What Does the Future Hold for FOI and Open Data?

FOI Live 2011: Thursday 23rd June

University College London


There has been lots of discussion in the past few days about transparency and Open Data as government publishes full lists of who does what. This comes on top of debate and discussion about FOI and Open Data as local authorities and central government release all sorts of information from spending data to Zombie attacks. But what will it all mean? This year FOI Live 2011 at University College London will try and find out.

The speakers are now

  • Tim Kelsey, the UK government’s adviser on Transparency and Open Data, who will be speaking about the new transparency agenda.
  • Deputy Information Commissioner Graham Smith

The programme also includes

  • Chris Taggart of Open Data site Openly Local, Oliver Lendrum from the Ministry of Justice and Nicola Westmore from the Cabinet Office answering your questions on Open Data and the future of FOI
  • An interactive question and answer session with journalists and campaigners who use FOI including Paul Francis from the Kent Messenger, Martin Rosenbaum of the BBC, Matthew Sinclair from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information

Whose freedom is it?

In March 2010, an animal rights activist sent Freedom of Information requests to universities for details of experiments conducted on animals.

“We’re putting the FOIs in just to find out what is happening with vivisection at the universities. If they’ve got nothing to hide, then it’s not a problem for them to put the information out there,” the activist told The Guardian.

The underlying statement was clear: if they don’t disclose their research, they are probably doing something worth hiding, and whatever information they did disclose would be used to protest against them — a Catch-22 scenario.

The FOI law has become a preferred tool of anyone involved in politics — and it is not surprising, as obscurity is one of the main characteristics of an undemocratic government. No one can argue against the right to government transparency in the UK – but does it trump academic freedom?

Last month, the president of the Royal Society, Sir Paul Nurse, said FOI was being used by organised campaigns as a tool to intimidate some scientists and that the current law should be revised. He said this after the launch of a Royal Society study meant to examine ways of improving access to scientific data.

“I have been told of some researchers who are getting lots of requests for, among other things, all drafts of scientific papers prior to their publication in journals, with annotations, explaining why changes were made between successive versions. If it is true, it will consume a huge amount of time. And it’s intimidating,” Nurse told The Guardian, adding that some requests may have been intended to simply stop scientists from working.

Nurse may have been referring to the University of East Anglia’s ‘Climategate’ scandal, where e-mails showing scientists trying to avoid FOI requests – some by climate change sceptics were hacked and revealed.

The Unit, headed by Professor Phil Jones, was flooded with requests. Some e-mails showed scientists figuring out ways to sidestep them, while others showed them desperate to stop responding and get back to work.

“This is all about academic freedom. I’m just a humble scientist trying to do research,” Jones told Martin Rosenbaum, who writes the BBC’s Open Secrets Blog about Freedom of Information.

Nurse is not the only one who thinks FOI and academic freedom are often mutually exclusive. In April, the Mackinac Centre, a policy research group with libertarian and conservative influences, filed requests with the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University asking for e-mails that mention collective bargaining disputes. This prompted Ian Robinson, a lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Michigan, to collect 1600 signatures on a petition for academic freedom.

In Virginia, the American Association of University Professors, the Virginia ACLU, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and nine other groups called on the University of Virginia to “[balance] the interests in public disclosure against the public interest in academic freedom”. This was in response to a FOI request on the work of climate scientist Michael Mann.

On the other hand, academics immersed in controversial research projects such as climate change, or have contentious methodology — animal testing — are the usually the ones receiving a large amount of requests. Besides, these bodies generate much of the data circulated through newspapers, magazines, blogs — in other words, it is the data we all feed on. Shouldn’t it be the public’s right to scrutinise their scientific methods?

Besides, scientists have safeguards within the law to protect them from vexatious requests, said Maurice Frankel, the Director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information in a letter to The Guardian, responding to Nurse’s statement.

“Unreasonable requests for all pre-publication drafts of scientific papers can be refused under an exemption for information due for future publication,” he said.

“Explanations of why changes to successive drafts were made do not have to be provided unless they exist in writing. Multiple related requests from different people, if they are co-ordinated, can be refused if the combined cost of answering exceeds the act’s cost limit,” he said.

Hiding information may also make things worse for scientists, Frankel said.

“It was the misguided attempt to deny ammunition to critics that led to the [University of East Anglia] Climategate fiasco,” he said.

The hacking of CRU’s e-mail was reportedly triggered by the institution’s sidestepping of FOI requests – people who believed their right to obtain information was being trampled on (others question whether the Russian or the Chinese government is the real culprit).

Having the right to refuse information when it clashes with some scientists’ own freedoms seems like the optimal way to guarantee the rights of the requester and the provider of information simultaneously. And it’s already provisioned in the law. But do the safeguards really help academics studying controversial matters?

Whether academics deny or provide ammunition to their critics, they will be criticised or harassed nonetheless. Regardless of whether the academic is acting within the law, not providing information can turn into a self-directed bullet.

Open Data: What Do We Know?

Across the world government’s are pushing Open Data and extolling its many benefits. But what’s happened?

Some sites have begun collecting Open Data success stories. Some are potentially life saving as with routes for the Amsterdam Fire Brigade. There can also provide more day-to-day help with bin collection dates, missing bus stops and the now famous Denmark public toilet locater

A new site from New Zealand is also collecting stories with examples from the UK including a comparison site that uses Open Data to compare a whole variety of things to an online tax calculator.

