Right To Know blog and tweets

Hacking democracy and playing the long game – Luke Bacon at linux.conf.au 2017

Posted on by Luke Bacon

Photograph of the front room of Frontyard. Cards are suspended from the roof across a room, and people look at them, thinking about what the future described might be like.

One of the slides from the talk: Looking in as people consider possible futures and how to reach them at Frontyard Projects in Marrickville, Sydney. Photo by Frontyard, CC BY SA

Last month Henare and I were in Hobart for linux.conf.au. We met lots of really nice people working on a dizzying array of interesting projects.

Linux.conf.au is Australia’s biggest conference for people building and using Free and Open Source Software. People come from all over the world to be there. Henare and Matthew from the OpenAustralia Foundation actually met at the conference last time it was in Hobart 2009, which kicked off Henare’s open source civic hacking.

I spoke on the last day of the conference. It was nerve-racking spot to be honest, but it also meant I got to learn from all the other speakers and draw some of their ideas together.

My talk Hacking democracy and playing the long game was about how I currently understand the ways OpenAustralia Foundation projects actually impact society. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where our work to transform democracy stands in 2017. It seems like we’re in an important moment to really think about the impact of civic tech, and above all, continue working hard.

Giving this talk was a great opportunity to think this all through and share these ideas. Thanks so much to the linux.conf.au team for inviting me, supporting me to get there, and putting on such a great event—I really appreciate it.

Producing this talk became a way to think through all those ideas–so it does cover quite a lot of ground. It starts out talking about the elements of democracy that we’re interested in, different ways to think about it’s futures, and one framework for understanding how change happens drawn from Lawrence Lessig’s 1999 book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

The second half gets into Right To Know as a case study. I go through how the project is making it easier for people to get information they need from our governments. In the end I go through the practical things you can start doing to support and contribute to this work.

I hope it’s interesting and useful. I’d love to know what you think.

If this sounds interesting and you’re new to the OpenAustralia Foundation, here’s some links for finding out more:

All the conference talks are up on YouTube. Here’s some of the ones I most enjoyed:

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Right to Know, the ATO, independence and transparency

Posted on by Henare Degan

Since August 2016, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has been refusing to process the valid Freedom of Information requests they receive from people using Right To Know.

At least two of the people who have had their requests blocked have lodged complaints to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC).

One of them is Right to Know volunteer administrator Ben Fairless, who lodged his complaint in a personal capacity after the ATO blocked his information request.

On November 21 2016, the Freedom of Information Director of the OAIC’s Dispute Resolution Branch contacted us with a request for information to help their investigation into the ATO’s blocking of requests raised in the complaints. We have decided to publish those questions and our answers below.

Note that the OAIC’s questions are unlikely to have been raised by the people who made the complaints about the ATO’s actions to block their requests. Rather, they appear to be based on statements provided by the ATO that match their response to the ABC last August, that we take “no responsibility for supervising posts or removing unacceptable material”. This is false.

We’ve also provided a timeline below covering all communications that we have had with the ATO in 2016. We think it’s important to point out that we responded to over 70% of requests from the ATO within 24 hours. Of those, we responded to all but one in less than 1 hour. We are an independent charity and Right To Know is a largely volunteer administered project, and this record is a testament to the dedication of our community to a well run, transparent and accountable Freedom of Information system in Australia. You can compare it to the response times of all our government agencies at righttoknow.org.au.

We work hard to ensure that Right To Know is a safe environment where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent. We stand by our community and join their polite and respectful calls to the ATO to start processing the valid FOI requests made to them by people using Right To Know.

Questions from the OAIC to the Right To Know Team, 21 November 2016

On November 21 2016, the Freedom of Information Director of the OAIC’s Dispute Resolution Branch contacted us with the following questions to help their investigation into the ATO’s blocking of information requests made by people through Right To Know. Here are those questions with the answers we responded with on the December 4 2016.

Who is legally responsible for the maintenance of the RTK website?

As is clearly stated on the The Right to Know website, the footer includes the information that the website is s project of the OpenAustralia Foundation Limited (ABN 24 138 089 942) (“OAF”) a charity registered with the ACNC and was created using Alaveteli, an Open Source software product created by MySociety. It was created by staff and volunteers. Again this information is clearly stated at righttoknow.org.au

Who is legally responsible for the publication of content on the RTK website?

