1. Bureau of Investigative Journalists shortlisted for Open Data award

    ‘Sold From Under You’ project used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    Not long ago, we let you know about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s project to map and quantify the scale of properties being sold by councils up and down the country as they try to manage with reduced budgets under austerity.

    The investigation, which made use of our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service to send and manage hundreds of Freedom of Information requests, has now been shortlisted for a Data Journalism Award in the Open Data category.

    We’re delighted that our platform for professional users of FOI could be of help; this is just the sort of broad data-driven investigation, requiring FOI requests to multiple authorities, that it was conceived for.

    You can read BIJ’s interesting account of their methodology and the impact that the project has had here. We wish them the very best of luck for the award finals next month.

  2. AlaveteliCon 2019: Apply to join us in Oslo

    We’re delighted to be hosting the third AlaveteliCon, our Freedom of Information (FOI) technologies conference, on 23 and 24 September 2019 in Oslo, Norway.

    A few days ahead of International Right to Know Day (28 September), AlaveteliCon will bring together activists, journalists, technologists and campaigners from across the world who use Freedom of Information laws, data and technologies to create public-interest investigations and campaigns.

    This time we’ll be including a focus on catalysing collaborations on cross-border European public interest investigations and campaigns, in order to strengthen the use of FOI across the region. This focus is in part due to our latest Transparency project, funded by Adessium Foundation. This Transparency project seeks to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information, in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that hold power to account.

    Here are some of the other things AlaveteliCon attendees will get up to this time:

    • Exchanging insights and ideas on how to run and improve open-source Freedom of Information platforms such as WhatDoTheyKnow, MuckRock and FragDenStaat
    • Hearing how journalists and campaigners around the world have used FOI to power high-profile investigations and campaigns
    • Making connections with journalists and campaigners who would like to collaborate on cross-border investigations that hold governments to account
    • Learning about data sources available on FOI platforms around the world, waiting to be analysed and turned into public-interest stories
    • Hearing tips from FOI activists on getting governments to release information in their countries including going to court
    • Contributing to the further development of mySociety’s open-source FOI toolkit for journalists, Alaveteli Pro, which helps journalists and campaigners to manage their FOI investigations
    • Connecting to a global network of FOI experts and advocates
    • Working together to plan potential joint activities to celebrate International Right to Know Day on 28th September 2019

    Apply to attend

    As spaces at AlaveteliCon are limited, we’re asking those wishing to come to fill out this application form to tell us what unique perspective they can bring that’s relevant to the above conference themes/topics.

    Are you a journalist or campaigner who uses FOI for investigations/campaigns? Do you want to collaborate on FOI-generated investigations? Or interested in setting up an FOI platform in your country? Or want to learn how to use FOI to its fullest potential? Or interested in any of the above topics? If so, then please submit your application by 2nd September at the very latest.

    We’ll let you know if you’ve been allocated a place by Friday 6th September at the latest. However, we will endeavour to reply to you sooner than this.

    AlaveteliCon is free to attend, but delegates will be required to arrange their own travel, accommodation and costs in Oslo.

    Many thanks to Adessium Foundation and NUUG Foundation for supporting AlaveteliCon.

     

     

  3. Introducing TuNa Bakonzi

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: low internet penetration, and low awareness about Freedom of Information. In short, not the most obvious place for an FOI site on our Alaveteli platform.

    And yet, here’s tunabakonzi.org, brand new last month.

    Tuna Bakonzi is an FOI site for the Democratic Republic of Congo

    Henri Christin from Collectif24 is TuNa Bakonzi’s founder, and we were keen to talk to him about his reasons for launching a site when the prevailing conditions are apparently so adverse.

    How did you find out about the Alaveteli platform?

    “I discovered Alaveteli through AFIC, the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. When Collectif24 organised the National Symposium on Access to Information in Kinshasa, there was a presentation on askyourgov.ug [an FOI site for Uganda, also run on Alaveteli]; that’s what gave us the idea to do the same for the DRC. And that prompted me to get in touch with mySociety!”

