On 2 and 3 April, Michael Goecken and Oleg Burlaca represented HURIDOCS at the Alaveteli Conference in Oxford. The event was organized by MySociety and there were around 80 participants from around the world, with the majority of organizations represented being strongly involved with freedom of information and transparency efforts in their countries and communities. The goal of HURIDOCS during this event was to determine whether the use of Alaveteli software could be useful for projects that HURIDOCS is involved with, specifically for their forthcoming project for a freedom of information portal in Georgia.
The conference was divided into ‘streams’ and ‘parts’. One stream was for campaigners and activists, while the other was for technical people that wanted to know more about how to install, tweak and hack the application. The campaigner stream was divided into parts on the usability of Alaveteli, application in practice, lessons learned and examples of success stories. The participants were invited to contribute suggestions, changes, ideas and possible problems. There were quite a few organizations that have already adapted Alaveteli for their use in Brazil, Spain and Chile, and are using it actively.
Alaveteli is a web tool to let the public communicate with government entities with regards to freedom of and access to information. It can be installed on a website and allows visitors to ask questions that the government is supposed to answer based on the government entities and Freedom of Information laws of that country. The webmasters / organizations that are running the Alaveteli instance can monitor, manage and collect data that users have entered and use this to create interesting statistics and raise public awareness.
The project which put Alaveteli on the map is www.whatdotheyknow.com, a MySociety project that allows visitors to ask questions directly to the government in the United Kingdom and follow the status of their requests. If a request is denied or ignored by the government, further action can be taken to ensure the government complies with its obligations. So far over 113 000 requests have been made on their site. Users can respond and discuss the responses that the government has provided to the request, or the lack of response. www.asktheeu.org was developed for requests to the European Union.
The discussions on the changes or additions to the software that the participants to the conference wanted to see was the most interesting, at least for HURIDOCS. It gave us a very good understanding what is necessary for a successful Freedom of Information project, what people need and require, and the obstacles that are presented with these projects. Some of the most requested functions were support after a request was rejected, more statistical data, private requests, allow users to collaborate on requests and better social media integration.
Our impression of Alaveteli was very positive, and we think it can be very useful for advocacy NGOs in communities where civic participation is active. The fact that it is a community project means that it can be constantly improved and users can be rewarded (for example a free T-shirt after x-amount of requests?) to further encourage active participation. However, in communities where civic participation is not yet strongly developed, it could prove difficult to get people to be enthusiastic and interested in using Alaveteli, which could diminish its importance and thus would fail to push governments to respond to requests made through the website. Also government requirements regarding electronic / paper requests and personal applications could hamper the effectiveness of the Alaveteli tool. This is not to say that Alaveteli will not be useful in these countries, quite on the contrary – it will be interesting to see how such tools can be used to increase civic participation in the longer run. Even if Alaveteli would perhaps not be the most suitable tool for continuous advocacy, it could be useful for campaigns and more short term projects to get the public’s attention.
HURIDOCS will continue to explore the possibilities of using Alaveteli in Georgia and perhaps Armenia, in combination with other methods.
More information about Alaveteli can be found at www.alaveteli.org.