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In Uruguay, Quesabes.org Helps Citizens Use Their Right to Open Government

BY Elena Casas-Montanez | Tuesday, January 29 2013

Screenshot from Quesabes.org

When Uruguay passed a freedom of information law in October 2008, international watchdogs applauded. The country of just 3 million people, squeezed in between Argentina and Brazil, became a regional leader in freedom of information. Citizens could access nearly any piece information held by the government, with exceptions for issues like national security.

There was just one problem — nobody was actually using their rights under the law.

That's where www.quesabes.org came in.

“Ordinary people couldn’t use the Freedom of Information law,” says site founder Daniel Carranza. “Most hadn’t heard about it, or didn’t know how to make a request, or were simply incredulous that the government would really give them access to all that information. It was only used by professional journalists or activist groups. So we decided to try to open it up.”

The site’s three founders — digital media consultant Carranza, NGO worker Mariana Mas and PhD student Fabrizio Scrollini — explained that most governments in the region have labyrinthine layers of administration, making it impossible for ordinary people to work out to whom they should address their questions. Then, there was the problem of bureaucracy. “When the freedom of information law was passed,” says Mas. “Most government offices said ‘we’re happy to answer questions, but only if you ask in person at such and such an office, between, say, 1 and 3pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.’ They would answer emails by saying they had a policy of not responding to emails, it was ridiculous. That’s the culture we’re trying to change.”

Scrollini says he was inspired by meeting the team behind British politics site theyworkforyou.com — a searchable directory of information on Members of Parliament — while studying in London, and decided to try and bring a similar idea to Uruguay.

They started with www.datauy.org, a networking site that aims to bring together Uruguayans interested in increasing transparency via technology, and then created www.quesabes.org as a tool for the wider public. One inspiration was the Spanish site www.tuderechodesaber.es, whose founders helped build its Uruguayan cousin. The web development team's task was made more complex by the fact that Spain is one of the few European countries without similar freedom of information legislation.

Quesabes.org operates on a simple principle — the site receives queries from the public, passes them to the correct government office and chases them up when they go unanswered. All the requests, responses,or lack thereof are visible for all to see on the site. Free open-source software allowed the team to launch with no financial backing. They soon gained a public profile by building relationships with NGOs already working to promote transparency, and attracting media attention.

“We didn’t want the government to perceive it as an attack,” says Carranza. “So we did everything we could to get them on our side. In every ministry there are a few people who already believe in transparency, so we got in touch with them and said we could give them the means to make it happen, and lots of the civil servants thanked us.” The site has even been publicly endorsed by Uruguayan President José Mujica.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that Uruguayan bureaucrats took to the idea immediately. The site has received 176 queries since launching in October, but only 25 have been completely answered within the 20-day deadline stipulated by the Freedom of Information law. Some have been rejected on grounds of national security, or, as in the case of a request for public sector salary information, on the grounds that specific individuals could be identified from the answers and their privacy would be infringed. The vast majority, the team admit, have simply been ignored.

“Some official bodies have been incredibly helpful,” Mas says. “One local authority provided a list of attendees at a council meeting within in an hour. Others — like the Interior Ministry — are still very opaque. We’re trying to work on them tactfully, by talking to the employees and so on. Our last resort would be to complain to newspapers here that they’re not complying with the law and shame them into improving, but we’re trying to avoid that.”

User Eleonora Navatta says her experience of using the site has been “patchy” and “frustrating." She’s made three requests through the site. The first was for the number of people given access to classified information in Uruguay, which she was told would only be available if she applied in person at a certain government office. Then she asked for the names and salaries of managers in certain public bodies, and was told the Civil Service did not have that information. Finally, she asked for details about the recent bankruptcy of Uruguay's national airline, Pluna. But the site has yet to track down the organization responsible for dealing with that request. Several government departments said it was out of their jurisdiction.

“The site mechanism works, I think,” Navatta says, adding, “And the team tried to get my questions answered in a timely manner. But I’m frustrated that it’s so difficult to get hold of information."

The team behind the site, though, believe that the idea of transparency is catching on in Uruguay and the culture is starting to change. After delaying a number of freedom of information requests for months, City Hall in the capital Montevideo launched in its own Open Information initiative — suddenly putting, for example, bus timetables, routes and planned roadworks and disruptions online, allowing an entrepreneurial developer to build an app allowing users to obtain real-time travel information on their smartphones for the first time.

This, of course, is the key to freedom of information. Making the information public is only part of the story; the real test is whether users are able to make any practical use of it. Mas points to the example of a women’s group trying to fight domestic violence; they used freedom of information requests to find out not only domestic violence statistics but also the exact legal obligations of the state and local authorities towards victims, and thus were able to both inform women of their rights and also shame authorities into taking more effective action.

“Change doesn’t happen overnight,” says site founder Scrollini. “Uruguay is an old-fashioned sort of country where things tend to move slowly. But we’re amazed at how well the site has done in such a short time — both in terms of how many people have used it, and how many requests have actually been answered. We really expected the administration to be even more obstructive.”

The team behind quesabes.org see Uruguay as a potential pioneer for freedom of information in a region where governments are notoriously inefficient, slow, bureaucratic and opaque. The country’s small scale means they can contact relevant players personally, while levels of education and Internet access are among the highest in Latin America. They know that progress will be slow and they’re likely to keep hitting bureaucratic obstacles, but they have big ambitions; they hope this small website will revolutionize the way Uruguayans interact with their government.

Elena Casas Montanez is a journalist for AFP in Uruguay.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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