1. Transparency in policing – WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer talks to ACPO

    Police by Aaron van Dorn

    Many mySociety projects rely on a team of volunteers to keep them going. FixMyTransport, WhatDoTheyKnow and Pledgebank may look like very simple sites that run themselves, but the truth is that there’s a lot of human intervention going on behind the scenes, keeping the wheels oiled.

    Our volunteer teams deal with masses of site admin, they discuss policies and future development, and they give advice to our users. They may also go and talk about our projects in the wider community, and this is what WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer, Richard Taylor, did recently when he addressed the Association of Chief Police Officers at the “Transparency in UK Policing” event.

    Richard has written about his experience here; I am linking to it because, as well as giving a good introduction to WhatDoTheyKnow within a policing context, it also explains exactly what sort of work the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers do routinely, and the kind of issues that are discussed within the team. It might just make you value our volunteers more, or it might pique your interest in becoming one yourself.

    If that latter applies, you can find out more about volunteering for WhatDoTheyKnow here, or about the ways you can help across all mySociety projects here. But either way, I encourage you to go and read Richard’s post.

    Photo by Aaron van Dorn (CC)

  2. WhatDoTheyKnow Team Urge Caution When Using Excel to Depersonalise Data

    WhatDoTheyKnow logomySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow is used to make around 15 to 20% of FOI requests to central government departments and in total over 160,000 FOI requests have been made via the site.

    Occasionally, in a very small fraction of cases, public bodies accidentally release information in response to a FOI request which they intended to withhold. This has been happening for some time and there have been various ways in which public bodies have made errors. We have recently, though, come across a type of mistake public bodies have been making which we find particularly concerning as it has been leading to large accidental releases of personal information.

    What we believe happens is that when officers within public bodies attempt to prepare information for release using Microsoft Excel, they import personally identifiable information and an attempt is made to summarise it in anonymous form, often using pivot tables or charts.

    What those working in public bodies have been failing to appreciate is that while they may have hidden the original source data from their view, once they have produced a summary it is often still present in the Excel workbook and can easily be accessed. When pivot tables are used, a cached copy of the data will remain, even when the source data appears to have been deleted from the workbook.

    When we say the information can easily be accessed, we don’t mean by a computing genius but that it can be accessed by a regular user of Excel.

    We have seen a variety of public bodies, including councils, the police, and parts of the NHS, accidentally release personal information in this way. While the problem is clearly the responsibility of the public bodies, it does concern us because some of the material ends up on our website (it often ends up on public bodies’ own FOI disclosure logs too).

    We strive to run the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website in a responsible manner and promptly take down inappropriately released personal information from our website when our attention is drawn to it. There’s a button on every request thread for reporting it to the site’s administrators.

    As well as publishing this blog post in an effort to alert public bodies to the problem, and encourage them to tighten up their procedures, we’ve previously drawn attention to the issue of data in “hidden” tabs on Excel spreadsheets in our statement following an accidental release by Islington council; one of our volunteers has raised the issue at a training event for police FOI officers, and we’ve also been in direct contact with the Information Commissioner’s office both in relation to specific cases, and trying to help them understand the extent of the problem more generally.

    Advice

    Some of our suggestions:

    • Don’t release Excel pivot tables created from spreadsheets containing personal information, as the source data is likely to be still present in the Excel file.
    • Ensure those within an organisation who are responsible for anonymising data for release have the technical competence to fulfil their roles.
    • Check the file sizes. If a file is a lot bigger than it ought to be, it could be that there are thousands of rows of data still present in it that you don’t want to release.
    • Consider preparing information in a plain text format, eg. CSV, so you can review the contents of the file before release.
  3. Changes to public authorities today

    National Health Service changes in England

    Today (1st April 2013) marks a significant change in the way that the NHS in England is structured.  Strategic Health Authorities (SHA) & Primary Care Trusts (PCT) are abolished, and their responsibilities are being taken on by newly created Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG), the National Commissioning Board, Public Health England and local authorities.