Righttoknow.org.au is more akin to an open email server, rather than a traditional content publisher. We make it very clear to requesters and authorities that their correspondence is automatically be published on the internet as part of this service. Users are able to send FOI requests using the site, and agencies are able to respond to requests. In addition, users and OAF staff and volunteers are able to annotate requests. OAF staff and volunteers are able to modify content (except for attachments). OAF does not own this content

We work hard to ensure that Right To Know is a safe environment where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent. We stand by our community and join their polite and respectful calls to the ATO to start processing the valid FOI requests made to them by people using righttoknow.org.au.

How are the contents of FOI requests which are submitted to government agencies through the RTK website, including all correspondence related to the request both from and to the agency, monitored?

Users register on the site and confirm they have a valid email address for the site to send them emails.

Users can then submit a limited number of requests per day. The requests are sent directly to the agency without human intervention, just like sending an email from Webmail.

OAF staff and volunteers will sometimes check requests and remove requests based on our published guidelines. For example, we don’t allow requests containing personal information or requests which are clearly not requests for information.

We rely heavily on our volunteers and others within the RTK community (including government agencies) to report requests that they feel need a second look. We take action on those requests in line with our policies, and in most cases respond the same day

How does the RTK team respond to requests from agencies or individuals for specific FOI requests or other correspondence to be taken down from the RTK website? Please provide any information on the process, timing and criteria for acceding to such requests.

All requests received via contact forms on our site are directed to a central email address (contact@righttoknow.org.au). We assess each request in line with the policies stated on our website and respond promptly.

The ATO has sent us 5 takedown requests. We give every request serious consideration and have responded to each within a day. We agreed with 4 requests and promptly acted on them to remove the material. One of the most recent requests did not meet our takedown policy so we have not taken it down.

We’ve previously been asked to redact the names of ATO staff due to a processing error made by the ATO which put their staff at risk. We responded within an hour and agreed to take down the material, giving the ATO time to supply correctly redacted documents a few days later.

In once case we were not asked to redact names. Instead we were asked to remove a request by a member of the public for an internal review into the decision about their FOI request. The ATO claimed that they found it abusive towards their staff members. The ATO’s takedown request did not meet our takedown policy, so we left the request up on Right To Know.

The ATO has responded by refusing to accept lawful requests* made via Right to Know until we comply with their demands. These include “a manned contact number, address for service, and [undertaking] to remove any unacceptable material promptly”. The ATO has already stated that they’d “probably not be successful in obtaining a court injunction to remove the offending material on the grounds it was defamatory, or threatening in a criminal sense.” (See here for the documents where this is mentioned). This appears to be a clear attempt by the ATO to impose requirements over and beyond what are required by the Freedom of Information Act, which is disappointing considering the ATO was perfectly willing to respond to several requests before our request to remove an internal review.

We work hard to ensure that Right To Know is a safe environment where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent. We stand by our community and join their polite and respectful calls to the ATO to start processing the valid FOI requests made to them by people using righttoknow.org.au.

Correspondence timeline

This is a list of all contact between the ATO and Right to Know:

