One important mechanism of FOI is that it gives people the power to uncover activity from our public authorities that is undesirable, mistaken or otherwise ill-considered.
WhatDoTheyKnow is used by thousands of ordinary people who want to access information from public authorities. They ask a question, and all being well, they receive an answer. That answer is published online where it may benefit other people looking for the same information .
But since its launch in 2008, WhatDoTheyKnow has also uncovered many significant news stories. Sometimes journalists have used FOI to research their own stories; and sometimes, users’ requests have led to stories themselves. These are the cases where the information provided is of interest not just to a few people, but to the social discourse itself.
In celebration of WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary, here are some of the significant news stories that have been uncovered through the site.
- Despite rumours, it is illegal to shoot a Scot in York on a Sunday
- The BBC referred to this response in a myth-busting article.
- Information about an incident involving police presence on a mental health ward
- The number of criminal convictions resulting from sham marriages
- A figure quoted by a marriage registration official was incorrect, concluded the Guardian.
- Where Michael Gove got his figures on teenagers’ supposed lack of knowledge about Sherlock Holmes and Winston Churchill
- This was reported by many papers; the less-than-credible research was carried out by UKTV Gold and Premier Inn.
- What formal qualifications the Chancellor of the Exchequer is required to have
- The Guardian used this information in a light piece answering common Google queries about George Osborne.
- The restrictions on what names can be given to a baby
- The BBC set the year’s most popular names in context, explaining that they should consist of ‘a sequence of letters’ and ‘not be offensive’.
- How many consultants in each NHS Trust were opting out of working at weekends
- Despite Jeremy Hunt’s criticism of the ‘weekend opt-out’, the Mirror reported that just 1 consultant in 1,000 was using it.
- The organisations which hosted unpaid workers under the government’s mandatory Workfare scheme
- The Independent covered the requester’s struggle to have this data released, and their eventual success.
- The reasons why pencils, rather than pens, are generally used at polling stations
- The Mirror put to rest fears for those who’d heard that the use of pencils was an electoral conspiracy.
- GCHQ’s code-cracking recruitment site was not intended to be a hoax (while the FOI request was withdrawn, the conclusion was come to in the page’s annotations)
- The site had security loopholes which meant that applicants’ details could have been harvested by malefactors, said the Inquirer.
- Details of the employment by Clackmannan County Council of a certain clerk during 1935-69 (the request and response have now been removed from WhatDoTheyKnow)
- The Daily Record reported that the council clerk, now deceased, may have destroyed adoption records in a misguided attempt to protect families’ secrets, although the council’s response indicated that since there was no requirement to keep files back then, we cannot know for sure.
- Correspondence between contractors and Lambeth Council on repairs to Cressingham Gardens
- Protestors were correct in saying that it was illegal to demolish their homes.
- The location of every postbox in the UK, along with its collection times
- Postbox locations were the intellectual property of Royal Mail, reported the Guardian— but a crowdsourced map got around licensing concerns.
- Data on delayed child trust fund payments
- Thousands of parents were missing out on investment growth, said the Telegraph.
- Allotment waiting lists from councils around the UK
- By collecting data from across the country, the Guardian was able to make comparisons on waiting times
- The IP addresses used by Parliament
- We could see which Wikipedia pages had been edited from within Parliament. Many of them were MPs’ pages.
- The number of people no longer on the electoral register (ie ‘deregistered’) due to non-renewal of forms or no longer being resident, etc
- The Mirror used this data to back up a prediction that Ed Miliband wouldn’t win the election.
- Lost property on the Underground, categorised by item type
- The Mirror concluded that many passengers were dropping their debit cards as they panicked about ‘card clash’.
- The number of passengers using the Thames cable car (Emirates Air Line)
- The low numbers were used to suggest that then mayor Boris Johnson’s grand plans for London were not as successful as he’d hoped.
- That TFL had a ‘geographically accurate’ map of the London Underground
- The map was shared across many news outlets and social media. The Telegraph suggested that the new insights it allowed might encourage walking between some stops.
- The number of people studying ‘the Knowledge’ in order to become an All London taxi driver
- The BBC speculated that the rise of Uber was bringing about the decline of the black cab.