    The split is roughly along these lines:

    • Clinical Commissioning Groups commission elective hospital care, urgent and emergency care, community healthcare and mental healthcare & learning disability services for the local areas they cover
    • The National Commissioning Board covers primary care contracting (GP Contracting, Dental, Pharmacy), specialised services, offender healthcare, secure mental health care and some armed forces healthcare
    • “Top-tier” and unitary Local Authorities take on responsibilities for these aspects of public health: sexual health services, drug and alcohol treatment, health checks, school nursing programmes, giving up smoking programmes and services to prevent childhood obesity
    • Public Health England is a national body which will work closely with local authorities’ public health teams, carrying out a range of activities to protect and improve the nation’s health, eg to co-ordinating work to combat infectious diseases such as flu or infections acquired in hospitals such as MRSA, or to carry out national publicity campaigns to prevent ill health

    This means quite a bit of change to the public authority listings on WhatDoTheyKnow:

    1) PCTs and SHAs are now marked as “defunct” to prevent new requests from being made (see below for more details).

    2) We’ve now listed all the new CCGs, but we’re missing email addresses for around 15% of them.  It’s clear that many CCGs are not quite ready to welcome FOI requests.  Even though they went live today, there are a fair number of websites still under construction (I’ve seen lots of “lorem ipsum” text today), with no contact details.  We aim to get these all up-to-date in the next few weeks as they get up to speed.

    3) The National Commissioning Board and Public Health England have been added to the site

    4) We’ll be adding local Health and Wellbeing Boards, Healthwatch organisations & Local Education & Training Boards soon.

    Police Service changes in Scotland

    Under the banner of reducing duplication and cost-saving (BBC article), police services in Scotland are being completely re-organised with 2 new central bodies replacing all the regional police forces and boards:

    Fire Service changes in Scotland

    Similar changes are taking place with Scotland’s fire services:

    Other joiners & leavers…

    The following is a round-up of other changes taking place today…

    Say hello to:

    And goodbye to:

    And although they’re officially changing, it’s pretty much business as usual for:

    Defunct public authorities

    We flag old public bodies that no longer exist as “defunct” to prevent new requests from being made.  In most circumstances FOI officers transfer across in-flight requests to the relevant replacement authority.  If you need to follow-up a request to a defunct public body (e.g. if there’s no further contact from an authority), the website will let you, however the “old” authority is no longer under any obligation to reply.  You may need to re-send your request to a new public authority which will restart the 20-day clock…

    Please help us!

    Given the scale of change, if you find any incorrect information for these public authority listings, please let us know!  Also please get in touch if you find an email address for any of those we’re still on the hunt for…

     

  4. WhatDoTheyKnow now 6% in Welsh

    Helô!

    Alaveteli (the software that runs WhatDoTheyKnow) is capable of being translated into any language, and we’ve finally switched on the ability to use the website in Welsh today. Many apologies for the long wait as this has been on our to-do list for well over 2 years…

    As you can see, we don’t yet have a complete Welsh translation, and it’s just a start:  we’ve done the help pages, and around 6% of the rest.  To take a look at what’s been done, just click the “Cymraeg” link at the top of any page.

    We’d love it if you could help us get to 100% by adding translations (or correcting any mistakes we’ve made!) at Transifex. You can read more about working with translations for Alaveteli, here and here, or just get in touch if you need a helping hand getting started or have any further questions.

    And finally, a massive thank you & diolch to the translators who have already helped us get this far!

  5. Most viewed requests – 19-25 November 2012

    One WhatDoTheyKnow statistic that we often quote, is that for each request written on the site, around 30 requests are read.  I’ve been recently taking a look at our web statistics, and thought you mind find it useful or interesting to see which are our most read requests.

    So, here are the top 10 for last week.