  • 10 March 2016 – ATO request removal of 6 requests containing personal information.
    • Requests were hidden on the same day as they contained personal information.
  • 13 May 2016 – ATO request removal of documents that were inadvertently published which contained names of employees who deal with criminal investigations.
    • Documents were hidden within 1 hour of the request being sent to our designated contact email address
    • Documents were not re-sent by the ATO until 19 May 2016.
  • 21 June 2016 – ATO request removal of a request containing personal and business information.
    • Request was hidden in less than 10 minutes.
  • 30 June 2016 – ATO Assistant Commissioner (General Counsel) request removal of an Internal Review request made by a person using Right To Know.
    • Right to Know volunteers and staff discuss the request and determine it doesn’t meet our published guidelines for removing information from the site.
    • 1 July 2016 – Right to Know volunteer calls the ATO Assistant Commissioner at his request to discuss the matter.
      • Right to Know advise that it appears that the request doesn’t meet our published guidelines for removal.
      • ATO advises that they believe the Internal Review request implies that staff were “untruthful and behave appallingly”. The ATO Assistant Commissioner advises they will obtain an injunction against Right to Know should Right to Know refuse to remove the request.
      • The matter is referred to the directors of the OpenAustralia Foundation.
    • The OpenAustralia Foundation directors decide to no longer respond to the ATO on this request and await the injunction order.
  • 5 August 2016 – ATO request that Right to Know contact a user of the site in relation to the request on 21 June 2016
    • 15 August 2016 – Right to Know forward the information to the user as requested
  • 18 August – ATO stops responding to requests via Right to Know and advises users to contact them directly to make their request.
  • 19 August 2016 – ATO Assistant Commissioner (General Counsel) sends an email about the refused requests to Right to Know
  • 29 August 2016 – Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) acknowledges a review request made by a volunteer of Right to Know
    • The review request was made in response to an application made using Right to Know.
    • The review request was made from the volunteer’s personal email account, and it was clearly stated that the volunteer made the application in a personal capacity and not on behalf of Right to Know.
  • 15 September 2016 – ATO contact Right to Know in relation to FOI requests made in relation to decision to refuse to process requests
    • 16 September 2016 – Right to Know advise that we have no objection to the release of the document
  • 14 October 2016 – ATO request removal of request containing a Tax File Number
    • Request was hidden within 15 minutes of ATO email
  • 20 October 2016 – ATO request removal of a request that contains a number of business names and ABN/ACN numbers
    • Right to Know seek clarification within 30 minutes as the information is available publicly (via the ASIC register).
    • No response is received by the ATO
  • 2 November 2016 – OAIC contacts the Right to Know volunteer in relation to the review (now a complaint) acknowledged on 29 August 2016
    • This includes a request from the ATO to remove material previously considered on 30 June
    • The request is referred by the volunteer to the directors of the OpenAustralia Foundation who take no further action as they have not been contacted by the OAIC at this stage.
  • 21 November 2016 – OAIC make a request for information to Right to Know (see questions and responses above)
    • The directors of the OpenAustralia Foundation respond to the request on 4 December 2016

More background material

You can view peoples’ information requests to the ATO on Right To Know. In response to a request made directly through private email to the ATO, they released other relevant documents. You’ll also find correspondence between the ATO and the OAIC relating to the ATO’s actions, and peoples’ analysis of those documents, on Right To Know.

1 comments

There’s no better way to learn how easy FOI requests are than to make one

Posted on by Luke Bacon

Meme from Yes Minister TV show, stuffy minister saying “Freedom of Information?! What on earth for?”

Yes Minister Meme by CryptoParty Sydney organiser Gabor Szathmari

Most people I speak to about making Freedom of Information requests think it’s too difficult to waste time on—it’s for lawyers, not them. When I’ve seen our FOI system presented in a teaching context, the clear message is ‘FOI is too hard, too slow, and too expensive’. The message has sunk in, including with journalists, lawyers, researchers, and activists, many of whom have decided not to worry with it.

This assessment doesn’t ring true with my experience, or what I see in the 2500 requests made through Right To Know, our best public record of our FOI system. The results you get vary wildly depending on what you’re asking for, which public body you’re asking, and who’s processing it for you on their end. In my experience, FOI is often free, fast, and easy. I’ve taken to popping in a request on my phone at lunch when an interesting question comes to mind (#lunchtimeFOI).

The prevalence of the idea that FOI is too hard might explain why each year people in Australia only make roughly 3 FOI requests per 100,000 people, compared to about 70 by people in the UK (an amazing stat Henare calculated). We’ve got some work to do.

There’s no better way to discover how easy and useful FOI requests are than to make one yourself and experience it.

Workshop with CryptoParty Sydney

Picture of Luke Bacon presenting to a group of people at laptops about FOI requests

Luke presenting to the wonderful gang at the OpenAustralia Foundation/CryptoParty Sydney mashup event

Last Tuesday, Henare and I ran a workshop with CryptoParty Sydney to help people who care about privacy and security learn a new way to get the practical information they want from our governments using FOI requests.

CryptoParty attendees are inquisitive people who want real, detailed information. The event was packed out with people keen to learn how to get it.

We ran the event in two sections. Henare kicked things off by introducing everyone to our Freedom of Information rights and system in Australia. He showed how you can use FOI to learn about what’s happening in your local area, or to reveal information that impacts all of us. He also demonstrated why the OpenAustralia Foundation’s Right To Know website is the best way to make requests.

