Subscribe to FOI requests on any topic

Hanging Fruit Bat by Tambako the JaguarIn a recent blog post, we showed how to subscribe to Freedom of Information requests made to your local council on

All good, but what if you’re interested in a topic, rather than an authority?

Well, you can set up many different kinds of alert on WhatDoTheyKnow. For example, you can opt to receive a daily email every time an FOI request or response contains your chosen keyword.

If you’ve also subscribed to a specific body, you’ll receive the alerts all rolled into one email – in fact, however many alerts you set up, they’ll always be aggregated in this way, so there’s no need to worry about flooding your inbox.

How to subscribe to a word or topic

Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you have a particular interest in bats – maybe you work for a bat conservation project, or you’re a student doing a thesis on bats.

Whatever the case, you might find it useful to receive an email every time an FOI request is made about bats. By subscribing to an alert, you’ll be tipped off if, for example, someone asks about bats causing an impediment to building works, or if new wildlife survey results are released in response to a request.

1. Search for your term

Every alert begins with a search.

Go to the homepage of and use the search box at the top right of the page:

WatDoTheyKnow topic search boxSearching for ‘bats’ gives me almost 500 results of FOI requests where the word ‘bat’, ‘bats’ or ‘batting’ is mentioned – either in the request itself, or in the response.

Search results about bats on WhatDoTheyKnow









2. Refining your results

Most of these results are highly relevant, but there is one slight complication:

Wrong kind of bats on WhatDoTheyKnow








Some of the results contain different meanings of the word ‘bat’: there is one about Bat Mitzvahs, several about bus stops which have ‘BAT’ as part of a location code, and one response which mentions baseball bats as a crime weapon.

We can refine these results, and make sure we only subscribe to the ones we want, with an Advanced Search – click on the link next to the search box to see how.

Link to Advanced Search on WhatDoTheyKnow






WhatDoTheyKnow’s search engine can handle advanced search operators, and also a number of search types that are tailored to the site.

Advanced search tips









For example, you can search within particular date spans, or within requests made by a specific user. If you scroll further down the Advanced Search page, you’ll also see that it’s possible to search for all requests within a certain status type (eg “successful” requests) – and all of these search operators can be used in combination.

For our immediate needs, however, we only want to ensure that our search brings up results about the right kind of bat. I can do this either by using the – sign, or the word ‘NOT’ in front of words I wish to exclude:

Search with exclusions






Search with exclusions







Click the Search button again, and you’ll see that this process has weeded out the most obvious irrelevant results.

If I subscribe to this search string, I will receive an email alert every time (the right kind of) bats are mentioned in a request or response.

Deciding what you want to receive

In the example above, I will receive several alerts for each relevant FOI request, over several days, as it goes through the process of getting a response.

I’ll get one when the request is first made, one when the authority respond to say that the request has been received, one when a response is made, and potentially others, if there is any more correspondence going back and forth, for example in the case of a request for an internal review.

That can be fine – many users like to track requests in this way. But if you want to, you can refine your search using the ‘status’ operators – for example, if you only want to receive an alert when a request has been successful, you could search for:

bats NOT baseball NOT mitzvah NOT bus status:successful.

Now your search results will only find those requests where a response has been received, and the user has marked that it answered their question adequately. You can see the various statuses available here.

Once you have refined your search results to your liking, you are ready to subscribe.


At the top right of the search results page, you will see a green button titled  ‘Track this search’:

Track this search








At this point, we ask you to sign up or sign in:

sign up or in











If you already have a WhatDoTheyKnow account, all you need to do is log in, and you’re done – your alert has been set up.

If you don’t have an account, it’s as simple as filling in your email address, name, and picking a password.

The site will then send you a confirmation email with a link in it – clicking on this helps to confirm that you are a real person, and that you have entered a genuine email address – which you’ll need, if you are going to receive alerts!

That’s it

Now all you have to do is wait for our alerts to come into your email. You can set up as many as you like, for as many topics or authorities as required.

Every email has a link at its foot, allowing you to delete your alerts when you’ve had enough. If you want to stop receiving one or more of them, just click ‘unsubscribe’.

Let us know whether you find this service useful, and how you’re using it!



Image: Tambako the Jaguar (CC)