1. FOI and the Irish border issue

    At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?

    Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.

    But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.

    Brexit and the border

    As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement  because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.

    He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.

    Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.

    A hard-won result

    Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.

    FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.

    Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.

    Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.

    What was revealed

    What did it tell us?

    “It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.

    “The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.

    “Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).

    “This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.

    Approaching the UK border on Newtown Road for J0719 The houses beyond the sheugh which here marks the Border are in Co Armagh. The gate in the foreground are those of disused ROI Border facilities. The road sign is a reminder of the Republic's 80kmph speed limit on back roads.

    Disused ROI border facilities in Co Armagh. Image by Eric Jones (CC by-sa/2.0)

    A lack of transparency

    The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.

    “To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.

    “Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.

    “In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.

    “I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them —  and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.

    Evading scrutiny

    This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.

    I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.

    “By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.

    “Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.

    “DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.

    Pursuing a refused response

    But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:

    “The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.

    To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.

    “It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.

    “The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.

    “When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.

    And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.

    But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally  released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.

    Motivation

    While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?

    I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.

    “I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.

    “Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.

    “Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.

    “I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.

    “FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”

    Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:

    “Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”

    He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!

    Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.


    Top image: the Irish border by Andrein (CC by-sa/3.0)

  2. After Exploitation: using FOI to understand what happens to victims of modern slavery

    In 2016, Theresa May described modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time”. “These crimes must be stopped,” she said, “and the victims of modern slavery must go free”.

    But words alone do not ensure results, it seems. The data mapping project After Exploitation has discovered that a sizable number of vulnerable victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are — far from ‘going free’ — actually being held in UK detention centres with a view to deportation.

    Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow played a vital part in the project’s research, both in helping identify what data was available, and in bringing about its release.

    In 2016 and in a follow-up report in 2018, Sir Stephen Shaw reviewed this country’s immigration detention practices, with a focus on the welfare of vulnerable detainees.

    One result of his many recommendations was the employment of ‘Detention Gatekeepers’ — independent overseers who check the status of detainees, and that they are legitimately held. If they are found to be in this country as a result of human trafficking or modern slavery, they should be offered help via the National Referral Mechanism.

    We spoke to Maya Esslemont, founder of After Exploitation, to learn how the use of WhatDoTheyKnow has helped uncover the true numbers of those who have been let down by this system, information which the government had previously denied that they held.

    She told us:

    “Through FOI requests, we uncovered the number of potential and recognised victims of human trafficking who have been deported since 2016 or detained in 2018.

    “The figures revealed that 507 potential victims and 29 recognised victims of trafficking were held in detention, despite a low rate of eventual deportation.

    “This completely needless and unjustifiable use of detention on vulnerable people, for whom there was never any realistic chance of removal, demonstrated huge failures in Detention Gatekeeping, the process meant to prevent vulnerable people from being detained.”

    Maya explained that, prior to these findings, a gap in the publicly-available data impeded any understanding of the number of vulnerable detainees:

    “Although the Government releases quarterly statistics outlining the number of ‘potential’ victims of trafficking, very little is known about the number of recognised victims who are later deported, detained, or left at risk of re-trafficking due to a lack of safehousing. Our project hoped to demonstrate the scale of these issues”.

    FOI seemed like the obvious route to uncovering these figures, says Maya, in part because it was clear where the information must be held, if it existed:

    “The Home Office oversees both immigration enforcement and victim support and recognition. This is a clear conflict of interest, but it did mean that we knew all the outcome information must be held in the same place.”

    The group found that by checking the archive of previous FOI requests published on WhatDoTheyKnow, they could discern exactly what data existed, and more importantly, could cite prior responses as proof of its existence.

    As suspected, but denied until now, the Home Office holds highly specific, readily available information on immigration, detention and deportation outcomes of trafficking victims.

    “We knew from Parliamentary correspondence that some trafficking victims’ asylum outcome data was held as far back as 2015, but nobody had any idea that such readily available data on the actual detention existed.

    “When we trawled through Home Office FOI requests submitted by others on WhatDoTheyKnow, it was clear that information on detainees’ vulnerability was held — and it was after we referenced these previous request outcomes, dated since 2016, that the Home Office started providing data on trafficking specifically.”

    We were most interested to hear this, as it further justifies one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s key features – that all requests and responses are published online. We talk a lot about how this can make the information accessible to wider numbers of people, but here is an example of that archive going on to inform a further set of requests, bringing about important results.

    And visibility wasn’t just useful in helping the campaign discover the existence of the vital data, but also, Maya believes, provided an extra incentive for the Home Office to release the information in accordance with the FOI Act:

    “I submitted a fair few FOI requests privately, but most received a rejection. However, since moving the same requests to a public platform, we’ve found that a majority have been fulfilled.

    “Many charities and journalists may be tempted to submit FOI requests privately so that the responses can be ‘saved’ for exclusive research or stories, but this exercise seemed to prove that it can be more effective to ask for information as publicly as possible.”

