„Some data is available. But some is not!“

The issue „Some data is available. But some is not!“ was the main point in the afternoon-session at the Data.Journalism! conference.

Helen Darbishire, Director of Access Info Europe, showed the evolution of the Freedom of Information Act. The first FoI-law was signed in 1766, nowadays there are about 90 countries, which signed a FoI-act. There has been an exploding number of information laws since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nevertheless Austria is way behind.

In 2006 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said,  that the right of information is a part of freedom of expression. „That was an important development“, says Helen Darbishire. The european court of human right followed their lead in 2009 and linked again to freedom of expression. Last summer the UN Human rights commitee decided that there’s a right to expression & information. „So the right is there. But we have to accept that it’s not an absolute right. There are exceptions: personal data, criminal investigations, national security, etc. You have to fight for your right of information in Austria“, explained Darbishire. If you want to get an overview of different information laws (89 countries), click here. In this rating of legal Framework for right to information Serbia is leading, whereas Austria comes last.

Josef Barth of the transparency-platform Amtsgeheimnis.at criticized the legal situation in Austria. It’s they only country of former EU-15, where official secret („Amtsgeheimnis“) is constitutional law. He quoted Thomas Jefferson:

„Information is the currency of democracy“

Considering this apt quotation the duty to grant information act in Austria is kind of weird. Every administration has to provide information, except:

  • it’s too much to do
  • the request is done arbitrary
  • the request is opposing official secret-law

Josef Barth said that civil servants don’t know if they risk their job if they talk to you. He gave two examples: Georg Holzer against carinthia concerning advertisment spending of the government and that the agenda of the weekly get-together of the council of ministers stays a secret for 30 years.

Problems in Austria are:

  • Administration is not trained to deal with requests
  • Restrictive law keeps civil servants submissive
  • Politicans can still grant information as a privilege

Josef Barth argued, why Austria needs a FoI-Act „There is no subjective enforceable right to get information from administration and of course it’s wrong to have none. The transparency package is just a so-called one. Politicians still have to open to doors and let people know what they want to know.

Friedrich Lindenberg, OGD-activist at the Open Knowledge Foundation, showed up where to find data from the EU and forms of releasing data. He divided into:

  • voluntary release
    • Freedom of Information Act (Active Acquisition)
    • Open Data Portals (Passive Acquisition)
  • Involuntary realease
    • Scraping (Active Acquisition)
    • Leaks (Passive Acquisition)

Lindenberg said that the three main concerns to pro-active releases are if people use it again on legal level, format (has to be raw) and easy access.

You can find an extensive list of data sources for the European Union here. If you want to track government financial transactions across the world go to openspending.org.

Further useful EU-Data-Sources:

Open Government in Vienna has evolved in the last years. Thomas Jöchler, project-manager of the OGD-portal data.wien.gv.at, spoke about the enthusiastic community. „Most of the participants have developer background. They are creating apps. The engagement of m


edia community is not very high“, regrets Jöchler. The pushed the OGD-portal due to two reasons:

  • Other cities pushed OGD, like Linz. „It was a challenge to be ahead“, Jöchler argued.
  • New usecases due to technology: smartphones, location based services, everbybody wants his/her application

OGD Vienna offers a huge data catalogue: basemaps, statistics (population, e.g.), traffic, infrastructure and events. Data is updated four times a year. Data
is available under a Creative Commons license, so commercial usage is also possible. Jöchler also presented the results and advantages of their project:
  1. Citizen engagement: 30 apps are available
  2. less individual data requests
  3. better data management inside the administration
„Our portal is a success story and highly valuable“, said Thomas Jöchler. The administration of Vienna is hosting events four times a year to bring together administration, developers and journalists.

Speakers gave hints on requesting data at the panel discussion. „Write about it when you’re getting or not getting data and refer to the FoI-Act“, said Helen Darbishire. Josef Barth forced that journalists should ask politicians why public is not allowed to know something. Friedrich Lindenberg mentioned that it is important to show the value of getting data in reports. Jöchler invited journalists to publish data as a whole on newspapers website.

As a best practise intiative Darbishire brought up thestory.ie, an initiative from Ireland, which aims to extend the FoI-Act to cover more institutions and organisations.

In contrast to anglo-american countries german speaking countries are ages away of correct transparency. „You have to be more aggressive demanding information“, said Lindenberg. It’s essential to don’t give up at the first obstacle and go into bad compromises. What we transparency initiatives didn’t achieved yet is clarity on what data there’s a right gain from private companies.

But how should journalists make a FoI request?

  1. Recite the law: „Under the FoI act of June I request the following documents / or documents which contain the following information …“
  2. Know something about how data is kept in governments to make more specific requests
  3. Don’t ask for data over a disproportionate period of time (e.g. 1914 – 2012).
  4. If administration says „It’s too complicated, we’ll charge you 500 $“ just argue that it’s not complicated and you’ve a good chance to get information for free
  5. If you don’t know on what to request specificly just ask „Does your administration hold documents on …“
  6. Use asktheu.org, which is available in four languages, öffentlichkeitsgesetz.ch (Switzerland), data.gv.at (Austria) or fragdenstaat.de (Germany)

Concerning Wikileaks Helen Darbishire said that it showed „that there’s a lot of information classified without any reason, even in America. Nowadays the NATO advices members not to overclassify documents.“

But also media industry has to change its information culture as well. „They have to treat information properly“, said Josef Barth.

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