In recent decades, the freedom of information and right to know movement has blossomed in countries as diverse as India and Iceland and Latvia and Liberia. At present, more than 90 countries across the world have freedom of information legislation in place. While there is huge variation between countries and the degree to which they comply with their freedom of information laws, the existence of FOI mechanisms represents a great opportunity for civil society, citizens and journalists to hold the state to account. South Africa has had FOI legislation since the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000, although in 2011 some 68% of requests for information made under this act received no response from Government.
The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) exists to promote open and transparent democracy, foster a culture of accountability and assist South Africans to assert their rights. Using funding of £15,000 from us, they will be developing the openAFRICA project, a digital management toolkit for journalists and activists that facilitates FOI requests, combined with a semantic document repository. To do this it will pair Alaveteli (software developed by mySociety to allow public FOI requests) with DocumentCloud (which ‘reads’ documents to pick out the people, places and organisations mentioned within them). openAFRICA will offer citizens a streamlined, user-friendly portal for submitting questions to government. Stitching together best-of-class technology platforms, it will merge Avaleteli’s public interface with the DocumentCloud repository. This will allow journalists and others to conduct advanced forensic research on data released by government, including entity extraction and analysis as it runs information through OpenCalais. Making these two platforms interoperable will make them significantly more powerful, globally. openAFRICA will then build new functionalities on the user interface, by creating a community or ‘social layer’ so citizens can actively curate collections of documents, and build communities interested around themes/topics/documents. This social layer will also be used to raise awareness and directly advance the cause of increasing the number of requests made.
ODAC were recently named one of 20 winners from the African News Challenge and will be using funding won through the challenge to aid the technical development of the platform. Indigo’s contribution will pay for staff time, travel costs and marketing and outreach to make sure the platform reaches those who need it.