1. How ForSet are spreading the word about Freedom of Information in Georgia

    We’re big on open source: much of the software we create at mySociety is freely available for anyone to use, and there are sites all over the world underpinned by our code. 

    While we try to ensure that our codebases are as easy as possible to self-serve, in practice installation can be complex enough that those wanting to use them often get in touch with questions. 

    Not so much with AskGov.ge, the Alaveteli-based Freedom of Information site for the republic of Georgia. Yes, there had been an email in the Alaveteli Developers Google Group seeking a developer, but the first we knew that a brand new fully-formed service had successfully launched was when Teona Tomashvili, from NGO ForSet, emailed to say she was planning a trip to the UK and would love to meet up for a chat.

    And so it was that we spent a happy couple of hours in London, finding out more about AskGov and the context in which it is providing an FOI service for the citizens of Georgia, as well as offering as much advice and experience from running the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow as we could cram in without overwhelming our visitor.

    A fragile democracy

    Talking FOI may not be the obvious way of learning more about a country’s history, culture and politics, but it’s a surprisingly effective one. Teona explained that Georgia joined the Open Government Partnership in 2012, and the country is keen to do all it can to improve transparency.

    They’ve actually had an operational FOI Act since 2000, five years earlier than ours came into force in the UK. But as an ex-member of the Soviet Union, she says, the country is not used to democracy and open government.

    “Georgia had never been a fully democratic state”, she explained. “It’s only 30 years since we were part of the Soviet Union and our democracy is still very fragile. There’s a new impetus towards teaching people that open government and open data are important, but citizens are not used to these things. They have never felt like that, ever!”

    With the site relatively newly launched, ForSet have seen their main task as increasing public understanding of FOI and normalising its use. This is something we were interested to talk about: over time we’ve come to the conclusion that while some people here in the UK are ‘super FOI users’ who might put in several requests a month, the majority of the population are unlikely to feel the need to use it more than a couple of times a year, if that. 

    Even so, there’s always room for awareness-raising and we agree that everyone should know they have a right to information, for the times when they do need it. 

    Bureaucracy woes

    Whenever we’ve been able to gather together an international group of people who run FOI sites, we often find that the core challenges they face are very similar — though they may come embellished with some unique local colour.

    When Teona told us of their woes with bureaucracy, it was definitely a story we’d heard before: authorities required not just a name, but personal details such as the address and phone number of the person making a request before they would process an FOI request.

    For an Alaveteli site, the problem with that is, of course, that both the request and the response are made publicly available online, and this information would publish out too.

    While the issue might be familiar, we don’t think we’ve previously come across the particular solution that ForSet put in place: when someone makes a request, they can fill in all their personal details in a form on the website. This is used to create a PDF which is attached to the email that the authority receives; meanwhile the personal data is automatically destroyed at ForSet’s end — desirable both for users’ privacy and to avoid any worries about data retention.

    Teona said that they’d only had this system in place for a couple of weeks, so it’s too early to know if it’s really working. As Gareth pointed out, in Alaveteli we always try to model the law as we believe it should work — for example, when WhatDoTheyKnow started out, some authorities didn’t accept FOI requests by email; eventually, things changed enough that official ICO guidance now states:

    “Requests made through the whatdotheyknow.com website will be valid” 

    and 

    “we consider the @whatdotheyknow.com email address provided to authorities when requests are made through the site to be a valid contact address for the purposes of Section 8(1)(b).”.

    On the other hand, not all countries have an overseer, and even if they do, change may not be quick to come, so we are keeping an eye on Georgia’s method to see if it’s one we might recommend to other sites. 

    Data visualisations

    ForSet is a social enterprise like mySociety: their commercial activities support their charitable ones. They started life as a data visualisation organisation, and that provenance informs much of their activity. This gives them a different angle to come at FOI from: it’s a data collection mechanism, the results of which can feed into infographics and visualisations that inform the public, often with an ‘expert’ in the middle to transform the raw data into something the public can follow at a glance.

