Blog

  • Release 0.19 29 August 2014

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.19!

    The highlights

    This release we’ve been working on making Alaveteli easier to install.

    We’ve also made some great improvements to the framework.

    • Added responsive stylesheets! We’ve made this the default, but you can configure whether they’re used or not in config/general.yml.
    • Support for the Portuguese locale.
    • Improved search term highlighting.
    • The Public Body Stats page can now be made available to your users.
    • Added a Rake task for cleaning up holding pen events (rake cleanup:holding_pen).
    • Added searching of bodies by their short name.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks to everyone who’s contributed!

  • Our research into the impact of technologies on FOI 03 July 2014

    In March this year mySociety put out a call for a research consultant to look at the place that Alaveteli - mySociety’s open source freedom of information (FOI) filer - might have in creating cultures of transparency and accountability. So, eventually, mySociety chose us - Savita Bailur and Tom Longley. Since we’re the strangers here, we’d like to introduce ourselves, give you an idea of the approach that we’ll be taking, and what we’ve found in the first weeks of the research.

    Who are we?

    Savita is a consultant who has previously worked for the World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, USAID, and Panos and taught at the University of Manchester and London School of Economics. She has a personal interest in freedom of information as her family in India successfully used the Right to Information Act in India to find out about violations of building regulations (although the legal process to change things is taking more time). If there’s one thing of Savita’s to read, it’s Closing the Feedback Loop : Can Technology Bridge the Accountability Gap?, which she wrote in and co-edited.

    Tom is a human rights and technology consultant who’s worked on field investigations of crimes against humanity. After years wading through stacks of documentation and interview transcripts, he became interested in how data and technologies could help this work. He has since worked for investigation organisations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Zimbabwe and others helping building up their ability to use data and technologies safely and effectively. Tom also consults for Tactical Technology Collective, Global Witness and Open Society Foundations. If there’s one thing of his to read, it’s probably “Deadly Environment”, a report about murders of environmental defenders.

    What are we doing?

    The top level question we’re addressing is: “In what circumstances, if any, can tools like Alaveteli be shown to have measurable impacts on the ability of citizens to exert power over underperforming institutions?” To get at this, we’ll be doing three things:

    • First, a review of the studies so far on the impact of the internet on FOI. Our early findings flag a lot of research into the mechanics of FOI, but very little on its impact, other than anecdotal evidence. There are some great points and questions raised in the literature however, which we combine into roughly ten areas of impact. These include FOI’s role in aiding the transition from transparency to accountability, the role of different groups (like the media, movements, non-governmental and community groups), public and institutional perceptions, security and privacy. We find that the overall challenge is that the technology is only part of the FOI value chain - governments also need to respond, and sanctions/enforcements put in place which ensure governments are transparent and accountable.

    • Second, a field scan of practitioners. There are nearly 20 FOI websites running Alaveteli. Some sites are just getting started, like Доступ До Правди (“Access the Truth”) in Ukraine. By talking with the people setting up and using these sites, we aim to pull together a view of what makes a successful implementation, what the challenges are, and what can be learned for future implementors of FOI sites.

    • Third, a list of critical success factors, pulled together from both the literature and practitioner reviews, which will be translated into major languages.

    All these documents should be published this September, along with something brief and readable with the topline findings.

    What are we asking of you?

    If you run an Alaveteli site, we may have already emailed you or will do very soon asking if you can spare some time to talk with us as part of the practioner review. More generally, we’re continuing to look for more articles and ‘grey’ literature, in particular any quantitative studies, about the role of technologies in FOI. We have a shorter list of articles we have found so far here, and a longer list here - have we missed any? Please let us know.

    To wrap up, this is first generation research into this area. We hope to have material that can be useful to you and mySociety. Any questions, get in touch via the comments field, or via twitter at any of our handles (@alaveteli_foi, @tlongers, @savitabailur).

    Short reference list

    Baisakh, Pradeep. 2007. “India Together: Villagers Push for Work Benefits in Orissa.” http://indiatogether.org/egarti-human-rights.

    Bauhr, Monika, and Marcia Grimes. 2014. “Indignation or Resignation: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability.” Governance 27 (2): 291–320. doi:10.1111/gove.12033.

    Bertot, John C., Paul T. Jaeger, and Justin M. Grimes. 2010. “Using ICTs to Create a Culture of Transparency: E-Government and Social Media as Openness and Anti-Corruption Tools for Societies.” Government Information Quarterly 27 (3): 264–71. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.001.

    Birkinshaw, Patrick. 2010. “Freedom of Information and Its Impact in the United Kingdom.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 312–21. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.06.006.

    Brooke, Heather. 2011. “Fess up - or Face a Future of Leaks.” British Journalism Review 22 (1): 17–19. doi:10.1177/09564748110220010601.

    Cabo, David. (2012). “Tu derecho a saber” David Cabo at TedxMadrid. Accessed June 25. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okta1VjTM0I.

    Cherry, Morag, and David McMenemy. 2013. “Freedom of Information and ‘vexatious’ Requests — The Case of Scottish Local Government.” Government Information Quarterly 30 (3): 257–66. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2013.02.004.

    Consumer Unity and Trust Society. 2010. Analysing the Right to Information Act in India. Jaipur: Consumer Unity and Trust Society.

    Costa, Samia. 2013. “Do Freedom of Information Laws Decrease Corruption?” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 29 (6): 1317–43. doi:10.1093/jleo/ews016.

    Dunion, K. 2011. “Viewpoint: In Defence of Freedom of Information.” Information Polity 16 (2): 93–96. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0233.

    Etzioni, Amitai. 2010. “Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?” Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (4): 389–404. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2010.00366.x.

    Finel, Bernard I., and Kristin M. Lord. 1999. “The Surprising Logic of Transparency.” International Studies Quarterly 43 (2): 325–39. doi:10.1111/0020-8833.00122.

    Fox, Jonathan. 2007. “The Uncertain Relationship between Transparency and Accountability.” Development in Practice 17 (4-5): 663–71. doi:10.1080/09614520701469955.

    Gandhi, Shailesh. 2007. “The RTI Movement Will Lead India to Swaraj.” Accessed June 24. http://www.rediff.com/news/2007/oct/11guest.htm. Global Right to Information Rating. 2014. “Country Data.” http://www.rti-rating.org/.

    Government of India. 2005. “Right to Information, Planning Commission, Governement of India.” http://planningcommission.gov.in/rti/index.php.

    Grimmelikhuijsen, Stephan. 2012. “A Good Man but a Bad Wizard. About the Limits and Future of Transparency of Democratic Governments.” Information Polity 17 (3): 293–302. doi:10.3233/IP-2012-000288.

    Hazell, R., Benjamin Worthy, and M. Glover. 2010. The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK: Does Freedom of Information Work? London: Palgrave Macmillan. http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=407804.

    Hazell, Robert, and Ben Worthy. 2010. “Assessing the Performance of Freedom of Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 352–59. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.005.

    India Together: RTI: An Enormous Power with the People: Vinita Deshmukh - 07 August 2006. 2006. http://indiatogether.org/arvind-interviews.

    Jaeger, Paul T., and John Carlo Bertot. 2010. “Transparency and Technological Change: Ensuring Equal and Sustained Public Access to Government Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 371–76. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.05.003.

    Joshi, Anuradha. 2013. “Do They Work? Assessing the Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives in Service Delivery.” Development Policy Review 31: s29–s48. doi:10.1111/dpr.12018.

    McDonagh, Maeve. 2013. “The Right to Information in International Human Rights Law.” Human Rights Law Review 13 (1). http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2446424.

    Meijer, Albert Jacob. 2003. “Transparent Government: Parliamentary and Legal Accountability in an Information Age.” Information Polity 8 (1): 67–78.

    Michener, Greg. 2011. “FOI Laws Around the World.” Journal of Democracy 22 (2): 145–59. doi:10.1353/jod.2011.0021.

