ahead of International Right to Know Day (28 September), AlaveteliCon will bring together activists, journalists, technologists and campaigners from across the world who use Freedom of Information laws, data and technologies to create public-interest investigations and campaigns.
This time we’ll be including a focus on catalysing collaborations on cross-border European public interest investigations and campaigns, in order to strengthen the use of FOI across the region. This focus is in part due to our latest Transparency project, funded by Adessium Foundation. This Transparency project seeks to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information, in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that hold power to account.
Here are some of the other things AlaveteliCon attendees will get up to this time:
- Exchanging insights and ideas on how to run and improve open-source Freedom of Information platforms such as WhatDoTheyKnow, MuckRock and FragDenStaat
- Hearing how journalists and campaigners around the world have used FOI to power high-profile investigations and campaigns
- Making connections with journalists and campaigners who would like to collaborate on cross-border investigations that hold governments to account
- Learning about data sources available on FOI platforms around the world, waiting to be analysed and turned into public-interest stories
- Hearing tips from FOI activists on getting governments to release information in their countries including going to court
- Contributing to the further development of mySociety’s open-source FOI toolkit for journalists, Alaveteli Pro, which helps journalists and campaigners to manage their FOI investigations
- Connecting to a global network of FOI experts and advocates
- Working together to plan potential joint activities to celebrate International Right to Know Day on 28th September 2019
Apply to attend
As spaces at AlaveteliCon are limited, we’re asking those wishing to come to fill out this application form to tell us what unique perspective they can bring that’s relevant to the above conference themes/topics.
Are you a journalist or campaigner who uses FOI for investigations/campaigns? Do you want to collaborate on FOI-generated investigations? Or interested in setting up an FOI platform in your country? Or want to learn how to use FOI to its fullest potential? Or interested in any of the above topics? If so, then please submit your application by 2nd September at the very latest.
We’ll let you know if you’ve been allocated a place by Friday 6th September at the latest. However, we will endeavour to reply to you sooner than this.
AlaveteliCon is free to attend, but delegates will be required to arrange their own travel, accommodation and costs in Oslo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo: low internet penetration, and low awareness about Freedom of Information. In short, not the most obvious place for an FOI site on our Alaveteli platform.
And yet, here’s tunabakonzi.org, brand new last month.
Henri Christin from Collectif24 is TuNa Bakonzi’s founder, and we were keen to talk to him about his reasons for launching a site when the prevailing conditions are apparently so adverse.
How did you find out about the Alaveteli platform?
“I discovered Alaveteli through AFIC, the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. When Collectif24 organised the National Symposium on Access to Information in Kinshasa, there was a presentation on askyourgov.ug [an FOI site for Uganda, also run on Alaveteli]; that’s what gave us the idea to do the same for the DRC. And that prompted me to get in touch with mySociety!”
Why does DRC need such a site?
“In DRC, everything is centralised on the capital city, Kinshasa. The country is very large, and while there’s been good efforts towards political decentralisation, there hasn’t been the same in terms of administration. So TuNa Bakonzi should help with that.
“It’ll facilitate the demand for easy information in a country where access to basic social services, access to authorities’ offices, is just not guaranteed to everyone.
“This service will promote accountability and give citizens control in the fight against corruption. In a country where there are no public policies on internet governance and journalists are regularly exposed to false information, it will also allow requests for information directly from the source.
“Finally, it’s a barometer for transparency. It will show whether a public institution is transparent, by way of the answers it gives — or does not give — to citizens’ requests.”
There’s not yet an FOI Act in DRC — can the site still have a purpose?
“Although there is not yet an Access to Information law, Collectif24 has published a collection of international, regional and national instruments on the right of Access to Information in the DRC.
“With regard to these instruments and the DRC’s Constitution, which guarantee the right of Access to Information for every person, the public administration is, in principle, supposed to give information to citizens.
“In addition, the Government of the Republic is committed to the principles of governance and transparency. As a result, we’ll be adding the public institutions of local, provincial and central governments to the site, as well as private institutions that have a public function. The site can also support the implementation of the law, once it’s actually been passed.”
Are you using the site to campaign for a change in the law?
“There’s a precedent when “the facts precede the law”. Through this site, we want to promote access to information in practice, and through this we’ll advocate for the vote to be passed in law.
