The volunteer team behind our Freedom of Information (FOI) site WhatDoTheyKnow.com, has used statistics released by the Ministry of Justice to discover the proportion of all FOI requests being made via the site.
They found that in the first quarter of 2009, 8.5% of all requests made to central government departments were made using WhatDoTheyKnow. In absolute terms that was 514 of 6019 requests.
The breakdown by department is given in the below table. Notably, one in five FOI requests to the Home Office (122 of 643) were made via WhatDoTheyKnow.
WDTK = WhatDoTheyKnow; Source for total FOI request statistics : Statistics for Q1 2009 (released on the 25th of June 2009); Extended table covering all monitored bodies available.
The Ministry of Justice only monitors, and provides statistics on, 44 bodies’ compliance with the Freedom of Information Act; WhatDoTheyKnow currently lists 2910. We cover a wide range of local bodies including Primary Care Trusts, Local Councils and the Police. There is no national monitoring of how many FOI requests are made to such bodies, or how well they perform when responding to requests.
If you want to see such performance statistics, please help categorise more of the responses made via the site. It can be quite addictive!
Thanks to Richard Taylor for doing this research – see his blog post for some more details, including some information about Scotland.
Is there something part of the government is doing that you’d like to investigate? Find out everything from MPs’ expenses, to the length of allotment waiting lists, to whether your council’s Guy Fawkes bonfire is properly checked for hedgehogs.
mySociety are running a practical workshop on Freedom of Information at OpenTech on 4th July.
The workshop will help you make your first Freedom of Information request, including working out what to request, where to request it from and what exactly to write.
If you’re an old hand, you can get and give tips on how to take requests further.
We’ve got a fantastic team of Freedom of Information (FOI) experts to kick things off and answer hard questions.
- Heather Brooke used FOI to cause the furore over MPs’ expenses.
- Francis Davey is a lawyer with a specialist knowledge in FOI.
- Elena Egawhary is a freelance journalist, currently working and using FOI for Panorama.
- John Cross, Alex Skene and Richard Taylor are volunteers who run and improve WhatDoTheyKnow, and all use it for their own activism.
Bring a laptop if you have one. Internet will be provided for the workshop only, so we can scour Government websites, and make requests on mySociety’s WhatDoTheyKnow.com website.
As usual, the rest of OpenTech is brimming with great talks, and will be full of interesting geeky wonks and wonky geeks. Book your place here so you can go to them and to the workshop. Hurry, it’s nearly sold out.
Super WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer John Cross has made an interesting petition about Freedom of Information and publicly owned companies
“We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to support a change to the law to make companies owned two thirds or more by public authorities subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”
The petition goes on to explain (in more details at the bottom right of the petition page) that the situation is quite comical at the moment. If a company is owned by one local authority, then it is subject to FOI, but if it is jointly owned by two then it isn’t. This makes little sense, and it is also very important, as private companies owned by authorities often do important work.
Last week I gave my first presentation by video conference. It was to the intriguing Circus Foundation, who are running a series of workshops on new democracy. It came about because I was a bit busy and tired to travel from Cambridge into London. Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, suggested that I present over the Internet.
We used Skype audio and video, combined with GoToMeeting so my laptop screen was visible on a projector to an audience in London. Apparently my voice was boomed round the room. It was a slightly odd experience, more like speaking on the radio. However, I had a good serendipitous one to one chat while we were setting up, with Jonathan Gray from OKFN.
I was asked to give a quick overview of mySociety, as a few people in the audience hadn’t heard of us, and also to talk about how I saw the future of democracy. I talked about three of our sites, and what I’d like to see in each area in 10 years time.
- TheyWorkForYou opens up access to conventional, representational democracy, between and during elections. In 10 years time, I asked for Parliament to publish all information about its work in a structured way, as hinted at in our Free Our Bills campaign. So it is much easier for everyone to help make new laws better.
- FixMyStreet is local control of the things people care about, a very practical democracy. In 10 years time I’d like to see all councils running their internal systems (planning, tree preservation orders… everything that isn’t about individuals) in public, so everyone can see and be reassured about what is being done, why and where.
- WhatDoTheyKnow shows the deep interest that there is by the public in the functioning of all areas of government. In 10 years time, I’d like to see document management systems in wide use by public authorities that publish all documents by default. Only if overridden for national security or data protection reasons would they be hidden.
Charles Armstrong, from the Circus Foundation, has written up the workshop.
Downsides of the video conferencing were that I couldn’t hear others speak, as they didn’t have the audio equipment. I had to take questions via Charles. This meant I also couldn’t participate in the rest of the evening, or easily generally chat to people. All very solvable problems, with a small amount of extra effort – Charles is going to work on it for another time.
Of course this also all saves on carbon emissions (cheekily, taking off my mySociety hat for a moment, sign up to help lobby about that).
We sometimes have incorrect or out of date addresses for sending Freedom of Information requests to. Now anyone can check our addresses. Click “view FOI email address” on the page for any authority, and enter two of those squiggly words to prove you are not a robot.
If you are using WhatDoTheyKnow, and suspect problems with a request, please do check the address we are using is correct. If you are from an authority, or work closely or know a particular authority, please also check the address.
The Register has an article today Parliament’s take on Freedom of Information which describes an FOI request I made using WhatDoTheyKnow, and the House of Commons’ refusal to respond to it because the response would be automatically republished.
Hopefully the House will choose to waive copyright on the document, and send it soon – I still haven’t seen a good reason why they could or should not.
(Also, I haven’t changed my name to Francis Stirling, hopefully The Register will correct it soon!)
My house mate just said that his friend, who is at sixth form college, just had a PSHE (personal, social and health education) lesson in which they studied the website TheyWorkForYou.com.
Apparently it is good and I should go to it.
Public authorities have now sent back 100 Excel files in response to FOI requests on WhatDoTheyKnow.
The nice thing is, that if somebody bothered to use a spreadsheet, it must contain useful, factual, numerical data across either time or space. Everything from job advert expenditure in Kings Lynn council, to school budgets in the Western Isles.
Have a mine.
P.S. Don’t forget to click “Track things matching ‘filetype:xls’ by email” to be emailed when there are new spreadsheets to look at 🙂
Ian has used PledgeBank to start a residents association for a new block of flats in Cambridge, UK.
Unfortunately, I’ve had to disable the PledgeBank Facebook application. It used to let you sign and share pledges from within Facebook.
Facebook recently changed their platform (again!), breaking our code for sending success/failure messages. Obviously, it is no good signing up to a pledge if you don’t get informed when it succeeds.
I tried to fix it, but couldn’t work out how to do so quickly. We don’t have the time and money at the moment to chase after this, so I’ve disabled the application entirely. Links to PledgeBank pages on Facebook now redirect to pledgebank.com.
Hopefully it’ll be back one day – do send us emails if you miss it (or money if you have a large pledge that really needs it!). I think there may be a better solution with a simpler interface – the current application tried too hard to reimplement all of PledgeBank within Facebook. And besides, we should be supporting OpenSocial now it exists. It’s an open standard, Facebook isn’t.
Technical details: We used infinite session keys to send notifications from cron jobs. Quite reasonably, this no longer works. However, I couldn’t find out what to use instead. I think Facebook should respect backwards compatibility of its APIs a lot more, and if it breaks it they should give clear instructions about what to use instead. This does put me off ever wanting to develop anything on their platform again.