    Knowing all this, it’s understandable that when they started thinking about how best to promote their new site, ForSet landed on the idea of competitions, asking entrants to create a data visualisation from one or more FOI responses.

    The regular contests have had an enthusiastic take-up. Topics vary, but, Teona says, “Of course, thanks to current events, there have been lots of stories regarding Russia in the last couple of months: how dependent the market is on Russia; what authorities’ electricity consumption is; lots about defence. 

    “Before the war broke out the topics were more varied: there were visualisations on domestic violence, economics, socially important issues. One nice one that we hadn’t foreseen was on the grape and wine history of Georgia!

    “We found that out of all the authorities, the National Statistics Bureau and the Ministry of Internal Affairs are the most responsive — they always send lots of data.” 

    Because ForSet have such relevant experience, once a contestant has decided which data they’re going to use, they can tap into advice from the organisation’s designers and analysts. So these contests are creating a new generation of data visualisers and journalists who can use FOI in this way – win/win!

    Some examples of the data visualisations: click to see each one at a larger size.
    You can also find an interactive visualisation here.

    And ForSet are not stopping there: they’ve also been thinking of running focus groups for FOI officers and citizens — again not something we’ve done very much of at WhatDoTheyKnow, but further proof that there’s always plenty for FOI site runners to learn from one another.

    Making connections

    And one final thing: why did we hear nary a peep about AskGov until Teona made contact? 

    We would love to have believed her first explanation, that the site documentation is so clear that there was no need to enquire about anything — but there was another factor at play, too, as Teona explained:

    “The first challenge for us in installing the site was that it’s written in Ruby. There aren’t a lot of Ruby developers in Georgia and they are in high demand — they tend to work for private US companies, and we couldn’t afford to hire them.

    “But as an NGO, you never have enough money anyway, so we can always think of ways to get around things. We looked around our neighbouring countries Moldova and Ukraine, and saw that there was an existing Alaveteli site in Ukraine.

    “We sent them an email and introduced ourselves. It turned out that the organisation Internews was giving them tech support, paying for a web developer – and they offered to share that resource with us! They said they’re always looking for partners.

    “We never got stuck at any point because the developer knew what she was doing, and actually we benefitted from the fact that she’d learned from prior mistakes setting up the dostup.pravda site for Ukraine. And Ukraine and Georgia are very similar countries in terms of the legislation etc, so it was simple.”

    So in other words, ForSet had done what we would have encouraged them to be doing if they had got in touch – networking and learning from others in the Alaveteli community!

    Talking of community, we weren’t the only organisation that Teona would chat with while she was in London. We introduced her to several other civic tech and transparency organisations in the UK, so she had a busy few days ahead of her, and no doubt plenty to discuss, all of which, we hope, will feed into the success of AskGov.ge.

  2. A transparency success in Belgium

    Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?

    Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.

    This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.

    If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.

     

    Wallonie: votre commune est-elle transparente? A static image of the heatmap: Walloon districts in red, green or amber

    “The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.” 

    And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.

    Informing citizens

    Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.

    The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.

    And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.

    This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.

    This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.

    Gathering data

    So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?

    Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).

    It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.

    The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.

    Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.

    Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”

    Divide and conquer

    So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”

    And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”

    Breakthrough

    So things were looking positive and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”

    Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:

    Text in French saying 'just a word tolet you know that the decree has passed and thanks for the help you gave in getting it through'

    (Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)

    We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.

    Image: Pierre André Leclercq (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  3. Standing with Ukraine

    Alongside many others, we are appalled to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting bloodshed, destruction and assaults on democracy and freedom. We unequivocally condemn this unjustified and unprovoked attack on Ukraine.

    Since 2014, we have worked with partners in Ukraine who use our Alaveteli software for the country’s Access to Truth website, where tens of thousands of people have requested information from public bodies. The site was originally started by the Ukrainian NGO Centre of United Actions, in collaboration with the Pravda online news site. In 2017, Centre of United Actions passed the site over to their partner NGO “Human Rights Platform”. 

