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FabrizioScrollini LondonSchoolofEconomics/DATA GabrielaRodrguez DATA

You got e-mail: Online freedom of information requests in developing countries


Extended Abstract Project Presentation
In October 2012 the Uruguayan NGO DATAlaunchedQu sabs? a website allowing anyone onlineto make a freedom of information request to Uruguayan public authorities. In January 2013, after 170 request were filled online and significant public pressure, Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercisejustbysendinganemail. In this practitioner oriented paper, we explore the dynamics of setting up a successful access to information portal in a developing country context. First we provide a brief introduction about online access to information portals around the world and their relationship with access to information legislation. Then,we look atthe origins of the uruguayanportal,as wellasthestrategyfollowedinterms of design and implementation. Third we look at the initial outputs of the process andresistancesinthe Uruguayan bureaucracy. We also look at the process that led Uruguayan authorities to acknowledge email as a valid form of making access to information request. Finally we provide a set issues to considerwhenimplementingsoftwaretosupportaccesstoinformationindevelopingcountries.

1. Freedom of Information in the digital age


Since its humble beginnings in Sweden, access to information laws (also known as freedom of information laws) kept expanding across the world. The promiseis quite simple:to provide citizens with crucial public information so they can fully participate in civic life. In Thomas Jefferson's words: Informationisthecurrencyofdemocracy. Today almost 90 countries have an access to information law, but severalstudies at a comparative and local level shows that there are different degrees of success in termsofimplementation. With the rise of the Internet and the development of EGovernment trends across the world, public information is stored andretrievedinmoreefficientwaysmakingtechnologicalbarrierstoaccessinformationverylow.

In 2006 two British developers came up with the idea of creating a website that would allow citizensto use the relatively recent freedom of information law in Britain in a digital way. In this way the website What do they know? from the British NGOMy Societycame into existence.The international version of this project, called Alaveteli is now being implemented in 9 countries. Beyond Alaveteli there are other similar designed software working in the United StatesofAmerica,Chileand Germany. Thelast census availablenotedupto15websitesacrosstheworld. As these portals start to spread new challenges emerge for practitioners in terms of making FOI requests, as well as to public servants in terms of answering them. Furthermore, new legal challenges emerge as old access to information laws, and different legal traditions cope with thedigital age.As we will show, some of these challenges in developing countries are a bit more complex that in the developedworld.

2. Uruguayan Access to Information Environment: The Challenge of Qu Sabs?


Uruguay, is a small South American country with high rates of internet usage, a long standing democracy and a tradition of civic rights. To some degreeUruguayis anoutlier in the region in terms of transparency and governance according to several indicators such as Transparency International CorruptionPerceptionIndex,ortheWorldBankGovernanceIndicators. Uruguay approved an access to information law in 2008, which was fairly consistent with international standards. Due to the lack of a specialised institution dealing with access to information request controversy resolution, among other factors, the implementation of the lawhasbeenproblematic. There were few requesters (most of them journalists and lawyers)and the idea thatpeoplewouldhaveaccess toinformationwas(oris)tosomedegreenotknownbytheaveragecitizen. Furthermore while Uruguayan EGovernment strategy isrelatively sound, receiving FOIrequeststhrough email (or receiving them at all) was not something public servants would expect very frequently. The demand side then, was relatively weak and it was not clear atallif the Statehad the duty to answeran email. The former point seems something out of place in the 21stCentury, but in the context of a highly legalistictraditionitwasforeseeable(andindeedithappened).

3. Designing and launching Qu sabs?


In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference about technology and access to information organised by the British NGO My Society and supportedby several international stakeholders such as the Open Society Institute and Hivos. At the event an Uruguayan lawyer and an uruguayan software engineer (who previouslywere collaboratinginother initiatives) tooka boldchoice:to adapt and design an FOI request software for Uruguay. Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the firstprototypewasreadytogoandwasquietlyonline. Decisions to adopt the Alaveteli platform were based on very basic criteria about technology, support

