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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
We were glad to see this recent tweet from Andy Mabbett:
— Andy Mabbett (@pigsonthewing) May 5, 2020
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
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.
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
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
Vouliwatch is a platform for Greece which strives to make democracy more accessible for all. If you’re familiar with mySociety’s projects, it might be easiest to see it as a mixture of TheyWorkForYou (it publishes MPs’ votes); WriteToThem (making it simple for citizens to contact their representatives), and a campaign for more transparency and better oversight in the country’s parliament, often using Freedom of Information toward these aims.
This year, Vouliwatch found themselves in the extraordinary position of issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. Their Managing Director Stefanos Loukopoulos explained how it all happened, in his presentation at AlaveteliCon.
He left us with quite the cliffhanger — would the case go to court or not? — so we were keen to catch up and find out how it had all resolved. But to begin with, here’s what he told us back in October:
“In Greece, there’s an independent committee known as the “Committee of Control”: it’s made up of judiciary, ombudsmen, and three MPs sit on it as well.
“Its role is to audit and check asset declaration and the finances of MPs, as well as the financial activities of political parties.”
As you’re probably aware, over the last eight years Greece has been in the grips of a massive financial crisis, losing more than 25% of its GDP. Stefanos says, “It’s a situation unknown anywhere else in history.
“The two parties who were in power during the period that led up to the crisis owe, between them, over 350 million Euros to the banks, the majority of which is unserviceable.”
So, that’s the background. And now to the nitty gritty of the case.
“Every year the Committee of Control put out a report. For the last three years it has said exactly the same thing: ‘Some political parties’ have taken public funding which was supposed to be for research, and used it for operational purposes. However, the report doesn’t go into detail of which political party, or how much money.
We were accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!
“The Committee has the power to impose sanctions, and the law is quite clear on this point: if funds are not being used for what they should be, or are stated to be used for, then they need to be returned… but year after year, these powers weren’t used and nothing was done about it.
“We believe people have the right to know what’s happened to this public money. We sent letters, but in return we were just accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!”
“After two years, we finally submitted a formal FOI request. We didn’t expect an answer (and we didn’t get one) but at least we were covered by FOI law, so we knew exactly what information we should have been entitled to. After consulting with a law specialist we decided to take Parliament to the constitutional court. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
And so that was how Vouliwatch ended up issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. The day Stefanos was telling this tale at AlaveteliCon, things had started to move. He said:
“The legal team at Parliament have suggested just today that the information we asked for has actually been released, but I haven’t received it yet. I’ll keep you updated. I’d love to take them to court really, it would create a far bigger buzz and perhaps open more people’s eyes to what FOI is and how it can work to expose malpractice.”
So, of course, when catching up with Stefanos a few weeks later, we were keen to know: was the information released, or did they get to go to court?
“In brief, yes, the information was released, so there was no court appearance after all.”
But the effort was still worthwhile on many fronts. The information was, Stefanos says, shocking:
If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.
“The current ruling party Νέα Δημοκρατία (New Democracy) — which, by the way, owes give or take 142,100,000 Euros to the Greek banks (and it should not be forgotten that the banks have been practically recapitalised by the taxpayer on a number of occasions during the crisis) — has been using the state subsidy intended solely for educational and research purposes to repay its loans, for at least two consecutive years. This amounts to about a million Euros.
“The Committee of Control had actually detected this malpractice, but did not impose any sanctions — and worse, actually tried to conceal the story. If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.”
There’s more detail on the whole tale on the Athens Live site. But getting the story out to the wider population has been a struggle, says Stefanos:
“Unfortunately the media landscape in Greece is very problematic, to say the least. All the big mainstream media groups belong to a handful of oligarchs (shipping tycoons, mainly) who have historically had close ties to the traditional political parties, New Democracy and PASOK.
“So, unsurprisingly perhaps, our story was covered only by independent media or left leaning newspapers and was totally ignored by all the big media groups.”
Of course it’s daunting to take your own Parliament to court. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time.
But there have been some visible results from Vouliwatch’s hard work.
“The new president of the committee publicly pledged that they would be stricter during the next auditing process.
“So that’s a positive outcome, but I must say that he didn’t mention anything about adding more details in the next report (which should be published by the end of the month so we are really looking forward to seeing what it will look like).
“Meanwhile, we got in touch with the parliamentary groups of various parties (except for New Democracy of course) asking them to table a parliamentary question on the issue. The only one that took it up was Μερα25 (Mera25), which is the Greek branch if you like of the Democracy in Europe Movement Diem25, and is led by Yanis Varoufakis. The (oral) question was posed in Parliament during its plenary session and the shadow minister of the interior tried to justify New Democracy’s actions by using legally unfounded arguments.
“We countered/deconstructed these in a reply and published it out — and Μερα25 is going to use it in their comeback question.”
And as for Vouliwatch’s day in court? It’s not entirely off the table, though now to the Committee of Control rather than Parliament as a whole: “Currently we’re drafting a lawsuit against the committee for breach of duty and will submit it to the relevant attorney general.”
This sort of work matters in Greece, and not only to uncover malpractice. Even if it’s hard to get mainstream media coverage, it all helps to highlight people’s right to information and how FOI can be used. But Stefanos says it’s not easy:
Our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency
“FOI in Greece is, unfortunately, virtually non existent. Despite the decent legal framework around it, citizens and journalists alike are unaware of their rights and how to exercise them — and the state (as well as public authorities/institutions in general) have failed to communicate it or make it easy for the public to use.
“I think our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency in Greece; however, one may be easily dissuaded and disappointed because in most cases one needs to resort to litigation in order to get a response.
“In other words, we took the case this far because it’s part of our work as an organisation. I doubt that a citizen or journalist would follow the same strenuous course as we did, bearing in mind the costs of litigation, the time required, the legal research etc, etc.”
