Alongside several UK organisations, we’re campaigning against the proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act.
Now, the changes are just that – proposed ones – so you might think that it’s hard to do more than speculate over what they might mean for Freedom of Information in this country.
But wait! Here at mySociety, we are in touch with people and organisations who run Freedom of Information websites all over the world. Many of them have seen the introduction of such restrictions (and some have successfully challenged them).
So in this post, we gather together their experiences along with existing research, to provide evidence and context to the changes currently being discussed.
Perhaps you’d like to use some of the following examples when you write to your MP.
For a government to desire such restrictions is nothing new: a 2011 report by Toby Mendel for the World Bank* examines several countries which have been through exactly that (and, more cheerfully, lists those where the law was changed to extend FOI rights). One statistic stands out from that report:
Emily O’Reilly, the Irish information commissioner, noted that the impact of the amendments had been to reduce the rate of requests by 50 percent, to decrease requests (other than those for personal information) by 75 percent, and to cause a drop of 83 percent in requests by the media—all within one year.
Ireland introduced fees for initial requests, and also for any subsequent internal and independent reviews. They also extended protection to some government records showing the workings of civil servants, and to documents referring to security, defence and international relations. The decision was later reversed in order to “restore the balance”.
*Amending Access to Information Legislation: Legal and Political Issues by Toby Mendel, 2011
In Germany, we are told by Arne from the FOI website Frag den Staat, bodies may charge up to 500 € for the processing of information requests.
Fair enough, you might think — but let’s look at a couple of examples.
Like when the Ministry of Transport charged the maximum fee for the provision of data on railway infrastructure. They said that the fee covered the required inspections; they didn’t mention that the data could be found in PDFs that already existed internally.
Similarly, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection charged 500 € for answering eight questions about their website, asking about costs, usage and data protection: it’s hard to comprehend how that could have required quite so much effort.
Arne points out that the fee isn’t applied consistently, either: the same request made to a number of similar institutions (for example universities) will result in some information being provided for free, while others charge.
Finally, he says it’s clear that some people are intimidated by the mere possibility of being charged. Auto-replies from the Foreign Office include details of possible costs, whether or not they apply, which can be very off-putting for inexperienced users.
In response, FOI-championing website Atlatszo.hu got together with other NGOs to put together this damning assessment:
The new law gives state institutions the option to deny information requests [..] if they involve preparation for “future decision”, but most importantly, it introduces a requirement that those who approach various institutions for information may have to pay for their queries.
The various state bureaus may charge a fee if they decide that the request for information places an unwarranted additional workload on the staff. Besides being highly arbitrary grounds for denial, the financial costs are a natural deterrent to even attempting to find out important information.
The organisation also predicts that fees will lessen the will of average people to file requests. Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Atlatszo.hu’s Editor-in-Chief :
“They are charging fees so people won’t file so many requests,” says Bodoky, adding that while Atlatszo isn’t very happy with the situation, it won’t be deterred. “We will pay the small fee and continue to make requests, but citizens and activists who have started to use freedom of information quite a lot may not want or be able to.”
Richard Hunt, who runs the FOI site Informace Pro Všechny, as well as actively using FOI here in the UK, tells us that in the Czech Republic, there is no statutory charge for requests. However a clause states that costs can be recovered.
There have been high profile cases reported by the press, because the press were the requesters.
When HN (a leading financial daily newspaper) asked the finance ministry to provide the details under the Freedom of Information Act of the Kč 6.2bn in tax payments and penalties that have been forgiven since 2006, the ministry asked for processing fees of more than Kč 250,000. (£6,500).
Richard also tells us that the costs requirement both adds to the bureaucracy around requests, and acts as a disincentive for people making requests. In order to collect the money, public bodies require the name, address and date of birth of all requesters.
In a post-communist society people remain wary of showing themselves, especially in causing potential trouble for the authorities.
In the USA, fees may be levied based on the amount of work required, as calculated by the public body receiving the FOI request.
Our friends at Muckrock highlight two cases where the costs would have been at levels far beyond the reach of ordinary requesters: $270,000 for details of contracts between the FBI and a contractor, and $452,000 for summary information on a mail surveillance program.