and usability. In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software and a community that could support a long term work. By that time Alaveteli was the only software doing the former. Furthermore, the previous existence of an Alaveteli website adapted to Spain made translating the content relatively easier. The website also included significant amount of material developedbyspecialistNGOsinUruguay. Getting the data about Uruguayan government offices was difficult. The uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the countryis small)and emails were not easily available. We made use of anofficialagenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails of uruguayan authorities. Many of them did not workastheywereeitheroutofdateorwerenotinusebytherelevantofficers. Quesabes.uy was enhanced by the work of DATA, a NGO devoted to to Open Data andtransparency. Design, technical enhancement and thelaunch strategy was discussed. We decided tocollaborate with a local NGO already working on FOI in Uruguay. The objective was to engage with people already workingon the subject, reachingout ourpotential communityofusers. Furthermoreour theory of change behind this move, was to bridge the traditional divide between techie people and traditional NGOs, as civil society was in need to present a united front to solve the crucialissue of making the site workand push uruguayan authorities to accept emails as a valid mechanism within the law. DATA then coordinated support from other NGOs working on this topic in Europe and Latin America and launched thewebsitewithsignificantlocalandinternationalpublicity.

4. Results and Advocacy


ThefollowingtablesummarisesthestatusofQuesabes.uyuptoJanuary2013: Successful Waiting Response Not held Gone postal Rejected Internal review Partially successful Waiting clarification 34 78 12 2 9 33 8 3

Largely the Uruguayan state still ignoresusers. Furthermoresomeoffices answered they were not going toanswerFOI requestthroughemail(ironicallytheanswers showed theywereable to dojustthat). With the evidence available DATA and CAinfo Uruguay filed a legal complaint tothe UruguayanFOI regulator (Access to Information Unit) to urge uruguayan state authorities to answer FOI requestthroughemails.

The regulator followed swiftly issuing an order to accept Quesabes.uy requests and solving a set of complexlegaldilemasforuruguayanpublicadministrators.

5. Main conclusions and further developments


Setting up a website such as Quesabes.uy involved a signficant amount of time and effort. We had no grants, and an initial group of 5 (highly motivated) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues. This was a task of a multidisciplinary teamthatcombinedsignificantamount ofwork to achieve theportal. Bridging the gap with traditional NGOs paidback but itwasa difficult process. There wereinitial worries about the state not answering requests and FOI right becoming severely damaged due to massive demands. This was not the case. We understand there are issues to explore in termsofthedynamics betweentraditionalandnewNGOsinthisfieldtoachievebettercooperationandunderstanding. A second issue is about whether a software can be used as a mereinstrument to facilitaterequestsor as an activist tool. In this case it was designed to be both, but there were legalgroundsfor it: Uruguay had a FOI law, and the legal backing was solid. Demand also proved to be beyond initial expectations as170requestsisalargenumberforasmallpolity. A third issue is about plain resistance from authorities to answer emails using legal artifuges or just ignoring requests. Users have followed up some of the requests with the regulators. Some authorities adjusted setting special email accounts for Qu Sabs?, while others denied their email addresses andonlyalloweduserstoengagewithanonlineform. With 300 users DATA have also witnessed the emergence of an online community, and we hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other when making requests. There is evidence of people following requests and assisting each other in just a few months with little input from DATA. Our strategy is to engage real people on the troubles and set up communitiesonandofflinethatcouldharnessallthepotentialforthewebsite The experiment we conducted in Uruguay can provide others with some tips about developing this websites,butinourexperienceitisimportanttounderstandwhatsthemainaimbehindit. For us it was clear that Uruguayan authorities could not just get away, in the 21st century, with not replying emails. It was indeed a service to users, but also a campaigning tool. The objective was achieved following a strategy which included gathering evidence andaccumulating forceswithother civil society stakeholders to maximise the disruptive change of Qu Sabs?. Existence of an access to information law and development of the public sector EGovernment capabilities could be important to get a decent service from governments, thusnotalldevelopingcountries couldbe in conditionsto deliver it. The challenges aheadafterthisdecisionfromtheregulator remainto be implemented and probably other structural factors in Uruguayan democracy and public sector will come into play to achieve a 100% successful implementation. The origins of What do they know? and other Alaveteli experiences in Westminster/Whitehall traditions showed that in those contexts is relatively easier to implement this

software. Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.