One of the most famous, and visually interesting, is the site ‘where does my money go?’, which allows you to see how much of your taxes goes where.

One of the more interesting, and perhaps controversial, aims of Open Data particularly in the US and UK, relates to crime prevention. This includes creating crime maps  which have prompted debate on whether such initiatives need more contextual information and about who could use it and to what ends. A similar debate is happening in the US as several states push for online criminal registers for everything from violent crime to dangerous pets.

The media, in the UK the particularly the Guardian, are also starting to use new data sources. It has used the data to look at spending from, as it puts it, private schools to coal as well as David Cameron’s kitchen (s) and chocolate based staff away days. There are some more interesting examples of data journalism here.

As this article points out, there’s a lot we do not know. It may depend on lots of unpredictable factors including how long politicians support and fund it and who uses it. Technology plus human behaviour has a way of doing the unexpected.

The 1st Global Conference on Transparency Research

The 1st Global Conference on Transparency Research, a multi-disciplinary and multi-method conference will be hosted by Rutgers University-Newark. This conference is co-sponsored by:

• Rutgers School of Law-Newark (primary sponsor)
• Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information –CELE-, School of Law, Palermo University, Argentina
• The Constitution Unit, University College London, UK
• Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions
• School of Public Administration, Renmin University of China
• School of Public Administration and Public Policy, Kookmin University, Korea
• School of Public Affairs and Administration, Rutgers-Newark, USA

The purpose of the conference to bring together scholars from a wide range of fields including sociology, anthropology, political science, public administration, cultural studies, political economy, journalism, technology, and law who study issues of governmental transparency. This is the first large meeting of its kind to bring together leading scholars from throughout the world to collectively advance our understanding of the impact and implications of transparency policies that involve governments, either directly or indirectly. This includes policies on access to information held by and about governments, transparency relationships between government entities, transparency relationships between governments and private and non-profit entities, and access to information held by government about individuals.

The conference committee has put together an excellent program. Professor Christopher Hood, the Gladstone Professor of Government and Fellow of All Souls College Oxford, is the conference keynote speaker. The keynote speech is sponsored by Governance: An International Journal of Policy, Administration and Institutions. Marco Daglio, Head of the Public Service Delivery Unit, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development will present an overview of the OECD’s Open Government Project. Martin Tisné, Program Manager of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative, will present an assessment of which areas of inquiry related to transparency and accountability deserve increased scholarly attention. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative is a donor collaborative that includes the Ford Foundation, Hivos, the International Budget Partnership, the Omidyar Network, the Open Society Institute, the Revenue Watch Institute, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

We received over 270 paper proposals from scholars from around the world. A total of 115 of these proposals were accepted. Concurrent panel topics include fiscal transparency, municipal transparency, accountability, corruption, whistle blowing, regional overviews, theoretical foundations, institutional forces, and freedom of information laws and implementation. Five organizations (Canada’s International Development Research Centre, Open Society Foundations Human Rights Governance and Grants Program, Open Society Foundations Latin America Program, Open Society Foundations Rights Initiatives, Right to Information Fund, and World Bank Institute) have agreed to provide support to fund a total of 29 individuals from developing countries. The organizing committee is very grateful for their support of these scholars. We have individuals presenting their work from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America.

The conference will take place at the Center for Law and Justice at Rutgers University-Newark. On the evening of Wednesday, April 18th there will be reception at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). The following evening, Thursday April 19th, the conference participants will have dinner at the Newark Museum. The dinner will begin with a cocktail reception outside (weather permitting) and a gallery viewing of the American wing and the Victorian Ballantine House—a National Historic Landmark. The dinner will be in the Museum’s central atrium. For more information on the conference schedule and how to register for the conference visit http://spaa.newark.rutgers.edu/home/conferences/1stgctr.html

Wikileaks: new movements and slings and arrows?

A thought piece on the impact of Wikileaks by Evgeny Morozov, author of ‘The Net Delusion’ and a leading sceptic on the internet’s power to democratise the world, offers a few interesting thoughts on Wikileaks that also may relate to the world of FOI and transparency.

The first is that Wikileaks may, in time,  form part of a wider movement towards a ‘free internet’, which could include more attempts to promote (or force) transparency as well as issues such as copyright. What Morozov calls a ‘movement of geeks’ could well form around Wikileaks, combined with groups such as the Pirate party, who grew out of the Pirate Bay downloading site.

This may mirror the increasing convergence of FOI advocates with the Open Data movement, who have found that their interests are moving in the same direction, though not all transparency advocates are fans of Wikileaks. With a possible new Right to Data in the freedom bill, they look  set to move closer still.

The second point is that of how championing ‘internet freedom’ can quickly rebound back on a government. Hillary Clinton made a very strong speech on internet freedom in January 2010, implicitly promising to drop iphones to ‘netziens’ like Britain dropped sten guns to the French resistance. She has now been accused of hypocrisy after the US government’s heavy handed response to Wikileak’s activities and some less than freedom-loving snooping on social media.

Similarly, FOI has a way of coming back to haunt politicians. Promises of openness have a powerful boomerang factor. Some see the danger early on, like Lyndon Johnson who refused to publicly sign the US Act in1966 and rather tepidly endorsed it following, it is said, a stream of un-presidential language. For all those of a more cynical bent, you could perhaps compare the young FOI enthusiast Tony Blair with the later more world weary politician, tired of the slings and arrows of outraged requesters.