While we imagine that the cost structure would differ here in the UK, these cases serve as an extreme example of how, if bodies wish to, they can use restrictions to ensure that their information remains inaccessible.
A similar story comes from RightToKnow in Australia, who were stymied by this move when trying to investigate the treatment of immigrants in detention centres:
While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.
In Australia, the exact clause is “the work involved in processing the request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the agency from its other operations”—and we’re told that this is one of the most-commonly used reasons for refusing access.
Sometimes it’s used fairly but more often than not it’s used by agencies to interpret the request in such a way as to create the “practical refusal reason”.
In the UK, we’re looking at a lowering of the threshold for requests to be refused because of cost, which equates to the effort, or manhours, involved.
Fees are not applicable across all kinds of request in Australia, but where they are, they can be used in a way that’s contrary to the spirit of the law:
At the state level there are application fees across every state and territory (except the ACT). RightToKnow has a number of examples where it appears agencies are deliberately using application fees to frustrate requesters.
The Spanish site Tu Derecho A Saber tells us that costs and bureaucratic processes have a severely dampening effect on the number of citizens who are willing to make requests. They draw a parallel with WhatDoTheyKnow: in our first year of operation, we processed over 19,000 FOI requests. But in the same time period, Tu Derecho A Saber saw just 3,400 requests.
Spain’s FOI law also protects internal discussions, along with drafts, communications and papers considered before writing up any regulation.
They’re also fighting against a general lack of adherence to the FOI laws by public bodies. The result of all of these impediments? A drop in the number of requests processed, which have gone from 160 a week, to around 6.
Inevitably such restrictions have an effect on how FOI is perceived:
Frustration makes people see FOI laws as useless or too relaxed.
- In Israel, requests are limited to whatever can be gathered within four hours’ work. This effectively limits responses to information which has already been prepared.
- In Ukraine, the ability to mark information as ‘for internal use only’, and a highly bureaucratic system for making requests, led to a culture of concealed corruption.
Why this matters
But there are wider implications, too. At AlaveteliCon, we learned that other countries look to the UK (and WhatDoTheyKnow) as a shining example of how things could be. Any change in our laws will have an effect far beyond our own boundaries.
If we’re to keep what, as became evident when we listened to the stories of others, for all its faults is a world-class FOI system, we need to take action now. See below for how you can do that.
Changes to the UK Freedom of Information Act are not a foregone conclusion. We can win the fight against the proposed restrictions — and we have examples to prove it.
At AlaveteliCon the Freedom of Information technologies conference, we heard of successful protests in:
Australia and Uruguay, where bodies were obliged to accept requests via email
Hungary, where the government’s attempts to label requests as ‘vexatious’ was overturned
If you feel strongly that your right to information should not be impeded, check these simple actions you can take right now.
1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition
Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.
If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
Use WriteToThem.com to tell your MP why Freedom of Information is important and how restrictions would affect you, or society as a whole.
3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story
SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.
Ireland: Brad Herman; Germany: Roger Matthewes; Hungary: Xavi; Czech Republic: Abejorro34; USA Hien Nguyen; Australia: Andrea Ferrera; Spain: Javi Muro; Elsewhere: Ilya Grigorik; Why this matters: Anders Sandberg; Successes: Joãokẽdal (all CC)
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.22!
Luke Bacon improved the design and accessibility of the search form.
Code quality came top of the list at AlaveteliCon 2015. This release includes contributions from James McKinney, Henare Degan, Caleb Tutty, Petter Reinholdtsen and Gorm Eriksen – all helping to clean up code, make Alaveteli work even better and make it easier to translate.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s Public Authority pages were suffering, so we took a dive in to the code around this area. Improving it had a huge impact on the page we were looking at and should have benefits across the application.
Maintenance & Security
When enabled, each request has a “Create a widget for this request” action available in the sidebar.
Any visitor can copy the iframe embed code to paste on their own website.
Waving Goodbye to the Past
You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed.
No matter where you are in the world, if you run a Freedom of Information site, you’ll come up against one common issue: how to get people to use it.