    Michener, Greg, and Katherine Bersch. 2013. “Identifying Transparency.” Information Polity 18 (3): 233–42. doi:10.3233/IP-130299.

    Minihan, Mary. 2014. “Cabinet Abolishes €15 Freedom of Information Fee”, July 1. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/cabinet-abolishes-15-freedom-of-information-fee-1.1851481.

    Nye, Joseph S., Philip Zelikow, and David C. King. 1997. Why People Don’t Trust Government. Boston: Harvard University Press.

    Roberts, Alasdair. 2010. “A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act.” Public Administration Review 70 (6): 925–33. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2010.02224.x.

    Shepherd, Elizabeth, Alice Stevenson, and Andrew Flinn. 2011. “Freedom of Information and Records Management in Local Government: Help or Hindrance?” Information Polity 16 (2): 111–21. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0229.

    Spence, Kate, and William Dinan. 2011. “Healthy Tensions? Assessing FOI Uptake in the Voluntary Sector in Scotland.” Information Polity 16 (2): 97–109. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0228.

    Srivastava, Smita. 2010. “The Right to Information in India: Implementation and Impact.” Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences 1 (1): 1–18.

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2012). Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2012. Accessed June 25. http://blog-tdas.s3.amazonaws.com/blog-tdas/2013/04/informe2012.pdf

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2013). Silencio masivo de las instituciones en el año de la transparencia: Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2013. Accessed June 25. http://blog.tuderechoasaber.es/informe2013/.

    UNDP. 2006. A Guide to Measuring the Impact of Right to Information Programmes; Practical Guide Note. New York: UNDP.

    Worthy, Ben. 2010. “More Open but Not More Trusted? The Effect of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 on the United Kingdom Central Government.” Governance 23 (4): 561–82. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0491.2010.01498.x.

    Long reference list

    Baisakh, Pradeep. 2007. “India Together: Villagers Push for Work Benefits in Orissa.” http://indiatogether.org/egarti-human-rights.

    Bannister, Frank, and Regina Connolly. 2011. “The Trouble with Transparency: A Critical Review of Openness in E-Government.” Policy & Internet 3 (1): 1–30. doi:10.2202/1944-2866.1076.

    Bauhr, Monika, and Marcia Grimes. 2014. “Indignation or Resignation: The Implications of Transparency for Societal Accountability.” Governance 27 (2): 291–320. doi:10.1111/gove.12033.

    Bentham, Jeremy, and Sir John Bowring. 1839. Works of Jeremy Bentham. W. Tait.

    Berliner, Daniel. 2014. “The Political Origins of Transparency.” The Journal of Politics 76 (02): 479–91. doi:10.1017/S0022381613001412.

    Bertot, John C., Paul T. Jaeger, and Justin M. Grimes. 2010. “Using ICTs to Create a Culture of Transparency: E-Government and Social Media as Openness and Anti-Corruption Tools for Societies.” Government Information Quarterly 27 (3): 264–71. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.001.

    Birkinshaw, Patrick. 2010. “Freedom of Information and Its Impact in the United Kingdom.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 312–21. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.06.006.

    Breton, Albert. 2007. The Economics of Transparency in Politics. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

    Brooke, Heather. 2011. “Fess up - or Face a Future of Leaks.” British Journalism Review 22 (1): 17–19. doi:10.1177/09564748110220010601.

    Cabo, David. (2012). “Tu derecho a saber” David Cabo at TedxMadrid. Accessed June 25. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okta1VjTM0I.

    Cherry, Morag, and David McMenemy. 2013. “Freedom of Information and ‘vexatious’ Requests — The Case of Scottish Local Government.” Government Information Quarterly 30 (3): 257–66. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2013.02.004.

    Consumer Unity and Trust Society. 2010. Analysing the Right to Information Act in India. Jaipur: Consumer Unity and Trust Society.

    Costa, Samia. 2013. “Do Freedom of Information Laws Decrease Corruption?” Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization 29 (6): 1317–43. doi:10.1093/jleo/ews016.

    Douglass, Frederick. 2014. “(1857) Frederick Douglass, ‘If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress’ - The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed.” Accessed June 24. http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress.

    Dunion, K. 2011. “Viewpoint: In Defence of Freedom of Information.” Information Polity 16 (2): 93–96. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0233.

    Etzioni, Amitai. 2010. “Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?” Journal of Political Philosophy 18 (4): 389–404. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9760.2010.00366.x.

    Fenster, Mark. 2010. Seeing the State: Transparency as Metaphor. SSRN Scholarly Paper ID 1562762. Gainesville, Florida: University of Florida. http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=1562762.

    Finel, Bernard I., and Kristin M. Lord. 1999. “The Surprising Logic of Transparency.” International Studies Quarterly 43 (2): 325–39. doi:10.1111/0020-8833.00122.

    Fox, Jonathan. 2007. “The Uncertain Relationship between Transparency and Accountability.” Development in Practice 17 (4-5): 663–71. doi:10.1080/09614520701469955.

    Fung, Archon. 2006. “Varieties of Participation in Complex Governance.” Public Administration Review 66: 66–75. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2006.00667.x.

    Gandhi, Shailesh. 2007. “The RTI Movement Will Lead India to Swaraj.” Global Right to Information Rating. 2014. “Country Data.” http://www.rti-rating.org/.

    Government of India. 2005. “Right to Information, Planning Commission, Governement of India.” http://planningcommission.gov.in/rti/index.php.

    Grimmelikhuijsen, Stephan. 2012. “A Good Man but a Bad Wizard. About the Limits and Future of Transparency of Democratic Governments.” Information Polity 17 (3): 293–302. doi:10.3233/IP-2012-000288.

    Hazell, R., Benjamin Worthy, and M. Glover. 2010. The Impact of the Freedom of Information Act on Central Government in the UK: Does Freedom of Information Work? London: Palgrave Macmillan. http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=407804.

    Hazell, Robert, and Ben Worthy. 2010. “Assessing the Performance of Freedom of Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 352–59. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.03.005.

    Hood, Christopher. 2006. “Transparency in Historical Perspective.” In Transparency: The Key to Better Governance?, edited by Christopher Hood and David Heald, 3–23. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. http://www.oup.co.uk/.

    India Together: RTI: An Enormous Power with the People: Vinita Deshmukh - 07 August 2006. 2006. http://indiatogether.org/arvind-interviews.

    Jaeger, Paul T., and John Carlo Bertot. 2010. “Transparency and Technological Change: Ensuring Equal and Sustained Public Access to Government Information.” Government Information Quarterly, Special Issue: Open/Transparent Government, 27 (4): 371–76. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2010.05.003.

    Joshi, Anuradha. 2013. “Do They Work? Assessing the Impact of Transparency and Accountability Initiatives in Service Delivery.” Development Policy Review 31: s29–s48. doi:10.1111/dpr.12018.

    Lathrop, Daniel, and Laurel Ruma. 2010. Open Government: Collaboration, Transparency, and Participation in Practice. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

    Linders, Dennis. 2012. “From E-Government to We-Government: Defining a Typology for Citizen Coproduction in the Age of Social Media.” Government Information Quarterly, Social Media in Government - Selections from the 12th Annual International Conference on Digital Government Research (dg.o2011), 29 (4): 446–54. doi:10.1016/j.giq.2012.06.003.

    McDonagh, Maeve. 2013. “The Right to Information in International Human Rights Law.” Human Rights Law Review 13 (1). http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2446424.

    Meijer, Albert J. 2012. “Introduction to the Special Issue on Government Transparency.” International Review of Administrative Sciences 78 (1): 3–9. doi:10.1177/0020852311435639.

    Meijer, Albert Jacob. 2003. “Transparent Government: Parliamentary and Legal Accountability in an Information Age.” Information Polity 8 (1): 67–78.

    Michener, Greg. 2011. “FOI Laws Around the World.” Journal of Democracy 22 (2): 145–59. doi:10.1353/jod.2011.0021.

