1. FixMyStreet Pro meets Salesforce: integrated street reporting for Rutland

    A big welcome to Rutland, the latest local authority to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their street fault reporting platform. If you’re a resident of what has been described as the UK’s prettiest county, we hope that you’ll enjoy using FixMyStreet to keep it that way.

    You can make your reports on the council’s site here, or if you’re already used to the main FixMyStreet. com website or via our mobile app, you’ll find that all reports go into the same central database, and can be seen in all three places.

    As a resident, all you need to know is that it all works, but councils — especially those using the Salesforce CRM — will be interested to know that behind the scenes there have been some interesting tweaks.

    How it looks in Salesforce

    Salesforce is a very common CRM, in use across many councils as well as countless other businesses and organisations, so this integration stands as a useful proof of concept when it comes to FixMyStreet integration.

    For Rutland, FixMyStreet reports now drop directly into Salesforce, from where they can be allocated to the Highways team. Click on any of the images below to see them at a larger size.

    Here’s what the list of all reports looks like in Salesforce. In theory, if the council want, this could also include reports from other sources such as residents’ phone calls or direct emails.

     

    Staff may filter the reports by category: here we can see just those within the ‘roads and highways’ category.

    Each report is listed within Salesforce as a ‘case’, listed in a queue.

    And this is what it looks like when a report comes in that has a photo attached to it  — that’s also accessible within Salesforce.

    Staff now have the choice of updating reports within Salesforce, or, if they prefer (as many do), through the FixMyStreet admin interface.

    This is our first Salesforce integration, and it was made possible through the use of an API, developed by Rutland’s own tech team. At our end, all we had to do was write the code to integrate with it, and boom, two-way communication.

    Even better, any reports made through other means can be pulled from Salesforce and into the FixMyStreet system: so a council staff member inputting reports from, say, an email report or phone call can input it into the interface they’ve always used.

    We’re delighted to add Salesforce to the list of CRMs FixMyStreet Pro has integrated with. If you’re from a council and would like to find out more, pop over to the FixMyStreet Pro website where you’ll find case studies, pricing, an interactive demo and the chance to join one of our regular online chats.

  2. Truth & justice for haemophiliacs: WhatDoTheyKnow and the contaminated blood scandal

    Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.

    Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.


    I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.

    In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).

    It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.

    To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.

    After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.

    In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.

    Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.

    Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.

    Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.

    This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.

    In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.

    Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.

    When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.

    It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.

    In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.

    The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.

    Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).

    I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.

    I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.

    The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.

    Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.

    Image: Raw Pixel (Unsplash)

  3. Taxis, wheelchairs and local authorities: an update

    Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.

    As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.

    New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.

    A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:

    As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.

    No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.

    As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.

    Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.

    I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.

    You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.

    Image: Tam Le (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  4. Seeing spots with FixMyStreet Pro

    If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.

    In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.

    At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.

    What is an asset?

    mySociety developer Struan explains all.

    Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.

    Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.

    When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.

    Map layers

    So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:

    The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.

    The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.

    Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?

    Not at all.

    With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.

    We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.

    Watch this space

    And what’s coming up?

    We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.

    Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.

    There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.

    From a council and interested in knowing more? Visit the FixMyStreet Pro website

  5. New insights for councils, on FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet sends users’ street reports to councils across the UK.

    But if you’re one of the staff that receives these reports, you might sometimes wish for more insights: which issues are most commonly reported in your area? What’s a bigger problem, dog fouling or potholes? How quickly do reports get fixed, and how does this compare with other councils’ performance?

    To make it easy to discover the answers to all these questions, we’ve just rolled out a new stats dashboard on FixMyStreet — and it’s free to access if you work for a council.

    Council staff can now view and download information that answers questions such as:

    • How many FixMyStreet reports have been made in your area across various time periods?
    • How many reports have been made in each category?
    • What are the average times between reports being made and being marked as fixed, and how does this compare to other councils?
    • Which categories of report are most common within your area?
    • Which categories of report does FixMyStreet send to your council, and which email addresses does it use?

