Wednesday, February 27, 2008

FOI - Army of One

iStock_000004817156XSmall.jpgLast December I suggested that government could adopt a 3 stranded approach, making use of existing tools like Facebook, Wikepedia and others to replace things that have traditionally been built and managed in-house. One of the ideas was a service that would put all FOI requests and the associated responses for all departments on one site. I said:

[W]hat if we took every FoI request - and its response - and published it online with a simple search application, driven by google or windows live or any other engine- so that before you asked your question you could see what else had been asked that was similar; you'd then either just use that information and not bother to ask your own question or you'd refine yours to get a better take. Smart journalists would use the search tool to bring together previously unrelated questions and draw even more conspiratorial conclusions. Smarter ones would phrase their next question to take advantage of the freely obtained knowledge that they already have to find something new. Government would respond, one would hope, by getting smarter about its operations and processes and would use this leverage to drive greater change and efficiency.

And then

The deluge of information would be enormous. The fragments of data would require an entire army to stitch it together into meaningful conclusions. But, let's be honest, government itself is never going to have a big enough internal army to do this stitching but, the outside world, those who want to be part of an open-source government, now maybe they'd have the willing, the time, the intellect and the energy to sort, distill and publish the very best pieces - and government, of course, would pay for such pieces once and once only. Sadly, the name YouGov is already taken by a very clever chap called Nadhim Zahawi, but maybe he'd be open to offers. Failing that, we could always go back to me.gov, the vision of access to government coined in 2000 following the [necessary] demise of open.gov.uk.

I was thinking that someone in government might take this on. What I should have realised is that somewhere in the UK, Francis Irving, one of MySociety's people was already working on exactly such a service.

It's not completely done but it works and I think it's brilliant. William Heath, who must think I disagree with him at every opportunity, will be surprised by that remark I'm sure. In this context, we disagree about only a couple of things - direct.gov's overall usefulness and the search approach within the same site.

What the [to be named] service does is let you ask a question of any department. It badges the request, ties it to a unique email address and then handles the correspondence with the department. The question is posted on the site for all to see along with its status and any responses. There are only a few questions on there so far and even fewer full responses, but it has potential.

I can see that a lot of people on the inside will want to stop this - there will be complaints that somehow FoI was never meant to be published on the Internet, that it was meant to be a bi-directional transaction between government and one citizen. Plainly that doesn't make any sense. If a journalist asks for information and then writes an article about (as has been done a 1001 times already) then what's the difference between that and this site? This site has, of course, the potential to be a much better archive of such requests and, over time, it could save a lot of money by reducing duplication and, particularly, by allowing government to say "we've already answered that - and here's the link" to mysociety's site. I think that will take some time and there will be plenty of resistance. So for now, there's voyeur mode - you and I get to see what kind of questions others are asking and engage mode where you get to ask the question yourself.

Funnily enough, William suggests the site be named open.gov.uk - which I'd completely missed in my thinking in the paragraph I highlighted from the previous post - although I'd even referred to that site. He's right, though, open.gov would be a great name. But I suspect they might have to settle for something else. Opengov.com is for sale, a snip at $7,200. Opengov.co.uk is apparently registered. Opengov.org seems to have something to do with Missouri government. Simple combinations of those words (and adding words like "free") all appear to be taken.

One question that is asked on the site, by William (on a mission from God), is, effectively, what was the story behind using ukonline.gov.uk as the domain name for the UK government's first aggregating site and did money change hands with the ISP, ukonline.com. I wasn't around then and I'd be astonished if there is a story still; and more astonished if money actually changed hands. I think all they got was the footer on ukonline.gov.uk, which I think we removed somewhere in version 2 or possibly 3 (mid 2002?). But there are few, if any, people around from that time, e-mail systems have changed 3 or 4 times and I wonder how good the archives are.

Anyway, this new site is great. It does much of what I said, better than I thought, quicker than I could possibly have imagined, before I'd even put finger to keyboard and all on a shoestring. Give it the traffic it deserves and visit it.

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