This is a cross-post from the Alaveteli blog. It was written by Seb Bacon, who organised the recent Alaveteli conference, bringing together people from many different countries to discuss building and running Access to Information websites on the Alaveteli Platform.
Alavetelicon 2012 has finished, the tweeting has subsided, and I think I’ve just about finished digesting the enormous conference dinner. It was a lot of fun, with a host of dedicated FOI activists and hackers who could only make it thanks to the generous funding provided by Open Society Foundation and Hivos.
The schedule was split into streams, and had lots of non-programmed time, so I only actually saw a small part of it. There are write-ups in various languages from other participants; here are some personal observations.
Building a movement
The main goal of the conference was to strengthen and build the community. At the time of the conference there were 7 installations of Alaveteli worldwide, but only a small amount interaction between these groups. So far, I’ve been the only person with a clear incentive to make sure people collaborate (I’m funded to do it!) This clearly isn’t sustainable; more people need to talk directly to each other. There’s no better way of building trust and understading that meeting face-to-face.
This certainly worked well for me. Of course, I had conversations with people about Freedom of Information and database architectures, but more importantly, I now know who has a new baby daughter, who is thinking about living in a co-housing project, and who loves British 80s electronic sensation Depeche Mode. I was really struck by what a friendly group of people this was.
Richard Hunt, who’s leading a project to launch an Alaveteli site in the Czech Republic, had some encouraging things to say about community. In his eloquent (and very quotable) presentation, he explained his journey towards using Alaveteli. At first, he wasn’t sure about using the software. He’d talked with developers who had looked at the code, and had felt it might be better to start from scratch. So Richard contacted developers who had already deployed Alaveteli sites directly, and got lots of very useful, friendly, and encouraging responses. His conclusion was that Alaveteli isn’t just a technical platform; “it is also about people — their dreams and ambitions of impeccable merit”.
For so long it was just a dream and idle talk on our side. Now we are nearly there, and we are part of a BIG movement. Feels great, doesn’t it?
This is encouraging, but the conversations started at the conference must continue if they are to bear fruit in the form of more international collaboration. Please join the new Alaveteli Users mailing list, and share ideas or ask questions there!
The future of Alaveteli
There was a lot of discussion of which new features should be added to Alaveteli next, some of which I’ve listed on the alaveteli-dev Google group. However, three general themes particularly struck a cord with me:
1. More collaboration, less confrontation
In the UK, we have been accused of encouraging a confrontational, points-scoring approach to FOI. At the conference, there were stories of how FOI actually frees people within a bureaucracy to speak directly to the requester — without having to go via a press office. We heard of various cases where ministries actively wanted to take part in Alaveteli pilots. In the UK, we have found that FOI officers take their jobs very seriously, and do want to work with the Alaveteli concept; yet they feel that sometimes it makes things unnecessarily hard for them.
I’m not sure what conclusion to take from this, exactly. It remains the case that Alaveteli must be able to deal with obstinate authorities that don’t want to play the game, and it is a prime virtue of the system that it remains well outside the bureaucracies that it aims to hold to account. However, I’m left with a sense that we should examine how we can continue to do this while providing more support to our allies within the System.
2. Cake and fireworks
Lots of people at the conference asked for more statistics to be made available on Alaveteli sites. mySociety has always been a little reluctant to release statistics, because they are so easy to spin or misinterpret. However, delegates repeatedly referred to their power for campaigning. The psychological impact of a big red cross next to your organisation’s name, which you can remedy through positive action, is a powerful motivator. One idea that was mooted was to award a real-life prize (a.k.a. Cake and Fireworks) to the “top” authorities in various categories each year. I think this is a great idea.
3. Black Box APIs
Acesso Inteligente is an FOI website in Chile that doesn’t use Alaveteli. In Chile, all FOI requests must be made via various different web forms. Accesso Inteligente is a tremendous technical achievement which automatically posts requests to the correct organisation’s form, and “screen scrapes” the results, giving Chilean citizens a uniform interface to make all FOI requests.
The team behind the website would love to use Alaveteli as their front end system. The concept they’ve come up with is deceptively simple: repackage their form-posting-and-scraping functionality as a “black box” which acts as if it’s an authority that accepts FOI requests by emails, and sends the answers by email. They can then install Alaveteli without any modifications, and configure it to send FOI requests to the relevant “black box” email addresses.
I love this concept for its simplicity, and I think it can easily be extended to support other use cases. For example, there’s a lot of talk of an Alaveteli system that supports paper requests and responses. This might best be implemented as a “black box” that receives and sends email, with an implementation that helps a human operator with printing and scanning tasks in the back office.
AlaveteliCon will be the world’s first gathering of FOI hackers from around the world.
