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.
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”
“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.
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.
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.