Re: Freedom of information and metadata

From: Brian Selzer <>
Date: Wed, 14 May 2008 07:35:57 -0400
Message-ID: <a8AWj.4234$>

"Dr Quite Evil" <> wrote in message news:Xns9A9E6E4506418evil_at_85.214.90.236...
> It would be interesting to hear your comments and opinions on the
> following.
> Essentially, I'm struggling with the problem that when we want to get
> information out of the government, it can be difficult because we don't
> know if the information exists or if it's in the right format.
> My tentative solution is to turn the idea of having a database full of
> information on its head. Instead, we would have a database describing
> information we don't have but would like to have.
> The problem is that there seems to be a distinct obstacle to holding
> governments accountable using Freedom of Information requests.
> This was highlighted yesterday, when the EU Ombudsman announced a
> consultation to see what people think about databases as documents.
> The public currently has the legal right of access to some EU documents.
> However, in 2005 a Danish journalist requested access to a database about
> agricultural subsidies. His application was refused, on the grounds that
> a database is not a document.
> But thinking of information in terms of "documents" seems old-fashioned.
> For example this newsgroup message could be regarded as a document, but
> it would be better to treat it as content (the words I'm writing), and
> metadata (extra information such as the date I wrote it, the message ID,
> the newsgroups line, and so on).
> Nowadays, I think all information can be treated as having these two
> parts - content and metadata. The content is what us humans are
> interested in and the metadata allows it to be organised and found.
> Combining these two parts allows the creation of totally new "documents".
> For example it could give the Danish journalist a "document" listing all
> agricultural subsidies paid to farmers within 50 miles of Aarhus in 2007.
> The content would be names and payment amounts, and the metadata used to
> create the list would be the date, the region, and so on.
> However, this presents problems to people seeking freedom of information.
> Firstly, as we've already seen, the EU doesn't regard documents made on
> the fly as documents. They say "we do not have this information", which
> really means "we have this information, but it's not compiled into a
> format we regard as information".
> Secondly, researchers are not sure how the content will look, and what it
> will reveal, so they're very often forced to make broad requests. In the
> UK, broad requests are likely to result in refusals on the grounds of
> expense (though I'm not sure how other countries handle this).
> Thirdly, one applicant for information might be trying to research
> identical or similar information as another. A second journalist might be
> researching agricultural subsidies in France, for example. Or even trying
> to discover the same information about Aarhus as the first journalist.

Unfortunately, freedom isn't free, but the result of blood, sweat and tears. Liberal elitists seem quite willing to spend it, provided it isn't their own. I shouldn't have to pay more tax so that a journalist aligned with one political entity will have an easier time digging up juicy dirt on another. In the same vein, the burden of responding to a subpoena should fall on the plaintiff, not the defendant--in other words, the defendant should be compensated for the time and effort required to meet the requirements of a subpoena issued on behalf of the plaintiff. If a company needs to hire a bunch of temporary workers in order to produce copies of documents requested in a subpoena, then the plaintiff should be presented with a bill for the materials and manpower required to meet the request. In the same way, if a government entity has to hire a batallion of clerks in order to satisfy freedom of information requests, then the cost of those clerks should be passed on to the requesters--not to the taxpayers. Again: I shouldn't have to pay more tax to make it easier for one political entity to dig up dirt on another. They should like everyone else have to pay their own way. I'm not arguing against transparency: reporting that is required for oversight is necessary and should already be in place. Certainly that information could and probably should be made available to the public--subject to national security and privacy concerns, of course.

> So (if you've read this far) I'm wondering what are the conceptual
> advantages and disadvantages of creating a metadata of information that
> doesn't exist :-). By this I mean a database of potential "documents" not
> yet in existence, but which a little bit of database manipulation could
> conjure into existence.
> For example, the Danish journalist would make a record in this database
> describing the information he wants in a structured way. He would send it
> to the EU and they'd simply run it through their computers and send the
> answer back the next day. Even better, he'd do it online for himself.
> Would such a metadata of non-existent information work? Would it provide
> a solution to any of the problems described above? What would the
> metadata requirements be? In the abstract, have people worked on this
> concept before, and if so what results have they achieved?
Received on Wed May 14 2008 - 13:35:57 CEST

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