I then lead an hour long workshop for everyone to make a real FOI request. To make the process straight forward, we walked through four simple questions to generate ideas and narrow in to specify the documents we wanted:

  1. What are you interested in?
  2. What do you want to know about that?
  3. Which documents have that information?
  4. Who has those documents?

We created some boilerplate request text for everyone to use (and you can too):

Dear <Organisation with the information>,

Could you please send through <documents with the information you want>.

If possible, please treat this as an administrative/informal request. Otherwise please proceed with my request as a formal information request under the Act.

Yours faithfully,

<Your name>

By the end of the night over 30 requests had been made, with more coming through the week. We were really impressed by everyone’s attitude and great ideas.

A few of the interesting requests were for NSW Police’s guidelines for protecting the privacy of those in custody, the Department of Education’s process for deciding that a student can be exempted from their Unique Student Identifier system, and discussions at the Attorney-General’s Department about banning forms of encryption.

You can see our slides if you’re interested to read more about our process.

A huge thanks to Gabor Szathmari of CryptoParty Sydney for partnering with us and making the event so smooth. Thanks so much to everyone who came and made it a great night!

“Friendly, easy to understand and welcoming.”

Judging from the feedback we received, and the number of requests submitted, I think this was a really successful workshop. One attendee commented that the process was “Friendly, easy to understand and welcoming.” This is the exact opposite of the scary reputation that FOI has in Australia—this really warmed my heart! One person who works in youth support services told me that a lawyer at their organisation asked why they were going to something about FOI, saying “it’s too hard”. Their experience in the workshop completely changed their mind and now they want to empower the kids they work with with this skill.

Sounds exciting?

This is the first time we’ve run a workshop like this to walk people through the process of asking our government for information. There are lots of communities and civil society groups formed around issues like local planning, music, art, human rights, the environment, education, etc. . You might be part of one. If you are, and you’d like to discover how useful and easy it is to make FOI requests, we’d love to talk with you about running more workshops like this in 2017.

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How to send your Freedom of Information request to many authorities at once

Posted on by Henare Degan

Right To Know makes it simple for you to request information from any public authority in Australia. Sometimes you might want to ask the same question but to lots of different public authorities at once. Right To Know can help you there too, with batch requests.

Batch requests let you write one request that gets sent to lots of authorities at once. This is really handy if you want the same document but from different authorities, like this request for the social media policy of different government departments:

Screenshot showing the page of the Social Media Policy batch request on Right To Know

If you have a request you’d like to make to many authorities at once then get in touch and we can enable batch requests for your account too.

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Happy Right To Know Day – you have the Right To Know, now right across Australia

Posted on by Henare Degan

Photo of Highway 1, Australia stretching into the distance

Highway 1, Australia by Tony Bowden, used with thanks under Creative Commons

Is it safe for your children to swim in the river? How much did your council spend on that fancy new mobile app? Will we be building better public transport? How much graffiti is being reported in your area? What really happened to those stranded whales you heard about?

Australia’s state and local governments create and hold some of the most vital information on your behalf and you have the right to access it. As you can see in the requests above you can use Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to open this government information and answer important questions that help you, your family, and your community.

Now you can use Right To Know to make these requests to any state authority and local government in Australia.

From day one we imagined a single site where you can request information from any government authority in Australia. Today—on International Right To Know Day no less—that becomes a reality.

If you want answers, use your right to know and make a request.

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OpenAustralia Foundation responds for your Right To Know

Posted on by kat

Today the ABC reports “Tax Office imposes blanket ban on FOI requests via Right To Know website”. In the article the OpenAustralia Foundation’s response provides the context of the Australian Tax Office’s (ATO) refusal to process valid FOI requests made through the Right To Know. We hope to see the ATO continue to process your requests, as they have for the previous 4 years, and return to complying with the Freedom of Information guidelines of the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

Here’s the response we sent through to Simon Elvery at the ABC in full:

Up to now we’ve had a good working relationship with the ATO. We’re genuinely baffled by the reasoning they use to justify their refusal to process requests via Right To Know.

Since receiving their first FOI request from a person using Right To Know almost 4 years ago the ATO has helpfully responded to dozens of other requests. From time to time we receive takedown requests from people and government agencies and we act on each and every one of them in line with our clear takedown policy.

