It was new for me when I heard anyone can acquire almost any data from HK government for legitimate reasons under that Code on Access to Information.
This code is a response to the notion of “FOI” (For Our Information; Freedom Of Information), which calls for citizens’ free access to government information so that the transparency of government management can be ensured and citizen rights can be protected.
According to Wiki, In 2006, nearly 70 countries went through relative legislation. Among these laws are USA’s FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) and, of course, Hong Kong’s Code on Access to information.
Despite the code in place, a practical question remains. Will those government officers fulfill their duty and do give reply to every single data request? So I decided to give a try on Accessinfo.hk.
Accessinfo.hk is a website positioned as a platform for citizens to post their information requests to authorities and receive feedback. It was initiated by a group of Open Data activist, including Guy Freeman, who is currently data scientist in HK01. The website publishes every question and answer to everyone, and, at the same time, monitors the process. Before localizing the Alaveteli system ( http://alaveteli.org/ ) to Hong Kong, its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow ( https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/ ) had already seen wide application in the United Kingdom.
Part I : Application
On September 21, I made the attempt of request, asking Consumer Council for consumer complaint records in the last 20 years while specially picking out one for me. Though meaningful, I think this is not a very complicated task for them – they have relevant data published every recent year, while I just need a collection and a little more attention. My question is shown as the following:
Screenshot: make a request on accessinfo.hk
I received an email for confirmation at once.
Screenshot: request confirmation letter
After the click, the state turned into the following:
Screenshot: state change on accessinfo.hk
Then I received an automatic reply from Consumer Council:
Screenshot: automatic reply from Consumer Council
Part II : Reply
It wasn’t until September 29 did I realize further response. There was no data but a suggestion of another way to request:
Screenshot: formal reply from Consumer Council
I feel somehow confused. I thought the website was there to avoid those complicated procedures from happening. I thought the council ought to answer me if I ask, in whatever way.
I searched the provided url(https://www.consumer.org.hk/ws_en/):
Screenshot: menu bar from Consumer Council’s official website
At the bottom of it there is a link:
Screenshot: bottom links on Consumer Council’s official website
It is linked to a page of rules with an attachment:
Screenshot: Code on Access to Information directed by the bottom link
looks like this(on the next page):
Screenshot: Application form for Access to Information provided by Consumer Council
So this means, not only do the questions have no way to be anonymous, but I also need to provide detailed personal information to prove who I am. This doesn’t seem so free as I thought.
Part lll : Afterwards
Since I do not want to pay, I thought it was all over. But accessinfo.hk kept asking me to do a survey by email.
Screenshot: feedback inquisition mail from accessinfo.hk
I do appreciate this insistence so I clicked in.
The survey looks like this:
Screenshot: questionnaire from accessinfo.hk
I chose “This request requires administrator attention” and then wrote “Need special way of request” or something similar in the after-coming message box.
The state changed into:
Screenshot: state change on accessinfo.hk
And soon I received an annotation:
Screenshot: annotation from accessinfo.hk
I also realized 2 followers have appeared by October 7.
Screenshot: appearance of followers on accessinfo.hk
All these make me think twice about this system. Though some authorities seem failed to get a thorough understanding of FOI spirit, this website does serve as a powerful support for individual inquirers. It doesn’t merely transfer information from citizens to authorities and then transfer them back – instead, it holds its own notion and speaks for citizen rights. Furthermore, since all questions and answers are transparent to viewers, public attention can also bring power.
Hope more people can realize this platform and practise their rights of getting information freely.
URL of my inquiry: https://accessinfo.hk/en/request/records_of_consumer_complaints_o#comment-26
There are many related concepts about FOI: Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Freedom of Information (FOI), For Our Information (FOI), Right To Information (RTI). It is powerful weapon for journalism investigations. One further reading is the talk “Journalism Through RTI“, made by Shyamlal Yadav during Global Investigative Conference 2017.
— Pili Hu (Mar 5, 2018)
Author/ Grace Li
Editor/ Pili Hu