1. Lost in Europe: a cross-border investigation into missing children

    It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.

    According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.

    Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.

    Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.

    We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.

    These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.

    Local knowledge

    There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.

    Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.

    This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:

    • Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
    • Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
    • Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership

    The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.

    In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.

    The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.

    The requests

    Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio

  2. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: corruption in student unions

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Some journalists focus on very specific areas in their use of FOI.

    Dániel G. Szabó is an editor on Hungary’s Atlatszo Oktatas, a blog hosted on the major news outlet Atlatszo, and run largely by students. He revealed how FOI has been the key to exposing corruption in the country’s student unions.

    Dániel G. SzabóOur project Transparent Education was established on freedom of information.

    It’s a blog focusing on corruption in higher education in Hungary, with a very heavy reliance on freedom of information requests and the analysis of the data acquired through FOI.

    Hungarian student unions, where future political elites learn the basics of democracy, are infected with corruption and our blog works to reveal it.

    We established the national jurisprudence on the accountability of student unions: courts ruled in our cases for the first time that student unions are to respond freedom of information requests and their expenditures should be transparent.

    We sued many state-financed and also religious schools, and tracked the fate of several million euros spent by student union officials who are in their twenties. Without freedom of information laws and court rulings, the data on these funds would have never came to light.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Bicanski (CC-0)

  3. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: Hungary

    Today is International Right to Know Day! 2016 is also the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information and we’ve been marking these two facts all week with insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Here’s Katalin Erdélyi, a journalist who works with Atlatszo.hu. That’s the news service that’s closely affiliated to Alaveteli site KiMitTud.

    We began by asking Katalin to tell us about a memorable story that had been written with the aid of FOI.

    Katalin ErdélyiThe Museum of the Fine Arts in Budapest lent 10 antique paintings to a company tied to the PM’s personal advisor Arpad Habony.

    The value of the paintings was HUF 400 million (~ GB £1.06 million) but the company paid only HUF 150,000 (~ GB £400) per month for them, and they hadn’t insured the paintings either.

    We filed a lawsuit because the museum refused my request to publish information on where the paintings were.

    After a year and a half in court we won the case, and the museum had to publish the information that during the whole lending period the paintings were in a private apartment where the PM’s advisor is a frequent visitor.

    After my article was published the Minister of Culture issued a written notice to the director of the museum because he hadn’t asked for his permission for the loan. The director of the museum later admitted he was on friendly terms with the PM’s advisor. He was the best man at Habony’s wedding which was held at the museum. Habony wasn’t charged any rental fees.

    What’s the significance of FOI in your opinion?

    Freedom of Information is important because citizens have the right to know what, why, how and at what costs are things happening in the country where they live and work.

    The state spends their taxes, therefore it is right to expect it to operate in a transparent way. And if someone knows they can be checked up on at any time, they will pay attention to what they do.

    The right to information is a foundation of democracy, a check on power, and it pays an important role in fighting illegal activities and corruption.

    What has Freedom of Information meant to you, as a journalist?

    FOI is very important for investigative journalism.

    If contracts of public spending weren’t open to public, many corruption cases would never be revealed. The Hungarian government has amended the FOI law several times in the past few years, and always in the negative direction.

    Each time they limit the data that falls under the scope of the FOI Act, so that they can keep dubious affairs secret. This causes the risk of corruption to rise even higher, and our work has become even more challenging.

    When the right to information is wide, and public spending is transparent, it’s much easier to notice suspicious cases.

    Do you consider FOI to be a vital tool for the future?

    It’s very important to apply FOI in as many places and as widely as possible. If there’s no FOI, there’s no democracy.

    If we let political interests become more important than FOI we will end up in a dictatorship. The task and interest of the non-governmental organisations is to check on power, and this is only possible with freedom of information.

    We have to stand up for it everywhere, every time.

    Read the next installment to learn how a journalist in Croatia has used FOI.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: anyone can make their own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: KovacsDaniel CC BY-SA 3.0

  4. jogalkotas.hu

    What problem are you solving?:

    In Hungary legislation on the Freedom of Information (FOI) and public participation (PP) is progressive. However, laws are not really enforced. The gap between the ideal situation prescribed by the law and the public servants’ commitment is huge. Ministries and local governments do not comply with the laws. Sadly, NGOs are not fully aware of their rights.