On 2nd and 3rd April, over 50 people from 30 different countries will come together in Oxford, UK – from as far and wide as Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and Albania. This diverse bunch of people will have one thing in common – they’re all building Freedom of Information websites, based on our Alavateli platform.
What is Alaveteli?
It’s the easily-accessible, open-source codebase that allows anyone to run an FOI website like WhatDoTheyKnow.com in their own country.
When we launched WhatDoTheyKnow in 2008, our main focus was getting the site up and working for the UK. Its aim was simple: anyone can use the site to make an FOI request to a public body, and the whole correspondence is published online.
And it works – over 100,000 requests have been made to more than 5,000 authorities in the intervening four years.
It soon became apparent that people in other countries wanted to replicate WhatDoTheyKnow – and as an open-source organisation that favours governmental transparency everywhere, we’re very glad to help.
The trouble is, the original codebase from WhatDoTheyKnow.com wasn’t very replicable. It was built for the UK political system, and it couldn’t be easily picked up and tailored to another country – not without a lot of hard work*.
And so Alaveteli was born, in a project led by mySociety developer Seb Bacon. You might think of it as the second generation WhatDoTheyKnow – built with international implementation in mind. Alaveteli can be shaped to any country’s FOI laws, translated into any language, and installed with minimal technical knowledge.
Why a conference?
In the five months since Alaveteli was launched, it has been installed in six different jurisdictions, with three more in active development, and several others on the way. As each international website has taken shape, two things became clear to us:
- Every jurisdiction has its own idiosyncratic FOI laws, leading to a unique set of issues,
and at the same time:
- Every install of the codebase brings up certain universal issues, that will apply to anyone in any jurisdiction.
In the spirit of these two opposing truths, we are bringing people together at AlaveteliCon. We want to share knowledge and stories, answer questions and ask them, too.
There will be practical hands-on sessions; there will be discussions about the future direction of the platform; and there will, above all, be an opportunity to forge an Alaveteli community, members of whom know one another by sight rather than through a mailing group.
It sounds great – can I come?
At this moment, the conference is fully-booked. However, you can put your name on our waiting list in case of cancellations.
Meanwhile, don’t despair – we’ll be posting photos and summaries of all the sessions on the Alaveteli blog.
Now I’m all excited about Alaveteli – can I install it for my own country?
*It is worth noting that several coders in other countries did so anyway, with a lot of hard work.
On Saturday John Cross and Richard Taylor, two volunteers who work on mySociety’s freedom of information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com, gave a workshop on FOI to a meeting of activists from Republic, an organisation which campaigns for an elected head of state in the UK.
mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are non-partisan and don’t get involved in campaigning except in specific areas relating to openness and transparency. That said, members of the WhatDoTheyKnow team are be happy to consider invitations from any groups wishing to hold a workshop discussing freedom of information.
Many of those present at Saturday’s event were active campaigners on a wide range of subjects ranging from human rights to fair trade as well as having an interest in constitutional reform. The FOI workshop was oversubscribed with the majority of those present at the event deciding to attend the session. Unlike a previous workshop held at OpenTech where most attendees had made an FOI request themselves prior to the event, at this workshop all but one had not done so.
The Royals and FOI
Given the audience, the status of the royals with respect to FOI was particularly pertinent. The FOI act exempts information if it relates to: “communications with Her Majesty, with other members of the Royal Family or with the Royal Household, or the conferring by the Crown of any honour or dignity”. This exemption does not apply though if it is determined that it is in the public interest for the information to be released. The requirement for this public interest test is under threat as the Prime Minister has been moving to strengthen the restrictions on releasing information related to the Royal family. On the 10th of June 2009 in a speech to Parliament on Constitutional Renewal Gordon Brown said:
…we have considered the need to strengthen protection for particularly sensitive material, and there will be protection of royal family and Cabinet papers as part of strictly limited exemptions.
Following that speech BBC journalist Martin Rosenbaum obtained a statement from the Ministry of Justice clarifying that in practice what Gordon Brown’s words meant was:
… the relevant exemption in the Freedom of Information Act will be made absolute for information relating to communications with the Royal Household that is less than 20 years’ old.
In FOI jargon an “absolute exemption” is one not subject to a public interest test.
Even with the law as it stands it is not easy to obtain information on how the royals are, or are attempting to, influence government. For example John Cross has asked the Ministry of Justice to supply him with copies of correspondence they had received from the Queen and Prince of Wales. They rejected his request on the grounds that the public interest in non-disclosure exceeded the public interested in disclosure; as well as suggesting exemptions relating to “information provided in confidence” and “personal information” also applied.