    These organisations’ work on transparency and helping citizens to access vital information has been an inspiration to us and many others around the world. Most recently, the Access to Truth site has been used by citizens to find out locations of bomb shelters, a sobering example of transparency laws in practice now being made use of in people’s day to day experience. 

    We are deeply concerned for the welfare of those we have worked with in Ukraine, as well as users of the Access to Truth platform. We stand in solidarity with them, and stand ready to help wherever we can. 

    We hope Ukraine’s fight for its own country will be successful and they’ll rise again as a prosperous democratic nation.

  4. TICTeC Show and Tell: Right to Know across Europe

    It’s always so cheering to hear about campaigns that have had real results, and this week’s TICTeC Show And Tell gave us plenty of inspiration on that front.

    We heard how FOI has been at the heart of investigations in Croatia, France, Scotland and the crossborder Lost In Europe project, along with two deep dives into the state of FOI in the UK — all in the name of International Right To Know Day.

    As ever, you can catch up with the event in multiple ways:

    • All videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
    • Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
    • We live tweeted as the event happened, including links to reports that were mentioned and previous case studies going into more detail about some of the campaigns mentioned.

    Full video

    Individual presentations

    The FOI Clearing House: an openDemocracy investigation into freedom of information at the heart of government

    Jenna Corderoy of OpenDemocracyJenna Corderoy (openDemocracy, UK)

    openDemocracy’s Jenna Corderoy discussed her recent investigations into the Clearing House, a unit within the UK Cabinet Office that “advises on” and “coordinates” FOI requests referred by government departments.

    openDemocracy has uncovered alarming evidence that the Clearing House blocks the release of information and causes lengthy delays; their investigations and subsequent FOI tribunal hearing over Clearing House documents have sparked a UK parliamentary inquiry.

    See this presentation


    Lost in Europe: deploying the Alaveteli network on a cross-border investigation

    Liset Hamming of LIELiset Hamming (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists (VVOJ), Netherlands

    Ten European FOI sites were used in this Netherlands-based investigation into the thousands of children who go missing as they migrate across European borders. The FOI component of this journalistic investigative research project is led by an Alaveteli insider, running the recently launched Dutch Alaveteli site.

    See this presentation


    Watch this space (and pay for it): Alaveteli-driven exposure of the misuse of public resources in an election campaign

    Dražen Hoffmann of GONGDražen Hoffmann (GONG, Croatia)

    In April 2021, GONG used the Alaveteli-powered platform ImamoPravoZnati to unveil the practice of funding a YouTube channel by the mayors and country prefect of a county in Croatia, ahead of the May 2021 local elections.

    The quaint footage of seaside towns and villages, and boasting of successful projects, in fact concealed a misuse of public resources for the purposes of incumbents’ campaigns. This practice of non-transparent media buying is one that GONG addresses continuously.

    See this presentation


    Regulating Access to Information

    Alex Parsons of mySocietyAlex Parsons (mySociety)

    The practical reality of Access to Information laws depends on how effective the system of regulation and appeal is.

    Alex shares mySociety’s recent work in comparing different systems of regulation in the UK, and parts of our upcoming research that will do the same for regulation across Europe.

    See this presentation


    Running an Access to Information platform in France: obstacles and success stories

    Samuel Goeta of MadadaSamuel Goëta (MaDada.fr, France)

    Open data in France, says Samuel,  looks somewhat like the Tower of Pisa: a beautiful building (open data is mandatory by law), but leaning because its foundations (the Freedom of Information Act) are in bad shape.

    Samuel speaks about the weaknesses of FOIA in France, how the French Alaveteli platform madada.fr manages them and the first success stories coming out of the platform. Importantly, MaDada has been responsible for a wider understanding of FOI among French citizens.

    See this presentation


    A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI

    Give Them Time logoPatricia Anderson (Give Them Time, Scotland)

    Patricia from the Give Them Time campaign speaks about how FOI requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed so that more children in Scotland can benefit from more time at nursery school.

