AskAFRICA

Posted in Access to Information

Themes

Technology, Promotion of Access to Information Act, Civic Engagement

Site

You can explore the site at http://askafrica.info/, and feel free to send any feedback on the site.

Abstract

askAFRICA is a digital management toolkit for journalists/activists that facilitates freedom-of-information (FOI) requests, combined with a semantic document repository. In South Africa, this will facilitate requests made through the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2 of 2000.

Background

Access to information remains a challenge in South Africa. In spite of South Africa having had a law for ten years, implementation of this law remains problematic, with statistics in 2011 demonstrating that almost 70% of requests are met with deemed refusals. Further, even when information is ‘liberated’, this information is not shared. ODAC identified (during  user-design interviews) the core reasons for low usage of the Act amongst the public being:

  • An off-putting bureaucratic process;
  • Difficulty in identifying information officers; 
  • A sense of apathy amongst potential users based on a feeling that it is pointless to ask questions of a government that won’t respond; and
  • An inability in members of the public to associate information to actual needs (an educational component).

Evidence suggests from interviews (see our report: “The Right to Know, the Right to Live: Open Data in South Africa”, 2012) that many users, though stating expressly perhaps that access to information is important, have difficulty in identifying which kinds of information they would ask for if given the opportunity.

ODAC's solution is thus to create an automated online system for making requests that gets around some of the bureaucratic and administrative problems, and then allows for a centralised repository of information for when that information is released.

A more fundamental underlying question may also be: is the Act a solution to access needs? This brings into question the role of proactive release of information. The semantic document repository we envision in the system we will develop in some senses speaks to this, but this need for broader advocacy is also an issue perhaps not addressed directly in the innovation - but that links to ODAC's broader objectives.

The system

The main goal of askAFRICA is to combine already-existing technologies in a simple, user-friendly manner that meets the needs of the African context and user. What we envision will be created is essentially an open source integration of DocumentCloud and Alaveteli. The simplicity and social elements of the platform will drive usage of the Act, therefore contributing and forcing enhanced implementation. It will in turn have an educational function. Importantly, it will collate released information into a centralised repository advancing the pool of open data. Tools for analysis will be provided to advance the need to make released information meaningful. An added feature of the Project is the generation of detailed user statistics to drive continual development, but also allow for the provision of detailed implementation advice (as well as possible ‘name and shame’ capacity) for recalcitrant departments.

More broadly, our project seeks to support the access to information ecosystem. We understand it is meant to fit within an open data architecture, but utility for the user is key priority for design.  By utilising our user-driven focus, we can assist in creating a re-packaged plug-and-play version of Alavateli, which can then be deployed to support the growing number of access to information laws on the African continent.

Progress report

»askAFRIA.net domain purchased

»Relationships with Alaveteli and DocumentCloud established

»Local developer identified and briefed

»Design training undertaken with Stanford D-school

Resources:

Our funders:

Our project partners:

  • Alavateli, and MySociety
  • DocumentCloud
  • Code4Kenya
  • African Platform on Access to Information