    There’s a definite theme, most readers are looking for information on the new Universal Jobmatch service which went live last week, without much mainstream media coverage, so people have a lot of questions which are being discussed on a number of DWP-watching blogs, Facebook & Twitter.

    1. Medicine A100 Admissions Statistics (Imperial College London)   – 629 unique views. Find out detailed statistics on who applied for Medicine at ICL – seemingly the most popular university out of these similar requests.
    2. Universal Jobmatch (DWP) – 702 views. This request asked for “leaflets or training info or guides given to jobcentre staff or customers to explain Universal Jobmatch”. A summary of training guides was provided, but no detail – one for future follow-up FOI requests?
    3. Universal Jobmatch and the Government Gateway (DWP) – 508 views. Detailed information was asked on the procedures and guidance issued to Jobcentre Plus staff relating to Jobmatch. The request is still in progress.
    4. Universal Jobmatch is Mandatory (DWP) – 446 views. The requester asked whether Universal Jobmatch will be mandatory for anyone on Jobseekers Allowance. The DWP refused the request, claiming Section 35 (formulation of government policy) and Section 42 (legal professional privilege). They said that the policy was still being developed, and (or?) that information was legally privileged. An internal review has been requested.
    5. Medicine A100 Statistics (Imperial College London) – 427 views. This asks for more recent 2011 & 2012 data, following on from #1. There’s a thestudentroom.co.uk forum poston this which is tracking all the medical schools’ statistics.
    6. Is signing up to Universal Jobmatch compulsory to claim JSA? (DWP) – 421 views. We don’t know as there’s no answer just yet.
    7. List of research used by the Secretary of State supporting the Academisation of state schools (Department for Education) – 406 views. Most traffic for this request came from this tweet from @alanmills405. This request is in still progress, so click its “Follow” button to find out the DfE’s response.
    8. Location of every post box that the Royal Mail Group operates (Royal Mail) – 324 views. This is one of our all-time top 3 most viewed requests, with around 22,000 visitors each year looking at it. Data from this request has been incorporated into a number of different apps and websites – follow the various links added to the request. I wonder why Royal Mail hasn’t done more to open up this data…
    9. Universal Jobmatch and Monster Worldwide emails (DWP) – 292 views. Apparently if you’re in a “junior” position, and not public facing, then your work emails are “personal data”, and exempt under FOI. Doesn’t sound right to me.
    10. New appointments opening time (UK Border Agency) – 284 views. Apparently, sometime after midnight seems to be the best time to try to bag your appointment (although the UKBA didn’t provide this information). Disappointment likely though – we get a lot of correspondence from people frustrated with the UK Border Agency’s slow pace at casework, poor communication and lack of detailed guidance on their website.

    If you’re interested in keeping up with any of these requests, especially if there’s no response yet, then click the “Follow” button at the top of each request page to be alerted when an update is received, either by email or RSS.

  6. Network Rail

    .jpg” alt=”WhatDoTheyKnow.com Logo” />

    Today we’ve re-added Network Rail to the list of public bodies one can make requests for information from via mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Network Rail owns, runs, maintains and develops most of the UK’s rail infrastructure including tracks, signalling, bridges, tunnels, level crossings, viaducts. It owns almost all of the UK’s stations and manages the biggest and busiest.

    Network Rail is not currently subject to the Freedom of Information Act or the Environmental Information Regulations however we use our site for activism by listing many bodies which are not formally subject to FOI or EIR. Some of these voluntarily comply with FOI, others don’t but we add them because we think they ought be subject to the Act on grounds such as:

    The degree to which Network Rail is a public body is a subject of controversy however a number of the criteria listed above clearly apply to the company.

    The Information Commissioner once ruled that Network Rail is a public authority for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations however this was overturned by a Information Tribunal Decision in 2007 .

    The tribunal decision noted:

    [Network Rail] is a major landowner whose estate … in the words of its website, includes “many sites of great environmental, geological, historical and architectural importance” as well as much contaminated land.

