On Being Misquoted – Access Info Europe and Freedominfo.org

I’ve just been alerted to a new post out on Freedominfo.org has quotes of mine that are used in way that is deeply disappointing. It’s never fund to see your ideas misused to make it appear that you are against something that you deeply support.

The most disappointing misquote comes from Helen Darbishire, a European FOI expert at Access Info Europe. Speaking about the convergence between open data and access to information laws (FOIA) she “lamented that comments like Eaves’ exacerbate divisions at a time when  “synergies” are developing at macro and micro levels.” The comment she is referring to is this one:

“I just think FOIA is broken; the wait time makes it broken….” David Eaves, a Canadian open government “evangelist,” told the October 2011 meeting of International information commissioners. He said “efforts to repair it are at the margins” and governments have little incentive for reform.

I’m not sure if Darbishire was present at the 7th International Conference of Information Commissioners where I made this comment in front of a room of mostly FOI experts but the comment actually got a very warm reception. Specifically, I was talking about how the wait times of access to information requests – not theidea of Access to Information. The fact is, that for many people waiting 4-30 weeks for a response from a government for a piece of information makes the process broken. In addition, I often see the conversation among FOIA experts focus on how to reduce that time by a week or a few days. But for most people, that will still leave them feeling like the system is too slow and so, in their mind, broken, particularly in a world where people are increasingly used to getting the information they want in about .3 seconds (the length of a Google search).

What I find particularly disappointing about Darbishire’s comments is that I’ve been advocating for for the open data and access to information communities to talk more to one another – indeed long before I find any reference of her calling for it. Back in April during the OGP meeting I wrote:

There remain important and interest gaps particularly between the more mature “Access to Information” community and the younger, still coalescing “Gov2.0/OpenGov/Tech/Transparency” community. It often feels like members of the access to information community are dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement in general and the OGP in particular. This is disappointing as technology is likely going to have a significant impact on the future of access to information. As more and more government work gets digitized, how way we access information is going to change, and the opportunities to architect for accessibility (or not) will become more important. These are important conversations and finding a way to knit these two communities together more could help the advance everyone’s thinking.

And of course, rather than disparage Access to Information as a concept I frequently praise it, such as during this article about the challenges of convergence between open data and access to information:

Let me pause to stress, I don’t share the above to disparage FOI. Quite the opposite. It is a critical and important tool and I’m not advocating for its end. Nor am I arguing the open data can – in the short or even medium term – solve the problems raised above.

That said, I’m willing to point out the failures of both Open Data and Access to information. But to then cherry pick my comments about FOIA and paint me as someone who is being unhelpful strikes me as problematic.

I feel doubly that way since, not only have I advocated for efforts to bridge the communities, I’ve tried to make efforts to make it happen. I was the one who suggested that Warren Krafchik – the Civil Society co-chair of the Open Government Partnership be invited to the Open Knowledge Festival to help with a conversation around helping bring the two communities together and reached out to him with the invitation.

If someone wants to label me as someone who is opinionated in the space, that’s okay – I do have opinions about what works and what doesn’t work and try to share them, sometimes in a constructive way, and sometimes – such as when on a panel – in a way that helps spur discussion. But to lay the charge of being divisive, when I’ve been trying for several years to bridge the conversation and bring the open data perspective into the FOIA community, feels unfair and problematic.

2 thoughts on “On Being Misquoted – Access Info Europe and Freedominfo.org

  1. Helen Darbishire

    Hi David

       This is Helen Darbishire checking in from Helsinki. I think
    we are both a bit out of synch where we probably don’t need to be or actually
    agree. I did lament the assertion that FOIA is “broken” even if I was indeed
    one of those in the room who applauded your speech in Ottawa last October.

       You made an important point to the Information Commissioners:
    the wait time for getting answers to FOIA requests is something that digital
    natives don’t tolerate very well. That’s a strong argument for having more
    proactive publication. It’s one of a number of arguments for having proactive
    publication (I have gathered some others in this report, “Proactive
    transparency: the future of the right to information?” http://siteresources.worldbank.org/WBI/Resources/213798-1259011531325/6598384-1268250334206/Darbishire_Proactive_Transparency.pdf)

       But of course I disagree with any broad generalisation such
    as “FOIA is broken” (although I understand it’s possibly closer to broken in
    Canada than elsewhere) or that “the access to information community are
    dismissive of the technology aspects of the open government movement” because I
    don’t think either are true. I lament anyone who says there is a divide – I
    even had a bit of a go at Toby McIntosh for his abysmally clichéd subheading “OD From Mars, FOI
    From Venus” (@Toby, please, come on – I can’t believe you kept that in there!)

       The right to information is not broken: it’s alive and
    kicking and working every day to uncover information about key democratic
    issues: human rights abuses, corruption, government spending, information
    needed to debate new policies ranging from education to how to solve the
    financial crisis. There are access to information laws in over 90 countries
    around the world, and in many FOI requests are levering access to databases where
    there is no political will to publish them and while in some ways this may be “unfortunate”,
    it’s also something to celebrate, proving that the years of campaigning for the
    right of access to information – which is now a right recognised by the UN Human
    Rights Committee – has created a valuable and useful tool.

       An example of these synergies: OKFN is campaigning to get
    the German budget in an open data format and they obtained the EU budget in
    machine readable format for the first time – and did so using AsktheEU.org (www.asktheeu.org), a
    request platform based on mySociety’s Alaveteli software, which is a perfect
    example of how ICTs are being embraced by FOI campaigners to advance

       This week in Helsinki the discussions between the Open Data
    and Access to Information movements will continue – part of an ongoing process
    of responding to a rapidly evolving world where civil society campaigners need
    to use every tool at their disposal, ranging from the legal to the technical,
    to advance transparency. I completely agree with you David that our discussions
    should be about how to work together to that end, not what differentiates one
    type of activist from another!

  2. Toby McIntosh

    “Misquotation?”  Sorry, but  no.   Your Ottawa message on FOI is accurately quoted and with the right context. There’s no insinuation you don’t like the
    concept of FOI.

    What’s more, the FreedomInfo.org
    article goes on to fulsomely quote exactly the same part of your April post
    that you cite here, on the differences between the two communities and value of
    more knitting them.

    Seems  unfair to pick on
    Helen Darbishire (who wasn’t misquoted either) without mentioning the thrust of
    her message – enthusiastic praise for OD and support for joint activities.

    BTW:  Your link to
    your “pause to stress” quote goes to the wrong post, instead of
    to your March post
    on FOI and OD. That post engendered some interesting clarifications about FOI
    by a reader and the ensuing dialogue further demonstrates the need for mutual understanding.



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