    Why does DRC need such a site?

    “In DRC, everything is centralised on the capital city, Kinshasa. The country is very large, and while there’s been good efforts towards political decentralisation, there hasn’t been the same in terms of administration. So TuNa Bakonzi should help with that.

    “It’ll facilitate the demand for easy information in a country where access to basic social services, access to authorities’ offices, is just not guaranteed to everyone.

    “This service will promote accountability and give citizens control in the fight against corruption. In a country where there are no public policies on internet governance and journalists are regularly exposed to false information, it will also allow requests for information directly from the source.

    “Finally, it’s a barometer for transparency. It will show whether a public institution is transparent, by way of the answers it gives — or does not give — to citizens’ requests.”

    There’s not yet an FOI Act in DRC — can the site still have a purpose?

    “Although there is not yet an Access to Information law, Collectif24 has published a collection of international, regional and national instruments on the right of Access to Information in the DRC.

    “With regard to these instruments and the DRC’s Constitution, which guarantee the right of Access to Information for every person, the public administration is, in principle, supposed to give information to citizens.

    “In addition, the Government of the Republic is committed to the principles of governance and transparency. As a result, we’ll be adding the public institutions of local, provincial and central governments to the site, as well as private institutions that have a public function. The site can also support the implementation of the law, once it’s actually been passed.”

    Are you using the site to campaign for a change in the law?

    “There’s a precedent when “the facts precede the law”. Through this site, we want to promote access to information in practice, and through this we’ll advocate for the vote to be passed in law.

    What is awareness of FOI like in the DRC?

    “Collectif24 has been working on the question of FOI in DRC since 2009. Previously there was a general perception that FOI really only applied to journalists; but thanks to our work we believe that DRC citizens now know that it’s a fundamental human right.

    “It’s also worth noting that we’re the only organisation in DRC that works in this area, but we have no funding to develop awareness programs covering the whole country. We also need to publicise the site, but it’s a technical and financial challenge for us.”

    How was the launch?

    “We officially launched in partnership with the Catholic National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO). Representatives of civil society organisations, parliamentarians, journalists, students and members of the public administration were invited to CENCO’s Saint Sylvestre Hall.

    “After presenting the project and the importance of the site, the computer scientist who did all the site development made a presentation. Q&A was followed by a session to show how to use the site. All the participants appreciated the initiative and the service. The ceremony closed with thanks to OSISA [The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa] for the funding and to mySociety for the creation of the Alaveteli platform”.

    Who do you think will use the site?

    “Everyone can use it. Yes, we have to recognise that internet penetration and connection in the country is weak. So at first we expect users to be the groups that have more access to the Internet: we definitely expect actors in civil society, journalists, researchers, politicians, international organisations, professionals and administration staff to use it”.

    What are your hopes for the project?

    “My wishes and dreams for this innovative and unique site in the DRC are that it becomes the place of contact between the governors and the governed; that it is a tool of citizen control and accountability which contributes to the fight against corruption and improves the governance of the DRC.

    “For that to happen, we must publicise it as much as possible, but we do face security, technical and financial constraints:

    “In terms of security: Collectif24 is not yet able to protect the site in the case of cyber attack; technically, we need a permanent expert for maintenance. And then, financially: we need funding for increasing awareness, hosting, better storage space, and updating of the institutions’ details, and so it goes on!”

    How’s it going so far?

    “Right now, we’re seeing a start. People are asking the questions they want answers to.

    “But the authorities are not responding because they have not yet been sensitised to the concept of FOI.

    “Additionally, we need to increase the number of institutions available on the site — but most Congolese institutions do not have official or reliable email addresses. There’s no documentation in the DRC to provide information on institutions at all levels and their contacts.

    “So this is the next piece of work that Collectif24 intends to do: we’ll produce a directory if we can get a sponsor to fund it, and this will of course facilitate adding institutions to the site.

    “Collectif24 must work to raise awareness among the population and the administrative staff; organise training on the use of the site. We want to create online user manuals to help people understand how to use it; add public institutions on a regular basis.