    (We should mention that our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service does allow for the private submission of requests which are then published at a later date — although there’s no requirement to submit privately. Pro users can enjoy the best of both worlds, using the organisational features and the batch request functionality, and making requests in private or in public according to which strategy they find most effective.)

    Having uncovered this crucial data, After Exploitation has worked with other organisations to get their findings more widely known:

    “The charity Women for Refugee Women managed to secure a debate in Westminster Hall on the detention of trafficking victims. As part of this debate, MPs discussed research by their organisation and by After Exploitation.

    “Political interest in this issue should be commended, but the Immigration Ministers’ response was very concerning. Caroline Nokes MP claimed that the use of detention on 507 potential trafficking victims was justified, as many were recognised during the time they were in detention.

    “However, we believe the fact that hundreds of vulnerable people were deemed suitable for detention in the first place is deeply worrying.”

    The research gained wider attention, too:

    MPs and journalists at the Guardian, Sky News, Independent Online and Thompson Reuters picked up our research paper Supported or Deported?.

    “In response to the findings, 23 NGOs signed our open letter asking for greater data transparency on human trafficking support outcomes, and for an end to Home Office involvement in vulnerability screening and trafficking decision-making. A week later, Diane Abbott MP tabled an urgent question in Parliament asking the government about the detention of exploited people.

    “However, the Government response showed how much work is left to do. The Immigration Minister dismissed the Government’s own data as not robust enough to provoke change, whilst also using this same data to clear its reputation on the length of detention.

    “This response shows how much harder we have to work before the Government will commit to data transparency, and the way victims are treated.”

    We asked Maya what she hoped others would take from the experience of After Exploitation.

    “I hope journalists, activists and academics will submit their own FOI requests to contribute to public understanding of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other forms of exploitation such as forced marriage.

    “When it comes to human trafficking victim support, there are still so many gaps in our understanding — such as health, wellbeing and legal outcomes. We’re already taking another request to the Information Commissioner’s Office after a rejection on cost grounds, but we hope the ongoing struggle to secure information on trafficking will encourage others to do the same.”

    We congratulate the project on what they’ve achieved to date and hope it will act as inspiration to others who seek to uncover injustice or malpractice within our systems.

    You can read more about After Exploitation’s work here, and find their WhatDoTheyKnow FOI requests here.

    Image: CC by-sa/4.0 via Wikipedia

  3. Find FixMyStreet Pro and FOI for Councils on GCloud 11

    GCloud 11 is live: it’s the latest iteration of GOV.UK’s Digital Marketplace, making it easier for those in the public sector to find and procure cloud-based software services — including ours.

    This time around there are two offerings from mySociety: FixMyStreet Pro, which has been on GCloud since 2017, and FOI for Councils, available via this channel for the first time.

    Regular followers will be well aware that FixMyStreet Pro is a street fault reporting service which can integrate with any existing council system, offering great opportunities to cut costs and increase efficiency.

    Meanwhile our FOI for Councils service streamlines authorities’ FOI workflows and reduces unnecessary requests, relieving the burden in what is often an overstretched resource.

    The great benefit of GCloud from the public sector point of view is that suppliers come ready-verified, saving the time and inconvenience of going through the regular procurement process. All the information you need about the service is readily accessible, and then when you’ve made your decision it’s very simple to get things moving.

    We’re pleased to offer these two services via GCloud — and will be equally happy to answer any questions you may have.

    Image: Chuttersnap

  4. Alaveteli Releases 0.33 and 0.34

    We’ve just released two new versions of Alaveteli, our open source platform for running Freedom Of Information sites — one which we’ve packed all of bug fixes, new features and performance improvements into, and one with some important technical updates. Here are some of the highlights.

    Making your first request easier

    mySociety’s designer Zarino has subtly redesigned the authority search page – which is the first thing most users will see when making a request – to make it easier to find the help links at a glance, making the process feel much more approachable.

    Before:

    Find authority page before new design

    After:

    Find authority page after new design

    Encouraging better quality requests

    Part of our advice to users of WhatDoTheyKnow is to keep requests concise and focused. This new feature adds a visual reminder when the request text is approaching the point of being too long for an FOI officer to answer it efficiently:

    Request text getting long warning message

    With a second, stronger warning if the request becomes longer still:

    Request text now very long warning message

    We’ve also added an experimental feature on WhatDoTheyKnow to discourage users from making requests for personal information. (As well as not being valid FOI requests, publishing the responses would result in revealing confidential information about the requester.) By asking the user to clarify what they want to ask before sending a request to authorities which attract a high level of personal information requests, we can try to redirect them to the correct official channel instead:

    Checking whether user is request personal information

    One-click unsubscribe from notifications

    An improvement for site owners and end users: it is now possible to unsubscribe from email notifications about requests that you’re following right from your inbox! (Previously – and still the case with other sorts of email that the site sends – you would have to visit the site and log in to change your email preferences.)

    Allowing people to unsubscribe with ease – if they’ve forgotten that they signed up for notifications or have created a new track by mistake – should help to cut down on the number of messages being marked as spam which should in turn help improve the site’s mail sender reputation. (It also allows admins – if they receive feedback loop notification emails from email providers – to unsubscribe users who’ve marked these emails as spam, preventing further unwelcome emails being sent.)