    Michener, Greg, and Katherine Bersch. 2013. “Identifying Transparency.” Information Polity 18 (3): 233–42. doi:10.3233/IP-130299.

    Minihan, Mary. 2014. “Cabinet Abolishes €15 Freedom of Information Fee”, July 1. http://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/cabinet-abolishes-15-freedom-of-information-fee-1.1851481.

    Nye, Joseph S., Philip Zelikow, and David C. King. 1997. Why People Don’t Trust Government. Boston: Harvard University Press.

    Official Information: Your Right To Know — Ministry of Justice, New Zealand. 2014. Accessed June 24. http://www.justice.govt.nz/publications/global-publications/o/official-information-your-right-to-know.

    OneWorld. 2011. ICT Facilitated Access to Information Innovations.

    Press Association. 2009. “Telegraph Reveals Cost of MP’s Expense Story.”

    Roberts, Alasdair. 2010. “A Great and Revolutionary Law? The First Four Years of India’s Right to Information Act.” Public Administration Review 70 (6): 925–33. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6210.2010.02224.x.

    Schedler, Andreas. 1999. “Conceptualizing Accountability.” In The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies, edited by Larry Diamond and Marc Plattner, 13–28. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

    Shepherd, Elizabeth, Alice Stevenson, and Andrew Flinn. 2011. “Freedom of Information and Records Management in Local Government: Help or Hindrance?” Information Polity 16 (2): 111–21. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0229.

    Smith, Matthew L., and Katherine M. A. Reilly. 2014. Open Development: Networked Innovations in International Development. Ottawa: MIT Press.

    Spence, Kate, and William Dinan. 2011. “Healthy Tensions? Assessing FOI Uptake in the Voluntary Sector in Scotland.” Information Polity 16 (2): 97–109. doi:10.3233/IP-2011-0228.

    Srivastava, Smita. 2010. “The Right to Information in India: Implementation and Impact.” Afro Asian Journal of Social Sciences 1 (1): 1–18.

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2012). Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2012. Accessed June 25. http://blog-tdas.s3.amazonaws.com/blog-tdas/2013/04/informe2012.pdf

    Tuderechoasaber.es (2013). Silencio masivo de las instituciones en el año de la transparencia: Informe Tuderechoasaber.es 2013. Accessed June 25. http://blog.tuderechoasaber.es/informe2013/.

    UNDP. 2006. A Guide to Measuring the Impact of Right to Information Programmes; Practical Guide Note. New York: UNDP.

    Wilson, Woodrow, and William Bayard Hale. 1918. The New Freedom: A Call for the Emancipation of the Generous Energies of a People. Doubleday, Page.

    Worthy, Ben. 2010. “More Open but Not More Trusted? The Effect of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 on the United Kingdom Central Government.” Governance 23 (4): 561–82. doi:10.1111/j.1468-0491.2010.01498.x.

    Xiao, Weibing. 2010. “The Improved Information Environment as a Key Rationale for Freedom of Information Reform in China.” Information Polity 15 (3): 177–87. doi:10.3233/IP-2010-0214.

  • Alaveteli gets an upgrade 12 June 2013

    Brass Band Serenade by .sashi - http://www.flickr.com/photos/sashimanek/2319053387/
    Brass Band Serenade by .sashi - http://www.flickr.com/photos/sashimanek/2319053387/

    Today, we are using the phrase “Alaveteli upgrade” rather a lot - and not just because it’s such a great tongue-twister. It’s also a notable milestone for our open-source community.

    Alaveteli is our software for running Freedom of Information websites. The code can be deployed by people in other countries who wish to set up a site like our original UK one, WhatDoTheyKnow. If you’re a developer who would like to use the platform in your own country, it makes several things easier for you.

    Alaveteli will now be using the Rails 3 series - the series we were previously relying on, 2, has become obsolete. One benefit is that we’re fully supported by the core Rails team for security patches. But, more significant to our aim of sharing our software with organisations around the world, it makes Alaveteli easier to use and easier to contribute to. It’s more straightforward to install, dependencies are up-to-date, code is clearer, and there’s good test coverage - all things that will really help developers get their sites up and running without a problem.

    Rails cognoscenti will be aware that series 4.0 is imminent - and that we’ve only upgraded to 3.1 when 3.2 is available. We will be upgrading further in due course - it seemed sensible to progress in smaller steps. But meanwhile, we’re happy with this upgrade! The bulk of the work was done by Henare Degan and Matthew Landauer of the Open Australia Foundation, as volunteers - and we are immensely grateful to them. Thanks, guys.

    Find the Alaveteli code here - or read our guide to getting started.

    This entry is cross-posted from the main mySociety blog.

    Image credit: Sashi Manek (cc)

  • Release 0.9, and a new development roundup 24 April 2013

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.9 - hopefully the last release before we upgrade to Rails 3. The last few months have meant a bunch of behind the scenes upgrades, bugfixes and refactorings to get us to this point - with some highlights being:

    • Alaveteli now has better support for running entirely over SSL - as can be seen at WhatDoTheyKnow and the new Australian Right to Know site.

    • Upgrade to HTML 5

    • Preliminary support for running under ruby 1.9 (full support to come with the Rails 3 upgrade)

    • Better isolation and testing of the mail handling code

    • A more consistent admin user interface using Bootstrap by default

    • Better support for responsive front end themes and sqlite on the back end

    • A clearer and more consistent format for translations

    Thanks to everyone who’s contributed!

  • New for developers: deploying with capistrano, handling mail with Postfix. 12 November 2012

    It’s been a long time since the last post, but we’ve been busy! We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.6.8. A full list of changes is available on github. For developers, there are a couple of bits of good news - Alaveteli can now be easily deployed using Capistrano, and has support for using Postfix as an MTA, as well as Exim. Both of these features come courtesy of @matthewlandauer and @henaredegan of the Open Australia Foundation, who are getting very close to launching their own Alaveteli-based FOI site.

  • API update: now you can create and update requests 28 June 2012

    Version 0.6.1 of the software was recently released with an urgent security update.  Also included in this release was an extension of Alaveteli’s API, which allows developers to write apps that create and update requests on a per-public body basis.  There’s the start of some documentation here.

  • New for developers: bundler support 21 June 2012

    Thanks to lots of hard work from @mckinneyjames, Alaveteli now uses Bundler wherever possible to satisfy its dependencies.

    We have a few such dependencies, like recaptcha and rmagick.  Previously we installed these from system packages on Debian.  The advantages of using Bundler are:

    • We can upgrade to newer versions more quickly than Debian packages allow

    • It’s the standard way of packaging software in Rails 3, to which we will migrate in due course (in fact, we will probably skip straight to Rails 4…)

    • It brings the process of getting a working setup in OS X closer to that of building the same thing on a Linux-based system

    It’s not utopia – the first run of “bundle install” on a new system will take a very long time, because Xapian has to be compiled from scratch; and we can’t remove our non-rubygems dependencies like gnuplot and memcached.  However, as part of the slow process of moving to a modern Rails setup, this is a major step forward.

  • New feature: "following" and the "wall" 21 June 2012

    You’ve always been able to subscribe to email alerts about requests.  However, since WhatDoTheyKnow (the predecessor to Alaveteli) was first conceived, certain well-known websites have become the primary way many of us interact with the internet.  So we decided to use some of their technology.  Instead of subscribing to alerts, you now follow topics.  And when you follow a topic, by default this still means you get email; but you can turn email alerts off, and choose to view updates on a new “wall” area.

    Here’s the “Follow” button:

    Following a request
    Following a request

    …and here’s the “wall”:

    the new 'wall' in alaveteli
    the new 'wall' in alaveteli
  • New feature: easier request moderation 20 June 2012

    WhatDoTheyKnow has been criticised in the past for not doing more to discourage frivolous or abusive requests. The vast majority of requests for information are sensible, but we get a some citizens using the site to vent their anger or frustration at something, and a reasonable number of requests which are not really FOI requests at all, made by people who misunderstand the purpose of the site.

