United Kingdom: Tracking government information on transparency websites

Now is a more liberating time than ever to hold those in power accountable. Every day, more people in the world begin to use publishing tools for free, have the means of quicker communication and have better access to their government's data.

If you live in a part of the world where being open is difficult, sites like Global Voices Advocacy help advise bloggers on safety and rights to freedom of expression.

Citizens if the United Kingdom are lucky to be able to use the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to request specific information held by public authorities.

Nonetheless the British are a little behind the US: just as it took a little while to catch up with Freedom of Information (FoI), the UK government has only recently taken the lead of the US Data.gov site and is releasing over 1000 data-sets online.

There was more good news for political transparency in October, with the news that a network of volunteers have formed the Democracy Club to hold UK election candidates and representatives to account for the forthcoming general election.

But at the same time there was a stark reminder that vast parts of the UK's data is still under wraps. Postcode data, for example.

The Royal Mail holds the commercial rights to the database and recently sent ‘cease and desist’ letters to a site which allowed developers to get round the copyright – if unofficially.

But amid the setbacks, the open data campaign is fast gaining pace, and political support. One of the first people to write about the Royal Mail's action? Tom Watson, MP, an advisory council member to the Open Rights Group (ORG).

MySociety is an organisation which has broken new democratic ground with its network of sites across the UK. Its active community voluntarily scrutinise, upload, comment and generate new ideas to improve society.

You can see its founder Tom Steinberg talking at Gov 2.0 in Washington here:

The organisation is about to turn six years old; on its birthday last year, developer Francis Irving said that the UK sites actually led the way before the US:

“UpMyStreet is a UK site, has been around for 10 years, and was developed by some of the people who made FaxYourMP. It was the Everyblock of its time, well before Everyblock.

“Likewise, when mySociety started people in the US were surprised that we were not partisan. Back then, it was normal in the US to try to use the internet for partisan (Republican/Democrat) advantage. Nowadays there are more politically neutral projects, such as GovTrack.us and the Sunlight Foundation.”

Its projects include TheyWorkForYou, No. 10 Petitions, Mapumental, FixMyStreet, GroupsNearYou, PledgeBank, WriteToThem, HearFromYourMP and Travel Maps.

Case study: WhatDoTheyKnow.com

WhatDoTheyKnow is an application designed to help extract information from government departments and agencies, via Freedom of Information requests.

It's pretty straightforward: choose a department, submit a request, and then mySociety's application does the processing and tracking.

As the site explains, WhatDoTheyKnow is also an archive of FoI requests and responses made by other people, so users can search for information already in the public domain, and set up email or RSS alerts to get notified of relevant updates.

Another useful feature allows users to leave annotations or comments on FOI requests.  Finally, a blog was recently set up to track their work.

Statistics released on the performance of UK central government departments show that more FoI requests were made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com than the last quarter.

For example:

“32.3% of FOI requests to the Home Office (which includes the UKBA and the IPS) were made via WhatDoTheyKnow in the second quarter of 2009. In absolute terms this was 206 out of 638 requests.”

The idea is that by centralising the project, work is not duplicated, and the fruits of FoI are shared more widely.

It's also much easier to track the progress of your research. This correspondence between the Ministry of Defence and Ben Laurie from Wikileaks makes for an extremely interesting read and annotations by Francis Irving make it easier to understand. Laurie wanted to find out what data about Wikileaks was held by the British Ministry of Defence.

One of the results of the release? This Guardian story by its head of investigations, David Leigh: “The Ministry of Defence is trying to block all internet access to the whistleblowing site Wikileaks from thousands of its own computers after discovering that dissidents have been using it to leak copies of British military manuals.”

The FoI results have also been archived by Wikileaks at this link.

This is what works well about mySociety: it is all about collaboration in an effective narration. In that spirit, at the weekend, Tom Steinberg told ‘The Social Reporter’ (David Wilcox) that the hyperlocal bloggers gathered at a conference in Stoke-on-Trent are ‘the future of local news’ (via paidContent.org).

Steinberg, fresh from Washington in September, came up with these ‘nine flavours’ of transparency websites in 2009; have a look at this link.

But he asked for help, especially with knowledge of non-English sites.

What have you got? Please share links to projects and websites in your country in the comments below.


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