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Brazil: Hacking for transparency and the right to information

Last May, the Brazilian government finally introduced ‘right to public information’ legislation. An amended version of the draft bill has just been presented for public consultation by the Special Commission tasked by the Lower House of Congress with revising it. The Bill now goes to Congress for finalisation and adoption, and if approved, the law will regulate the Executive, Judicial and Legislative Powers, besides the entire public administration: at federal, state and city level. This law will carry out the provision of the 1988 Constitution that guaranteed this right and called for an implementing law.

Brazilian society has started to engage in debate. The discussion of the bill is informally open to the public on a web-based text annotation website. There is also the Brazilian Forum for the Right of Access to Public Information, and the Information is Your Right! campaign, whose aim is to spread the right of access to public information and mobilize people and organizations to lobby legislators to approve the bill. This campaign has invited the population to write to members of parliament suggesting ways to improve the bill. There are still some issues that must be addressed to bring the law fully into line with international standards, according to Article 19.

The blogosphere has joined forces. Pedro Valente [pt] translates into Portuguese the eight Open Government Data Principles, a set of fundamental principles for open government data by the US Open Government Working Group, and believes that, in Brazil, these principles should be enforced:

Toda entidade pública que gera dados de interesse público deveria liberá-los seguindo os princípios acima. Simples assim. Não importa de onde elas são.

Any public entity that generates data of public interest should disclose it following the principles above. Simple as that. No matter what they are.

And people have started to hack their way towards enforcing long awaited transparency: a collaborative task force has been created to develop small applications based on open technologies, government information and public data. The first Transparência [Transparency] Hackday, “two days for hacking into Brazilian politics”, was launched in São Paulo at the beginning of October, and the last camp took place this week, on December 1st  and 2nd, in the capital Brasília [pt]. Organized by journalists Daniela Silva and Pedro Markun [both pt], the event has free entry and is an opportunity for software developers, journalists and researchers to gather together to find ways to “scrape” data from official websites and create applications that bring transparency and participation to the political processes. From the first meeting, a small but important victory may be celebrated [pt]:

Na trilha de discussões do Transparência HackDay, o Grupo de Apoio Técnico à Inovação da Secretaria de Gestão Pública do Estado de São Paulo apresentou o projeto Governo Aberto, um portal de acesso a algumas bases de dados públicos do governo do estado, que serão disponibilizadas em formatos abertos e processáveis por máquina. O objetivo é permitir que a sociedade use essas bases em mashups, criando novas formas de participação política na web.

Por conta de uma demanda apresentada pelos participantes do evento, o Gati agora está abrindo as regras de acesso ao site Governo Aberto para serem discutidas na rede. Além delas, também a minuta de um decreto (que deverá assinado pelo governador José Serra, legitimando e dando mais sustentabilidade à iniciativa) foi colocada em discussão.

Essa é uma chance muito importante de influenciarmos a maneira que o governo de São Paulo vai passar a liberar suas informações na rede – num projeto que é pioneiro e que tem potencial para ser referência para outros governos no Brasil.

In the wake of discussions of the Transparency Hackday, the Group of Support for Innovation of the Department of Public Administration of the State of São Paulo [GATI] has presented access rules to the Open Government, a proposed gateway to some public databases of state government, which will be provided in open formats and be machine-processable. The goal is to enable society to use these bases in mashups, creating new forms of political participation on the web.

Due to a demand by the participants of the event, GATI is now opening the access rules of the Open Government site for debate on the Internet. Besides this, a draft of a decree (which must be signed by Governor Jose Serra to legitimize and give more sustainability to the initiative) has also been proposed to the discussion.

This is a very important chance to influence the way the government of Sao Paulo releases its information on the web – a pioneering project that has the potential to be a reference for other local governments in Brazil.

Transparency HackDay in São Paulo, photo by Alexandre Fugita used under a Creative Commons license.

Transparency HackDay in São Paulo, photo by Alexandre Fugita used under a Creative Commons license.

The fight has just started, after years of advocacy work by the civil society and pro-freedom of expression, and free access to public information, organizations, among which is Transparencia Brasil [pt]. The director of the organization Claudio Weber Abramo [pt] argues that despite the great importance of monitoring the government, the proceedings at the National Congress will not be an easy task, due to the  interests of various politicians to suppress information. He reports on a recent public hearing:

Ninguém se opôs à necessidade da regulamentação.

Isso não significa que não haja oposição. A questão é que, num assunto como esse, ninguém que se oponha vem a público para exprimir a opinião. Pegaria muito mal.

Conforme este que escreve frisou, a oposição à regulamentação será significativa no plenário das duas Casas do Congresso, e incidirá sobre a sua abrangência.

Explico: o projeto abrange os três poderes e as três esferas.

Os parlamentares provavelmente não se oporão a regulamentar o acesso a informação na esfera federal. Raciocinarão que o governo, o Jucidiário e o legislativo federais já estão bem lançados no sentido de abrir informações que detêm e que, de toda maneira, o problema não é com eles, deputados e senadores.

A coisa muda de figura quando se trata das esferas estadual e municipal.

Os últimos interessados em abrir informações sobre o gerenciamento do poder público nos estados e municípios são os deputados e senadores. Os interesses políticos de todos eles estão nos estados e nos municípios. Não é descabido imaginar que a grande maioria tem interesse em esconder informações em suas bases eleitorais, e não abri-las.

Essa é a principal pedra no caminho da tramitação desse projeto.

Nobody has opposed the need for regulation.

That does not mean there is no opposition. The point is that, in a matter like this, nobody will express their opposition publicly. It would be very inconvenient for them.

As I have pointed out, opposition to the legislation will be significant on the floor of both houses of Congress, and will influence the [bill's] depth.

Let me explain: the project covers the three powers and three spheres [Executive, Judicial and Legislative].

Lawmakers will probably not be opposed to regulating access to information at the federal level. They will reason that the government, the federal legislative and Justice are already well equipped to disclose the information they hold and that in any case, the problem is not with them, congressmen and senators.

The picture changes when it comes to state and municipal levels.

Those least interested in disclosing information on the management of public power in the states and municipalities are the congressmen and senators. Everyone's political interests are in those states and municipalities. It is not unreasonable to imagine that the vast majority of them have an interest in hiding information in their constituencies, instead of disclosing it.

This is the main stumbling block to the progress of this project.

"Information is a right of yours. You need to know"

"Information is a right of yours. You need to know". Information is Your Right! campaign logo.

The Right to Information is more than just an administrative governance reform. It is a fundamental human right. There is no democracy without a  right to information – not just freedom of information, but the right to it. It is paramount that “Brazilian citizens are convinced that they have the right to information and officials are convinced that they have the obligation [to provide it]”, as noted by Maria Marvan during the Public Debate on the Proposed Law last April.

For more detail on the South American context, also check: The Right to Information in Latin America: A Comparative Legal Survey, by UNESCO.

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