    Alaveteli has always supported hiding requests that are unsuitable, but in version 0.6 we’ve added some new functionality that makes the process smoother and faster.

    First, we allow any logged in user to report a request for moderation by an administrator. This is important because there’s no way we could support the moderation of requests before they are published on the site:

    Reporting a request
    Reporting a request

    Requests that have been reported now appear in a worklist on the home page of Alaveteli’s administrative interface:

    Reported requests
    Reported requests

    When a moderator clicks through to the edit page for the request, they are now presented with radio buttons to select a reason why the request should be hidden (if any). A text box appears prefilled with suggested text, and when the moderator hits the “hide request” button, this message is emailed to the requestor notifying them that their message has been hidden:

    Interface for hiding a request
    Interface for hiding a request

    Let us know if you find this useful, and if you think it needs any more tweaking!

  • New feature: the new bootstrap admin theme 20 June 2012

    One of the major new features in the latest release of Alaveteli is a more attractive (and hopefully more usable) admin theme.  Here’s a before-and-after shot of the home page:

    Admin interface before and after
    Admin interface before and after

    The theme was started at AlaveteliCon by @wombleton.  It’s based on Twitter’s Bootstrap framework, a CSS-and-javascript foundation for layout and styling of websites.  It tries to collapse the large amounts of data often found on a single page into smaller chunks that can be scanned more easily.

    When I started integrating the new code into the Alaveteli core, I realised that this might be quite a big and potentially unwanted step for users who are used to the old interface.  So I moved all the interface changes into their own theme, which can be installed or uninstalled by changing a line in the configuration file.

    The upshot of this is that instead of specifying a single theme in your site’s configuration file, you can now specify a list of themes.  When Alaveteli needs to display a help page, or a template, or a CSS file, it starts by looking in the first theme on the list.  If the resource isn’t there, it works through the other themes in order, until it falls back to the resources provided in Alaveteli itself.  This may be useful if you want to borrow someone else’s theme but just change the logo or colours; or perhaps if you want to temporarily add a banner at the top of your site to make an announcement about a change in FOI laws in your jurisdiction.

    In new installations of Alaveteli 0.6, the admin theme is installed by default, but existing installations that want to try the theme out will need to add it to their config file, as per the sample config supplied with Alaveteli.

    The new admin theme includes some new functionality that isn’t available in the old theme, and the old theme should be considered deprecated.  You can expect the new admin theme to be merged into the Alaveteli core (and the old theme to disappear) by version 0.7, so if you don’t like the new look, shout out on the mailing list before it’s too late!

  • Alaveteli 0.6 "fancy admin" released! 20 June 2012

    Finally Alaveteli 0.6 is out of the door! Grab it from the github master branch and try it out.  The most obvious new feature is a glossy new administrative interface, based on work started at AlaveteliCon by @wombleton.  If you are upgrading, be sure to read the upgrade notes in CHANGES.md, and the new section in the install docs about upgrading Alaveteli.  Drop a note to the alaveteli-dev mailing list if you need any help with your upgrade.

    A full list of changes is on Github.  Interesting features and bugfixes include:

    • Most Ruby dependencies are now handled by Bundler (thanks @mckinneyjames!)

    • Support for invalidating accelerator cache – this makes it much less likely, when using Varnish, that users will be presented with stale content. Fixes issue #436

    • Adding a GA_CODE to general.yml will cause the relevant Google Analytics code to be added to your rendered pages

    • It is now possible to have more than one theme installed. The behaviour of multiple themes is now layered in the reverse order they’re listed in the config file. See the variable THEME_URLS in general.yml-example for an example.

    • A new, experimental theme for the administrative interface. It’s currently packaged as a standalone theme, but will be merged into the core once it’s been tested and iterated in production a few times. Thanks to @wombleton for kicking this off!

    • Alert subscriptions are now referred to as “following” a request (or group of requests) throughout the UI. When a user “follows” a request, updates regarding that request are posted on a new “wall” page. Now they have a wall, users can opt not to receive alerts by email.

    • New features to support fast post-moderation of bad requests: a button for users to report potentially unsuitable requests, and a form control in the administrative interface that hides a request and sends the user an email explaining why.

    • A bug which prevented locales containing underscores (e.g. en_GB) was fixed (issue #503)

    • Error pages are now presented with styling from themes

    There are some blog posts about some of the new features here:

  • Alavetelicon, or how to give a voice to the people 15 May 2012

    This guest post by Romina Colman from Argentina is a translation of her original article at La Nacion

    Attending the first Alaveteli World Conference reminded me why I am dedicated to promoting access to public information in my country.

    At the University of Oxford, where the event was held, I found not just 50 delegates from 33 countries, but a group of people who, like myself, are convinced that only by working together will we bring the Right to Information to light.

    In this place I gained an understanding of what Alaveteli is. You can define it as open source software for creating sites that solicit information from the State. But that is the very least of it, and does it a disservice.

    Alaveteli is, above all, a community, a group of people willing to get the word out to help citizens improve their quality of life, to understand that Freedom of Information is a right and as such, must be respected.

    This is the goal of the team. It’s a difficult task if it’s anything. However, no obstacle seems to stop those who have chosen to take the project forward.

    During the first day of the conference, a panel discussed access to public information in different countries. The general conclusion was that much remains to be done: there are still national territories with no FOI law instilled, as in our case, and there are places with long lead times for delivery of a response, a problem most evident in the U.S., for example.

    With lunch came a series of flash talks, in which we shared the situation in our countries, but in most cases, the talks ended with “count on us for what we need.”

    I was also pleasantly surprised to talk to Tom Steinberg, director of mySociety, the NGO which built Alaveteli, and to find that he was unlike anyone else in the room. Tom is one of those people that it is impossible to ignore: he has the contagious spirit of a student, and a welcome for everybody. He makes it impossible not to get involved, because he has complete belief in what he does. He’ll always listen to criticism and he knows the best way to help people move forward when they hit an obstacle.

    All the workshops for activists focused on the need for collaboration, open discussion and teamwork. Monday’s session, by Daniel Silva, one half of the duo behind the Brazilian Alaveteli, highlighted the main problems facing those who wish to promote the project in their countries: the initial resistance of the authorities, and non-response to requests.

    Beyond that, in jurisdictions where Alaveteli is already up and running, positive change has been achieved.

    In the UK, some public bodies are interested in the possibilities offered by this open source software. No wonder. Alaveteli is not just a technology for transparency, but it also promotes a new type of relationship between the State and the people.

    Any technological advance without a body of stakeholders to promote it is doomed to failure before it even begins. Therefore, to develop the initiative, always and without exception, you have to get the public sector behind you.

    The very best type of civic leader understands that Alaveteli is not anti-government. On the contrary, it presents a unique opportunity for citizens to talk to them. When public information is in the hands of the people, it contributes to a democracy that is no longer experienced in the abstract - it is felt to be tangible and real.

    This is the main challenge for all of us who met in Oxford earlier this week, already feeling like  part of a great community that mySociety had brought together.

    Perhaps for this reason, on the last day of the event, a list of all proposed improvements to Alaveteli was put on the wall.

    Which got the most votes? -  A way to generate statistics, with a league table of institutions, showing which bodies are the most, or least, responsive; - Advice for users where they are given no information, or requests are denied; - Functionality to allow the use of these sites in countries where FOI requests have to be submitted on paper, rather than by email.

    My participation in the conference, without doubt, has changed my understanding of what it means to be an activist, a word which is often loaded with negative meaning.

    In my case, being an activist for Freedom of Information means asking the state questions every week, walking, taking the subway, approaching the front desk of an agency to make my request, taking home my sealed copy, sitting and waiting, in some cases receiving a request for an extension… and finally having the answer in my hands.

    This is what I call “literally getting access to public information.” Because as an excellent teacher of journalism once said, a journalist’s work is not done from the desk. Neither is the FOI activist’s.