    From this exclusive area, you can gain a more in-depth understanding of how FixMyStreet is being used in your area, while also getting a taste of the fuller functionality available with FixMyStreet Pro.

    So, if you work for a council, head over to the dashboard page now, and start exploring.

  6. Looking forward to Lisbon

    This year’s Impacts of Civic Technology conference, TICTeC, is shaping up to be one of the best yet. Tickets have almost sold out, so if you’re hoping to attend, don’t delay.

    Running on April 18-19 in Lisbon, TICTEC will, as usual, provide an unparalleled opportunity to meet the people building and using Civic Technologies that improve lives, solve problems and address social ills. The schedule is now on the TICTeC website, where you can also get acquainted with this year’s speakers.

    Keynotes Martha Lane Fox and Prof Jonathan Fox will set the tone for a full programme, with speakers and delegates including representatives from Google, Facebook, and scores of cutting edge practitioners from many countries.

    This will be your chance to hear from recently-elected French MP Paula Forteza; and Civic Tech thinkers from MIT, NYU and UCL. More international angles are added by representatives from Buenos Aires City Government, Rome’s ‘Roma Capitale’ initiative, and several speakers from Nigeria whose attendance has been made possible thanks to a grant from the MacArthur foundation.

    During two days of diverse presentations and workshops, attendees will examine what works — and what doesn’t — in the fields of digital democracy, accountability, anti-corruption and transparency tech. There’s just one rule for those making a presentation at TICTeC: it’s not enough to present a new digital initiative; you must also bring the research that enquires into its efficacy.

    A few tickets are still available, but hurry — we’re nearly sold out.

    Don’t worry too much if you can’t attend in person. Every session will be filmed, with videos shared online after the event. Keep an eye on the mySociety blog or YouTube channel to be the first to know when they’re available  — or sign up for the newsletter. To track the conference in real time, follow the hashtag #TICTeC.


    Image: Alejandro (CC by/2.0)

  7. Writing to MPs in public: People’s Assembly in South Africa

    Does publishing a correspondence with MPs make it more likely that promises will be upheld, and citizens’ voices heard? Thanks to a piece of software we’ve just installed on a partners’ site, we may be about to find out.

    As you may know, mySociety supports several partners’ projects worldwide: one of these is People’s Assembly, which, like our own TheyWorkForYou, makes it easier for citizens to find out who their representatives are and what they’re doing in Parliament.

    PMG, who run the site, saw the potential of the Open Source WriteInPublic software, which was made by our friends in Chile Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente. Like mySociety’s own UK tool WriteToThem, WriteInPublic allows users to easily contact their representatives; where it differs is that the whole correspondence is published online. It’s a way of holding representatives to account, and making sure that promises or assertions are not forgotten.

    Messages to MPs

    Here in the UK, of course, MPs only deal with correspondence from their own constituents, but in South Africa, citizens may legitimately write to any MP. Messages are far more frequently about policy rather than personal issues, which might go some way to explaining why a WriteInPublic tool targeting MPs is a more viable prospect than it might be, say, in the UK.

    PMG are yet to promote the tool through their newsletter and social media channels, but of course, users are discovering it for themselves on the homepage. In the five weeks since launch, more than 270 messages have been sent to MPs. These can be seen on the MPs’ pages, in a new ‘messages’ tab: here’s an example.

    Messages tab on an MP's page on People's Assembly

    Informing Committees

    The new tool doesn’t just invite users to write to their MPs directly; People’s Assembly now sports two invitations on its homepage: one to write to an MP, and another to contact a Committee.

    WriteInPublic on People's Assembly

    PMG have previously had some success in surveying their users over key issues of party funding: the survey results were sent to a sitting Committee, and the chairman reported that they were “very helpful for the Committee’s discussions” and were “used as a reference point to gauge public opinion especially where discussions were deadlocked”.