- Statistics for bus lane fines in Glasgow
- Tourists in Glasgow get more traffic fines than residents because the signage is inadequate.
- The depth of London Underground lines
- Which local councils have created a designated list of wheelchair accessible taxis
- 59% of councils are neglecting this piece of paperwork that makes life easier for disabled taxi passengers.
- As journalists beta tested WhatDoTheyKnowPro in 2017, data-driven stories were among those which began to emerge.
- The Birmingham Mail analysed figures from the FCO on where Brits had been detained, allowing them to state which countries had the most arrests.
- The cost to Lincolnshire County Council of its ‘blessing the gritters’ event.
- The Bishop of Lincoln offers prayers to snowploughs and trucks.
- How much ‘nibbles’ cost when Andrew Lansley met with the Food Network, a high-level steering group working towards a healthier diet for the nation.
- There are no nibbles at such meetings, but tea, coffee and water were provided at a cost of £40.00.
- Costs of Wirral Council sponsoring the local football team, Tranmere Rovers
- Wirral Council spent more than £1m on sponsorship, reported the Liverpool Echo.
- Expenditure on the BBC’s Digital Media Initiative, called to halt in 2013
- The BBC reported that bosses in charge of the ‘failed’ project were paid bonuses totalling £18,000.
- How much Parliament spends on snuff
- Taxpayers pay for Members’ snuff, said the Telegraph, but not at great expense.
- What car allowances are given to senior managers at the BBC
- The average allowance per manager had gone up, reported the Guardian.
- Correspondence relating to the dismissal of Rotherham Council’s Director of Children’s Services
- The BBC said that in the wake of the sex abuse scandal, Joyce Thacker was paid £40,000 in severance.
- The contract between LLDC and West Ham football club, allowing the team to use the Olympic Stadium
- Several news outlets, including the BBC, reported that a tribunal had ordered this information to be made public.
- The deal between the Welsh Government and Aston Martin which brought their manufacturing plant to St Athan
- Further stories on expenditure came from WhatDoTheyKnowPro
- Details of research projects at Great Ormond Street Hospital, involving children from charity Kids Company
- Buzzfeed referenced this bizarre arrangement in its documentation of the charity’s downfall.
- The use of biometric tagging of pupils in schools and colleges
- The Guardian asked whether West Cheshire College’s testing of a system that logged all student movements was an invasion of their privacy.
- Communications between the Arts Council and the National Youth Theatre about the play ‘Homegrown’
- The play was scrapped because of its ‘extremist agenda’, reported the BBC, explaining the context of a furore within the acting community.
- Details of unresolved homicides in Essex
- The information released allowed the BBC to conclude that a missing person case was now being treated as murder.
- Incidents where pupil data was shared with the police or Home Office
- WhatDoTheyKnowPro enabled some in-depth investigative journalism, too:
- Scrutiny of documents from the College of Policing revealed that much of its income was coming from countries where there is concern about human rights.
- Both anti-far right activists and UKIP officials tried to stop Arron Banks from registering a new political party called the Patriotic Alliance, another story run by the Ferret revealed.
- The UK sold spying tools to the repressive Macedonian state in 2012, after submitting a very one-sided recommendation for an export licence.
- Correspondence between Google and the ICO about Streetview privacy concerns
- The results of staff satisfaction surveys of North Wales police
- Some disturbing beliefs among police staff were uncovered, reported the BBC.
- Complaints of discrimination made against police officers
- None of the complaints was upheld, a situation which the Metropolitan Black Police Association described as ‘not credible’, said the Guardian.
- Journalists beta testing WhatDoTheyKnowPro were keen to discover stories of potential cronyism too:
- The Times and the Daily Mail both ran this story from Patrick Hosking, which revealed the former financial secretary’s ‘forgetfulness’ over prior links with Price Waterhouse Cooper.
And there you have it — fifty stories that WhatDoTheyKnow helped to bring about. What have we missed? If you remember one that we haven’t covered here, let us know.
As more journalists start using WhatDoTheyKnowPro, we fully expect to see many more significant news stories based on FOI requests. Want to know more about it? Here’s where to look.