    If we want our voices heard, we must cry out, until the echo is so intense that they can not ignore it. Alaveteli does that, and much more: it gives voice to those who did not know they had one. It allows you to ask, not only in order to get an answer, but to show public information can improve the lives of people.

    And indeed it does. Only a few people know that everyone has the right to ask about scholarships, neighborhood plans, grants, and many other things. This is where Alaveteli’s power lies.

    For all this, it was really hard for me to leave Oxford. Everyone who took part in this first world conference of activists and hackers showed that if one is truly convinced of a project like those that mySociety have instigated, you can achieve. The most important thing is to find a team that believes in this aim, and wants to pursue it.

    The rest is secondary. After all, in the Alaveteli community we are a couple of crazy people who want to change access to public information, nothing more and nothing less. A couple of people that nobody can ignore.**

  • 8 steps to understanding and implementing Alaveteli 15 May 2012

    This guest post by Romina Colman from Argentina is a translation of her original article at La Nacion

    Launching a website that can change the history of access to public information in Argentina requires just three elements: the open source software Alaveteli, an enthusiastic team, and a few weeks of work.

    Here, in eight points, is the key to understanding why Alaveteli has excited advocates of transparency everywhere.

    1. It can be developed in countries whether or not they have a right to the Freedom of Information. In places which have an established Right to Information law, Alaveteli helps strengthen and extend citizens’ access, through the publication of thousands of public documents. In places with no history of FOI, it helps people to put pressure on the State to create a law.

    2. Why the name? Alaveteli is the town where the first ever Access to Public Information law was passed. mySociety chose the name to express the idea of “free for everybody.” Development began in 2011 when a team, led by Seb Bacon, decided to take the open code from the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow, and improve and adapt it so that  it could easily be replicated in different contexts.

    3. Anyone can participate in the project. Yes, you will need access to programmers and FOI experts. But take a look at Turbo Transparency, a brief guide explaining what Alaveteli is, how it is used and why it should implemented in other countries. Above all, it highlights the need for people who are passionate about open government, and accountability for the many tasks that government performs for its people.

    4. It serves as a public archive. Any site using Alaveteli will request documents from the State, but it will also serve as a repository for everything that an authority provides to users. Other advantages include the ability to search, to track the progress of any request, to comment, and even to set email alerts which will send a message every time a keyword or topic that interests you is mentioned.

    5. You’ll need some legal advice  and money. To begin your adventure, and to ensure the success of the site, you will need the services of a lawyer. But not full time. You’ll also need funds to run the site. Tuderechoasaber, the latest Alaveteli implementation, raised its minimum project funding of 4,100 euros in just 30 days, and today the money is still coming in. All thanks to Goteo.org, a crowdfunding site that finds people to collectively fund development initiatives for the common good.

    6. It’s very flexible. Alaveteli can be modified for use in areas where requests for access to information must be submitted in writing, as in the case of Argentina.

    7. Your project will need organisation. To ensure that things get done, it is vital to have someone leading the initiative. That person will have to centralise and coordinate multiple tasks and resources: programmers, volunteers, a media contact, all working together as a team. Beyond that, one of the principles of Alaveteli is to create a great community, providing support to all who need it. That’s why mySociety is offering help to those taking their first steps with Alaveteli.

    8. And it will need maintenance. After launch, the site will have to be maintained and updated.

    Alaveteli in numbers

    • So far, the UK site WhatDotheyKnow has processed more than 111,000 requests for information.

    • Alaveteli has been implemented in five jurisdictions and many others are in progress.

    • 100 requests were made on the very first day Turederechoasaber.es launched.

    • The Alaveteli code has been translated into 8 languages.

    Dolores Lavalle Cobo, a lawyer and specialist in access to public information, says Alaveteli revolutionises the concept of what it means to share information, and creates a change of mentality in the people.

    She’s not exaggerating. This software is a testament to how technology, enthusiasm and a commitment to transparency can create a tool without limits for citizen participation.

    Meanwhile, public policy consultant Germain Stalker agrees with this definition: “Alaveteli universalises access to information, allowing the public documents held by the State to acquire real and tangible value.”

    Nothing is more certain than this. Demanding transparency is a task for the people, and the platform has awakened interest in what governments do, as never before.

    The only hope is that Argentina can get on board. A project has been started and the will is there. Perhaps in this way, together we will achieve national access to Freedom of Information in 2012.

  • A Right-to-Know site for Spain 16 April 2012

    Tuderechoasaber.es is Spain’s brand new Right-to-Know site, built on Alaveteli. The project is managed by David Cabo and Victoria Anderica, and it launches against a fascinating political background.

    When the project was started, Spain was one of four EU countries with no Freedom of Information law. The subject was, however, on the political agenda – FOI had been promised, but not delivered, by the previous government in both 2004 and 2008. On election in December 2011, the new conservative ruling party again pledged to introduce Freedom of Information, within their first 100 days in office.

    Anderica works at the organisation Access Info Europe, which had been campaigning, with the support of NGOs including Amnesty International and Greenpeace, for a Freedom of Information law. Cabo is one of the founders of Civio, a new organisation hoping to emulate the work of mySociety or the Sunlight Foundation, in Spain. The combination of Access Info and Civio’s knowledge – legal and technical – meant that Tuderechoasaber.es could become a reality.

    There was such public thirst for these withheld rights that Cabo and Anderica were able to fund their website through crowdsourced donations. They raised €6,000 and the site was built.

    Tuderechoasaber (“Your Right to Know”) launched on the 22nd of March 2012, just a day before the Government opened a public consultation on Freedom of Information (just inside that 100-day deadline). Their promise has now been fulfilled and Spain finally has its Right-to-Know law.

    Meanwhile, Tuderechoasaber welcomed more than 11,000 visitors during the first two days it was live. 180 requests were sent – never mind that they slightly preceded the Freedom of Information law actually coming into existence.

    Practicalities of launching a Right to Know site

    Launching a site like Tuderechoasaber might seem an impressive task, and undoubtedly, much work has gone into it – and will continue to do so.

    But it may be more achievable than you think. We asked David a few questions, and here are his thoughts on the matter:

    How long did the Alaveteli installation/site build take?

    It didn’t take long at all. I was familiar with Alaveteli, as I had developed AsktheEU.org already, so the whole technical work was done over a couple of weeks by myself, while campaigning and coordinating other stuff.

    Setting up the server took a couple of days max, and I spent a few more days redesigning the front page and a few other things: we want/need to give the site a more dynamic look, including regular news and encouraging people to support other users’ requests. Most people in Spain don’t know what FOI is or how it’s used, and that includes the public servants, so we need to be more aggressive to get responses.

    How simple or otherwise did you find it? What were the major hurdles (from a development point of view) that you had to overcome?

    Easy. Development-wise there were no big issues; we’ve uncovered a few caching bugs, but that’s about it.

    Adding the blog posts and pictures on the frontpage is a bit of a hack right now, but no big deal. 90% of our time has been talking to media and public bodies, before and after the crowdfunding. Oh, and coordinating the translations and volunteers.

    How much time is the day-to-day running of the site taking at the moment, and how much time do you anticipate spending, after the initial publicity dies down?

    Too early to know how it will look once it’s settled. It’s a week now since launch, and although the media focus has moved a bit away from FOI (there was a general strike today about job market reform) we’re now getting 2K users a day. So far we have 270 requests, which is way more than we expected.

    There’re 8000 city councils in Spain, plus the regional and national bodies, so the day-to-day work now – which is taking two people a few hours a day – is finding more contact details. We expect to have a couple of part-time volunteers handling support, and two part-time journalists writing about what happens on the site.

    Could anyone take the plunge and run a site like this, or are there certain qualities you think it’s necessary to have?

