Taiwan Journalists Unaware of FOI Law, Article Says

25 April 2013

Journalists in Taiwan are not aware of the national freedom of information law, according to an article by an American journalist who attended a two-day data journalism seminar in Taiwan, but the open dta movement is growing and information is getting out in unofficial ways.

During the workshop, we talked about how to obtain data, and I asked if anyone had ever used this law.

“We have a freedom of information law?” was the answer.

This was the experience described by Jonathan Stray leads the Overview Project for the Associated Press, a Knight News Challenge-funded visualization system to help investigative journalists make sense of very large document sets, and teaches computational journalism at Columbia University.

Actually, he continued, “A few veteran reporters did know of the law, but weren’t aware of anyone who’d ever filed a request under its provisions.”

Taiwan’s Freedom of Government Information law was enacted in 2005. Stray noted that under Taiwan’s system, there isn’t any case law which tells the courts how to interpret this right.

“It’s not that the journalists at Commonwealth Magazine don’t want the data. Indeed, the magazine — sometimes described as the Taiwanese equivalent of The Economist — is an Asian data journalism pioneer, winning awards for its infographics and now moving into interactives. Neither are they politically constrained in what they can cover or how they can cover it. Rather, the difficulty is access. “We can write about anything, but there is this problem of getting correct information from the source,” said Commonwealth Magazine managing editor Yin-Chen Wu.

Stray goes on to discuss other ways to get data in Taiwan, describing “a young open data community” that is “advocating for access.”

He writes about unauthorized data publication:

“Tired of waiting, some people have published privately held government data without official permission. Power generation has been a hot issue in Taiwan since the Japanese reactor meltdowns in the wake of the 2011 tsunami, but official data on the capacity, safety, and radiation monitoring of Taiwan’s nuclear plants has been hard to come by. A small group of industry experts had this data, but lacked any official path to release it. So, they came to the Taipei Open Data Day hackathon and released it in a Dropbox folder.

Many companies with public data have quietly put it online voluntarily, he also reports.

Stray also points out that in Taiwan “it’s easy to get certain types of information that might horrify Americans, and hard to get other data that Americans would deem obviously public.” Crime data isn’t available, but journalists can get images from  road cameras. Real estate price information is newly becoming available.

Stray ventures some comparisons between the American and Taiwan open data stories. One of his five points is, “Governments have a key role in changing laws and publishing data, but independent projects under the mantra of  `proceed until apprehended’ can be faster, cheaper, and far more radical than official efforts.”

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