    Describe your idea:

    The creation and maintenance of the www.jogalkotas.hu site is part of our watchdog project which monitors the compliance of state authorities (ministries, local governments) with the Freedom of Information Act. The portal collects draft legislation under consultation at the different websites, and makes them easily accessible, searchable. It provides space to comment, discuss and register for notification of new content. We collect data and provide regular reports on the authorities and encourage and empower the public to take the opportunity and participate in the process of legislation.
    Our “Open Legislation” watchdog program has been monitoring and advocating for the enforcement of the Act on the Freedom of Electronic Information 2005/XC. (Eitv.) since the end of 2005.

    What country will this operate in?: Hungary

    Who are you?:

    The NOSZA Association was established by well- known experts and researchers of the Hungarian NGO sector. The Association is well-known for publication of research on nonprofit legal issues (legislation, contracting, registration, participatory democracy practices), and an on-line education material (Moodle). Throughout the years, this programme gained a reputation for being one of the most reliable Hungarian watchdogs.

  5. TheyWorkForYou.hu

    What problem are you solving?:

    In Hungary people do not have easily accessible and digestible information on how their MPs work. Although the website of the Hungarian parliament contains all important information, it is not at all user-friendly and citizens seeking for information must go through hundreds of pages of Word documents if they seek information on a given subject.

    Contacting one’s MP is a possibility but there is no publicity of such correspondence: citizens are unaware if their MPs answer questions or suggestions.

    A number of MPs are very passive – they rarely attend the sessions, they do not give speeches, they are out of touch with their constituency.
    As parliamentary elections are coming up in April 2010, we are planning to launch the beta-version of a websiteby the end of February to provide information to voters about current MPs who are also candidates in the next elections. By the time the elections are over we plan to become a reliable resource for journalists.

    Describe your idea:

    We adapt UK website TheyWorkForYou for the Hungarian conditions. On the Hungarian site the emails sent to the MPs and the responses will appear for everyone to read. We’ll also publish MPs’ voting record (currently available only as a mass of data on the Parliament site)highlighting the hottest topics of H. politics, numbers on participation (and active participation separately), register of MPs’ business interest,expenses,
    other positions they have (local governments, businesses etc.)
    The main difference between the UK and the Hungarian version is that as the Hungarian parliament does not provide data in XML format, we have to use human workpower to transform HTML into XML. However, as we are planning to launch a campaign for easily accessible and user-friendly data this website might be the most important factor in our arguments.
    We give the opportunity to our users to give us feedback on the information we provide so we can adapt the site to the users’ needs.

    What country will this operate in?: Hungary

    Who are you?:

    We are an informal group of IT professionals, Freedom of Information activists and journalists. We have experience with online media and we are interested in transparency and accountability projects.

  6. CSR Navigator

    What problem are you solving?:

    One of the core problems of the nonprofit sector in Hungary is the lack of funding. Organizations are dependent on sponsors and grant juries. Hungarian society considers the 1% of personal income tax sufficient support for NGOs. Intersectoral cooperation is not encouraged, thus few organizations get support from business organizations. When there is corporate sponsorship, it is often only possible through personal contacts, influencing the donor company’s CSR policy. At the same time business organizations feel the pressure to operate in a more responsible way, yet they are not convinced that this investment becomes profitable for them – by bringing recognition and acknowledgment. They often complain of a lack of feedback from supported NGOs. There is a need for a platform which – by using widely available and easy to learn, interactive web 2.0 devices – will become a place for intersectoral communication, networking, and an exchange of experience.

    Describe your idea:

    We set up a website displaying – both with text and graphics – how much each company spends on CSR, and by clicking on the icon it shows what the money was spent on. We use the data of the Tax Authorities to obtain the information on ho much money they spent on CSR (this sum means tax relief in Hungary) but the editors will ask for the identities of the recipients as it is not public data.
    Companies and NGOs who do not provide information appear as „black holes” on the website, thus the public can put pressure on them to account for their CSR-related activities.
    Each company’s data sheet has a forum for comments where NGOs and individual citizens can say how useful they find the company’s CSR policy/practice.
    Database and matching system are set up to offer companies and NGOs potential partners.
    We publish accounts of successful cooperations, displaying good practices.