It’s not just the usual hurdle that any new website faces, of getting publicity. There’s often a lack of knowledge among the general population about the whole concept of Freedom of Information, and the rights that come with it. Not only do users have to know about the site, but they have to understand why it might be useful for them.
The Freedom of Information conference, AlaveteliCon, was a great place to share ideas on how best to counter that. Here are ten strategies you can put into place right now.
1. Make FOI concrete
Freedom of Information can be rather an abstract concept to the average person, so your tweets, blog posts and press releases might not be getting through to them.
Instead of asking people ‘what would you ask under the FOI act?’ or ‘Isn’t freedom of information a valuable right?’, try asking more concrete questions like ‘what would you like to know about government spending?’ or ‘if you could ask one question about nuclear defence, what would it be?’
You might make a cheap, fun and informative video by going out onto the street and asking such pre-prepared questions to passers-by.
2. Use SEO to your advantage
Alaveteli is built so that it naturally performs well in search engines: the title of any request also becomes the title of the page, one of the main things that Google will consider when deciding how to rank a page for any given search term. And when useful or interesting material is released as a result of a request, that will attract inbound links and again, will be reflected in Google rankings.
The net result of this is that many users will come to your Alaveteli site because they’re interested in a specific topic, rather than because they want to make an FOI request. They may never even have heard of FOI, but they surely want to know about hospital mortality rates or cycling accidents in their local area.
A request on WhatDoTheyKnow, about the faulty brakes on a VW Passat, is one of the consistently most visited pages on the site. Even though the request itself remains unanswered, the page has become a place for Passat drivers to exchange knowledge and experiences.
Pages such as these may even be more frequently visited than your site’s homepage. Look at request pages as a first-time viewer would, and ask yourself if it’s clear exactly what site they have landed on, and what it is for.
Also: once you have created a community of people with a common interest (like the faults in the VW Passat), what could you do with them? Maybe post on the page yourself, offering to show how they could take a similar request to the next stage?
3. Make passive users into active users
The previous point leads to a further question: how can we turn users who land on our sites into active requesters (if indeed that’s a desirable aim)?
One answer might be to explain the concept of FOI somewhere within the request page template, so it’s seen by every visitor.
Another would be to build a user path that encourages readers to make their own request or—perhaps more likely to bear fruit, since making an FOI request tends not to be an impulsive action—include a newsletter sign-up button for people who want to know more.
Alaveteli already includes some actions in the right-hand menu on every request page, but so far they have concentrated on asking the reader to tweet, or to browse similar requests.
If you have ideas on how to encourage users to make requests, you could discuss them on the Alaveteli mailing list, or, if you’re a coder yourself, you could make the changes on your own branch and then submit it to be merged so that everyone can benefit.
4. Contextualise FOI
In the UK we are fortunate that when a news story is based on an FOI request, that’s usually mentioned within the story. It leads to a certain level of understanding of the concept of FOI within the general population.
Whether or not that’s not the case in your country, you could keep an eye out for stories that were clearly researched via an FOI request. Where FOI is commonly mentioned, setting up a Google alert may help.
You can then highlight these stories on a regular basis: for example, on a Facebook page, or on your blog. There was also talk of feeding a Facebook stream onto the homepage of one Alaveteli site.
5. Create a community
Sharing stories is one thing, but communities are a two-way endeavour. Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts all need regular attention.
Post often, reply to users’ comments and queries, and soon you may find that you have a responsive community, and can even ask your followers to do a bit of advocacy for you.
A newsletter is also a useful way of getting your message directly into your supporters’ inboxes.
6. Write about interesting requests
Some requests just appeal more to human interest than others do, and they’re obvious candidates to be blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about. You might also consider putting out a press release.
There was a bit of discussion at the conference about the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘comedy’ requests which are of great interest to the press, but could actually harm the case for FOI. Examples given were:
- Is the New Zealand Prime Minister actually a shape-shifting reptile?
- A series of requests about the zombie apocalypse
In the UK we’ve generally taken the decision not to run these kinds of stories, though the press sometimes pick them up on their own anyway.