    “To do all of this, it’s important to develop a program of advocacy and lobbying to the authorities to get the site recognised. We must work to make this site the official FOI service for the DRC.”

    Thanks so much to Henri for talking to us — as always it was fascinating to hear about the challenges Collectif24 are facing: some unique to the country, and some universal across all FOI sites the world over. We wish him the best of luck with this brave but clearly worthy and much needed project in the DRC.


    Image: Kinshasa street scene by Monusco Photos (CC by-sa/2.0)

  4. Research report: better FOI and SARs management for councils

    Last week, we shared research into the state of Freedom of Information in local councils. The standout finding? That the volume of FOI requests to local authorities has more than doubled in the past decade.

    The resulting increase in transparency of our councils, along with the work many have done to ensure that they are providing more and better services to citizens, can only be welcomed. But of course, such an increase also brings challenges, which will be best met with robust systems and tools to maximise efficiency.

    Fortunately, while mySociety’s Research team were crunching those figures, the Transparency team have been working in parallel on a project to explore and prototype around better case management of FOI and Subject Access Requests in local authorities.

    In partnership with four councils, and funded by the Local Digital Fund, this project looked at user journeys for council staff who handle information requests, to determine whether the development of a new digital tool was likely to foster efficiencies.

    The resulting reports are now available to read on the mySociety research portal. One early discovery was that most existing digital case management solutions are not ideal for the very specific needs of FOI handling in local councils, for various reasons that are outlined in the reports.

    But problems with request handling are not due only to a lack of suitable digital tools. By observing and speaking to people dealing with information requests across the four councils, the team was able to identify the offline systems and qualities that are likely to lead to better case management, and to pin down the issues that prevent such outcomes.

    Another major finding came while assessing the viability of designing a digital tool that would better serve councils’ needs. The team were made aware of an existing piece of Open Source software developed by the Ministry of Justice, and ascertained that one practical way forward would be to build on this tool to supplement it with the features identified as lacking elsewhere.

    Along the way, the team amassed much information on the variations in the way that different councils handle requests, and considered metrics which any council would be wise to monitor in order to understand the efficacy of their services and where weak points exist.

    Every council will benefit from reading these reports, and of course if the recommendations are put in place, the improvements that should follow will also benefit all citizens who seek information.

    Meanwhile, we would very much like to take our own findings further, and develop a digital offering based on the MoJ tool: we think it could be genuinely transformative for councils, and, being Open Source, the outcome would be available to all. If you’re from a local authority who might be interested in exploring this with us, do get in touch; we’re also planning to add the potential project to G-Cloud so that a wider audience of councils see it as a potential option if they’re searching for request handling software.

    Read the FOI and SARs management reports now or get in touch if you want to talk further!

     

  5. Calling translation superheroes!

    Can you help the international FOI community?

    mySociety helps people run Freedom of Information sites in 25 jurisdictions around the world, on our Alaveteli platform.

    These partners are usually keeping their sites going with little resource or funding, and we want to upgrade everyone to the newest version of Alaveteli so that they won’t need to manage this substantial task for themselves.

    There are improvements and new features in the updates, which is exciting for our partners and their users — but of course, with every new feature come new, small strings of text that help explain it to users, label the buttons, describe any errors that occur, etc, etc.

    And although we’re good on coding languages, sadly we can’t say the same about most of the actual spoken languages that need translation. So if you are fluent (ideally as a native speaker or equivalent) in any of the languages listed below, and you would like to do something both interesting and extremely worthwhile, we would be very grateful!

    Translation is done via a system called Transifex. Those who are able and keen to contribute to the global Freedom of Information movement should drop us a line on alaveteli@mysociety.org with an idea of your availability and commitment, and we can get you set up.

    We need translators fluent in:

    • French (France and Rwanda versions)
    • Spanish (Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua versions)
    • German (Germany)
    • Turkish
    • Nepalese
    • Kinyarwanda
    • Macedonian
    • Romanian

    If you speak languages other than these, you can find the full list of languages here and we’re sure any of our partners running sites would be grateful for the translation help — but the above languages are our priorities as these are the sites we help by hosting ourselves.