What is awareness of FOI like in the DRC?
“Collectif24 has been working on the question of FOI in DRC since 2009. Previously there was a general perception that FOI really only applied to journalists; but thanks to our work we believe that DRC citizens now know that it’s a fundamental human right.
“It’s also worth noting that we’re the only organisation in DRC that works in this area, but we have no funding to develop awareness programs covering the whole country. We also need to publicise the site, but it’s a technical and financial challenge for us.”
How was the launch?
“We officially launched in partnership with the Catholic National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO). Representatives of civil society organisations, parliamentarians, journalists, students and members of the public administration were invited to CENCO’s Saint Sylvestre Hall.
“After presenting the project and the importance of the site, the computer scientist who did all the site development made a presentation. Q&A was followed by a session to show how to use the site. All the participants appreciated the initiative and the service. The ceremony closed with thanks to OSISA [The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa] for the funding and to mySociety for the creation of the Alaveteli platform”.
Who do you think will use the site?
“Everyone can use it. Yes, we have to recognise that internet penetration and connection in the country is weak. So at first we expect users to be the groups that have more access to the Internet: we definitely expect actors in civil society, journalists, researchers, politicians, international organisations, professionals and administration staff to use it”.
What are your hopes for the project?
“My wishes and dreams for this innovative and unique site in the DRC are that it becomes the place of contact between the governors and the governed; that it is a tool of citizen control and accountability which contributes to the fight against corruption and improves the governance of the DRC.
“For that to happen, we must publicise it as much as possible, but we do face security, technical and financial constraints:
“In terms of security: Collectif24 is not yet able to protect the site in the case of cyber attack; technically, we need a permanent expert for maintenance. And then, financially: we need funding for increasing awareness, hosting, better storage space, and updating of the institutions’ details, and so it goes on!”
How’s it going so far?
“Right now, we’re seeing a start. People are asking the questions they want answers to.
“But the authorities are not responding because they have not yet been sensitised to the concept of FOI.
“Additionally, we need to increase the number of institutions available on the site — but most Congolese institutions do not have official or reliable email addresses. There’s no documentation in the DRC to provide information on institutions at all levels and their contacts.
“So this is the next piece of work that Collectif24 intends to do: we’ll produce a directory if we can get a sponsor to fund it, and this will of course facilitate adding institutions to the site.
“Collectif24 must work to raise awareness among the population and the administrative staff; organise training on the use of the site. We want to create online user manuals to help people understand how to use it; add public institutions on a regular basis.
“To do all of this, it’s important to develop a program of advocacy and lobbying to the authorities to get the site recognised. We must work to make this site the official FOI service for the DRC.”
Thanks so much to Henri for talking to us — as always it was fascinating to hear about the challenges Collectif24 are facing: some unique to the country, and some universal across all FOI sites the world over. We wish him the best of luck with this brave but clearly worthy and much needed project in the DRC.
Can you help the international FOI community?
mySociety helps people run Freedom of Information sites in 25 jurisdictions around the world, on our Alaveteli platform.
These partners are usually keeping their sites going with little resource or funding, and we want to upgrade everyone to the newest version of Alaveteli so that they won’t need to manage this substantial task for themselves.
There are improvements and new features in the updates, which is exciting for our partners and their users — but of course, with every new feature come new, small strings of text that help explain it to users, label the buttons, describe any errors that occur, etc, etc.
And although we’re good on coding languages, sadly we can’t say the same about most of the actual spoken languages that need translation. So if you are fluent (ideally as a native speaker or equivalent) in any of the languages listed below, and you would like to do something both interesting and extremely worthwhile, we would be very grateful!
Translation is done via a system called Transifex. Those who are able and keen to contribute to the global Freedom of Information movement should drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org with an idea of your availability and commitment, and we can get you set up.
We need translators fluent in:
- French (France and Rwanda versions)
- Spanish (Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua versions)
- German (Germany)
If you speak languages other than these, you can find the full list of languages here and we’re sure any of our partners running sites would be grateful for the translation help — but the above languages are our priorities as these are the sites we help by hosting ourselves.
We’re aiming to get things upgraded as soon as possible, and certainly in time for International Right To Information Day in September, so we’re looking for translators with availability over the coming three months (May, June and July 2019). If this sounds interesting and fun to you please do get in touch.
