The chronicles of freedom of information - Part 2
The first such story happened recently, when working on the subject of the teachers examination. Normally, the process of requesting data should be simplified and done electronically, either via email or online forms, but if those do not exist, then we have to send them by paper with the postal service. Requests sent via post has become less and less necessary in recent years which is a positive change. Unfortunately, for the teachers examination story, we were unable to request information electronically because this governmental agency only accepts FOI requests if they are dropped off in their office by the person or the organization who is requesting the data personally.
As requested, we printed out the letter and personally delivered it to their office, but to our surprise no one asked for our name or personal information. They just opened the letter, read it and accepted it, never asking who dropped it off. I believe you can all understand how frustrated we were to find out that even though their policies claim we have to deliver the request in person, in practice they do not care and we could have saved ourselves time and money by sending the request via post. Imagine if a researcher from a region wanted to request public information from this same agency. Because of their policies, the person would have to come to Tbilisi only to discover that a delivery service would work just as well. This might seem like a small and insignificant detail, but in the end, these kind of details are creating barriers between the public and the public information.
Introducing an electronic request was a very positive step towards opening data to the general public. However, researchers working at JumpStart soon realized that sometimes an effort to make things easier can actually create more problems. When visiting a ministry website, if I come across an online form for data requests or see an e-mail address on their public information page, I usually develop a positive attitude towards these agencies. For me, and for anyone working on requesting data, it is a small detail that helps us save time. Recently, however, after filling in the electronic form on one of the ministries web page, we found out through personal contact that this form is not working and we should have sent the request to an e-mail address. This address was not listed anywhere on the website. Unfortunately, we come across to thes type of issues a lot during our day to day work. Link failures, malfunctioning electronic forms, inaccurate addresses, and other technical problems are very common. In the end, we usually manage to get the information that we are interested in by being persistent and following up on the request, but I wonder how many people don’t receive requested information due to these types of issues?
Sticking with the electronic process, the next story relates to receiving the requested data. JumpStart received a call from the person that processed one of our requests and we were asked to go to their office to pick up the data because the data was too large to send by email. When we have requested large amounts of data in the past, the government agencies always used the postal service to send the data on CD or USB, so we were surprised by the request. We did as we were asked and went to their office to pick up the data on CD. Upon returning to the office, I downloaded the data to my computer and tried to send it to a co-worker to see if it would send. Sure enough, it did. So either due to the inadequacies of the public agency’s email system or due simply to their negligence, we lost time and resources resolving an issue that should not have been an issue.
In the end, JumpStart often encounters objective and subjective barriers throughout our work that hinder receiving the requested information. In many cases, we still manage to get the information, but we never know how much time or effort it is going to take and whether we will receive the data in a format that we can use. The main point to keep in mind is that all of these stories relate to requesting public information and, in the ideal world, this process should be without barriers and be as easy and painless as possible.
As a person who spends most of her time requesting and processing data, as well as explaining to the general public the importance of open data, I am grateful for the freedom of information services that the government agencies provide. However, given our experiences with the process, I wonder if the agencies themselves understand the importance of publicly available information or care about the process in which they deliver the information to the public.
In my next blog post in the Chronicles of Freedom of Information series, I will discuss what to take into consideration when requesting public information.