Such publicity can lead to ‘FOI is a waste of public money’ campaigns, and it was suggested that it is useful to have a list of the good things that have come from FOI that you can provide in return: here’s one that @FOIMonkey produced in 2012.
A middle ground between publicising ‘silly’ requests and trying to promote dry ones is to identify the stories that are in the middle ground: of great human interest, but with a serious point. Make the relevant requests yourself, if necessary.
As an example, a request such as the menus for food served in prisons can have an underlying political point if framed correctly.
7. Conduct outreach
NGOs and campaigning groups can find FOI a useful tool, and the fact that Alaveteli publishes out the responses can also help them with getting their cause known. A mail-out to likely organisations, or even face-to-face visits, may help.
Here in the UK, we have visited colleges to talk to trainee journalists. While most are aware of the FOI act, many do not know about WhatDotheyKnow and how it can be used not only to make requests, but to subscribe to keywords or authorities of interest.
However, such visits are fairly inefficient: they take time and only reach 50 or 60 students at a time. A better way may be to create and promote materials that colleges can use for themselves.
8. Paid ads
Although Alaveteli sites perform well in organic search, paid ads can give them an extra swathe of visitors.
Both Facebook and Google are potential platforms for ads, and you may be eligible to receive a Google Grant if you are a not-for-profit: these give you Google Ads for free.
mySociety are happy to share our experience in this area, and we will possibly put materials together if there’s enough interest.
9. Friends in high places
Some Alaveteli practitioners found it useful to partner up with a newspaper or online news source. The benefit runs two ways, since Alaveteli can be such a useful tool for journalists.
Dostup Pravda in Ukraine is a part of the country’s most popular news site, and perhaps one of the most expert Alaveteli sites at getting publicity. Pre-launch they ran a sophisticated campaign with celebrities hinting, but not saying explicitly what the forthcoming project would be. Their t-shirt was even worn by an MP on national TV.
For the solo activist, such promotional activity seems almost impossible, but news outlets have the contacts and resources in place to make it almost a routine task for them.
10. Create your own buzz
The press love lists and awards. One FOI site puts out an annual award for the best, the worst, and the most ridiculous requests made in the previous year.
This is a great idea for publicity, because as well as bringing the name of the site into the public consciousness, it also encapsulates a little lesson about how to use—and not abuse—FOI.
Now go and do it
So there you are: ten ideas to promote your site. Do feel free to add more in the comments below. And good luck!
The second international Alaveteli conference
Venue: Impact Hub Next, C/ Alameda 22, Madrid 28014
There’s no other conference like it. If you’re involved with Freedom of Information technologies, you’ll want to be at AlaveteliCon, the only event with a specific focus on FOI in the internet age.
AlaveteliCon brings together civic society organisations and individuals from around the world. All have one thing in common: an interest in online Right To Know tools.
Interested? Keep reading and apply below!
About 6 weeks ago we arrived back from Monrovia, having just undertaken our first design exercise out there. Paul wrote about our experience in this blog as a broad overview. After further long distance design calls we wanted to delve a little more deeply into the process we’re following and what we’re learning about it.
To begin with, I should mention is that this is the first project where mySociety International will be leading on the implementation of a project using Design Thinking (the South African was a trial using a cut-down version of the approach and furthermore the implementation is being carried out solely by a local team).
Another important point for us is that the Design Thinking approach encompasses far more than just thinking about software development. The aim of the process is to develop an understanding what is required to ensure that the users’ need is addressed. Some of the solution might be technical, but much is likely to be about the processes and people that are required to ensure that needs are met.
For example, in the case of the Liberian FOI project where the internet penetration is low and the day to day obstacles people need to overcome are significantly more difficult than in the global north, a large proportion of the project time and resources will be dedicated to delivering offline services.
These provision of these services will tend to take a shape that fits into citizens’ current experiences. An example might be setting up an SMS short-code that allows people to contact a support team to call them back, in order to draft an FOI request on their behalf. They will then physically deliver hard copies of those FOI requests to the relevant ministries in Monrovia. This type of solution could be particularly beneficial for people who live outside the capital and do not have the time or resources to travel there to submit requests directly themselves.
