Yesterday we shared the news that WhatDoTheyKnow has processed its millionth public request.
The site’s been around since 2008, nearly as long as the UK’s right to information, and we think it’s fair to say that we’ve had some impact on the world during that time.
Let’s go back, just for a moment, to 2006 when mySociety ran its open call for suggestions of new websites we could build. Imagine we’d bypassed the ‘Freedom of Information Filer and Archive’ suggested by both Francis Irving and Phil Rodgers, and instead had plumped for one of the easier ideas. And in this scenario, let’s imagine that no-one else went ahead and made an FOI site either.
So, in a world without WhatDoTheyKnow:
Information would be released to the requester only. Here’s the most obvious difference: instead of being automatically published on WhatDoTheyKnow, any information received would come directly to the person who requested it.
If someone else wanted the same information, they’d have to ask for it again. And every time it was requested, authorities would have to send it out all over again.
This one simple thing that WhatDoTheyKnow does – publishing responses – both puts information into the public domain, and saves authorities from the bother of duplicating their efforts.
Information might not be released by email. Of course, when you make a request on WhatDoTheyKnow, it goes to the authority by email, and, almost always, the response is sent by the same means. But in our alternate universe without WhatDoTheyKnow, information might come much more regularly through the request-maker’s own letterbox.
In WhatDoTheyKnow’s early days, one of the big battles we had to fight was for email to be accepted as a valid FOI request — not to mention email that came from a WhatDoTheyKnow-generated email address. Guidance from both the Ministry of Justice and the Information Commissioner now confirms that such requests are not only valid — and in 2016 an independent commission concluded that publishing responses to FOI requests “should be the norm”.
Many fewer people would have heard of FOI, and FOI would be the preserve mainly of journalists and researchers. Let’s face it, FOI still isn’t as well-understood as we might like it to be — even though our research found that one in ten adults in the UK has put in a request at some time.
But without WhatDoTheyKnow, we believe the concept of FOI would be even less recognised. Fewer people would have stumbled across it when looking for answers; even those who had heard of the Act might find it difficult to figure out how to access it. It’s probable that only trained professionals such as journalists and researchers would be using FOI on a regular basis.
We wouldn’t be there to help people with FOI issues. WhatDoTheyKnow’s amazing team of volunteers answers a massive number of queries every day — questions from users of the site who are puzzled about how to make a request, what to do when they receive a refusal, or what an exemption means.
If it wasn’t for WhatDoTheyKnow, the chances are that the small part of the general population who did figure out how to make a request would give up as soon as they received a refusal or a request for clarification.
People around the world wouldn’t have access to FOI sites, either. If we hadn’t built WhatDoTheyKnow, we’d never have packaged it up as the open source Alaveteli codebase — and motivated individuals around the world wouldn’t have had a simple way to set up their own access to information websites. We’re proud to say that Alaveteli sites are running in more than 25 jurisdictions globally, from Argentina and Australia, to Ukraine, Uganda and Uruguay.
Our right to information would be weaker. We’ve defended the FOI Act through successive governments, with winds blowing FOI in and out of favour. We’ve given evidence in Parliament, stood up for FOI via inquiries and fought against its erosion with campaigns.
We believe in the right to information as a basic tenet of democracy and accountability, and we’re prepared to do whatever it takes to defend it.
So, with all that in mind, aren’t you glad that WhatDoTheyKnow does exist?
Come back tomorrow to find out how WhatDoTheyKnow can be used to tackle the overarching issue of our times: climate.
Image: Fons Heijnsbroek