    The tribunal expressed a view the position of Network Rail in relation to access to information legislation is “clearly unsatisfactory”.

    Network Rail

    We originally added Network Rail to our site back in 2008 before we had developed the above policies and we closed it to new requests after the first request sent didn’t get a response.

    Recently there have been positive indications in relation to access to information held by Network Rail. On the 2nd of February 2012, transport minister Norman Baker speaking in Parliament said:

    Network Rail has promised that it is in the process of developing a voluntary information rights code, which will mirror many of the provisions in the Freedom of Information Act. We welcome that initiative and believe that, if properly implemented, it will provide an alternative to legislation. We expect the company to introduce the code alongside a broader package of Government reforms later this year.

    This followed an earlier statement, from the 18th of January 2012, by Earl Attlee, answering a written question on behalf of the government:

    Network Rail is a private sector company. The Government have no current plans to extend the Freedom of Information Act to the company. However, we welcome the fact that Network Rail is taking steps to enhance its own transparency and is developing a voluntary publication scheme with which it will comply.

    The approved model publication scheme used by public bodies which have to have one states:

    Information held by a public authority that is not published under this scheme can be requested in writing…

    Hopefully our re-listing of Network Rail will help push Network Rail’s openness and transparency agenda along and enable our users to benefit from the new era of openness being promised within the company. Making correspondence related to requests for information publicly available via our site will enable everyone to see how it goes.

  7. WhatDoTheyKnow – Oral Evidence to MPs on First Five Years of FOI in the UK

    Alex Skene, WhatDoTheyKnow.com, at the Justice Select Committee
    On the 21st of February 2012 Alex Skene, representing mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow, appeared in front of the UK Parliament’s Justice Select Committee. The MPs on the committee were holding an evidence session as part of their post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act.

    Video of the session can be viewed online via ParliamentLive.TV and the BBC’s Democracy Live. A transcript of the session will become available via TheyWorkForYou, typically these take a week or two to be produced.

    Prior to the session WhatDoTheyKnow had submitted written evidence to the review making three main points:

    • The scope of the act should be extended to cover a wider range of public bodies.
    • Time limits should be introduced for public interest tests and internal reviews.
    • There is a need for more proactive publication of information, and a culture of openness and transparency needs to continue to be nurtured and extended within the UK’s public sector

    The committee appeared genuinely interested in finding out how FOI has performed to-date and how it can be improved.

    Supercharging FOI

    Alex told the committee that FOI enables evidence based policy making and empowers citizens; he said the WhatDoTheyKnow.com website supercharges the provisions of the FOI Act making it easier for people to take advantage of the right to access information which it gives them.

    Ghosts

    Elfyn Llwyd MP raised the question of vexatious and frivolous requests through the medium of ghosts. Asked if requests about ghosts could ever be justified Alex told MPs that it was hard to draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable requests. He noted that one council had spent public money on an exorcism, so in that case there would be information held and an FOI request justified. He questioned if requests on ghosts were to be deemed unacceptable, what other areas might be excluded. UFOs? The MoD for a long period did have an office collating UFO reports, again there was public spending, and recorded information held, in this area. Homeopathy was also highlighted, that’s about as real as ghosts or UFOs, but again FOI requests about it must surely be permitted as significant amounts of taxpayers money are spent on it.

    Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, who was giving evidence alongside WhatDoTheyKnow took a stronger line. He described those who made FOI requests about ghosts as “idiots”; but also accepted it was hard, and undesirable, to try and outlaw requests on certain subjects. He added that such requests did not generally cost large amounts of money to deal with.

    Time Limits

    MPs on the committee appeared sympathetic to calls from the representatives of WhatDoTheyKnow and the Campaign for Freedom of Information to introduce stricter time limits. The need for time limits was brought into focus during the discussion of the time limits for prosecutions under S.77 of the Act (Offence of altering etc. records with intent to prevent disclosure), very few requests have gone through a response, and internal review, and the Information Commissioner within the time limit for launching a prosecution. An MP suggested making offences under S.77 triable in either a magistrates or a crown court so as to extend the time period while retaining consistency with the rest of the justice system.

