19/10/2017

Innsyn – a Norwegian word for transparency

 

I work as a journalist at the regional media house, Fædrelandsvennen, a newspaper in a small Norwegian town. Coming from a background in national newspapers and TV documentaries, I had grown used to filing FOIA requests for documents as part of my work routine. The Norwegian government has a wonderful tool for this, www.oep.no, that covers some of the many governmental institutions we have.

At the local level, in our municipality Kristiansand, there was also a tool for searchable digital records. We used it a lot, to find and to verify information for all sorts of articles we were producing. Until suddenly one day, our magic tool was taken from us.

They had been building it since 1999, and by January 2013, it contained metadata on all the documents that had been processed for almost 14 years. That’s when someone decided to remove the whole dump from the municipality website. We got different explanations WHY this happened. WHAT is easier. A public servant was assigned the task of printing the lists of documents produced in the archive on a daily basis. Paper prints, that is. She would then scan these documents to create non-searchable image PDFs.

Journalists needed to return to manually reviewing document lists and diaries, which was a time consuming job. Too time consuming for us. It is difficult for most people to imagine the level of the public sector’s paperwork. But, for the sake of it, I posed with the boxes containing these lists from my municipality, for one year. The list with the metadata alone, one year only, is two times my body height.

Image: Photo Kjartan Bjelland/Fvn.no.

It just so happened that I was investigating a story that very spring. A property investor wanted to erect a building next to the theatre in town, with offices and apartments. Kristiansand municipality said they needed to buy the property to expand the theatre and offered him a low sum in compensation. He declined, and our municipality administration took the man to court. The court ruled that he had to let go of the property to make room for the theatre, and he lost a significant sum of money.

Now, 14 years later the municipality wants to make some money. They have proposed to erect a building in that very same property, with offices and apartments. The new theatre was built, but somewhere else. And this property investor is dissatisfied with the whole affair. Now, the quick and easy way could perhaps be to interview him, and balance the article with an interview with the municipality administration. But it is an ideal in investigative journalism to find out what is right and what is wrong. So, I wanted to read all the documents related to this story.

When I had the municipality’s database of searchable electronic records, I had all 14 years of document history ready at my fingertips. But since they had recently shut it down, I now had to browse through hundreds of thousand pages long lists, just to find the archive references needed for my FOIA. The news editor said: “Tarjei, you are a news journalist. This is a PhD student project. It’s not possible!”

It was a sad moment. I complained to my wife. She is a caring person. I got a cup of tea.

But I also poured my frustration over a colleague named Atle. We had a coffee, and Atle is one of these guys all newsrooms should have more of. He writes code. He did not give me any empathy, but he asked some very good questions: Are these archive references you talk about always structured in the same way? Have you heard about Optical Character Recognition software? Half an hour later, we went together to our news editor with an idea that was not a PhD-project, but yet a solution to our problem. We wanted to restore the deleted database and publish the content on the media house’s web pages.

We launched this project at the local level in 2014 with great success. Our reporters got their tool back. But we decided to share the tool so that our readers, and our competitors, could use it as well. It is, after all, public data.

Feedback from colleagues from other places in Norway was great. They started asking: Can you do this with our university as well? Can you fix this for the church? Can you look into the police districts? We changed the technology radically. Initially, we were working with the PDFs, but made them searchable. Now, we extract all of a document’s letters and numbers into a PostgresSql database, which allows us more freedom to work with the data.

We started growing.

In 2015, the domain name innsyn.no was registered and later launched as a national project, yet still owned and maintained by the local newspaper in Kristiansand. Why? Because we can. It feels like the right thing to do. The newspaper pays most of the bills. And we have some financial support from the Fritt Ord Foundation.

Image: Innyn.no.

There are other tools around the globe that also help journalists and other people more effectively use Access to Information legislation (ATI), or FOIA as many call it. Some of them are WhatDoTheyKnow and FragDenStaat, and GIJN has gathered an extensive list here. What most of these have in common, is that they help you ask questions to the right public office, and facilitate the process so that you get your answer.

What’s unique about Oep.no and our tool Innsyn.no in Norway, is that these databases contain the metadata on all the documents for any given public office. Just from looking at these metadata you learn a lot. How many documents are there? Who wrote the report or letter in question? What is the document’s date? Who else received a copy? What is the title? And then, we provide an easy form that files your request within seconds. It even allows you to be anonymous if you desire so.

FOIA requests are just like alcohol. If it is cheap and easily available, people drink more. Now, Norway has some very high taxes on alcohol, which probably explains why Norwegians drink so much when they travel abroad. But try to learn from our FOIA routines. Filing a FOIA request in my country is free of charge. You decide whether you want to file it openly in your own name, or anonymously. We have tools that make it easy to file these electronically, and your reply will be sent to the email address you provide.

The result? Several hundred thousand FOIA requests are filed every year, in a country with a population of 5 million people only.

Our plans for the future? We hope to cover even more of the Norwegian public sector by the end of the year. Today, we have more than 8 million document entries at Innsyn.no but I hope for 12 million by December.

Then we can look across borders to other countries, if anyone else would like to try this.

Explore innsyn.no here.

Image: Zach Korb.

 

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