    The group are keen to extend this kind of engagement, and this second tool allows citizens to send a message to a Committee dealing with specific issues such as public works or the police. PMG are planning to continue surveying their users, while also pointing them at the tool as a way of getting public input into the bill-making process.

    In the spirit of Democratic Commons, the underlying contact data for the MPs tool (though not the Committees one) is also now being used by Wikidata and our EveryPolitician project, so it’s freely available for anyone to use. For us it’s a win-win when data can not only serve an immediate purpose, but will also go on to provide a resource for anyone else who needs it.


    Image: WOCinTech (CC by/2.0)

  8. Our written evidence to the Parliamentary inquiry on voting by proxy

    We’ve submitted evidence to the recent inquiry on whether Parliament should introduce a more formal system of voting by proxy. You can read our submission herepdf, and see submissions from other organisations and individuals on Parliament’s website.

    Voting by proxy is the practice of allowing someone else to cast your vote for you. In Parliament, when MPs go on extended leave, for example when they have a baby, there is no formal system in place; rather, arrangements are often made informally and, potentially, inconsistently.

    A Member may approach a whip to request that they are paired with an MP from the opposition who will not be voting either, thus effectively cancelling out the votes that would have been cast. Apparently, there is also an informal tradition of allowing infirm or incapacitated (for example, because they are carrying a baby in their arms) representatives to vote from outside the chamber, but only when present within the precincts of the House. We were interested to see a remark in David Lammy MP’s own evidence:

    I would also hope that the Committee might consider some way to end the practice notorious from the late 1970s of bringing seriously sick Members into Westminster in order to vote. This would carry severe reputational risk if repeated nowadays.

    Why are we interested?

    The inquiry is a direct result of the recent debate, on International Women’s Day, in which Harriet Harman led the call for a more formal system of voting by proxy for members on extended leave (and particularly on ‘baby leave’).

    We agree that it’s important Parliament formalises this system, and we fully support any measure that will make life easier for parents, or those on extended leave for other life-changing reasons. And of course, we’re very much in favour of any initiative which will make parliamentary arrangements more transparent and accessible to the general public, which after all is the whole reason TheyWorkForYou exists.

    But we also have a further interest in this subject. As you may recall, we were called out by MPs (and subsequently members of the public) for misrepresenting representatives on leave, since our site TheyWorkForYou was not displaying this information, leaving potential for members of the public to believe that such MPs were not attending to their duties.

    In response to this, we are now able to manually add notes to the profile pages of those MPs who request it. However, as we outlined in our prior posts it’s not an ideal solution for a number of reasons, as summarised in our inquiry response.

    We’re hoping that once the proxy voting system is formalised, the relevant information (that is, who is on extended leave, that a proxy is voting in their place, and the name of the proxy) will be released along with Parliament’s existing data outputs. You can read more about that in our response, but in short, this would allow us to display the information consistently and automatically, as we do for virtually all the rest of the information on TheyWorkForYou.

    But it won’t only be useful for us. It’ll allow for the data to be displayed on Parliament’s own website, and of course will be of help to any website or tool which deals with Parliamentary activity and makes it easier for everyone to understand.


    Image by Jessica Taylor (Parliamentary copyright, reproduced with the permission of Parliament). “Ayes to the right, noes to the left”. When there is a vote in the Commons, MPs leave their seats and walk into either the Aye or No lobby.

  9. Now you’re even more secure on FixMyStreet

    All mySociety websites have strong security: when you think about some of the data we’re entrusted with (people’s private correspondence with their MPs, through WriteToThem, is perhaps the most extreme example, but many of our websites also rely on us storing your email address and other personal information) then you’ll easily understand why robust privacy and security measures are built into all our systems from the very beginning.

    We’ve recently upped these even more for FixMyStreet. Like everyone else, we’ve been checking our systems and policies ahead of the implementation of the new General Data Protection Regulation in May, and this helped us see a few areas where we could tighten things up.