There are two critical differences between the Design Thinking approach and other projects we have run with groups in the past. The first is that, with non-design centred partnerships, most groups start the process with a firm sense of the “type” of thing that they want from the outset – for example an instance of our Pombola platform that is used to power Mzalendo.com.
This is totally understandable, and in many cases what the funders of these projects are looking for, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the users will get the most impactful solution.
Where we have sufficient funding to undertake this process available we intend for all of our new international projects to be starting with no expectations about the ultimate product – the outcome might even be that we don’t end up producing any software at all, because the best solution might consist of a desk, a phone and some radio advertising.
The second difference is that we have usually relied upon the local implementing partner to provide the insight and define the specification.
For our Design Thinking based projects we’ll have a closer relationship with the local partner and together we’ll identify potential end user groups we can talk to about their needs.
After doing a first round of in-depth interviews, the team then synthesise the information – essentially sharing what we’ve learnt with the rest of the group to pick out the most important points. The next stage is empathy mapping, where we figure out what people have said, thought, felt and done. This is a key stage in helping to identify the needs of the users.
It might seem simpler to ask them what they need, and often we did say something like “What would make this process easier for you?”. Yet actually analysing what they’re saying about the process and at what points they seemed frustrated or blocked – that tells us a lot more about points where we could change and hopefully improve the process than a straight up “What do you need?” question.
This is the stage we’re in at the moment with the Liberian project, though we have done some brief forays into Ideation – coming up with ideas for how to address the needs, and we are now starting to thinking about prototyping these ideas.
Of course, this method doesn’t mean we’ll completely stop using software solutions, or looking at A/B testing and Analytics as measures of the success of website. However we will also be looking at other measures of success or failure based on the product we’re building and the change we’re trying to achieve.
In the case of the Liberia FOI project, many of the users are likely to have no direct contact with the software themselves so we’ll need to design a monitoring system that measures the effect the changes have on their experience of making FOI requests.
One thing we’ve learnt is that a Design Thinking approach doesn’t only affect the first iteration of a solution. This may seem obvious, but from our brief work with this process we’ve seen that uses/users can be hard to predict at the outset – though in the case of the latter group we worked hard to spread the net widely in order to find potential users in Liberia.
So we’re interested to see, when we get to that point, what the prototype testing brings back and what new changes, improvements and tweaks need to be made.
More about our experiences with this process will be shared the lifetime of the project, as we learn, change and iterate ourselves.
On Wednesday we had our first community virtual hangout for Alaveteli. The idea of a drop-in virtual meeting was inspired by meeting community members in person over the last few months.
Louise visited AskTheEU in Madrid and mySociety’s International Team spent time with community members from Australia, Spain, Canada and many other countries at Transparency Camp. Henare’s session with David Cabo and Michael Morisy from MuckRock on FOIA at Transparency Camp provided an inspirational opportunity to talk more with the people running Alaveteli sites.
We wanted to have a regular time where we could share experiences of running FOI sites in general and installing the Alaveteli software in particular. Though everyone that joined was running an Alaveteli install, we’d love for people interested in running a site or who already run a site using different software to join future hangouts! Your experiences could shed light on issues that people might be having, and vice versa.
It was great to learn from groups in Romania, Canada, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. We had representatives from three new or fairly new installs as well as sites like Right To Know and FYI.Nz which have been running for a couple of years, each with their own stories of success and pinch points where things have been more difficult.
What did we learn?
First off, we have a great, open community that’s happy to discuss problems, suggest solutions and speak about what it’s like to run an FOI site in their countries. So thank you for that!
Despite differences in laws across the world, people do face similar issues in driving awareness of FOI and FOIA sites. People share ideas for positioning FOI sites came up such as using them to investigate specific issues that are current and getting a lot of press. For example the issue of detention logs in Australia (which you can see more of here and here) helped Right To Know raise more awareness of both the FOI law and the site. According to Henare:
“The news buzz made people realise they had FOI rights, which isn’t general knowledge in Australia. They started thinking “oh, I could put in a request about X””
The next hangout will be in around a month and we’re going to set an agenda to talk about different ways to increase usage and awareness of FOI sites, what has worked, and what hasn’t. All details will be posted on the google group, please join if you want to attend!