    Technical changes

    In version 0.33, as well as our our features and fixes, we’ve added support for Ubuntu releases Xenial and Bionic and withdrawn support for Debian Jessie. The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.

    Version 0.34 contains our Rails 5.0 upgrade work which we’ve released separately to allow reusers time to adapt to new minimum requirements for operating systems and Ruby versions.
    We’re no longer supporting Ubuntu Trusty and have also dropped Ruby versions older than 2.3 as that’s the minimum requirement for Rails 5. Upgrade notes are available in the changelog and, as ever, we recommend updating one version at a time to make sure everything’s working smoothly and reduce the risk of missing essential upgrade steps.

    Moving to Rails 5.0 will allow us to retain support for major security issues when Rails 6 is released and dropping older Ruby versions removes some key technical barriers to modernising the Alaveteli codebase and allows us to focus on improving Alaveteli Pro so that it can be reused more widely.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed! Special thanks to Nigel Jones and Laurent Savaëte who contributed bug fixes for version 0.33!

     

    Image: Landscape by mike138 (CC by-nd/2.0)

  5. Take a dip into the CIA files

    Our own FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow is always interesting to browse, but we suspect that even the gems waiting to be discovered there might pale in comparison to the 13 million pages of declassified files released by the CIA over in the States.

    These are available to American citizens — and indeed the world — thanks to sustained efforts from our friends over at MuckRock, the US FOI site*.

    In 2016 MuckRock won a three year fight compelling the CIA to abide by the nation’s FOIA law and release their files: the history of how the CIA had dodged their obligations for so long is amusingly written up in this post.

    Now MuckRock are encouraging users — including you, if you would like — to browse the content and let them know of anything interesting you discover. They’re always happy to share the more useful, fascinating or downright bizarre information unearthed.

    Never let it be said that FOI is dull or dry: so far they’ve written up almost 300 findings, including a recipe for borscht, an Edgar Allen Poe parody, a guide to christening ships and the very mysterious picture of a man.

    You can find guidance on how to tackle this vast archive on the Muckrock site. If you discover anything worth telling MuckRock about, please let them know we sent you.

    Kudos to MuckRock and their tenacious users for their work in getting these files into the public domain.

    * Unlike many of the international FOI sites we write about, MuckRock isn’t run on our Alaveteli platform, but it shares the same aims and we’re proud to be working together. In fact, as we were writing this, members of mySociety’s Transparency team were over in Tunis at RightsCon, giving a joint presentation with MuckRock, and they’ll be coming to our FOI technologies conference AlaveteliCon in September. And here’s a picture of us meeting up in the UK.

    Image: President Ford meets with CIA Director-designate George Bush (via Wikimedia; public domain)

  6. Case study: Sold From Under You by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

    Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.

    Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.

    In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.

    The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.

    We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:


    “The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.

    “At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.

    “We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.

    “Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.

    “The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”

    More than 700 FOI requests

    “To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.

    “Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.

    I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    “It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.

    “Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed)  was around 85%.

    “I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”

    Refining the requests

    While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid

    “I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.

    “It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.

    As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”

    Bringing about change

    There have been tangible results from this investigation.

    The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.

    “We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.

    “And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”

    Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.

    Find out more about WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    Image: Daniel von Appen

  7. Alaveteli Pro: a chance to increase transparency across Europe

    WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, mySociety’s subscription service offering extra tools for journalists and other professional users of FOI, has been running in the UK for just about two years.

    During that time we’ve launched, worked closely with users to refine the service, and — happily — watched it play a vital part in the making of several important data-driven news stories, on topics as diverse as Brexit campaign funding and the results of austerity cuts on councils. Journalists, in particular, have appreciated tools such as the ability to send and manage bulk requests to multiple authorities; and the embargo tool that keeps requests and responses hidden until the story has been published.

    Now, thanks to support from Adessium Foundation, we are able to bring the same benefits to countries across Europe, and — we hope — some additional synergies that will be borne of organisations working across boundaries. The same functionality that extends WhatDoTheyKnow into the Pro version will be available to FOI sites run on the Alaveteli platform, under the name Alaveteli Pro.

    The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.

    We’ll be focusing on three areas in order to achieve this aim:

    • We’ll give selected existing Alaveteli sites in Europe the technical help they need to upgrade to the Pro version;
    • We’ll be helping organisations in three new European jurisdictions to launch brand new Alaveteli sites, making access to information easier for citizens in these countries. The first site will be launched by VVOJ from the Netherlands.
    • We’ll encourage cross-border collaborations between journalists and organisations using the sites (both the existing ones and the new ones) to investigate stories that span more than one EU country.

    So watch this space: we’ll be sure to keep you posted as the work progresses. The planned start date is next month, and the project is set to run for three years.

    We’re looking forward to sharing stories resulting from this initiative once they start rolling out, and supporting the incredible work that journalists do in putting them together.

    Image: Emiliano Vittoriosi

  8. 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.

  9. 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)

  10. 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!