    Legal understanding of the FOI situation in their country seems essential to me. We couldn’t have built this without Access Info. Apart from that, I don’t think the technical or operations requirements are too complex. Of course, being active in civil society and/or having a community of interested users definitely helps to get the site moving.

    Would you mind being contacted by others considering building an Alaveteli site?

    Sure, that’s fine, happy to talk about it by email or Twitter. [If you’d like to take David up on this generous offer, find him in the first instance on Twitter at @dcabo.]

    No right to Freedom of Information? Launch anyway

    The right to Freedom of Information varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: in many countries it is enshrined by law. In others, there is no such law.

    In both scenarios, we encourage people to set up Alaveteli sites.

    Why? Because one of the core tenets of running an Alaveteli site is that we believe it should reflect how the law should work, not how it does.

    As an example, the site WhatDoTheyKnow.com allows users to contact several bodies which are not actually subject to the UK’s Freedom of Information Act – and many of them do reply to requests made through the site.

    Additionally, when mySociety launched the site, there was no prior example of putting responses to Freedom of Information requests into the public domain. Because they believe in the benefits of transparency, they went ahead and did so anyway.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in the context of the UK having a Freedom of Information law, but there is nothing to stop you from launching a site even where such a law does not exist.

    Find out more about Tuderechoasaber

  • Alavetelicon: community, cakes, and black boxes 16 April 2012

    Alavetelicon 2012 has finished, the tweeting has subsided, and I think I’ve just about finished digesting the enormous conference dinner. It was a lot of fun, with a host of dedicated FOI activists and hackers who could only make it thanks to the generous funding provided by Open Society Foundation and Hivos.

    The schedule was split into streams, and had lots of non-programmed time, so I only actually saw a small part of it. There are write-ups in various languages from other participants; here are some personal observations.

    Building a movement

    The main goal of the conference was to strengthen and build the community. At the time of the conference there were 7 installations of Alaveteli worldwide, but only a small amount interaction between these groups. So far, I’ve been the only person with a clear incentive to make sure people collaborate (I’m funded to do it!) This clearly isn’t sustainable; more people need to talk directly to each other. There’s no better way of building trust and understading that meeting face-to-face.

    Alavetelicon attendees
    Alavetelicon attendees

    This certainly worked well for me. Of course, I had conversations with people about Freedom of Information and database architectures, but more importantly, I now know who has a new baby daughter, who is thinking about living in a co-housing project, and who loves British 80s electronic sensation Depeche Mode. I was really struck by what a friendly group of people this was.

    Richard Hunt, who’s leading a project to launch an Alaveteli site in the Czech Republic, had some encouraging things to say about community. In his eloquent (and very quotable) presentation, he explained his journey towards using Alaveteli. At first, he wasn’t sure about using the software. He’d talked with developers who had looked at the code, and had felt it might be better to start from scratch. So Richard contacted developers who had already deployed Alaveteli sites directly, and got lots of very useful, friendly, and encouraging responses. His conclusion was that Alaveteli isn’t just a technical platform; “it is also about people – their dreams and ambitions of impeccable merit”.

    For so long it was just a dream and idle talk on our side. Now we are nearly there, and we are part of a BIG movement. Feels great, doesn't it?

    This is encouraging, but the conversations started at the conference must continue if they are to bear fruit in the form of more international collaboration. Please join the new Alaveteli Users mailing list, and share ideas or ask questions there!

    The future of Alaveteli

    There was a lot of discussion of which new features should be added to Alaveteli next, some of which I’ve listed on the alaveteli-dev Google group. However, three general themes particularly struck a cord with me:

    1. More collaboration, less confrontation In the UK, we have been accused of encouraging a confrontational, points-scoring approach to FOI. At the conference, there were stories of how FOI actually frees people within a bureaucracy to speak directly to the requester – without having to go via a press office. We heard of various cases where ministries actively wanted to take part in Alaveteli pilots. In the UK, we have found that FOI officers take their jobs very seriously, and do want to work with the Alaveteli concept; yet they feel that sometimes it makes things unnecessarily hard for them.

    I’m not sure what conclusion to take from this, exactly. It remains the case that Alaveteli must be able to deal with obstinate authorities that don’t want to play the game, and it is a prime virtue of the system that it remains well outside the bureaucracies that it aims to hold to account. However, I’m left with a sense that we should examine how we can continue to do this while providing more support to our allies within the System.

    2. Cake and fireworks Lots of people at the conference asked for more statistics to be made available on Alaveteli sites. mySociety has always been a little reluctant to release statistics, because they are so easy to spin or misinterpret. However, delegates repeatedly referred to their power for campaigning. The psychological impact of a big red cross next to your organisation’s name, which you can remedy through positive action, is a powerful motivator. One idea that was mooted was to award a real-life prize (a.k.a. Cake and Fireworks) to the “top” authorities in various categories each year. I think this is a great idea.

    3. Black Box APIs Acesso Inteligente is an FOI website in Chile that doesn’t use Alaveteli. In Chile, all FOI requests must be made via various different web forms. Accesso Inteligente is a tremendous technical achievement which automatically posts requests to the correct organisation’s form, and “screen scrapes” the results, giving Chilean citizens a uniform interface to make all FOI requests.

    The team behind the website would love to use Alaveteli as their front end system. The concept they’ve come up with is deceptively simple: repackage their form-posting-and-scraping functionality as a “black box” which acts as if it’s an authority that accepts FOI requests by emails, and sends the answers by email. They can then install Alaveteli without any modifications, and configure it to send FOI requests to the relevant “black box” email addresses.

    I love this concept for its simplicity, and I think it can easily be extended to support other use cases. For example, there’s a lot of talk of an Alaveteli system that supports paper requests and responses. This might best be implemented as a “black box” that receives and sends email, with an implementation that helps a human operator with printing and scanning tasks in the back office.

  • Can you come to an Alaveteli event in April? 31 January 2012

    We are planning a Alaveteli mini-conference including an installation and setup workshop on Monday 2 April - Tuesday 3 April in Oxford, England So please fill out our Alaveteli event pre-registration form now!

    With the recent launch of PravoDaZnam (“RightToKnow”) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and ongoing development on Alaveteli websites for Spain, Czech Republic, Australia and Hungary, we can expect to see at least 10 Alaveteli websites to be running worldwide by the summer.  That’s a great achievement, but what next?

    A key concept for the project has always been collaboration.  The source code is Open Source, which means that in theory developers from around the world can benefit from each others’ bug fixes and new features.  The administrative issues faced by site moderators are very similar in different jurisdictions, which means that in theory Alaveteli website administrators can share ideas and policies and work with a common voice on international issues.  The problems faced by ordinary users are also similar – how can they best word their requests? where should their requests be addressed? – so in theory, they too can benefit from international collaboration.

    In practice, it’s hard to collaborate when your time is limited and you don’t know who you can collaborate with. The obvious next step, therefore, is to get Alaveteli users together face-to-face, to make plans, discuss common problems, have fun, and get to know each other better.

    We can also use the opportunity to show potential Alaveteli users how to get started.  Therefore, I’ll promise that I’ll help anyone who is interested in getting an Alaveteli website running in their own jurisdiction: they will leave the event with a working version that they can start using straight away.

    The provisional details are at the top of this post. Please fill out the pre-registration feedback form if you might be able to come. In fact, please fill it out if you don’t think you can come, either – all feedback is useful!  And we’re working on getting funding for a travel fund, so if costs are the only problem, don’t write it off just yet – let us know in the pre-registration form.

  • Frag den Staat - experiences from Germany 17 November 2011

    I recently interviewed Daniel Dietrich and Stefan Wehrmeyer of Open Knowledge Foundation Germany.  Back in August 2011 they launched Frag den Staat, a website inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow.  We talked about launching with media coverage and the challenges it brings, relationships with officials, and the challenges of implementing multiple jurisdictions within a single federated country.

    Frag den Staat screenshot
    Frag den Staat screenshot

    Daniel’s role is as activist and troublemaker, creating connections and ensuring the site launched with lots of support. Stefan wrote the software, acted as project manager, and continues to carry out all the maintenance and development.