    Privacy

    A common request from our users is that we remove their name from a report they made on FixMyStreet: either they didn’t realise that it would be published on the site, or they’ve changed their mind about it. Note that when you submit your report, there’s a box which you can uncheck if you would like your report to be anonymous:

    FixMyStreet remembers your preference and applies it the next time you make a report.

    In any case, now users can anonymise their own reports, either singly or all at once. When you’re logged in, just go to any of your reports and click ‘hide my name’. You’ll see both options:

    report of puddles on the undercliff walk on FixMyStreet

    Security

    Security for users was already very good, but with the following improvements it can be considered excellent!

    • All passwords are now checked against a list of the 577,000 most common choices, and any that appear in this list are not allowed.
    • Passwords must now also be of a minimum length.
    • If you change your password, you have to input the previous one in order to authorise the change. Those who haven’t previously used a password (since it is possible to make a report without creating an account), will receive a confirmation email to ensure the request has come from the email address given.
    • FixMyStreet passwords are hashed with an algorithm called bcrypt, which has a built in ‘work factor’ that can be increased as computers get faster. We’ve bumped this up.
    • Admins can now log a user out of all their sessions. This could be useful for example in the case of a user who has logged in via a public computer and is concerned that others may be able to access their account; or for staff admin who share devices.


    Image: Timothy Muza (Unsplash)

     

     

     

     

  10. Sending multiple FOI requests: the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro batch feature

    When we started building WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for professional users of FOI, we knew that there was one feature which would be a game-changer for such users: the ability to send a request to multiple authorities at once.

    In this blog post, we examine what we wanted the tool to do, how we are guarding against abuse, and finally we’ll give a step by step walkthrough of the interface.

    Investigative news stories or in-depth pieces of research often require information from a multitude of different sources. By gathering statistics or information from multiple authorities, journalists, activists and researchers can build up a previously-unseen picture, for example of how widespread a particular problem is, or where there are inequities in medical provision across the country.

    It’s something that many professional users of FOI are doing already, usually with the aid of their own homemade spreadsheets on which they keep track of requests made, dates by which replies should be expected, which bodies have responded, which need chasing, and of course the information held in the responses themselves.

    The standard WhatDoTheyKnow website already provides several helpful features that you just don’t get with a DIY system: it has all the right email addresses for authorities, for example; it guides you through the FOI process; and it will send you an email reminder when the deadline for response arrives — even taking bank holidays into account.

    But we knew that in order for our batch request feature to woo people away from their spreadsheets, it needed to do more than those homebuilt systems, some of which have been refined over several years and work well, even if a bit clunkily, for their owners.

    Power and responsibility

    One important consideration was uppermost in our minds when it came to batch requests: it costs authorities time and money to respond to each request, and of course that multiplies with batch requests. We are keen to promote responsible use of FOI, so we want to fold appropriate safeguards and guidance into whatever system we build.

    As mentioned, with WhatDoTheyKnow Pro we’re focusing on features that are genuinely useful for professional users of FOI, but we also want to help those users make better, more focused requests — ones that are more likely to get useful responses and see the light of day as news stories. So it was important that, in making it simple to send multiple requests, we also help users find the most suitable authorities to send their requests to.

    With that in mind, here are some balances we’ve put in place:

    • Users are limited in how many batch requests they can send within any one month — so there’s no chance to go too wild.
    • There’s a limit to the number of authorities that can be added to a single batch: we set this to be the number of local authorities in the UK, which is a logical sector to survey in this way.
    • Before users do a batch mailout, we encourage the sending of an initial request that goes to just a few authorities. This safeguard can reveal where a request is flawed, so for example, if the data you get back is not what you need or in the wrong format, you don’t have to send to the full list all over again.
    • We provide advice on cost limits to encourage succinct batch requests.
    • Authorities have the facility to report a request which is unsuitable for review by our administrators.
    • We’re rolling out the batch request functionality gradually to vetted WhatDoTheyKnow Pro users so that we can gradually learn how people use it in practice, and course-correct as necessary..

