FYI: For Your Independence?

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Katie Mathison, FPRINZ, PRINZ Central Committee member

The move by the New Zealand Herald to “help relaunch … and help run” the FYI website is an interesting one, but why have they done it?

If you had to guess why a news outlet has bothered getting into a website where people can file OIA (Official Information Act) requests and get responses published, you’d probably say that they’re positioning themselves as the media champion of the OIA. And in the process getting one over on their competitors and drawing in more readers and advertisers.

FYI.org.nz was founded and managed by Rowan Crawford (@wombleton), self-described Open Government javascript gunslinger, who seems to have had less interest in the OIA itself than in the software solution.  He’s moving on to other things and the Herald has moved in, presumably handing over cash on the way.

The Herald, like all journalists, sees the OIA as a way to get news fodder. But the Herald clearly also sees the OIA as a news item in itself. Witness the Herald’s own commentary on the ‘relaunch’, in which they reference the Ombudsman’s current review, and requoting PM John Key’s “Sometimes we wait the 20 days because, in the end, Government might take the view that’s in our best interest to do that”.

So what changes? Apparently nothing. Where is the competitive advantage? Apparently nowhere, unless the Herald decides to delay posting OIA responses on FYI, so that they get first dibs on making comment before their competitors see it. And therein lies the rub. We have an independent, free-spirited public website that carries the .org (not-for-profit) suffix coming under the control of a profit-making news company with a .co suffix. Is this what the New Zealand public wants from FYI? Basically users will now submit their OIA requests to the Herald, which is weird whichever way you think about it.

But maybe there’s not enough people who will care: in the six plus years FYI has been up and running only 1256 requesters have used it, averaging about one request a day. It will be interesting to see how the Herald manages to convert that to profit.

In the interests of full disclosure, I work for a central government agency that is one of the 12 selected for the Ombudsman’s review.

One thought on “FYI: For Your Independence?

  1. Hi Katie,

    No cash has changed hands. FYI.org.nz remains separate from the NZ Herald. It is still a project of Open New Zealand (open.org.nz), and still run by volunteers.

    The Herald has no “control” over the non-technical aspects of the site. Requests and responses are always published as soon as they are received. The Herald gets no preferential treatment or access as you suggest.

    So what is the nature of the Herald’s contribution?

    First, please understand that the software behind a site like this (Alaveteli – http://alaveteli.org/) is much more complex than it might appear on the surface. When our previous hosting sponsor urgently had to take the server down, we were faced with quite a large task getting it online again.

    The Herald has helped us with that in two big ways:

    Firstly, we are now running on servers in Amazon’s cloud. This means the site is faster than ever before and hosted closer to its users (Sydney). This quality of hosting comes at a price, and thanks to the Herald we don’t see those bills.

    Their second big contribution has been to allow one of their talented senior developers work extensively on the site during work hours (and at night!). His work has added significant resilience to the site, which in time will also benefit other Alaveteli FOI sites around the world.

    Regards,

    Oliver
    FYI.org.nz volunteer administrator

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