    Thanks to the campaign, from 2023 all children in Scotland who legally defer their school start date will be automatically entitled to a further year of nursery funding.

    See this presentation


     

    If you enjoyed that little lot, do sign up to our Research newsletter and we’ll let you know what we’re planning next. It’ll also be the way to ensure you’re one of the first to know about the new TICTeC Labs we’ve got in the pipeline!

  5. A decade and 10K FOI requests: happy birthday AskTheEU!

    Today is the annual International Day for Universal Access to Information.

    Transparency organisations all around the world are celebrating the Right To Know, as embodied in many countries’ FOI Acts: here at mySociety we’re getting ready for our special TICTeC FOI Show and Tell (it’s not too late to register, and you totally should!).

    Aptly, it’s also the tenth anniversary of the launch of AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site which allows anyone to send an FOI request to the institutions of the European Union. Many happy returns to this unique project, which is also celebrating its 10,000th full request.

    Back in 2011 we wrote: “AskTheEU will help NGOs, journalists and citizens to exercise their right to know at the European level“, while also noting the evergreen fact that “a successful Alaveteli site needs plenty of resources to keep it running: responding to legal requests, providing tech support, helping people to progress with difficult requests for information.”

    Well, it seems that any worries about the site’s viability were unfounded, as it’s survived very successfully as a project of AccessInfo for the past decade.

    Clearly, a lot has happened since AskTheEU’s launch, not least the UK’s departure from the EU. Do note that users living in the UK (or anywhere) can still submit requests to it, though; there’s no need to be a EU citizen to take advantage of the Right To Know in Europe, and the EU institutions, like all governmental bodies, certainly offer plenty of interesting documents to request.

    Need inspiration? Keep an eye on AskTheEU’s social media today as they’ll be highlighting some of the more notable requests from across the past decade, as well as celebrating FOI generally.

    To get things kicked off, they’re giving away some Pro accounts, which is definitely a cause for celebration all round. Why not see if you can get hold of one, and start an EU investigation today?

    Image: Imants Kaziļuns

  6. One month in: how the refusals tool is helping people appeal FOI requests

    A couple of weeks ago, we announced that we’d added new functionality to WhatDoTheyKnow to help people challenge FOI refusals. In fact, this tool had been quietly rolled out at the end of May, giving us a little time to ensure everything was working before we shared it. 

    It tries to detect which exemptions were applied where information was withheld, and provides advice on next steps. This might involve making a revised request or asking for clarification, and the tool can also provide text fragments to use in a request for an internal review of the decision. 

    It is early days, but just in the last month users have sent 158 requests for internal review after seeing this advice. Most of these are still waiting for a reply, but around a third (16) of complete internal reviews have led to an improvement in the amount of information released. This is above the monthly average for the last year, but we need to wait for more data to determine if this will represent a sustained increase in the success of appeals. 

    As time goes on, we will be able to examine whether specific bits of advice or challenges to particular kinds of refusals are more likely to be successful than others. The goal is to give requesters the knowledge required to successfully challenge incorrect use of exemptions, and increase the percentage of internal reviews made through WhatDoTheyKnow that successfully lead to more information being released, either through increasing the quality and substance of appeals, or reducing appeals where exemptions have been applied correctly. 

     

    Process Requests
    Total number of times refusal advice acted on 415
    Total number of times internal review submitted after acting on refusal advice 158
    Internal review requested and awaiting response 108
    Internal review completed, no improvement 34
    Internal review completed, improvement over last status 16

     

    Image: Waldemar Brandt

  7. Lost in Europe: a cross-border investigation into missing children

    It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.

    According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.

    Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.

    Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.

    We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.

    These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.

    Local knowledge

    There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.

    Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.

    This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:

    • Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
    • Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
    • Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership

    The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.

    In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.

    The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.

    The requests

    Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio

  8. 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)

  9. 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

  10. 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