Image: Yogi Purnama
Several municipalities had delayed on processing FOI requests sent through Transparencia.be — which runs on our Alaveteli software — concerned that a request sent via email does not contain a signature or proof of identity.
Now Belgium’s overseeing body CADA (the Commission of Access to Administrative Documents) has ruled, just as the ICO did in the UK, that requests sent through the site should be treated the same as those received via more conventional means.
The struggle echoes almost exactly the experiences we faced with WhatDoTheyKnow when it was first launched: as you can see in this FAQ, official MoJ guidance now explicitly states that an email address should be considered of equal status to a physical return address; and ICO advice is that a WhatDoTheyKnow.com email address is a valid contact address for the purposes of FOI.
A sharing community
Here at mySociety, we share our open source software so that other people can run services like ours — Freedom of Information sites, parliamentary monitoring projects or fault-reporting platforms — for their own countries.
But it’s not only about the software. Something that has become clear over the years, and especially when we get together for an event such as AlaveteliCon, is that we all face similar challenges. No matter how different our countries’ legislations, cultures or politics, you can be sure that our setbacks and triumphs will be familiar to others.
Because of that, we’re able to share something that’s just as useful as the software itself: the support of the community. In this case, that’s easily accessed via the Alaveteli mailing list, which we’d encourage you to join if you run, or are thinking of running, an FOI site.
Image: Jay Lee
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We’ve just released version 0.32 of Alaveteli, our open source platform for running Freedom Of Information sites. Here are some of the highlights.
Making correspondence threads easier to navigate
Thanks to our designers, it’s now possible to collapse individual messages in a correspondence thread in order to focus on just the parts you’re trying to read. Plus you can quickly collapse (or expand) all the messages in the thread using the “Collapse all” and “Expand all” links from the “Actions” menu.
Alaveteli Pro users gain the additional benefit of a redesigned sidebar which allows for easier navigation of lengthy correspondence and avoids having to scroll to the top of the request thread to update its status. See Martin’s full explanation here.
Better password security
We’ve started enforcing stricter password length constraints wherever a password is set or updated to help users keep their accounts secure. And we’re also using a stronger encryption method for storing password data, using bcrypt rather than the older SHA1 algorithm to obscure the actual password. (Be sure to run the rake task documented in the release upgrade notes to upgrade secure password storage for all existing users.)
You can read more about what this does and why it’s important if you’re interested in the technical details behind this upgrade.
Authorities not subject to FOI law
We’ve adopted WhatDoTheyKnow’s
foi_notag for authorities to indicate that although the authority is listed on the site, it is not legally subject to FOI law. This could be for advocacy purposes – if it’s felt an authority should be covered by legislation – or where the authority has agreed to respond on a voluntary basis.
foi_notag now causes an extra message to appear under the authority’s name on their page and on all related requests, and removes language about legal responsibilities to reply from the messages sent to users.
To improve the UI, we’ve made a similar change for authorities with the
eir_onlytag to make it clearer that such authorities are only accepting requests about the environment.
(Don’t worry admins, you don’t need to remember all this – we’ve updated the documentation on the edit page to reflect the new functionality!)
Improvements for site admins
We’ve made it easier for admins to ban users who sign up to post spam links in their profile. There’s now a “Ban for spamming” button which is available on the user edit page or as soon as you expand the user’s details in the listing rather than having to manually edit user metadata.
We’ve also made it harder to leave requests flagged as vexatious (or “not_foi”) in an inconsistent state. Previously the site just assumed that vexatious requests would always be hidden. Now the admin interface enforces the hiding of vexatious requests by showing warnings when a request is set as vexatious while it’s visible on the site, and prevents the updated request from being saved until a valid state is selected.
And last but not least – introducing the new Announcements feature!
Easier popup banner management
Site admins will be relieved to hear that they can now update the popup banner message on the site without needing to schedule developer time.
This feature supports multi-language sites so if you set the announcement for your main (default) language, it will appear across all language versions that you have not added a specific translation for.
You can set announcements that will only be seen by fellow administrators when they visit the summary page. (If you’re running a Pro site, you can also have announcements that will only be seen by your Pro admins.)
Announcements for Pro users appear as a carousel at the top of their dashboard. So far we’ve used it on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to publicise new features, offer discount codes, and encourage people to share their published stories with us.
The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!