FOI Notes: Metrics/Australia, Malaysia, Algorithms, Iran, US, Armenia, India, Latin America, Open Data, Tunisia, Taiwan

1 June 2017

Australia: Australian information commissioners and ombudsmen agree on six proposed “Metrics on Public Use of Freedom of Information Access Rights,” available for comment at http://ipc.nsw.gov.au/open-government. The dataset for the 2015/16 metrics is scheduled to be released in December 2017. The scope of the metrics cover:

  • Type of applicant
  • Application rates per capita
  • Release rates
  • Refusal rates
  • Timeliness
  • Review rates

They are published here.

Malaysia: Government agencies lack clarity about legislation governing the release of information, a World Bank Group report concludes, according to a Malay Mail article. The World Bank evaluates national access to information regimes as one of many factors to indicate whether governments are prepared for an open data initiative, according to a 2016 Freedominfo.org review.

FOI Research/United States: “Freedom of Information Beyond the Freedom of Information Act,” an article by David Pozen of the Columbia Law School published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 165, pp. 1097-1158, 2017. Among his messages: “The most promising path forward involves displacing FOIA requests as the lynchpin of transparency policy and shoring up alternative strategies, above all affirmative disclosure frameworks that release information in the absence of a request.”

Abstract: The U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows any person to request any agency record for any reason. This model has been copied worldwide and celebrated as a structural necessity in a real democracy. Yet in practice, this Article argues, FOIA embodies a distinctively “reactionary” form of transparency. FOIA is reactionary in a straightforward, procedural sense in that disclosure responds to ad hoc demands for information. Partly because of this very feature, FOIA can also be seen as reactionary in a more substantive, political sense insofar as it saps regulatory capacity; distributes government goods in an inegalitarian fashion; and contributes to a culture of adversarialism and derision surrounding the domestic policy bureaucracy while insulating the far more secretive national security agencies, as well as corporations, from similar scrutiny. If this Article’s core claims are correct to any significant degree, then open government advocates in general, and progressives in particular, ought to rethink their relationship to this landmark law.

United States/Algorithms: “Opening the government’s black boxes: freedom of information and algorithmic accountability,” an article by Katherine Fink, Pace University, Media and Communication Arts, Faculty Member. (In an academic journal; available but for a charge to non-subscribers.)

Abstract: Freedom of information laws are intended to illuminate how governments operate. However, the operations of governments increasingly involve algorithms, such as those used to recommend criminal sentencing and determine eligibility for social services. Algorithms function as ‘black boxes’ that turn inputs into outputs using processes that are often, by design, not transparent. Freedom of information laws allow one potential means for algorithmic transparency. However, whether such laws can be used to access algorithms is unclear. This research examines, in two ways, the availability of government algorithms to the public. First, this study examines laws, regulations, advisory opinions, and court rulings relevant to the disclosure of algorithms. The second part of this study analyzes actual responses by US government agencies to Freedom of Information Act requests for algorithms. This study concludes that governmental policies and practices related to algorithmic disclosure are inconsistent. Such inconsistencies suggest a need for better mechanisms to hold government algorithms accountable.

“Can We Make Algorithms More Accountable?” an article based on the University of Maryland’s Nicholas Diakopoulos’ keynote address at the European Investigative Journalism and Dataharvest conference in May in Mechelen, Belgium, sponsored by GIJN member Journalismfund.eu.

The website algorithmtips.org contains a long list of algorithms being used by the US government.

Nigeria: A Federal High Court backs the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) and Paradigm Leadership Support Initiative in their effort to secure the release of government audited reports from 1999 to 2015. The court order permits the case to advance, The Guardian writes.

Pakistan: A Senate Standing Committee okays a bill titled “The Right of Access to Information Bill, 2017,” The Nation reports.

Armenia: Changes to the FOI law are being developed, according to Panorama and ArmenPres.

Iran: An Iranian official announces a test version of an online system (apparently not working outside of the country) to provide Iranian citizens with access to the information, according to an IFP News report.

United States: The number of FOIA lawsuits hits a record high, 63, the highest level recorded for at least 25 years, according to The FOIA Project. The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse says the backlog of FOIA requests at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has tripled in the last two years, from 17,998 in December 2014 to 46,550 in December 2016.

United States: The Supreme Court leaves in place a lower court ruling allowing enforcement agencies to withhold photographs of persons arrested, reports The Detroit Free Press.

Bulgaria: The Access to Information Programme presents findings and recommendations on the state of access to information (in Bulgarian).

Jordan: “The number of requests for information appears to be rising, perhaps quite significantly, with some reports suggesting that 13,000 requests were made in 2016, although it is not clear that all of these were official requests made under the Access to Information Law. Equally important, at least 60 public bodies appointed information officers,” according to an article in The Jordan Times by Toby Mendel, executive director of the Centre for Law and Democracy.

Ghana: More delays on getting RTI on the parliament’s schedule, according to GhanaWeb.

Open Data: There is a relationship between accessibility of data and income levels of a country, and between data availability and the productivity and quality of economic research, according to research in a World Bank report.

Open Data: A blog post by Danny Lämmerhirt and Mor Rubinstein says:

The open data community needs to shift focus from mass data publication towards an understanding of good data quality. Yet, there is no shared definition what constitutes ‘good’ data quality.

India: An article in the OnlineRTI Blog describes “Scenarios Where RTI is Applicable,” beginning with “delay in passports.”

Latin America: A summary (in Spanish) of a regional meeting about RTI held in Argentina.

Video/Bangladesh: A four-minute musical video about RTI underwritten by Article 19.

Tunisia: “Information for the People: Tunisia Embraces Open Government, 2011–2016,” a case study by Tristan Dreisback.

Taiwan: Minister Without Portfolio Audrey Tang sets a goal of digitizing all executive affairs, according to an interview in The Taipei Times. “If everything is on paper it sits on desks or the computers of the people working on the file, which makes it impossible to render transparent. Therefore, the next step is to share the data on which we base our decisions in a transparent manner.”

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