At first glance, it’s a bot with a simple purpose — tweet out PDFs to already filed access-to-information requests made out to the federal government.
But ATIP bot, a Twitter bot that came online in late August, has a much bigger purpose. Its creator, Laurent Bastien, hopes that the bot will spur long-needed ATIP reform.
“I think anyone who has worked as a journalist in this country has had an awful experience with the access-to-information system,” said Bastien, a Python developer based in Montreal. “I … wanted to provide a service that I think is a pretty basic service.” It’s a service Bastien thinks thinks should be provided by the government.
While the federal government currently publishes a list of what ATIP requests have been filed to federal ministries and departments, it doesn’t include a copy of what was provided in response to the request online. You have to request your own copy, after which the government mails you printed copies or a digital copy — often in a CD-ROM.
Bastien’s bot follows the same process everyone else does. It requests already filed ATIPs in batches of 100 or 200, usually from one particular department — Bastien doesn’t want to overwhelm information officers at numerous departments.
After that, he has to do the heavy lifting. He receives the requests on CD-ROM. (He had to buy an external CD-ROM reader because, like many, he owns a laptop that doesn’t have a CD-ROM drive.) He then uploads them, and the bot writes the tweets with the link to the PDF. (Bastien has to manually tweet them out). It is perhaps indicative of how inefficient this system is that he knows has to recycle 100s of CD-ROMS after he is done with them.
“I think people are finding it very valuable so far,” Bastien said, noting that the bot has journalists, public servants and those interested in open government following him. “I am glad it seems like people are finding it cool, and I’m glad that’s the case … but I’m hoping it could change the way the systems like.”
Bastien thinks that once a record has been requested and processed by the federal government, it should automatically be made available online, instead of the public having to request the record again. “The government already has the record somewhere — it’s already been processed, it’s already been redacted. Why not just put it out there?”
For now, Bastien is going to keep the bot running. He enjoys the work, and he hopes he can improve it with user feedback.
He’d prefer to eventually wind the bot down. “The bot shouldn’t exist — the government should just be posting these records up there,” Bastien said.
“But if they don’t, I’ll guess I’ll keep going.”