    We’re aiming to get things upgraded as soon as possible, and certainly in time for International Right To Information Day in September, so we’re looking for translators with availability over the coming three months (May, June and July 2019). If this sounds interesting and fun to you please do get in touch.

    Image: Yogi Purnama

  6. Understanding Freedom of Information in local government

    Over the last year, mySociety’s research team has been trying to build a picture of how Freedom of Information functions in local government. This research project became our report into FOI in Local Government (which can be read in full here).

    One of the key questions for this research project is how many FOI requests are received by local government.

    We believe that use of WhatDoTheyKnow has benefits beyond people who submit requests because requests made through the site are available publicly — increasing the sum of knowledge available to all. Given this, a good metric for us to understand is what percentage of all information being released through FOI is being stored on WhatDoTheyKnow. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good data in this area that allows us to make a clear comparison.

    The Cabinet Office release annual statistics about FOI requests made to central government, which can be used for comparison. In 2017, 16.8% of requests sent to central government were sent via WhatDoTheyKnow — but this represents a very small volume of all use of WhatDoTheyKnow. 88% of FOI requests were sent to public authorities outside  central government, suggesting that the majority of FOI activity is elsewhere, but there is no official figure of the total number of FOI requests received by all public bodies.

    In 2010, UCL’s Constitution Unit estimated a figure for all local authorities in England of 197,000 FOI requests received. We wanted to understand if this was still a good baseline for FOI requests to local government and gain new understanding of local authorities beyond England.

    To do this, we sent an FOI request to every local authority (except those in Scotland, who publish these figures in a central repository) asking for a set of FOI statistics for the year 2017.

    This presented an immediate set of problems. There was a split in how authorities understood ‘2017’, with internal statistics recorded in a split of financial and calendar year — a choice that has a demonstrable difference in the volume of FOIs recorded that year. A minority of councils did not respond to the FOI requests – which unaddressed would lead to an under-count in the total number of FOI requests.

    To correct these problems, using the requests that were returned and other sources of public information, we constructed a model to address the issue of the split in recording year and predict a range of values for councils that didn’t return data.

    The result of this is an estimate of 468,780 FOI requests received in the calendar year 2017. There is a 95% confidence this value falls between 467,587 and 469,975 (range of 2,387).  

    On average an individual council receives around 1,120 requests in a given year. But as the graph below shows, this has substantial variation:

    [

    And the type of council has substantial impact on the number of requests recorded — with London boroughs receiving over three times as many requests as authorities in Northern Ireland.

    Authority type Average FOI requests
    Northern Ireland authorities 532.2
    Non-metropolitan districts 799.4
    Welsh authorities 1133.5
    County councils 1331.0
    Unitary authority 1346.9
    Metropolitan districts 1417.2
    City of London 1521.1
    Scottish authorities 1536.2
    London borough 1815.0

     

    What does this mean for WhatDoTheyKnow? Comparing totals, the 28,282 requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow in 2017 represented 6% of all FOI requests made to local authorities. Similarly, there is a lot of variation across authorities some councils have around 2% of requests start on WhatDoTheyKnow, others have around 13%.  This shows that the overwhelming majority of requests to local authorities are made through other means.

    Part two of this blog post discusses what we learned about the administration of FOI from this research. You can read the full report online, or download as a pdf.


    This blog post is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)  — it can be re-posted and adapted without commercial restriction as long as the  original article/author is credited and by noting if the article has been edited from the original.


    Image: Ula Kuźma

  7. How Freedom of Information is administered in local government

    Our previous blog post about our new report, Freedom of Information in Local Government, discussed our findings about the volume of requests received by local government. This second post explores our findings about how FOI is administered, working from information received via FOI requests to all councils and an anonymous survey of FOI officers.

    Staff responsible for the administration of FOI in local government tend to hold this as one responsibility among several. FOI teams are generally embedded in larger teams, with few staff solely working on FOI. As such, FOI administration rarely appears as a specific budget item.