In total, the ATO has sent us 5 takedown requests. We give every request serious consideration and have responded to each within a day. We agreed with 4 requests and promptly acted on them to remove the material. One of the most recent requests did not meet our takedown policy so we have not taken it down.

We’ve previously been asked to redact the names of ATO staff due to a processing error made by the ATO which put their staff at risk. We responded within an hour and agreed to take down the material, giving the ATO time to supply correctly redacted documents a few days later.

In this case we have not been asked to redact names. Instead we were asked to remove a request by a member of the public for an internal review into the decision about their FOI request. The ATO claimed that they found it abusive towards their staff members. The ATO’s takedown request did not meet our takedown policy, so we have left the request up on Right To Know.

We work hard to ensure that Right To Know is a safe environment where people can work productively with government on furthering the government’s own goals of being open and transparent. We stand by our community and join their polite and respectful calls to the ATO to start processing the valid FOI requests made to them by people using righttoknow.org.au.

And here’s the ATO’s statement that the ABC provided us:

The ATO’s decision to cease processing requests via the Right to Know website does not relate to one specific case. Rather, this decision was taken due to our concerns about systemic issues with the management of FOI requests through this website. In particular:

  • Publishing all procedural material about FOI requests is not acceptable, nor is having no contact number, address or ability to respond promptly to email requests.
  • We are particularly concerned with the names of staff processing the FOI request being published on the website, when this information is not relevant to the FOI application.
  • We also have concerns that the website takes no responsibility for supervising posts or removing unacceptable material, and the ATO will not be exposing staff to this risk.
  • The ATO complies fully with the FOI legislation. People can make FOI requests direct to the ATO by emailing foi@ato.gov.au or through the paper form available at www.ato.gov.au

1 comments

Another big story from Right To Know, and how you can do it too

Posted on by Henare Degan

Screenshot showing the released document that has a table of agency names

Over recent weeks there’s been lots of interest in a story about Australia’s mandatory data retention regime. In passing these controversial laws last year the government agreed to reign in the number of agencies able to access your data. However, the laws allowed agencies to re-apply for access. Two weeks ago it was discovered that over 60 agencies have done just that. This discovery was reported by most major news organisations in Australia.

While mandatory data retention concerns the OpenAustralia Foundation–after all, most of what we do is on the internet–this post isn’t about that. It’s about the largely untold story behind this recent discovery. It was all down to one person who is deeply concerned about the implications of data retention.

A couple of months ago Geordie Guy submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request publicly using our FOI request site Right To Know. What sparked all of the media interest recently is that his request was successful and it revealed the names of most of the 61 agencies seeking warrantless access to your metadata.

Dozens of news stories over several days, all from one person’s request on Right To Know.

The amazing thing is that you can do this too, about the issues that you care about. As you can read in his fascinating article about the process he went through, Geordie knows a thing or two about the FOI process. But you don’t need to and that’s the great thing about Right To Know.

When the agency initially indicated they were planning to refuse his request, Geordie cleverly changed its scope. If you were making a request and the same thing happened, you could add an annotation to your request asking for help from the fabulous community on Right To Know. They’ll almost certainly help you get the information you’re after.

Usually requests are free but in this case the agency decided to charge over $500 for access to these documents. This didn’t stop Geordie either. He successfully crowdfunded the fees for the request in just two and half hours. This isn’t the first time someone has crowdfunded FOI requests on Right To Know. It once again shows that there are people out there ready to support your quest for public access to important documents.

Have a listen to Heidi Pett’s story about this case on ABC Radio National’s PM programme. It’s one of the few media reports that looks at the full story and acknowledges the passionate individuals and volunteers that helped this this important information about our data retention system see the light of day.

We hope it will inspire you to make your own request for information about something you care about. Go ahead and create a new request on Right To Know now.

1 comments

The next 3 months are going to be really busy – here is our plan

Posted on by Matthew Landauer

Planning Session Whiteboard

Since the beginning of this year the core team at the OpenAustralia Foundation has been getting together for a day every quarter to make a plan for the upcoming 3 months. As our team grows (we’re now 3 full time people) these kinds of occasional but regular planning sessions help to keep us working well together.

On Monday 22 June we got together in person in Sydney to plan out what we would do from the beginning of July to the end of September this year.