We also got some great feedback on places where we can support people launching and running an Alaveteli install – by making it easier to make a complete set of translations for a particular release of the software, and by making the process of upgrading to a new version easier in general. All this input is really useful to us, especially as we’re currently updating the documentation on Alaveteli.org to make it easier to get started.
Finally we touched on the alaveteli-users google group as a place where people can share their issues, stories and successes, and get input from other FOI practitioners. It’s useful for tapping into the expertise of teams in other timezones! This seemed like a pretty decent plan when it was mentioned, do let us know what you think!
Next week is a really exciting event for us here at mySociety International. You’ve probably heard about it; the Open Government Partnership annual meeting. This coincides with Global Transparency Week and a lot of international friends grouping in London for the first time in a while. It’s going to be good to catch up on interesting projects from other international groups. And don’t forget to come along to our drinks if you’re in town!
A few more things about OGP before I let you know what we’ve been up to over the past month.
- We’re hosting a panel at OGP and we’ll have Matthew Landauer (Open Australia), Maria Baron (Fundación Directorio Legislativo), Stephen Abbott (UK Government) and Paul Lenz (mySociety) talking, with Tom Steinberg (mySociety) chairing.
- We’ll have a stand in the festival area both days. I’ll be on that so please drop by and say hello!
- We’ll ALSO be running a small workshop with our friends from Ciudadano Inteligente on POPLUS. We haven’t got a time for this yet, but it will be on Thursday 31st October. More details will be on Twitter (@mysocietyintl) closer to the time.
In other news:
- Over the past few months we’ve been working on a Pombola website with PMG from South Africa. We’re getting closer to completing this and can’t wait to show you the results.
- We’re also hoping to start work really soon on an Alaveteli install for South Africa, so watch this space!
- Other Alaveteli sites are nearing completion in Ukraine, Italy and Croatia. More on those as they appear… If you have installed Alaveteli, Pombola or FixMyStreet and not had contact with our international team please do drop us a line! We love to hear from you! Along this vein we recently came across Nuvasuparati in Romania and Aduanku in Malaysia. The best kind of surprise!
- We are still offering some days of assistance to people that want help or advice setting up these sites, so do get in touch if this is you. Don’t be shy! We can discuss your ideas and your project and see where we can help.
Where to find us:
25th and 26th October – MozFest, London (Dave W)
30th Oct – 1st November – OGP Annual meeting, London (Paul, Jen)
30th October – mySociety Drinks, London (Paul, Jen, Dave W)
25th November to 30th November – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore (Dave W)
27th to 30th November – World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)
If you want a more formal chat, send me an email before the date and I’ll arrange a meet up. Especially for Dave’s Malaysia and Singapore trips as these are arranged expressly with the idea that we will spend time with interested local groups!
September 28th is International Right to Know Day. 11 years ago a number of international Freedom of Information organisations and activists came together in Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network. This network works to promote peoples’ right to access to information and open and transparent governance, and as a focus for the campaign on Right to Information, September 28th was named International Right to Know day.
Humans are a fairly sociable species, large numbers of us interact and share information on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram on a daily basis. Before the advent of the internet we shared information through SMS, phone calls and before that, through letters and face-to-face conversations. We share ideas through books, lessons and discussions. Access to information is important because it facilitates this freedom of expression and sharing.
Information is important. It allows us to make good decisions based on what we know or have found out. If that access to information is blocked, decisions people make will be faulty because they simply cannot know all the facts. For example, if you didn’t have access to information on how the current government was implementing their promises, how could you make a good decision on whether to vote for them come the next election?
Access to information is also important for educating people and helping them improve their own lives. TuDerechoASaber.es is a great example of a group of people creating a platform with the aim to make information accessible to the general public. Though there is no Right To Information law in Spain, it hasn’t stopped David Cabo curating a successful site. The beauty of which is that there is a record of every time the government refuses to reply. The hope is that this will eventually spur a change in the law, while educating people about their rights and helping them improve their knowledge.