    While this makes the data patchy, from the information that is available, staffing levels (and hence budget) seem to be responsive to the number of FOIs received by a council. Every thousand additional FOI requests increases the number of staff dealing with FOI by 0.75 (95% confidence this is between 0.35 and 1.15).  Similarly, use of a case management system was associated with a greater number of requests — with the use of an organised system, and then use of specialist software being predicted by increases in the number of FOI requests received.

    However, use of a case management system was not associated with any increase in the percentage of requests being replied to within the statutory limit (20 days), which suggests that differences in delays are caused elsewhere than the management of incoming FOI requests. Some requests are more complex in this respect than others, with FOI officers estimating that 38% of requests required responses from multiple departments or teams in the authority and 23% required ‘double handling’ — additional sign-off from senior or specialist staff.  The number of requests appealed to internal review was low (1.4%), but within these the success rate was quite high — between 36% and 49% were successful in changing some component of the original outcome.

    Councils fairly universally keep records on the number of requests received, and time taken to reply — but have fewer records on the volume of information disclosed, or on the status of appeals.

    The highest availability of knowledge were figures on numbers of FOI requests received. The two areas where almost all authorities had records was the number of FOI requests received (98% recorded these figures) and how many were completed inside the statutory deadline (92%). Records of internal review were held in 87% of cases and records of appeals to ICO in 86% of cases. The questions with the most missing information related to how much of a request had been delivered. 73% had records of the number that were completely granted; 70% had records of the number that were entirely withheld; and 65% had records of partially withheld/disclosed requests.

    Most councils do not publish a disclosure log (a record of FOI requests received and their responses). Adding this factor into the model used to predict missing values for the number of FOI requests received found that there was no positive or negative effect of publishing a disclosure log on the number of FOIs received. In individual responses, while many FOI Officers expressed a desire to publish more (or steps taken towards that), there was also a strong skepticism of the value of doing this, and concerns that people do not check the log before submitting their requests, meaning logs do not reduce the volume of incoming requests. Several councils that had previously run disclosure logs had discontinued them due to low usage.

    An upcoming blog post will talk about what we learned about using a front end interface to reduce FOI requests by searching the disclosure log. Sign up to our FOI newsletter to hear more when released.

    Part one of this blog post discusses what we learned about the administration of FOI from this research. You can read the full report online, or download as a pdf.


    This blog post is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)  — it can be re-posted and adapted without commercial restriction as long as the  original article/author is credited and by noting if the article has been edited from the original.

    Image: Martin Adams


    Image: Ula Kuźma

  8. History repeats itself, but this time in Belgium

    Over in Brussels, Freedom of Information website Transparencia.be has just overcome a hurdle very similar to one faced by WhatDoTheyKnow in its earlier days.

    Several municipalities had delayed on processing FOI requests sent through Transparencia.be — which runs on our Alaveteli software — concerned that a request sent via email does not contain a signature or proof of identity.

    Now Belgium’s overseeing body CADA (the Commission of Access to Administrative Documents) has ruled, just as the ICO did in the UK, that requests sent through the site should be treated the same as those received via more conventional means.

    You can read about the matter on the website of the public broadcasting organisation RTBF in French, or via Google Translate in English.

    The struggle echoes almost exactly the experiences we faced with WhatDoTheyKnow when it was first launched: as you can see in this FAQ, official MoJ guidance now explicitly states that an email address should be considered of equal status to a physical return address; and ICO advice is that a WhatDoTheyKnow.com email address is a valid contact address for the purposes of FOI.

    A sharing community

    Here at mySociety, we share our open source software so that other people can run services like ours — Freedom of Information sites, parliamentary monitoring projects or fault-reporting platforms — for their own countries.

    But it’s not only about the software. Something that has become clear over the years, and especially when we get together for an event such as AlaveteliCon, is that we all face similar challenges. No matter how different our countries’ legislations, cultures or politics, you can be sure that our setbacks and triumphs will be familiar to others.