This is also a good opportunity for us all to take a step back and look at our big picture priorities.

This is roughly how we structured the planning session:

  • We looked back at our previous 3 months and wrote down every big thing we’d achieved or actively put on hold. Had each item been in our plan for the previous 3 months? What deviated from the plan and why? What was good about it? What was bad about it? – This wasn’t supposed to be a debrief or review. The purpose of looking at the last 3 months was purely about helping focus and seeing what affected our plan for the next 3 months.
  • Then, we created our big picture wish list for what we’d all like to work on next. This was a mixture of things that were in our plan for the year as well things that we individually or as a group feel passionate about. We’re firm believers in taking advantage of our passions and energy when the mood strikes. So, sometimes we juggle things to keep those passions alive. It’s important to us that working at the OpenAustralia Foundation doesn’t just become “a job”.
  • Then, we moved items from that wishlist to a 3 month calendar very roughly estimating the time for each thing, taking into account any holidays that we each had booked and who would likely work on what. This is the stage that generated the most discussion and the most difficult choices.

And now to the plan…

A plan for what to work on also includes what not to work on. We decided not to work on Right To Know over July – October to let the addition of NSW and NT to Right To Know “bed in”. Our administration and support for the site will continue as normal and we expect to learn a lot about the freedom of information laws in each state and specific issues that people run into as they make requests.

July

A Federal Election later in the year?

There’s a reasonable chance that we will have a Federal election later this year and so we took the opportunity to start thinking about what we might specifically do that’s focused on the election. In recent Federal elections we’ve run the electionleaflets.org.au site which has taken the majority of our time in the run up to the election. Most of that was on publicising the site through the mainstream media, partnering with news organisations, the National Library of Australia and using social media to get the message out, and targeting leaflet collectors through local libraries across the country.

As a result of the new unsustainable effort it requires at each election we decided earlier this year that we would be winding down our support for Election Leaflets. We do plan to write more about this soon.

So, at the next federal election we’re looking to be putting our support behind another project. Instead of starting something new we’d like to support an already existing and successful community-led project. We have a project in mind and we’ll be contacting them soon to see if they’d like to work with us.

Monthly meetups

For the last year we’ve been hosting a monthly meetup in Sydney with the aim of nurturing and supporting the burgeoning civic technology community in Australia. It’s been a very low-key event, with good people sharing ideas, company and support over a few beers.

Starting in July we aim to experiment a little with the format of these monthly meetups with the aim of increasing the number of people who build and start small civic technology projects. So, to start with, we’re going to add lightning talks to the pub meet to give people a platform to talk about the cool things they’ve made.

We would also love for there to be monthly meetups in every major city in Australia covering the kinds of work that we do as well as the broader civic tech area.

Specifically, in July we plan to do our bit to help get a meetup going in Brisbane.

Making morph.io even better

For a good chunk of July, the plan is that Henare and Matthew will focus on morph.io. There have been some big changes to the morph.io backend which runs scrapers and it’s important that Henare is up to speed with how that all works now so that he’s able to effectively provide support for our growing user base.

Also, we’re going to add a feature to give people the option to financially support morph.io through a monthly subscription with the higher scales offering priority technical support. Just for fun (and a little social motivation) we’re going to make this public by putting little badges on peoples’ public morph.io profiles.

We’re also going to do a big push on the morph.io documentation especially the “how to get started” kind of documentation. This will include highlighting particular libraries for each language that we recommend. We will also see if we can get other open source scraping libraries to mention us in their documentation to get the word out to more people about the open source morph.io platform.

Renegotiating commercial PlanningAlerts API contracts

As you are probably aware we charge for commercial access to the PlanningAlerts API. Most contracts are now up for renegotiation. We plan to start this process with our commercial clients in the middle of July. The purpose of course for us is to increase our fees (our coverage has increased, most clients’ usage has increased) so that we can continue to build and maintain services like PlanningAlerts for everyone.

Upgrading and migrating servers

We’ve had plans afoot since the beginning of the year to upgrade and change our server infrastructure. We need to do this because the version of Ubuntu we’re running on our main server is at the end of its life and we want to take the opportunity to move away from one monolithic server which runs the majority of our sites to a larger set of smaller virtual machine (VMs) which run individual sites.