    Seb: How did the launch go?

    Daniel:  I have to say we jumped into something that we didn’t entirely understand and were sailing blind a little bit.  In the first few days, we were surprised by the number of requests.

    Stefan: We launched with a press conference that went really well: we got coverage on a couple of TV stations, and had a few journalists who are supporters of our work that wrote about it.  But the problem was that the TV coverage angle was “Here’s a website where you can ask anything of your government!”

    Daniel: This meant we quickly got loads of requests like “what’s the quickest way to get to the library from the train station?”

    Stefan: Then, when I was doing radio interviews about the website, the interviewer would quote some of these requests, and challenge me that they weren’t appropriate!

    Daniel: We had to deal with this problem quite quickly.  We started using comments on requests to say to people “thanks for using the site, but this is probably the wrong place to ask that question”; and we introduced a new, obvious button that we showed users before they made a request: they have to click to confirm that they really mean to file a freedom of information request.  Finally, Stefan introduced a feature that allowed us to tag these non-FOI requests, and then hide them from the home page.

    Stefan: Because of the way the legislation works in Germany, we have to be careful not to be seen to moderate or censor messages – if we do that, we may be deemed legally responsible for them.  So we just hide the less appropriate messages from the front page.

    I think we might be able to remove the filters and the “are you sure” button soon, because the traffic is now stabilised after the initial launch.

    Seb: So it sounds like you had a really impressive media campaign to back your launch?

    Stefan: Thanks to Daniel, we have had lots of support from partners like Transparency International Germany and other important organisations who have big press mailing lists and newsletters.

    We managed to tie the launch into some current affairs.  At the time there was a controversy about Germany selling tanks to Saudi Arabia, which had been agreed at some secret government meeting. So we made one of our first requests relating to this and used it as our “scoop”, saying that people should request more information like this.  The request was refused, of course!

    Daniel: We also tried to get buy-in from the goverment and partners well before the platform was launched.  We have tried all along to keep close relations with the Ministry of the Interior, which is responsible for the Open Government programme in Germany.

    Stefan: Before the launch, we went to lots of meetings where FOI was discussed, and in fact we announced the platform when sitting right next to the Commissioner for Freedom of Information, which meant the media interviewed both us and the Commissioner at the same time!

    Daniel: The Ministry of the Interior’s attitude when we launched was something like “it’s a nice idea, but it won’t work”.

    Stefan: One of their concerns is that answering by email isn’t using the proper legal process.  We were also advised that people using our platform should supply their postal address along with their email address, because the Ministry don’t consider the request to be from a legal person otherwise.  The Commissioner for Freedom of Information, however, really likes the site and is really supporting us.  He loves the fact there is a single place recording all of the correspondence relating to a request.

    **Seb: In Alaveteli, our philosophy is “implement as if the law is how it should be, not how it currently is”. **

    Stefan: Yes, and the problem is that our legislation is quite old and rusty.  We might well hide this postal address feature, or at least talk again to our lawyers about it.

    Seb: What would you differently if you were starting again?

    Daniel: In the beginning, I think we wasted a lot of time talking about it.  Then when we started building the site, we hardly talked about it at all!  We should have got started with code much earlier, instead of talking, but then spent more time with the prototype thinking about how we would run it, and how we would build the community.  It’s Stefan’s baby and he has to do a lot of the work himself.

    Stefan: At the beginning it was exhausting, with managing the website and doing lots of radio interviews, but it was also very rewarding.  Next time, I would spend more time on the presentation of the website.  For example, I’d like to add a small video with people explaining the site and how it works, to help people who absorb information better that way.  Writing the website from scratch went  well, but I wish Alaveteli had got funding earlier so we could have considered that platform too.

    I would recommend to anyone else thinking of such a project that they should find supporting organisations.  Our partners did all the press stuff in the beginning; I have no idea how to organise a press conference!

    Seb: What are your plans for the future?

    Daniel: We have lots of individual Freedom of Information laws at a federal state level.  We want to cover all of these areas and laws as well.  We’ve also been talking with the City of Bremen (which is the smallest state in Germany and has the most advanced FOI legislation) about a pilot cooperation programme to incorporate the platform into their administrative backend.

    Stefan: The task of integrating state-level bodies is really big.  Not only do we have to add all the local ministries, but we also have to support different laws.  For example, in Berlin you have to pay two Euros per attachment that they send you.

    We have a meeting next week with our little  community to discus a “highlighted request” feature for the front page.  We need to write more blog posts and more editorial generally, because in the end, even if the requests are cool, we need to provide more context to explain what they’re about.  In particular, we want to help reveal interesting information to journalists, because most of the journalists we know aren’t investigative. They need to go from an idea to filing a story within a few hours.

    Seb: So,  you feel the website has been successful overall?

    Daniel: It started a little chaotically, but apart from that, I think it’s been a successful beginning.  But what really matters is what happens next.  If we see a lot of good requests, and can maintain a certain quality in them, then that would be a sign that the site fills a gap.

  • A general update 15 October 2011

    As I’m about to go on paternity leave, I thought it would be a good time to summarise what’s been happening the last few months.

    The Alaveteli software is starting to look in reasonable shape.  We have a lovely new theme designed by Nick Mason of thetuttroom.com, which can be seen on the new demo server set up at http://demo.alaveteli.org.  It no longer takes a day or more to install the software; we have some way to go to achieve a 5-minute install, but the documentation is better, and it’s now possible to run a development version on Mac OS X.

    There have been lots of small improvements to the user interface, such as the beginnings of a user-friendly advanced search, and a better way for the user to decide who followup messages should go to.  In the backend, moderators’ lives are getting a bit easier now that user alert bounces are handled automatically.  There’s also now some spam protection in the form of reCaptchas (only for users coming from abroad).  Finally, the software performs around 30% faster on WhatDoTheyKnow, thanks to new caching settings and a better backend storage system for emails.

    On the development front, we have adopted the git flow model for managing branches and releases using git, which seems to be going quite well.  We are trying to ensure all commits have associated issues in the issue tracker, which means we can use it as a fairly reliable change log for the software.

    Beyond the software itself, the most exciting news is that there are now two more Alaveteli websites launched: AskTheEU and InformataZyrtare (Kosovo).  The sites look great, and the first requests are starting to come in.

    Over the next few months, we hope to continue to support groups in other countries who are hoping to launch Alaveteli websites.  We also hope to learn from the recent new launches to make it easier to customise and deploy Alaveteli.  If you’re thinking about using Alaveteli, please have a read of our new Getting Started guide, and get in touch!

  • How to get started with an Alaveteli site 20 September 2011

    Just a quick blog post to note that there’s now a rudimentary Getting Started guide, which is recommended reading for anyone thinking of starting their own Alaveteli website.

  • You need volunteers to make your website work 29 July 2011

    A successful Alaveteli website is nothing without its volunteers.  These are people who care so much about transparency and the right to know that they are motivated to help run a busy website.  There’s some details here, but in short, volunteers do things like:

    • Provide user support to people who need help using the website

    • Provide advice on FOI laws when users encounter difficult authorities or situations

    • Act on takedown or redaction requests in response to legally or ethically reasonable requests from users or authorities

    • Investigate and report on bugs in the software

    WhatDoTheyKnow has an amazing volunteer pool of around six or seven people, of whom about three are active at any one time (it varies depending on their other commitments).  They are dedicated, committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and the website quite simply wouldn’t function without them.

    So, how did WhatDoTheyKnow recruit this team of experts?  I spoke with the original author of WhatDoTheyKnow, Francis Irving, to find out.

