Image: Unesco

On 28 September the world marked the International Day for the Universal Access to Information (IDUAI). This event, established in November 2015 through UN resolution (38 C/70) and first commemorated in 2016, aims to facilitate international discussions on policy and guidelines in this important area. 

Access to information plays an important role in development, democracy and equality – it is also bound to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal target 16.10 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions), which calls for enhanced public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms.

As such, the UN seeks to promote and protect access to information as a fundamental human right. Because everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information, access to information is tied to the right to freedom of expression, as well as the right to media freedom. The media plays a crucial role in informing the public about issues of interest, but it also relies on the ability to seek and receive information, which it then shares.

This year’s IDUAI theme centred on the role of artificial intelligence (AI) and e-governance in accessing information. These two concepts can help bridge the digital divide by giving citizens access to tailor-made and accessible information. Making government services digital enhances transparency and accessibility, and makes them more efficient – for instance, downloading a digital version of a passport application form or obtaining an updated car license disc, without having to travel far distances to visit the relevant department, or queue for hours at that department.

Citizens can access public sector information nearly instantly, and make informed political decisions based on this information. When citizens possess the facts on how they are governed and how their government uses their money, they are empowered to hold their governments accountable for its decisions and actions. Universal access to information is a thus a foundational part of healthy and inclusive knowledge societies.

CW tapping into open data possibilities

Corruption Watch is keeping up with this trend with its two open data tools – Veza and Procurement Watch. Veza (a colloquial term for ‘reveal’ or ‘expose’), allows users to help strengthen accountability and transparency mechanisms in the South African Police Service (Saps), which is struggling with high levels of corruption and abuse of power.

Veza offers services such as reporting incidents of police corruption and police misconduct; accessing interactive and real-time maps of police corruption trends and hot-spots; informing users of their rights when encountering the police; rating and reviewing police stations; accessing information on all 1 150 police stations across the country, including locations, resources, budget and personnel; and more.

With Veza, the organisation aims to help reduce the power imbalance that exists between the Saps and members of the public, and give them the ability to hold Saps members accountable for misdeeds or good deeds.

Procurement Watch, meanwhile, aggregates certain kinds of national procurement data, otherwise only available in pdfs on the National Treasury’s website, and makes this data easier to search, interpret, and understand. In particular, the tool provides data on deviations (from pre-existing procurement procedures); expansions (of the initial terms of a public contract); and blacklisted suppliers (suppliers that have been barred from doing business with the government). 

Protecting citizens’ rights to privacy

However, these developments also raise questions about fundamental rights and the ethical use of AI and e-governance by public institutions. Since AI uses citizen data, how do we protect the privacy of citizens? Because AI can determine what information we access, on which ethical principles is this determined?

These questions, and more, were discussed at a multi-stakeholder event on the day, specifically in a panel discussion titled The future of access to information: ensuring complementarity between the right to information and personal data protection.

Oversight agencies have a critical role to play not only in the enforcement of access to information – particularly government information – on the one hand, and on the other to protect personal data. Because these two rights have the potential to clash, it is bodies such as South Africa’s Information Regulator, which is established under the Protection of Personal Information Act (Popia), which have to find the right balance.

Popia sets out conditions regarding the use of personal information, to ensure that South African institutions collect, process, store and share such information in a responsible manner, and holds them responsible if they fail to do so.

IDUAI participants also discussed practical tools and best practices, including policy guidelines for public sector information, and adopted a declaration that affirms the right to information against the backdrop of good governance principles.