We’ve hit a big delay along the way to do with our hosting provider building the capacity to provision multiple smaller VMs. So, instead we plan to take an alternative approach if its possible of separately upgrading our monolithic server first followed by the migration to smaller VMs later in the year. The upgrade needs to happen as soon as possible. Hopefully we can make it happen in July.

August

Charging commercial users of PlanningAlerts

There are a large number of real-estate agents and property developers who use the free PlanningAlerts service to help them do their job. We think this is a good thing. For those people who use PlanningAlerts to help get them an income we would like to find ways to get those people to financially support PlanningAlerts.

That’s why in August we plan to start charging people who have 3 or more email alerts setup in PlanningAlerts. For community groups or non-commercial individual users who have 3 or more alerts they will still be able to get that for free if they contact us.

Scraping course and workshop

At the beginning of September we plan to run a scraping course and workshop. We will start planning and organising this in the beginning of August.

September

The month will start by holding the scraping course and workshop.

PlanningAlerts – write to your local councillor

Then, Luke and Henare will start working on our next major project. The idea is simple. In PlanningAlerts allow people to write to their councillor about a development application on top of what it currently does which allows you to write a comment on a development application which directly feeds back into the official process.

The aim is to strengthen the connection between citizens and local councillors around one of the most important things that local government does which is planning.

This will actually be a surprisingly technically involved project which will involve quite a few different pieces. We will need to find out every councillor in the country, including their contact details (and hopefully their picture). We already starting collecting this data by writing scrapers. Then, information will need to get crowdsourced. We plan to store this information in PopIt (so it can be reused by others) and we will integrate PlanningAlerts with WriteIt to actually send the emails to the councillors.

Then, of course, there’s the vital bit of making this work beautifully and simply within the existing PlanningAlerts application. This is the most fun, satisfying and crucial bit.

Making PlanningAlerts commenting even better

While they’re working on that they will also explore improving some of the flow of the whole commenting process. What if people had a next step after adding a comment? Start a campaign? Share their comment on social media? There’s some really interesting possibilities here that could significantly improve peoples’ positive experience and increase the number of people who engage with their local government. A win win.

What can you do?

If you like what you see here and would like to help make all these things happen then support us by making a donation. After all, it’s almost the end of the financial year and any donation over $2 you make to us is tax deductible.

Thank you!

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A step forward for open government in NSW and the NT

Posted on by Henare Degan

Warragamba Dam spilling image by Sydney Catchment Authority, used under Creative Commons. See https://www.flickr.com/photos/77473963@N03/6960820775

Photo by Sydney Catchment Authority, used with thanks under Creative Commons

Millions of people in New South Wales and the Northern Territory can now easily make requests for information from their governments and local councils. We’ve added hundreds of new authorities to Right To Know that cover state, territory, and local government in NSW and the NT.

Right To Know makes it simple for you discover useful government information by helping you create a Freedom of Information (FOI) request (they have slightly different names in NSW and the NT and we’ll talk about the differences in laws soon). By automatically publishing the entire correspondence of the request online it makes it easy for other people to discover information released by our governments, and learn how to make effective requests themselves.

It’s been a long journey for us to add these new authorities. You’d probably be surprised at how much work is needed to gather information on all the authorities covered by FOI laws around Australia – there’s no comprehensive list available. It wasn’t just the data gathering exercise that took a lot of effort.

Every state and territory around Australia is covered by its own access to information law. That means there’s 9 different laws to consider including the Federal level, each with key differences. We work really hard on all OpenAustralia Foundation projects to insulate people from this kind of complexity. People just want the government to give them the information they need – they don’t want to have to become an FOI expert.

A critical problem with the FOI laws of every Australian state and the NT is that they require a fee, typically around $30, just to lodge a request for information. This entry fee is a clear impediment to the stated goals of these laws to make government information readily accessible to the people. We’ve deliberately not catered for this problematic part of the law in Right To Know.

All the Australian FOI laws have provisions for informal access or fee waivers. Our hope is that government agencies will do the right thing by requesters and exercise these helpful provisions in the laws. We’re pleased to share examples on Right To Know of agencies in NSW and the NT that are doing exactly this – helping people access the information they’ve requested with as little administrative cost as possible.

