Nov 28, 2012

‘Hacking democracy’: a tool to streamline our Right To Know

A new website from OpenAustralia makes it easier to submit freedom of information requests -- and the process becomes more transparent.

Stilgherrian — Technology writer and broadcaster


Technology writer and broadcaster

Australia has had freedom of information laws longer than the vast majority of countries that have them now, but they're under-used, says OpenAustralia Foundation director Dr Matthew Landauer in a video promoting their latest project, the FOI-enabling website Right To Know.

Launched today, Right To Know provides tools for anyone to submit FOI requests and track their progress, with the entire process open for anyone to read and comment. "The OpenAustralia Foundation has a history of doing these kind of projects that do the glue between government and people," said Henare Degan, another OpenAustralia Foundation director. Those projects include the original OpenAustralia website that makes it easier to access Hansard transcripts of federal Parliament;, providing notification of local government planning applications and a mechanism for commenting on them; and election-monitoring site Right To Know currently knows how to submit FOI applications to 361 different federal agencies. "What it's doing is acting as a fancy email intermediary, so basically all of the exchange between the agency and the person making the request is actually through email," Landauer told Crikey. This email exchange can end up being quite lengthy. "What often happens with these sorts of things is that people put in a request to find particular documents, then the agency goes 'oh no, there's too much. Can you be more specific?', and the person has to narrow it down," Landauer said. Requests might be limited to documents between a certain date, or relating to a certain person, or of a certain type. The requests submitted during the site's testing phase have yielded only one successful result so far -- a list of government domain names that was already posted on a website -- but the process is starting to highlight differences in the style of response between different agencies. "One agency, for instance, has pretty consistently asked for extensions," Laundauer said. "One agency was very plain-speaking, and answered a question that wasn't strictly an FOI request, and in some other cases it was very official, laying out exactly the timeline of things." Right To Know has the potential to bombard agencies with vague or unstructured requests. Witness the enquiry about coal seam gas mining that's more polemic ("CSG merchants of death") than bureaucratese. But Landauer hopes the site will foster a long-term change in attitudes to FOI by exposing the process. And showing how easy it can be. Both Laundauer and Degan refer to OpenAustralia's work as "hacking democracy". In a good way. "I think the key word in this is 'hacks', and the software developer meaning of that is clever solutions to gnarly problems that are often experimental or quick-fix in nature, and in some sense you could view all of our projects as hacks, in a way, where we're looking at parts of the democratic process and seeing that you can apply a little trick to it to help improve it," Laundauer said. "These are not the be-all and end-all of transparency in democracy. These are just our experiments right now to try to help improve things."

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6 thoughts on “‘Hacking democracy’: a tool to streamline our Right To Know

  1. Mike Smith

    And of course all requests must be submitted in valid SQL

  2. Hamis Hill

    A lot of information, especially on the mapping of mineral resources, compiled at public expense, can by a process of corruption become the hidden, private knowledge of a few by unwarranted restriction on freedom of information.
    The NBN, with its vast data crunching capacity threatens to uncover this process of private acquisition or “colonisation” of public knowledge for private advantage.
    The NSW ICAC seems to be going down this path.
    There will be a lot of data mining in the future which will archaeologially and forensically uncover the tangled webs intended to deceive.
    How difficult is it to discover a criminal intent on the part of certain opponents of the NBN; ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free?
    The spiders will be running for cover or fighting back, as their rocks are overturned.
    This is “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” written over a certain WA iron ore magnate’s rise to wealth and goes on to coal in NSW or the usurpation of Crown Grounwater mineral rights by CSG’s casual pollution of unsealed aquifers that “Nobody Knows Exists”.
    True, if you are in the Free for All US but very much different in NSW where Fifty staff Spent fifty years of publically funded effort to map the groundwater resources of NSW.
    Those with an eye to these prizes, (80% of the freshwater in NSW big enough for you), cynically pretend that none of this knowledge was ever built up over that half century of effort.
    FOI and the NBN will make all the difference to those “Water Futures” that Malcolm Turnbull was famously interested in as the former Fedeeral Minister.
    2,500 Person/years of effort produced nothing?
    Inside information, that’s the way it works?

  3. Anne Greenaway

    What a shame the RSPCA is exempt from FOI requests due to it’s charity status.

    There is also no Ombudsman for the RSPCA which many people believe makes it a law unto itself and accountable to no one.

    The charity status needs to be removed from the RSPCA. Many of it’s activities are very businesslike (eg council contracts worth millions, State RSPCA’s, “PAW OF APPROVAL in labeling, vet clinics that charge market rates and pet insurance, just to name a few. Many people are not happy with the lack of transparency and lack of accountability associated with the RSPCA.

  4. Susan Timmins

    From Peter Timmins
    This success took a month to transpire but in a nice coincidence the document was released on Right to Know’s first official day.

  5. Brendan Sydes

    Great work Open Australia Foundation. This has the potential to revolutionize FoI processing by making it much more transparent. We at EDO Victoria do lots of FoI work for conservation NGOs and community groups that ought to be unnecessary if FoI worked properly – the delay and obstruction is shocking and a terrible waste of everyone’s time and money.

    Now to extend this to state FoI systems . . .

  6. Mike Smith

    @Anne: Why does a charity status bestow an exemption? It’s a private organisation, so that might. Should FOI extend to churches, especially given the propensity of some (European based) ones to hide their extremely dirty linen?

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