Alaveteli Conference 2012: Another Community For Acceso Inteligente

By Pedro Daire, Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente

Original post: El Vaso

Earlier this year, we received a visit at the Fundacion Ciudadano Inteligente (FCI) from Tony Bowden, a seasoned veteran in using technology for civil society. Tony has spent almost 10 years working in, one of the organizations that served as the inspiration for the founders of FCI when building our Foundation.

Throughout this week in Chile, Tony spent half his workday in our office discussing what we do and sharing his opinions on what our future goals might be. During one of these meaningful conversations, we came across a very important topic: our site (Smart Access) which allows users to make requests for information under Chilean FOIA regulations. It was a must because MySociety encourages and coordinates the development of an open source software, Alaveteli, which embraces the same challenge – making FOI Request an simple task.

Ok, so let’s be more specific. The function of Alaveteli is the same, but the reality if faces (as in many countries when requesting public information) is different to ours. In other places, simply sending an e-mail to a public institution is all it takes to request information, where as in Chile it is necessary to fill out forms, either online or on paper. That’s why we weren’t able to use a great software like Alaveteli, even though we are completely aware of its existence.

It has been 18 months since the first cornerstone of Alaveteli was laid down, and thus far the platform has proved to be very successful, with more than ten implementations working around the world. Surely this success was what motivated the founders to hold a meeting for all those who wanted to be involved with Alaveteli. We were invited to talk and hear. Talk about what we’ve done in Chile and hear about Alaveteli capabilities.

The event took place in Oxford with two days of very stimulating conversations. The attendants had a very strong desire to achieve Freedom of Information in an easier and more accessible way for citizens.

One particular thing that caught my interest was the ability of Alaveteli to be used as a tool to pressure for information in countries that don’t even have a law for Access to Public Information. In these countries (eg: in Spain and in Brazil) , Freedom of Information Access advocates started working with Alateveli without having a clearly defined channel, or any previously agreed upon terms, not even clear responsibilities within the governmental agencies. However, this did not seem to matter when they put the site up; the questions started being asked! But, what happens if one has to fill in forms, on or offline, like in the case of Chile? These FOI advocates don’t seem to mind. If they believe that the best method is via e-mail, then that’s exactly how they’ll do it. They do not necessarily adapt the tool to their reality, on the contrary, they use the tool to shape how they think their future law should work.

When I said earlier that Alaveteli was an open source software, I was not being completely accurate. Alaveteli is 40% code and 60% community. Many “hands” have contributed to Alaveteli and every one of those is greatly valued when improving the software. In FCI, we realized this and were inspired to join and contribute with our technology, particularly  in those jurisdictions that include web forms. In return, our users would benefit from the improvements that this community has made to the application in all aspects of usability that our team had not been able to refine due to a lack of time.

In the conference, we showed our willingness to create a unit of Accesso Inteligente that integrates 100% with Alaveteli and that can manage both e-mail as well as webform requests simultaneously. The community celebrated our intention, as it would eventually be useful for Spain and Brazil. They are therefore discussing their laws and the web form in the debate with their governments.

We are hopeful that this integration will be secured within the upcoming months. We are anxious to provide citizens with a better service to access public information. Stay tuned for updates!

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