    What country will this operate in?: Hungary

    Who are you?:

    We are a group of independent experts: the group consists of an IT professional who is also a software developer, a journalist who has experience both in printed and online press, an economist and a psychologist who are the members of a Hungarian Freedom of information think tank organization.
    The project leader is a journalist who reported on CSR for two different news websites and also edited the section on business ethics and sustainability, and covered this topic for a variety of publications.

  7. (meta)data.gov.hu

    What problem are you solving?:

    Properly accessible public data is rarely provided by the public sector. Most of the data published is burried in pdf and MS word documents, which are not easily reusable. Data publication discipline and quality need to be increased. We realize, that transparency, participation and empowerment are essential for gaining maximum effect. We will try to lower the entry barriers to participation and empowerment of citizens.

    Describe your idea:

    (meta)data.gov.hu intends to collect all public information sources, rate them, tag them with metadata and possibly provide the complete dataset in more processable and open formats to reduce entry barriers completely. Our goal is thus to establish an online infrastructure and community to
    * kickstart the (re)use of public data,
    * encouraging collaboration, (strengthen civil society)
    * enhancing the existing data, offering raw data, (mashups)
    * publishing the original OAI-PMH urls to the original data sources where available, (transparency)
    * rating, cataloging tagging and publishing of governmental public information (accountability, empowerment)
    * run public mash-up contests (transparency)
    * help anyone preparing FOIA requests automatically and publishing of the results (http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/)
    * strategic litigation: if necessary use the force of the law to free data sources
    * contribution and implementation of public policies

    What country will this operate in?: Hungary

    Who are you?:

    Currently we are: Dr. Mázsa Péter, Stefan Marsiske, Maróy Ákos, László Kürti, Péter Szakál. We are are a small group of concerned citizens, usually focusing on the deployment of various open standards in the public sector.

  8. Freedom of Information Judgments Database

    What problem are you solving?:

    Hungarian citizens exhibit a low level of demand for transparency in public power. It is mostly NGOs that avail themselves of disclosure requests and strategic litigation. The outcome is often frustrating, partly because many of the NGOs and lawyers who do file suit lack the experience required for pleading a freedom of information case successfully. Sentencing in this area is itself non-transparent, with judgments remaining virtually inaccessible. To make things worse, the courts tend to construe and apply the relevant provisions in ways incompatible with the true meaning of freedom of information.

    Describe your idea:

    We propose to improve the transparency of sentencing in non-disclosure cases by collecting judgments passed by various courts in Hungary. The judgments will be ordered, annotated, evaluated, and published in an online database that is accessible for anyone free of charge, convenient to use for civilians and professionals, and upgradeable on an ongoing basis.

    The project will enhance transparency and effective monitoring of public power by providing a deep insight into freedom of information sentencing practices. Plaintiffs will be able to rely on precedents in the compendium as part of their litigation tactics. The project will help standardize and improve sentencing practices, ultimately strengthening social control over public power and the administration of justice.

    What country will this operate in?: Hungary

    Who are you?:

    The Eötvös Károly Institute was created in January 2003 in order to establish a novel, unconventional institutional framework for shaping democratic public affairs in Hungary. Acting hand in hand with other entities, including advocacy groups, watchdog organizations, and other institutions, the Eötvös Károly Institute wishes to contribute to raising professional and general public awareness and to shaping the political agenda in issues with an impact on the quality of relations between citizens and public power. The Institute is deeply committed to the liberal interpretation of constitutionality, constitutional democracy, and individual rights, and labors to support initiatives instrumental in bringing about a civil political culture inspired by the spirit of solidarity.

  9. TodoMap

    What problem are you solving?:

    Citizen political activity is in decline since the regime change, as well as the quality of public infrastructure.

    Todomap is trying to get people involved in public business again in a constructive way.

    Describe your idea:

    Todomap has it’s inspiration from fixmystreet.com, but rather than getting most of things done by a central government, it is trying to focus on supporting and encouraging self-organization of citizens, while also giving good overview for the government about what citizens declare as high priority.

    In todomap users will be able to

    • submit issues to the database and rank issues submitted by others
    • find registered issues based on location and other search criteria
    • submit project plans and ask for support
    • keep track of the events in their area using RSS feeds, e-mail notifications, IM protocols
    • No central administration, content will be ranked by user votes only

    Todomap is in early state of development and the source code is available at code.google.com.

    What country will this operate in?: Hungary

    Who are you?:

    I am a citizen of Hungary and Europe with experience in software development.