    At mySociety, we had a pool of people on our mailing lists who had been waiting for years for something to get involved in.  We found a way early on of letting people contribute really easily, and this became a route to finding volunteers who were really good:

    For the launch of the site, Tom [Steinberg, Director of mySociety] was insistent that we had to add every single local council to the database.  So he made a Google Spreadsheet listing the name of each one, and send out an email to our mailing list with the request “please find an email address for each of these authorities”.  Within a week, we had all 460 addresses that we wanted, and people had started making new tabs in the spreadsheet for adding Police Authorities, Housing Associations and more.

    When it got to the point where we had people saying things like “here’s a list of all the sewage treatment works in the UK”, we started replying “do you want to join our team as a volunteer?” and giving them admin access to the system.

    Crucial to building up a strong admin team was setting up a single email address for all internal discussion (e.g. about legal points) and user support emails.  Eventually people hate this as it introduces so much noise to their inboxes, but it serves two important functions: it moulds a group identity for making reasonably uniform responses; and it shows you’re committed as a volunteer if you’re prepared to deal with the traffic.

    Equally important is rewarding the volunteer team by making their lives easier.  I spent several months relentlessly improving the administrative interface, so that each time they had a tiresome problem, I did what I could to make it easier to solve next time.

    Our volunteers have a particular set of skills: they think about the whole community of users, rather than exclusively their own opinions about FOI.  They are technical but aren’t necessarily programmers: lots of their work is about the law, and analysing law is quite a geeky skill.

    It’s very easy to get caught up in how the current FOI law works, rather than how it should work.  Quite important to our success was the attitude that “the law should be be like this” and then pretend that it was already like that.  A good example of this is that we sometimes add bodies to our database that aren’t actually subject to FOI, but we think they should be.  Another example is that we ignore concerns about copyright law where we think it gets in the way of the right to information: we’re prepared to have a battle to assert the right to know and to reuse information.

    As a result, our volunteers are also campaigners.  When we help users, we often end up doing so by doing media work, publicising stories about, for example, public bodies releasing data in strange or restricted formats.  It’s more of a campaigning site than we expected, but it’s campaigning-by-doing: not just about responding to consultations. It’s much more fun than normal campaigning!

  • Speeding things up with Varnish 27 July 2011

    On WhatDoTheyKnow, the Alaveteli software has lately been grinding to a halt.   It’s hard to pinpoint the exact cause, but it’s related to many of the following points:

    • Rails and ruby (especially ruby 1.8, which we’re currently running) being relatively slow in general

    • The size of our database (two tables in particular were taking up more than 40GB space).  In particular this meant our backups were hogging I/O.

    • Our heavy use of Xapian, on the same machine as the large database: lots of disk seeks, particularly during costly batch walk-and-retrieve operations (e.g. sending out email alerts)

    • Some areas where the database could be better optimised

    • The fact that Varnish wasn’t actually caching many of our pages, as they didn’t have any relevant cache headers set up (in fact, the Rails default is for them to have Cache-control: private headers.

    Really, I should have done some baseline performance tests, incrementally introduced improvements, and re-profiled the site with each improvement.  However, I’ve got loads of other things to do, and there are data protection issues with grabbing a copy of the entire current WhatDoTheyKnow database, so in consultation with some other team members, I just picked some of the lowest-hanging fruit.

    The detail of the discussion and outcomes are recorded in the issue tracker, but it turns out that the biggest, most immediate effect was to simply reduce the number of requests that made it to the Rails application in the first place – as is so often the case in applications like this.

    The moral: on all but the smallest Alaveteli website, deploy it behind a caching proxy like Varnish.  I’ll write up some notes in the documentation in due course [edit: a sample varnish configuration is now supplied with the software).

    You can see the difference on the resource usage of the server running WhatDoTheyKnow on this chart – I deployed the caching-related changes around 08:15 on these charts:

    Performance charts
    Performance charts
  • Pret-a-porter Alaveteli 13 July 2011

    As part of my recent work on the Alaveteli code, I’ve needed to repeatedly test it. Currently it’s quite complicated installing an Alaveteli website, and I’ve been having to reinstall from scratch a few times to make sure my test environment is clean.

    It seemed a good idea while I was doing this to set up an Amazon Machine Image (AMI). This means that anyone with a correctly set up Amazon Web Services account can get a running Alaveteli server with just a few clicks. Not only does it have the core software deployed, it also comes with a web server and mail server configured, so it should in theory just work out of the box.

    Alaveteli instances running in EC2
    Alaveteli instances running in EC2

    As a nice side-effect, it means I can run the automated tests really quickly by running them on an “xlarge” EC2 instance (which is equivalent to a server with 14Gb of memory).

    People thinking of trying out Alaveteli should therefore consider using the AMI to get started quickly; not least because new AWS customers have access to a “free tier” for a year.

    The only down side is that actually getting started with EC2 can be a bit fiddly if you’ve never done it before. Read more about the AMI here.

  • Forks and themes 13 July 2011

    Over the past few days, I’ve completed merging the Kosovan fork of the code back into the main Alaveteli software (here’s an email about it on the dev mailing list).

    In non-technical terms: the team from Kosovo have been working to a tight deadline without any help from me (because I was working on other things while we waited for funding to come through).  The quickest way for them to change Alaveteli to meet their needs (e.g. changing the design, making the templates work in different languages, etc) was to alter the core Alaveteli code.

    This meant they could move swiftly towards deployment; however, the down side was that they were no longer running off the same code base as WhatDoTheyKnow.  As a result, they were missing out on bug fixes and improvements that mySociety were making to the code, and mySociety were missing out on things like the internationalised templates.

    The current Informata Zyrtare theme
    The current Informata Zyrtare theme

    Merging is the process of taking someone else’s changes and mixing them with your own changes to create a new, combined version of the software.

    This is now complete, which means we can once again start to benefit from each others’ work.

    As a side effect, I needed to come up with ways to keep customisations separate from the core code.  All such customisations should now live in “themes”, which I have started to document.  One such theme is the Informata Zyrtare theme, which is now on Github, should anyone want to experiment with it.

  • AskTheEU and Informata Zyrtare at OKCon2011 04 July 2011

    Last week I travelled to Berlin to meet with @dcabo, @helen_access and @KerstiRu of Access Info Europe and Valon Brestovci of Free Libre Open Source Software Kosova (FLOSSK) to discuss and plan collaboration on the first Alaveteli-driven websites: AskTheEu and Informata Zyrtare.

    Open hardware milling machine at OKCon
    Open hardware milling machine at OKCon

    AskTheEu will help NGOs, journalists and citizens to exercise their right to know at the European level.  Not being an EU politics geek myself, it was interesting (and slightly alarming) to find out more about the baroque structure of the EU.  No longer shall I confuse the Council of the European Union with the Council of Europe… or is that the European Council?

    The right to know at a European level is based around access to documents rather than information.  This means that all emails should be accompanied by the correct boilerplate text to ensure that they count as FOI requests.  European-level software also opens up some interesting localisation issues: a request can be made in any language, but the information in the response can just be supplied in the original language.  We agreed that for the initial launch we’ll just invite people to use Comments to provide informal summaries in other languages, but longer term we might consider some kind of community-run translation service.

    Another interesting localisation challenge will be providing user support.  A successful Alaveteli site needs plenty of resources to keep it running: responding to legal requests, providing tech support, helping people to progress with difficult requests for information.  WhatDoTheyKnow usually has 3 or 4 active volunteers supporting it at any one time – and that’s just in English.  Providing great support in 21 or more languages will need considerable community involvement.

    Informata Zyrtare will launch in three languages: Albanian, Serbian and English.  As the majority of requests are expected to be in Albanian, and there are plenty of bilingual speakers available, support is less likely to be an issue.  The team from FLOSSK has been busy working on internationalising the Alaveteli templates and already has a working prototype site in three languages.

    Next steps: AskTheEu will hopefully get an Alaveteli test server running this week and start testing the workflow with some real requests.  Due to internal deadlines, Informata Zyrtare had to get Alaveteli running on their own fork of the software, so for the next couple of weeks I’ll be helping them refactor their fork and return to running off the main Alaveteli software again.