Is it daunting issuing a lawsuit to government?
“Yes, of course. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time. If we were ordered to pay out a large amount in reparations it would be close to catastrophic for our organisation. However, our case was legally airtight and the chances of losing it minimal, which is why Parliament decided to back off and release the information in the end.”
Bravo Vouliwatch — and we’ll be watching future happenings with great interest.
Stefanos Loukopoulos is the managing director of Vouliwatch and spoke at AlaveteliCon in October 2019.
FragDenStaat (“Ask The State”) is Germany’s FOI site, running since 2011.
Having always provided a platform for the general public to submit FOI requests, the organisation recently made the decision to focus more on the campaigning side of their activities. By using pre-filled FOI requests and encouraging their supporters to send them, FragDenStaat can harness the power of numbers.
As Project Leader Arne Semsrott explains: “We are trying to show the possibilities of FOI, using it together as a group or movement with a shared goal, not just as separate individuals”.
It’s an approach they used in a campaign to uncover the hygiene ratings of restaurants (which, unlike the UK, are not routinely published in Germany) — users were invited to file a pre-written request to the relevant authorities, and over 20,000 such requests were made, then the responses published. It’s hoped that doing so will bring about change — FragDenStaat say, “The platform will provide transparency until the authorities do it themselves”.
More recently, a similar campaign sought to reveal the facts behind the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). It began when FragDenStaat requested a study from the German Federal Institute that stated that the weedkiller “probably” isn’t linked to cancer.
“We were told not to publish it”, said Arne. “So we published it”.
This mischievous approach is one of FragDenStaat’s defining qualities, but there’s always a serious point behind it. In this case: “We were told that we weren’t allowed to publish this report, but through FOI, we – and therefore anyone – is allowed to have it. It’s ridiculous.”
This is also an issue which we sometimes come across at WhatDoTheyKnow, where responses come complete with a generic footer prohibiting the publication of the information. Like FragDenStaat we think there’s a good argument against this. Freedom of Information law in the UK as well as in Germany is “applicant blind”, so anyone can request the same document and get a copy of it. That being so, it is more efficient to publish it online, and it saves taxpayers’ money since the authorities aren’t having to respond to multiple requests for the same information.
The German Federal Institute thought differently, however, and FragDenStaat were taken to court for copyright violation.
Officially, the report couldn’t be shared: what now? Arne continues the story: “So we built a one-click mechanism where anyone could make the same FOI request. Within two weeks, 45,000 people had requested it. The Institute had never had so many emails and didn’t know how to cope.
“We know this because we then requested the internal communications around how they were handling it. They developed an online solution with a log-in code to prevent people spreading the report further. We then developed some code to automatically log you in and download it.
“The legal proceedings are still pending but we would like to see a judgment by the Court of Justice on copyright vs FOI.
“If we lose the case it might mean that copyright gets used as a reason for denial in lots more requests. And if this happens, we need to make so much of a fuss that it becomes an unattractive proposition to do so. What we have achieved so far, though, is that we are pretty certain that most public authorities don’t want to confront us that way anymore.”
Since turning into more of a campaigning organisation, FragDenStaat are involved in more than 45 lawsuits. That might seem daunting to some small organisations, but Arne thinks differently:
“Over time we have learnt that one of the biggest tools we have to change the practice of FOI is strategic litigation. We have won most of our cases and are always keen to tackle legal questions that have not been addressed in German courts before. We have the feeling that the FragDenStaat community likes our approach and there are enough people who are willing to donate for our legal costs”.
FragDenStaat consistently bring an inventive angle to their campaigns, which sometimes borders on cheekiness. Asked about this, Arne replies: “To most people, files and documents appear to be the most boring thing on earth (which of course they aren’t!), so we feel that we need a bit of fun to attract people to the topic. And actually it’s way more fun for us that way.
“I do believe that our actions have forced authorities to take us seriously. There are of course people who are not fans of our work, but there are quite a few FragDenStaat supporters among authorities – even if they don’t show that publicly”.
Another campaign focuses on migration politics across Europe, and specifically Frontex, the border force. FragDenStaat have been working in collaboration with Luisa Izuzquiza at AccessInfo to file requests and build up a picture of human rights violations towards migrants: “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe, so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.
This campaign, too, has involved FragDenStaat filing a lawsuit, this time in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The hope is that it will clarify the degree to which Frontex is open to public scrutiny. Again, the costs of litigation are borne by supporters who are encouraged to chip in with a small donation of a few Euros, ideally on an ongoing monthly basis.
Arne says, “EU migration politics is a topic that I have worked on for a long time now. I think that it’s heavily underreported, especially since Frontex has gained a lot of power and budget increase over the last few years. By talking to activists in the field, we learned what kind of documents might be produced by the agency on a regular basis and we began systematically requesting them”.
Shockingly, the reports released show that Frontex are well aware of such abuse but close their eyes to it.
“A report about Libyan refugee camp said it had ‘concentration camp-like conditions’ – and you can be sure that if a German person says that, it is serious. It proves they are aware of the conditions, even though they are doing nothing about them”.
There have been results to this campaign: the European Commission has now issued a statement saying that they would investigate the claims.
Arne Semsrott spoke at AlaveteliCon, mySociety’s conference on FOI and technology, in September 2019.
Arne is one of the folk behind FragDenStaat, which is the German equivalent of our own WhatDoTheyKnow. Unlike many of the FOI sites around the world, FragDenStaat is not run on the Alaveteli platform, but on bespoke software that was inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow in the days before our codebase was made easier to install.
Incidentally, if you are running a campaign, you can also use pre-written requests in tandem with Alaveteli sites, including WhatDoTheyKnow. Instructions are here.
Image: Jen Bramley
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.