Tuesday, February 26, 2013

ATIP Writing


Does anyone here have any kind of "best practices" webpage published on how to structure the nature of the ATIP request? I'm thinking in particular about the sections where he is given space to provide more details on the information sought. Right now, I'm suggesting that he use clean, plain language with bulleted items, etc., in order to make it easier to read, but if anyone's got a resource he could turn to, I'd appreciate it.


Here are some tips with writing ATIs. It's a mix of abstract/practical. The purpose of the abstractness is to drive home the message that librarians have knowledge for thinking about how to use the method of access that Parliament has set down in the Access to Information Act.

The Access to Information Act defines general parameters of a method of information retrieval. This method of retrieval can be examined using existing concepts, like recall and precision. The concepts have a very practical effect on how to write ATIs.

Recall is the ratio of returned relevant documents to all relevant documents while precision is the ratio of returned relevant documents to returned documents. When using the method of access in FOI legislation, people often try for high recall (e.g., "Send me any and all documents, memos, faxes, telegraphs, .... from 1867 to the present"). The problem with this strategy is that recall ignores the amount of returned documents. This isn't a big deal with computers but it becomes a problem when it's an institution returning the materials. The amount of returned documents can slow the process down, can come with search fees, etc. So writing ATIs that go for high recall can inadvertently create barriers/frustrations.

Tip: Avoid the temptation of trying to get everything imaginable

A better strategy is to aim for high precision. Since it factors in the number of returned documents, high precision can reduce the barriers/frustration that high recall ATIs create. The goal here is to be as specific as possible (e.g. "Send copies of forms AB-1235 that were completed in April 2012 where the tick-box 'Atlantic Canada' is checked off"). This strategy, however, requires having sufficient bibliographic description of the documents. To get this level of description can involve using the method of access in the ATI Act to acquire materials that contain bibliographic description. The trade-off with high precision is that getting this level of description can take some time. But once you have it, it's like having a mini-catalogue.

Tip: Do use the method of access in ATI Act repeatedly to gather material that contains bibliographic description and then be super specific.

Tip: Bibliographic description can often be found in government manuals. It's not uncommon for people to order copies of unpublished government manuals (e.g. search for "manuals" on this page http://www.admfincs-smafinsm.forces.gc.ca/aip/cr-dc-eng.asp)

I'd like to mention that if anyone is interested in what librarians and library associations have to say about the Access to Information Act, the Information Commissioner recently received submissions for a public consultation to modernize the Access to Information Act. There are submissions from the CLA, BCLA, the Progressive Librarians Guild (London Chapter), BC librarian Heather Morrison and one from myself. http://www.oic-ci.gc.ca/eng/modernization-atia_2012_all-submissions-tous-soumissions.aspx

This might help although much of the information is BC-centric.