"We want to know": Website aims to make Brazil's new sunshine law user friendly (Interview)

Brazil recently passed its own sunshine law, codifying the right to make freedom of information requests from the government. While the legal battle over the law’s passage is over, many Brazilians are unsure about how to go about making freedom of information requests. The website Queremos Saber (“We Want to Know”) is trying to change that. This pioneering project seeks to facilitate information requests in Brazil and make communication between citizens and public servants more transparent.

Launched on Nov. 21, Queremos Saber was inspired by the British site “Why do they know” from My Society, a platform created by the community Transparency Hacker and the Open Knowledge Foundation Brasil. The open source software, Alavelti, was specially designed to make freedom of information requests.

When user go to the website they simply select the government office and type in their request. The request is recorded on the website’s database and becomes available to later users so the same request is not made more than once.

One of the creators of the website and member of Transparency Hacker, Pedro Markun, described the experience founding Queremos Saber to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Knight Center: What inspired the creation of Queremos Saber?

Pedro Markun: The approval process of the sunshine law, mostly. When we put the website online, the bill had just been passed by the Senate and was awaiting President Dilma Rousseff’s signature. Now that the bill has been signed into law, the website has become a strategic tool to make it accessible. The idea came up in conversation between members of Transparency Hacker and the Open Knowledge Foundation in Brazil.

KC: How does the website work?

PM: Anyone can make an information request to any government organization through the website. The request is archived in a searchable database for future reference and the website automatically sends an e-mail request to the government office. When the office responds, the information is posted automatically to the website. The system also avoids duplication of requests. After the first request is sent, the government office has 20 days by law to respond before another goes out. Tardy responses are also recorded on the site.

KC: What’s the objective of the tool?

PM: Our objective is to facilitate information requests and improve transparency between citizens and public servants during the process. In this way, we hope to encourage an active culture of requesting information.

KC: What difficulties did you encounter creating the website?

PM: We had and still have some problems. For example, the software we use was based on sunshine laws in the United Kingdom so we had to culturally translate the user interface. Liane, our judicial activist, tried to put it into a Brazilian context, to understand how communicating and managing the responses of government agencies would go. But the difficulties also help improve the project. We learn through communicating with the site’s users and how to improve the request process.

KC: What still needs improvement?

PM: The project was just launched yesterday and one of the things we want to do is open the site so that everyone can collaborate and improve it. Members from Article 19, for example, could share solutions from their own experience. The guidelines from the developers of the software we use, Alavelti, say that we need to design the system how we would like it to be. This is less about adapting our system to the obscure and lengthy practices of the Brazilian government and more so about encouraging the government to change its ways and streamline the requests into a less bureaucratic process.

KC: Are you planning to partner with government offices to try and perfect the platform?

PM: Yes. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call them “formal” partnerships but we certainly want to be in dialogue with government agencies whenever possible.

KC: How does the new sunshine law seem to you?

PM: I think the new law is great. Transparency Hacker participated in the development of it at different moments along the way, so we share the blame for any of the law’s shortcomings. It was a maturing process to realize that we weren’t going to get everything we wanted. But, on the other side, the law has many good innovations, mostly on the side of accessing data, which was especially important for the Hacker community. Fabiano Angélico, a transparency expert, pointed out that the lack of options for people to appeal a denial of information is troubling. This shortcoming is going to be a problem for Queremos Saber. The path is already torturous to make an appeal to the federal executive branch of the government; the Comptroller General of the Union should not be the first person to hear our appeal. And to whom do we speak if we’re not soliciting information from the executive branch of the federal government? There are so many actors that something simple ends up difficult. However, many of the gaps in the law can be worked out as we break down the culture of secrecy.

KC: The Associated Press published a report saying that over half the sunshine laws in Latin America don’t meet their obligations. In your opinion, how could Brazil avoid this situation with its own sunshine law?

PM: We’ve been in this fight for the sunshine law for some time now. If there’s something that everyone involved agrees on, it’s that approval of the law was the easy part. Now, we have to fight even harder to change the government’s culture of secrecy. Projects, like Queremos Saber, that are linked to civil society can help achieve this. There’s no easy recipe to do this. What we need to do is popularize the law and create a culture that rewards citizens to explore their right to access information. Our part in this is to show people that the process isn’t difficult and that it delivers results, leading to a higher quality of life.