Finally, without information being shared, would there have been revolution in the Arab world? When people have access to information about the situation in other countries, they are more likely to stand up and do something. Be that standing up to help people somewhere else, or standing up to change something where they are.
There will be a number of events happening around the world to celebrate International Right to Know Day. The Philippines are having a social media and in person event called #LightUp4FOI, lighting candles in front of their House of Representatives in Manila “to symbolise (their) desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens”. The hope is that this will help push through an FOI bill in the Philippines. In Ukraine, a local NGO are screening a documentary about the road to the 2011 Access to Information Law called Open Access. In Liberia the FOI Network has organised a parade through the streets of Fishtown City followed by a radio talk show then a CSO vs Government Officials football match. You can find information about these events, and more, on this google map.
Whatever you are doing, Happy Right to Know day!
Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.
All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.
In the beginning…
To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.
But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”
“The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”
It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.
What was the most challenging?
According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.
“The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”
Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front […] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.
Launch and results
Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.
Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.
But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”
So what have DATA taken away from the process?
“Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”
The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. […] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”
A few days ago, one of our international contacts, Matthew Landauer from the OpenAustralia Foundation, posted to the Alaveteli mailing list about a recent experiment in crowdsourcing FOI requests. It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I asked if we could share more widely.
Matthew tells us: “It’s a project called DetentionLogs and it’s a collaboration between a small group of freelance journalists, Guardian Australia, New Matilda, The Global Mail and OpenAustralia Foundation.
The journalists have done some FOI [requesting] to get a summarised list of around 7000 “incidents” that have happened in detention centres. Then, if members of the public are interested in finding out more they can help out by doing a further FOI request for detailed information about the incident via RightToKnow, OpenAustralia’s FOI site which uses Alaveteli.”
But what’s the history? According to the Guardian, over the past few years there’s been a sharp rise in the number of specific incidents in Australia’s two largest immigration detention centres. Elections are coming up soon (though still not confirmed) and the topic of immigration is one of the fiercest political debates around the elections. The co-founders of DetentionLogs came across a large PDF document on the Immigration Department’s disclosure log, with a summary of the incidents – and the project sprang from there.
The idea is that people can view the visual database, see incidents and click on them to adopt them or flag them. Adopting an incident takes you to the RightToKnow website where you can submit a pre-drafted FOI request to get more details. You also have the option to edit it, but the page opens with all the incident data that is needed to match the request with the incident you clicked on. Flagging an incident makes it appear brighter on the visualisation, drawing other people’s attention to it. Global Mail asked two requesters to share their reasons for participating here. It’s interesting reading, but also quite shocking.
So far there have been around 125 FOI requests made through this site. But it’s not all been plain sailing…
Matthew writes this of his challenges: “This is what I’ve learned from the experience so far:
- The government department in question (department of immigration) is clearly concerned by the crowdsourcing, so much so that each of these requests is being handled personally by the director of FOI policy for the department and they’re doing whatever they can to shut things down, including in this case, a misinterpretation of the FOI legislation. Kat Szuminska and I wrote an opinion piece on this for the Global Mail.
- The relationship between the multiple websites involved in DetentionLogs confuses people a bit. People might start on the global mail “behind the wire” site and then get directed at RightToKnow to make the FOI request. So, we’ve had a couple of cases where people gave their email addresses to RightToKnow, we message them and then they thought that the DetentionLogs project had given us their email address without permission.
- There is no way currently in Alaveteli to contact a group of people. What I ended up doing is taking an email that the DetentionLogs people wrote, exporting a list of email addresses by hand from the database and emailing them personally on behalf of the DetentionLogs people. This was hardly ideal, it confused people. I think I would much prefer that people who make a request in one of these FOI crowdsourcing campaigns could optionally sign up to a mailing list or a public forum where they could discuss strategy and such things.”
This crowdsourcing experiment is still a work in progress, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. It’s great to see how the Alaveteli software can be adapted to fit a specific campaign and hopefully that can inspire others to use it in a similar way. Mail Us to see how.
 Crowd by Michael Dornbierer
 Fountain pen from William Arthur fine stationary
 Experiment from Peter Megyri