    Testing and improvements

    So far, the batch feature is only available to a select group of test users, who are giving us feedback on how they’re finding it. There’s certainly nothing like having your code being used by real people to help you see where improvements might be made!

    That said, it’s been a very gratifying process. With the help of our test users, we’ve seen that the batch request functionality has the potential to be immensely helpful to professional users of FOI; even genuinely game-changing. We are certain that with the sending tools, we’ve created a service that really adds value for this sector.

    We’re now in the next phase, and turning our attention to improving the functionality that helps users deal with incoming responses when they come in. This already exists in a basic form, and thanks to our testers, we’ve identified which improvements we need to make. We’re already working on incorporating them. But that is definitely material for the next update  — for now, let’s take a look at just how the batch request function works.

    Using batch request

    There are three parts to making any request, whether you’re doing it yourself or using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro:

    1. Creating the request
    2. Managing the responses
    3. Analysing the results

    The batch request functionality builds on our super-simple FOI workflow tools for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, extending them to make larger investigations much easier.

    Creating the Request

    The first step is compiling a list of authorities to send the request to. From the compose screen, you might search on a keyword (for example, ‘hospital’, ‘Birmingham’, or ‘Birmingham hospitals’) and then add the authorities you’re interested in.

    Add authorities to your WhatDoTheyKnow Pro batch request

    Add authorities to your WhatDoTheyKnow Pro batch request

    Each authority is added to a recipient list and WhatDoTheyKnow Pro creates a ‘mail merge’ setup. You’ll see how many authorities you’re writing to in the compose interface.

    You can then draft your request. The special `Dear [Authority name]` salutation gets automatically replaced with each of the selected authorities when you send your batch.

    Mail merge on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    Finally, before sending you can choose a privacy duration.

    Setting a privacy duration on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    At this point you can either go straight ahead and send your request, or save the draft and come back to it later.

    Managing Responses

    Once you’ve sent your batch request, you’re going to receive a lot of replies from authorities. This is where WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s functionality really comes into its own, keeping all that clutter out of your email inbox.

    Here’s what it looks like: the first thing you’ll see is a high-level progress bar showing you the overall progress of your batch. There are three main states that help you manage the requests in the batch:

    • In progress (yellow): This means that there’s no action needed by you – you’re waiting on the authority to respond with an acknowledgement or the information you’ve requested.
    • Action needed (red): When a request in the batch receives a response from the authority, you’ll need to check it out. We mark the response as “action needed” for you to review and decide what to do next.
    • Complete (green): Once there’s no further action needed – either you’ve got the information you asked for, the authority didn’t have the information, or they’ve refused and you don’t want to challenge them – the request moves to the ‘complete’ state, so you know you don’t need to think about it until you come to analyse the data.

    Clicking the title of the batch reveals the individual requests and their progress status. From there, you can click through, read the response and update the status.

    All requests status page on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    Analysing Results

    Now you’ve got all your data, it’s time to compare the results from different authorities.

    Sometimes authorities will reply in the main correspondence.

    Authorities who reply within the body of their response

    Other authorities respond with one or more attachments. You can view these inline or download them to your computer.

    Authorities who respond with an attachment

    If you’re dealing with a batch sent to lots of authorities, sometimes it’s easier to just download everything. You can download a Zip file containing all the correspondence and attachments for each request via the “Actions” menu. From there you can pull out the attachments that contain the raw data and plug the numbers or answers in to your spreadsheet so that you can compare across authorities.

    Download a whole batch response on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro

    You can sign up to WhatDoTheyKnow Pro today and receive 1 month free with the voucher code BLOGMARCH18. Make some requests to try out the FOI workflow tools for professionals, and get in touch to request to join the waiting list for batch access.

    If your FOI requests have made the news, let us know! Send us links to your published stories and we’ll throw in an extra month of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro for free. Your stories help us improve WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    Image: Peretz Partensky (CC by-sa/2.0)