The Royal Household’s position on FOI
The Royal Household is not subject to the freedom of information act; though it has made a statement on the subject saying:
Despite its exemption from the FOI Acts, the Royal Household’s policy is to provide information as freely as possible in other areas, and to account openly for its use of public money.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s policy is to include such organisations which have indicated they are willing to voluntarily comply with the act to the site. While we list The Royal Household, at the time of writing no-one has yet used the facility to request information.
Using WhatDoTheyKnow for Campaigning
While we stress the importance of keeping freedom of information requests focused, FOI is a powerful tool for campaigners. We were asked if it would be possible for a group like Republic to set up an account on WhatDoTheyKnow for their campaign? The answer to this is: “Yes! – WhatDoTheyKnow wants to encourage groups to use the site”. The information commissioner has confirmed that it is acceptable to use the name of a “corporate body” when making a FOI request, that’s a broad term which encompasses many organisations, groups and charities.
Republic themselves use FOI extensively and often generate major national news stories as a result of responses to their requests. They want to be able to either offer journalists exclusive stories or write a press release based on information released. They can’t do this if the story gets out first via WhatDoTheyKnow so would be interested in an ability to make requests initially in private. mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow have been considering an option for journalists to be able to make hidden requests via the site. Such a feature could potentially generate an income stream for the site as well as encourage a greater proportion of FOI requests to be made via it. Once the article had been published then the FOI correspondence could be opened up to the public providing access to the source material backing up the story.
As well as meeting those who use, or might want to use, the site to make requests WhatDoTheyKnow also wants to engage positively with public authorities; we see them as important users of our service too. Developer Francis Irving represented the site at the FOI Live conference for information professionals in June and will be speaking at the Freedom of Information Scotland conference in December.
Last week we seemed to spend all week in London. Partly interviewing people, partly redesigning PledgeBank, partly plotting the overthrow of Parliament (joke), partly preparing for the election (thank god it didn’t happen – we’d be far too busy). We even did some general work, scurrying wifi out of the ICA and at one of our trustee’s offices.
As if that wasn’t enough, Stef gave the first of our disruptive technology talks, mainly about Farm Subsidy.org and UNDemocracy. It was interesting, engaging, fantastically attended, and turned into beer and sushi. Adam’s posted up a recording of the talk (scroll down in the comments). Make sure you come to the next one on 1st November.
This is the second in a short series of interviews with people building and running some of the most exciting internet and democracy projects in Europe.
Adrian Moraru from the IPP in Romania set the BerlinInAugust unconference abuzz with occasional gasps at the uncompromising relentlessness of their approach, which included suing to obtain the mobile phone numbers of all the politicians with handsets provided on the public purse. Below you can hopefully see why they got people excited…
What is the organisation you work for?
Our organization, the Institute for Public Policy, is an independent think tank based in Bucharest. We have a permanent staff of 12 people plus a pool of external experts and part time collaborators that we work with on project based relationship. This external group may number as many as 50 in a year and range from former public officials, to politicians, independent experts, journalists, students, young researchers and academics. We work in numerous areas but we specialise in local government, parliament and the ministries.
What is the main purpose of the site(s) that you run?
The main purpose is to give people with a specialised, professional interest in politics an easy way to access facts and statistics about the way MPs are working & voting, as well providing information for the general public.
Can you tell us about some of the unusual ways you ensure that your vote attendance information is accurate?
Sure, it’s easy. In our parliament the attendance is recorded based on a attendance register at the entrance of the plenary hall. However, it is common for some MPs to sign on behalf of their colleagues and/or friends. So in order to expose the size of this phenomenon we decided to keep track of MP’s real attendance in a more accurate way.
Some politicians have legitimate exemptions, which we record, be we also wanted an accurate record of how many of them are present when votes happen. So lets say you have 20 votes in a day. If the name of the MP Mr. X shows up only in 14 of them then he is present only 70%. Furthermore, if, say, only 204 voted out of a possible 322, we deduce from our database the 118 who didn’t show up, and add that to their record.
We have used video cameras from time to time in order to combat the practice of multiple voting. This is happens because of our voting system in Parliament is based on electronic voting stations placed on your bench were MPs identify themselves with a smart card (aka voting card) before pushing a button corresponding with their voting choice.
Politicians have 10 seconds to do so once the vote is initiated. Some MPs use these 10 seconds to vote once with their own cards and then once with the cards of colleagues who are, for example, out at lunch. This is a widespread practice.
We have the plenary sessions broadcasted live and also available recorded on
the Parliament website. We suggested that the during voting that a camera record the activity int he whole chamber. We therefore exposed a few cases of this multiple voting, although not much has happened as a result yet.
You also collect information about politician’s travel. How did you get that? What does it tell your users?
We get it through our freedom of information laws. But is not that easy to get hold of. Sometimes we even have to go on court to get it, and sometimes even when we do it comes on paper, not in electronic formats, which is obviously harder to re-use.
