This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
You got e-mail: Online freedom of information requests in developing countries
Extended Abstract Project Presentation
In October 2012 the Uruguayan NGO DATA launched ¿Qué sabés? a website allowing anyone online to make a freedom of information request to Uruguayan public authorities. In January 2013, after 170 request were filled online and significant public pressure, Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email. In this practitioner oriented paper, we explore the dynamics of setting up a successful access to information portal in a developing country context. First we provide a brief introduction about online access to information portals around the world and their relationship with access to information legislation. Then, we look at the origins of the uruguayan portal, as well as the strategy followed in terms of design and implementation. Third we look at the initial outputs of the process and resistances in the Uruguayan bureaucracy. We also look at the process that led Uruguayan authorities to acknowledge email as a valid form of making access to information request. Finally we provide a set issues to consider when implementing software to support access to information in developing countries.
1. Freedom of Information in the digital age
Since its humble beginnings in Sweden, access to information laws (also known as freedom of information laws) kept expanding across the world. The promise is quite simple: to provide citizens with crucial public information so they can fully participate in civic life. In Thomas Jefferson's words: Information is the currency of democracy. Today almost 90 countries have an access to information law, but several studies at a comparative and local level shows that there are different degrees of success in terms of implementation. With the rise of the Internet and the development of EGovernment trends across the world, public information is stored and retrieved in more efficient ways making technological barriers to access information very low.
In 2006 two British developers came up with the idea of creating a website that would allow citizens to use the relatively recent freedom of information law in Britain in a digital way. In this way the website What do they know? from the British NGO My Society came into existence. The international version of this project, called Alaveteli is now being implemented in 9 countries. Beyond Alaveteli there are other similar designed software working in the United States of America, Chile and Germany. The last census available noted up to 15 websites across the world. As these portals start to spread new challenges emerge for practitioners in terms of making FOI requests, as well as to public servants in terms of answering them. Furthermore, new legal challenges emerge as old access to information laws, and different legal traditions cope with the digital age. As we will show, some of these challenges in developing countries are a bit more complex that in the “developed world”.
2. Uruguayan Access to Information Environment: The Challenge of ¿Qué Sabés?
Uruguay, is a small South American country with high rates of internet usage, a long standing democracy and a tradition of civic rights. To some degree Uruguay is an outlier in the region in terms of transparency and governance according to several indicators such as Transparency International Corruption Perception Index, or the World Bank Governance Indicators. Uruguay approved an access to information law in 2008, which was fairly consistent with international standards. Due to the lack of a specialised institution dealing with access to information request controversy resolution, among other factors, the implementation of the law has been problematic. There were few requesters (most of them journalists and lawyers) and the idea that people would have access to information was (or is) to some degree not known by the average citizen. Furthermore while Uruguayan EGovernment strategy is relatively sound, receiving FOI requests through email (or receiving them at all) was not something public servants would expect very frequently. The demand side then, was relatively weak and it was not clear at all if the State had the duty to answer an email. The former point seems something out of place in the 21st Century, but in the context of a highly legalistic tradition it was foreseeable (and indeed it happened).
3. Designing and launching ¿Qué sabés?
In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference about technology and access to information organised by the British NGO My Society and supported by several international stakeholders such as the Open Society Institute and Hivos. At the event an Uruguayan lawyer and an uruguayan software engineer (who previously were collaborating in other initiatives) took a bold choice: to adapt and design an FOI request software for Uruguay. Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online. Decisions to adopt the Alaveteli platform were based on very basic criteria about technology, support
and usability. In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software and a community that could support a long term work. By that time Alaveteli was the only software doing the former. Furthermore, the previous existence of an Alaveteli website adapted to Spain made translating the content relatively easier. The website also included significant amount of material developed by specialist NGOs in Uruguay. Getting the data about Uruguayan government offices was difficult. The uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small) and emails were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails of uruguayan authorities. Many of them did not work as they were either out of date or were not in use by the relevant officers. Quesabes.uy was enhanced by the work of DATA, a NGO devoted to to Open Data and transparency. Design, technical enhancement and the launch strategy was discussed. We decided to collaborate with a local NGO already working on FOI in Uruguay. The objective was to engage with people already working on the subject, reaching out our potential community of users. Furthermore our theory of change behind this move, was to bridge the traditional divide between “techie people” and traditional NGOs, as civil society was in need to present a united front to solve the crucial issue of making the site work and push uruguayan authorities to accept emails as a valid mechanism within the law. DATA then coordinated support from other NGOs working on this topic in Europe and Latin America and launched the website with significant local and international publicity.
4. Results and Advocacy
The following table summarises the status of Quesabes.uy up to January 2013: Successful Waiting Response Not held Gone postal Rejected Internal review Partially successful Waiting clarification 34 78 12 2 9 33 8 3
Largely the Uruguayan state still ignores users. Furthermore some offices answered they were not going to answer FOI request through email (ironically the answers showed they were able to do just that). With the evidence available DATA and CAinfo Uruguay filed a legal complaint to the Uruguayan FOI regulator (Access to Information Unit) to urge uruguayan state authorities to answer FOI request through emails.
The regulator followed swiftly issuing an order to accept Quesabes.uy requests and solving a set of “complex” legal dilemas for uruguayan public administrators.
5. Main conclusions and further developments
Setting up a website such as Quesabes.uy involved a signficant amount of time and effort. We had no grants, and an initial group of 5 (highly motivated) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues. This was a task of a multidisciplinary team that combined significant amount of work to achieve the portal. Bridging the gap with traditional NGOs paid back but it was a difficult process. There were initial worries about the state not answering requests and FOI right becoming severely damaged due to massive demands. This was not the case. We understand there are issues to explore in terms of the dynamics between traditional and new NGOs in this field to achieve better cooperation and understanding. A second issue is about whether a software can be used as a mere instrument to facilitate requests or as an activist tool. In this case it was designed to be both, but there were legal grounds for it: Uruguay had a FOI law, and the legal backing was solid. Demand also proved to be beyond initial expectations as 170 requests is a large number for a small polity. A third issue is about plain resistance from authorities to answer emails using legal artifuges or just ignoring requests. Users have followed up some of the requests with the regulators. Some authorities adjusted setting special email accounts for ¿Qué Sabés?, while others denied their email addresses and only allowed users to engage with an online form. With 300 users DATA have also witnessed the emergence of an online community, and we hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other when making requests. There is evidence of people following requests and assisting each other in just a few months with little input from DATA. Our strategy is to engage real people on the troubles and set up communities on and offline that could harness all the potential for the website The experiment we conducted in Uruguay can provide others with some tips about developing this websites, but in our experience it is important to understand what’s the main aim behind it. For us it was clear that Uruguayan authorities could not just get away, in the 21st century, with not replying emails. It was indeed a service to users, but also a campaigning tool. The objective was achieved following a strategy which included gathering evidence and accumulating forces with other civil society stakeholders to maximise the disruptive change of ¿Qué Sabés?. Existence of an access to information law and development of the public sector EGovernment capabilities could be important to get a decent service from governments, thus not all developing countries could be in conditions to deliver it. The challenges ahead after this decision from the regulator remain to be implemented and probably other structural factors in Uruguayan democracy and public sector will come into play to achieve a 100% successful implementation. The origins of What do they know? and other Alaveteli experiences in Westminster/Whitehall traditions showed that in those contexts is relatively easier to implement this
software. Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.