    Because of that, we’re able to share something that’s just as useful as the software itself: the support of the community. In this case, that’s easily accessed via the Alaveteli mailing list, which we’d encourage you to join if you run, or are thinking of running, an FOI site.

    Image: Jay Lee


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  9. WhatDoTheyKnow Pro helps TBIJ get the whole picture on council sales

    In a major new inquiry, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made Freedom of Information requests across all 353 councils in England.

    Their aim? To build up a full picture of the public places and spaces sold by councils across the country, as they struggle to make up funding shortfalls.

    The Bureau used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro‘s batch functionality to help them in this mass investigation, which has resulted in an important report for Huffington Post as well as an interactive public database where you can search to see what your own local council has sold.

    In total, councils’ responses have confirmed the sale of over 12,000 assets since 2014. The report goes on to prove that in many cases, the proceeds have been used to fund staff redundancies as authorities are forced to cut back.

    Investigations like this serve to highlight one of the key benefits of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch feature. While some of the data may have previously been available piecemeal – published in regional papers, perhaps, or requested at a local level — this is the first time that the full picture across the country has been made visible.

    One of the journalists responsible for the report, Gareth Davies, says:

    I’ve been working on these FOIs since July last year and I’ve no doubt the dataset I built would be nowhere near as comprehensive without the @WhatDoTheyKnow Pro dashboard. Also means I know exactly which councils have still yet to respond, 180+ days later.

    We are glad that the service was of help.

    If you’d like to check out WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, sign up here.

    Image: © Mat Fascione via geograph.org.uk/p/4278237 (cc-by-sa/2.0)

  10. Better case management of FOI and Subject Access requests

    If you were reading back in September, you might remember the work we did with Hackney Council to create a more effective interface for people making FOI requests — we blogged about it here.

    We’re really pleased to be able to extend this work, thanks to a successful bid to the Local Digital Fund. Over four months, we’re working with Hackney and some other authorities (Suffolk, Stevenage, East Herts and Cornwall) to take a really good look at the workflows of council staff who manage and respond to FOI and Subject Access requests.

    Around 475,000 FOI requests were received by UK local authorities in 2017 – which averages out at 1,100 per authority, although it’s unlikely to be weighted evenly across the board. Nonetheless, one thing’s for sure: a significant amount of every council’s time and resources are spent in triaging and responding to requests, and with this work we’re hoping we can bring efficiencies and improvements.

    In this phase, we’re conducting user research and then using what we discover to prototype ideas for an end-to-end request-handling system — open source, of course. Once that’s complete and we’ve got a good picture of the challenges involved, the processes already available and feedback on our own prototypes, we’ll be able to advise on whether it makes sense to proceed further.

    One commitment we made when applying for this project was that we’d be ‘working in the open’. We want to document what we’re up to at every stage along the way, so not only will any other authority be able to benefit from a finished product that could result from our work; but also, everyone will be able to learn from what works, and maybe even what doesn’t, as we go through this process of investigation and discovery.

    To that end, we’ve been making  weekly updates which anyone who’s interested can read. In summary, though, we kicked off the work in the first week of January, and so far we’ve drafted a research plan; spent some time re-reading our own research on FOI statistics and local government FOI admin; and had an intensive couple of days interviewing and observing council staff in Hackney as they go about their business dealing with FOI and Subject Access requests.

    The user research continued over the weeks as we conducted remote interviews with staff from the other councils — Stevenage, Cornwall and Suffolk.

    This has already been incredibly useful and, just as you’d expect, we’ve found out small details and wider themes this way that we would never have chanced upon without having the chance to observe governance staff in their own environment.

    It’s an opportunity for councils as well: as far as we can tell, it is unusual for authorities (and in some cases, even, departments within the same authority!) to communicate with one another about their FOI processes and challenges. Our research will hopefully be a novel chance for them to compare methods and learn from one another.

    We’ll be updating our weeknotes regularly, and we’ll also come back here to share our progress and findings, so depending on just how much depth you want, follow along at the LocalGovDigital Pipeline, or just wait for our next blog post here on our own site!

    Image: Hackney Council offices by Martin Wright