What it shows is where an MP went, when, why, how much it cost, how long they stayed and so on. From this we can help people establish whether they think it was strictly necessary for an MP to visit French Guineau to see the launching of an Ariane V rocket, and we can provide the most popular country destination by political parties.
Do you ever face claims that the effects you have on politicians aren’t entirely positive? If so, how do you respond?
Well this is not a consolidated democracy, you know. MPs are not as nice as yours. So, yes large parts of the databases hurts a lot of them a great deal. Let’s just say we are not scared. But on the other hand we strive to get the best data and to present it in a non aggressive, non biased way using the best algorithms.
You are good at using the law to obtain information. Can you tell us a bit about your approach, and what information you’ve obtained through the courts?
This is a very distinct topic. We always ask for information via our Freedom of Information act, using a special format of letter which cannot be completely ignored. We have lawyers following the flow of requests together with an office manager and we sue every time we do not get an answer, have our request denied or find that information we’ve been provided with is incomplete.
We ask for a lot. A lot! Usually we fight for data that exposes bad practices and most of the things involving expenses or money. It is here where there is a lot to hurt bad politicians by exposing how unwisely some of them are spending the money.
What other projects around the world excite you the most, and why?
Tough one. None. I like opensecrets.org and votesmart.org but that’s it. I do not believe in moving participatory democracy online in our life time. Instead I think we should be looking for ways to open up government and make it more transparent using the internet. In my opinion we are not even at 10% of the way to what we can ultimately do, either in Romania or elsewhere. We can think also about real interactivity in the future.
What’s next for you and IPP on the Internet?
That’s it for the moment. Please post any questions for Adrian in the comments below, and I’ll see if I can update this accordingly.
At mySociety we’re always very lucky to meet and spend time with some extremely diverse and impressive people.
We thought it would be great to share a bit of that good fortune by holding some talks from some of our favourite thinkers, and to have an excuse to meet more people in the wider mySociety community face to face.
To that end, we’re holding four talks in London this autumn (location TBD but almost certainly a centralish pub). Each link below goes to an Upcoming page where you can sign up to let us keep track of numbers and how big a venue we need.
We look foward to seeing you there.
Lots has happened since I last posted, which was months ago, before Chris died.
Luckily for us, in the last few months Chris had only been working one day a week for us, so it hasn’t been as difficult in practical terms as it could have been. There were various mySociety things running in his flat, such as the WriteToThem fax server, which had to be set up quickly elsewhere.
We miss Chris’s expertise most days (only yesterday I was swearing at gnuplot). Matthew is twice as much for me to handle; he works so quickly, he has hard questions to ask at a ferocious rate that I can’t keep up with. I think before Chris used to handle most of them, so it was much easier for me.
We have a few new members of staff.
Keith Garrett is working for us now, mainly tending our servers, but he’s also been working on the E Petitions site. He’s trying to bully us into documenting all our internal processes so it’s easier for new people.
Heather Cronk has started working for us in the US, evangelising PledgeBank. This is funded by the Omidyar Foundation. As well as getting the word out about PledgeBank in the states, this is extra good for us, as she’s forcing us to give PledgeBank the TLC that it deserves.
Deborah Kerr is now doing customer support for us part time. She’s been busy with Neighbourhood Fix-it which has had lots of traffic and attention the last few weeks.
OK, back to the present.
Last week Ben Campbell and I gave a seminar at Technology for a Small Nation in Llandudno. We split into two groups, I got people to add Google maps to an HTML page on their website, and Ben got people to call the TheyWorkForYou API from PHP. It went down well, very satisfying to do practical exercises, and answer all the niggling questions (how to install a testing webserver on Windows, how to use FTP) which are the real things that stop people doing what they want to do.
And Thursday? Just a reminder, unless you’re not apathetic, that there’s an election today.
On Friday September 29th mySociety will be holding a volunteers hacking day in Liverpool. Everyone is invited, and we can even cover some train fares, plus a round or three in the pub. To be eligible for the train fare support, though, you Must Live North of the Watford Gap.
The main theme will be to hack around with the new TheyWorkForYou API , and we’ve got a few hundred quid to cover costs from the day as part of the funding from the Department of Constitutional Affairs (the majority of the money has covered Matthew’s costs in building it from scratch).
The event is at Blue Fountain
The timing is 10AM to 7PM, followed by adjournment to some sort of public house. For those of you with work commitments, please consider coming in the evening.
Venue kindly provided by mySoc friend Aidan McGuire. The meeting will also be a chance to meet key TheyWorkForYou and Public Whip volunteer Julian Todd, whose reclusive Liverpudlian lifestyle means we don’t get to see him often 🙂