    Fees

    When asked to comment on the idea of introducing fees for all FOI requests Alex said such proposals would be “devastating” and would deter many from making requests. Alex noted that the public had paid for the information in question already, via general taxation, and ought be able to access it.

    Exempting Universities

    When asked to comment on lobbying from universities to be exempted from FOI, Alex robustly defended their inclusion in the act, pointing to their role in controlling access to professions and awarding degrees. Maurice Frankel and Alex noted the universities’ argument that they were being funded by a decreasing fraction of public money wasn’t really relevant, as that is not the basis on which bodies are deemed to be covered by the Act.

    Extending Coverage of FOI

    The reach of FOI into commercial organisations carrying out work on behalf of public bodies was briefly discussed however notably there was little further discussion of extending the coverage of FOI, perhaps suggesting this may be a dedicated subject for future evidence session. This session was been described as the committee’s first, suggesting there will be more. At least one of these will presumably hear from the Information Commissioner.

    The written evidence we submitted can be read on page 81 of the compendium of submitted evidence (PDF).

  8. MPs to Review Operation of FOI : Submit Your Views

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com Logo

    MPs are about to review the first five years of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We’d like to encourage users of mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com to share their views and experiences with the MPs who are to carry out the review.

    The review is being conducted by the House of Commons’ Justice Select Committee.

    The committee is currently inviting people to make submissions to it. The deadline for submissions is Friday 3 February 2012.

    A memorandum from the Ministry of Justice has been prepared to brief the committee, that document notes, in paragraph 67:

    Very little research has been published detailing the views of requesters of information.

    Particularly in light of this we thought it would be worthwhile alerting our users to this review; if we could encourage our users to make submissions to the committee that might help ensure they receive balanced evidence: from outside, as well as within, the public sector.

    While the committee is interested in any comments on the act’s operation, specific questions the committee has asked for comment on are:

    • Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?
    • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?
    • Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended to?

    Responses can be emailed to: justicecommemo@parliament.uk

    Details of how responses should be formatted and technical details relating to submission are available on the webpage announcing the call for submissions.

  9. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Share of Central Government FOI Requests – Q2 2011

    The Ministry of Justice have just published their latest quarterly statistics on the handling of Freedom of Information requests by central government bodies.  We’ve crunched the numbers to compare them to the requests made using WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    The graph shows our share of FOI requests sent to central Departments of State jumped to 14.6% in the 1st quarter of 2011.

    This time round, the top 3 departments were:

    1. Home Office (which includes the UK Border Agency, CRB & Identity & Passport Service) – 254 requests out of 866 – 29%
    2. Department for Education – 81 requests out of 328 – 25%
    3. Department for Communities and Local Government – 59 requests out of 250 – 24%

    Many of the WhatDoTheyKnow users contacting the Home Office & UK Border Agency are trying to find out information about their own immigration case.  We regularly receive emails from applicants asking for help, as they have often been waiting months (or even years in some cases) for an official update to their case, often with the UKBA holding on to identity documents or passport.  Applicants then feel they have to resort to making FOI requests. Many of these are auto-replied by this standard FAQ, and applicants don’t receive a personal answer.  The large 29% share of all Home Office requests suggests that the normal contact methods to keep people updated aren’t working or even that their service is simply struggling with demand.  It’s also likely that they don’t consider these types of requests as formal FOI requests, so it is worth noting that we are likely to be slightly overstating the percentage share figures.

    Free schools were a popular topic for the Department of Education – 9 out of 81 requests were on this subject, and nearly all were refused on the basis that information would be published at some unspecified date in the future.

    To understand the limitations of the data analysis, please see here.

