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Business - Written by on Monday, March 9, 2009 21:38 - 1 Comment

What Do They Know? Making Freedom of Information Requests Easy

The right to make freedom of information requests is in enshrined in most democratic countries (Wikipedia says 70 countries have such legislation). But how often is that right actually invoked? My guess is that it’s vastly underutilized and that most members of the public would be surprised to know what they could find out if only they asked.

Part of the issue is that few people are aware of the appropriate process for filing a freedom of information request and probably assume that effort and time required would outweigh the ultimate benefits. That’s why I really like WhatDoTheyKnow, a MySociety project that strips away all of the hassles and uncertainties of filing an FOI request. Visitors to the site simply pick a department, type a request, and mysociety handles the rest!

Residents of Edinburgh in the UK, for example, have used WhatDoTheyKnow to successfully request information about things like:

Answers to these queries remain on the site so that future visitors needn’t burden the Edinburgh council with redundant requests for information. If you see a topic of interest you can always set up an RSS alert so that you get notified when something of interest comes in.

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Mar 16, 2009 17:52

In the second paragraph Williams brings up an interesting point about how many people don’t take advantage of the Networked information economy’s ability to enhance democracy. Many people tend to stick to the traditional methods of communication, such as hierarchy for various reasons including their fear of breaking away from tradition. People greatly underestimate the information available to them via the internet, simply because it is easier to turn on the six o’clock news then to expand and research the news themselves. The problem with not breaking away from this tradition of turning away from the mass media for information is that you have less view points available to form your own opinion. Often, depending on what news station you watch, you get a completely different side or opinion of a story based on political and personal bias associated with the network. However, with sites like “What do they know” information is organized into smaller clusters based on interest, making more information more readily available to the masses. The excuse that the time and effort will outweigh the benefits, helps mass media to maintain control. The views proposed by Williams closely follow Benkler’s autonomy vs. mass media ideas.

WhatDoTheyKnow makes government information more easily accessible and transparent to the public. This transparency and ease of access allows citizens to become more active in their own government enhancing democracy. By giving people the practical autonomy to participate in government democracy is enhanced and the overall government system performs better to the true definition of democracy.

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Don Tapscott and Anthony D. William's latest collaboration, Macrowikinomics: New Solutions for a Connected Planet. Learn more.

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