The Sydney Catchment Authority was extremely helpful in providing river water quality data in response to a request from Luke Bacon. The City of Darwin council also helpfully provided a set of documents in response to a request I made about changes to parking permits in the city. We would like to send out a big thank you to the authorities and FOI officers who for provided this information. You serve as great examples for other FOI officers wanting to help citizens access government information important to them.

So, people of NSW and the NT, what information are you interested in? Go ahead and make a request on RightToKnow.org.au to find out.

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Helping people open governments around the world – AlaveteliCon 2015

Posted on by Henare Degan

A fortnight ago I had the privilege of attending AlaveteliCon 2015 in Madrid. It’s the conference about online Freedom of Information (FOI) technologies named after Alaveteli, the open source software that runs Right To Know.

Looking back it was a huge two days packed with sessions on every important aspect of running FOI request sites. While it would be impossible for me to give a recap on the whole conference, I hope to share my personal perspective in this post. As well as giving you sense of the conference it should also give you an idea of the types of topics that I’m finding particularly relevant to our current situation in Australia with Right To Know.

It’s the people

AlaveteliCon 2015 brought together over 50 people from dozens of different countries and all corners of the globe. It’s the people are always what make a conference and we’re lucky that the Alaveteli community is full of great people. Everyone candidly shared the successes, failures, frustrations, and downright hilarious moments that make up running an FOI request site. People at the conference represented sites that have hundreds of thousands of requests through to hundreds of requests, in countries with no FOI law through to countries with supposedly excellent laws.

Thank you to everyone that shared their stories at the conference. It was a powerful reminder that no matter how hard we think the struggle for access to information is in our own country, someone somewhere else in the world is facing much tougher odds. And importantly – there’s always more than one way to approach a problem to deal with those odds.

Telling war stories

The panel I was asked to participate in was about telling war stories. The conference organisers were particularly interested in hearing the extraordinary lengths a certain authority in Australia went to to avoid responding to a set of FOI requests. It was the story of the Detention Logs project.

While I shared the honest truth of the so far unsuccessful battle they’ve fought, I also wanted to point out a powerfully positive aspect of that project. By using open platforms like Alaveteli everything the project has produced so far will be a record for future generations and governments to learn from. It also means that anyone, at any time can continue and build on the work they’ve already done. In other words, by using open platforms it means that this story is far from over.

Using Alaveteli to change FOI laws for the better

The unconference session that I proposed and moderated on the second day was very popular – using sites like Alaveteli to change FOI laws for the better. Since there’s almost certainly no country in the world with perfect FOI laws it should be no surprise that this would be interesting to anyone running an FOI request site. Earlier in the conference we’d already heard that Civio and Access Info launched their Spanish FOI site before a law even existed and they successfully used the presence of their site and all its requests to advocate for the creation of an access to information law.

During the session we talked of creating a simple summary of what makes a good access to information law. Such as prompt and enforceable response times, no application fees, and accessible reviews of decisions. As we expand Right To Know to cover Australia’s states and territories this is of particular interest to us. Sadly every state and territory in Australia, except the ACT, has application fees in place for FOI requests. This financial entry fee needs to be removed to make access to information accessible to all and freedom of information, frankly, free.

Talking tech

The lead developers of the Alaveteli software, Louise and Gareth, also ran a technical session where they asked deployers what they should be focussing on. It was great to hear broad support for something we’ve all been pushing for for a while – improving the core engineering of the software to allow us all to confidently make improvements in the future.

It was also during another technical session, unfortunately hampered by struggling internet, that we decided to set up a Slack real-time chat for the project. The hope with this is that it becomes a place where people can ask questions that they otherwise wouldn’t over email using the existing mailing lists. It remains to be seen if this plays out but it’s an important experiment.

See you at the next AlaveteliCon

At the first AlaveteliCon in 2012 many of us that attended hadn’t even set up their Alaveteli site (including us!). Getting together 3 years later it was great to hear so many people now experienced in the running of a request site. As I said to a number of people during the conference, our challenge from AlaveteliCon 2015 is to create a close-knit community. A community where we know if we have a problem, someone somewhere in the world has our back and to get help we can just pick up the phone – or maybe the Internet equivalent instead :)

Cheers,

Henare

P.S. A huge thank you to the fantastic teams at mySociety, Access Info and Open Society Foundations that made AlaveteliCon 2015 happen. An especially big thanks for providing me with a travel bursary, without which I could not have participated.

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