Saturday, January 9, 2010

Free information -- for a little work

Freedom-of-information legislation can unlock government files but not all bureaucrats know how to use it, Red River College Journalism students have discovered.

Sometimes you need to ask a librarian.

At the start of the Creative Communications term in the fall of 2009, I assigned the second-year Journalism majors to see what secrets they could dig out from the Manitoba government and the City of Winnipeg.

Now the Winnipeg Free Press has published the intriguing results. Wendy Sawatzky, the paper's online content manager, worked with the students to prepare their stories for publication.

Guided by Mary Agnes Welch, the newspaper's public policy reporter, the students paired up to create 11 requests for information ranging from wait times on the city's controversial 311 telephone information system to the workings of its cash-grabbing red-light cameras.

At the outset, the system generally worked well. In most cases the freedom-of-information co-ordinators in government responded to the requests within 30 days as the law requires.

But after that, it was as organized as the Wild West.

Some civil servants helpfully provided the information at no charge. Some said it would cost hundreds of dollars. Some said it was already available free and pointed the students to the source.

The students persisted. Some revised their requests so that the information could be found within the two free hours of searching that the legislation provides.

Then there was the bureaucrat who insisted that the requested information about the ages of people convicted of impaired driving did not exist, and that creating the software to find it would cost thousands of dollars.

That didn't sound right to students Joel Marcoux and Heather McGowan. They dug deeper, and they found an information hero in Leesa Girouard, a librarian at the Manitoba Legislative Library.

She found their answers and charged them 30 cents for photocopying. Oh, and they had to drop 50 cents into a parking meter while they visited the Leg.

Props to the helpful librarian who knows more about how to access information than one of the official guardians.