    One interesting trend that has been consistently seen is that FOI requests are more frequent in odd-numbered quarters compared to even ones – if you have any ideas why this may be the case, please add them to the comments!

    To
    - Communities and Local Government
  10. Research into NHS Spending on Chaplaincy Carried Out via WhatDoTheyKnow

    Member of the National Secular Society Robert Christian used mySociety’s Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow to ask all 227 English NHS “provider” Trusts about how much they spend on chaplaincy.

    On the 28th of February 2011 the results of his research were published in an article on the National Secular Society website (full report [PDF]). He found that £29m of NHS funds were used to pay chaplains in 2009/10 and also observed a wide variation in the amount, as a fraction of total spend, that specific trusts were spending on chaplaincy.

    The publication of the research prompted a number of articles in the UK media. eg. (Daily Mail, The Independent, The Mirror).

    Mr Christian has commented:

    “To have identified the right FOI contact for every provider NHS Trust in England would have been daunting if not impossible. I doubt that my study would ever have got off the ground without WDTK. I particularly valued the way that the site tracks which Trust has and has not yet responded. I liked the capability to thank each FOI lead after they had responded.”

    The fact that making requests via WhatDoTheyKnow allowed Mr Christian to cite the source of his raw data was important to him. He added:

    “The transparency of the raw data is, I think, one of the main strengths of the WDTK website for three reasons. First, I was able to hyperlink every piece of data back to its source – and that meant that it was easy for colleagues from the NSS to check the accuracy of the data (with so many Trusts a transcription error was always a possibility). Second, it ensured that if anyone had wanted to challenge the accuracy of the data they could be directed to see that the study was simply quoting the Trusts’ own information. Third, it means that the data is there for future reference to see if there are any changes over the coming years.”

    mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are non-partisan and don’t get involved in campaigning except in specific areas relating to openness and transparency. We take no view on issues such as how much, if anything, the NHS ought be paying for chaplaincy. However we welcome campaign groups making use of our services.

    Bulk Requests

    WhatDoTheyKnow currently has around 2-4 “bulk requests” per month made via its site. At the moment we don’t provide any mechanism to make bulk requests automatically. We are considering adding such a system, for requests which have been sanity checked by the WhatDoTheyKnow team. The provision of such a system would probably be associated with a mechanism for preventing other “bulk requests” from being made without the site administrators’ explicit approval.

    Making the requests is only a small part of the work involved in a study such as that carried out by Mr Christian. Chasing public bodies for responses, as well as collating and analysing the information released is likely to be much more time consuming than submitting the requests themselves. This is something Mr Christian agrees with, stating:

    “If enquirers are not prepared to individually contact each organisation to ask the question, I would doubt their commitment to retrieve and analyse the information (as that is actually a much bigger task)”.

    Clearly any facility for enabling requests to be made in bulk will have to incorporate safeguards to ensure responsible use.

    Whereas Mr Christian has been happy to conduct his research in public, and still been able to generate media coverage following publication, we are aware that many campaign groups, and others such as journalists, like to make Freedom of Information requests in private.

    Mr Christian has commented on the issue of “scoops” and the effect of conducting his research in public:

    “The question of ‘scoops’ is an issue for journalists and in fact this problem did happen in this case. Someone appears to have trawled the WDTK know site and noticed what I was doing. A short piece was run by the Daily Express before we completed and published the study. So clearly this might be an issue. But the risk of a spoiler being run will tend to be low when the number of organisations being contacted is large. This is because the amount of work needed to collate and analyse the data is enormous and so casual trawling will show only that a question is being asked – not what the conclusions are.”

    In order to get as great a fraction of the total number of FOI responses available on WhatDoTheyKnow we have also been considering an option for making requests in private, for a fee. The idea would be that once the findings were published then the FOI response could be opened up to the public providing access to the source material backing up the story.

    Any views on our ideas for the future and on the way WhatDoTheyKnow has been used for this, and similar, research would be welcome in the comments below.