1. What People Want To Know on WhatDoTheyKnow

    mySociety’s flagship Freedom of Information (FOI) request portal WhatDoTheyKnow.com, operating in the UK since 2008, has amassed a whopping 330,000 FOI requests (and counting) from citizens over its eight year life-span.

    That equates to approximately 15-20% of all FOI requests made in the UK. It also represents the largest database of FOI requests in the country, having provided a platform for requests and responses to over 17,000 UK public authorities to be published publicly online.

    Those are some impressive numbers: however, until now we haven’t known much more about what requests are being made, whether there are trends, or indeed, whether the responses that people are receiving are satisfactory.

    We thought it was about time that we took a look under the bonnet of WhatDoTheyKnow to find out the answers to some of these bigger questions.

    Subject matter

    We decided first to look at what themes and policy areas people were most interested in when making an FOI request. We chose this area because we suspected that many people would be asking for similar things from similar authorities. If this is the case, then this would be a clear evidence-based argument for authorities to increase pro-active publication of certain information.

    The task itself was not an easy prospect. WhatDoTheyKnow does not have a tagging or categorising system, so there are over 330,000 requests that we had no quick or easy way of comparing. The volume of data was also so high that we couldn’t reasonably extract every request and analyse which policy area(s) it was relevant to.

    To solve this issue, we decided to focus on the 20 authorities receiving the highest volume of FOI requests between 2008-2016. This way we could rely on a large sample of requests for both both local authorities and government departments. The list of authorities is below.

    Department for Work and Pensions

    6,841

    Department for Education

    1,974

    Home Office

    5,381

    Wirral Borough Council

    1,953

    UK Borders Agency

    3,377

    Birmingham City Council

    1,582

    Brighton & Hove City Council

    3,367

    Liverpool City Council

    1,538

    Transport for London

    3,111

    Westminster City Council

    1,501

    Ministry of Defence

    2,859

    HMRC

    1,476

    Metropolitan Police Service

    2,515

    Bristol City Council

    1,301

    Ministry of Justice

    2,372

    Lambeth Borough Council

    1,296

    BBC

    2,310

    Camden Borough Council

    1,290

    Department of Health

    1,989

    Kent County Council

    1,235

     

    Taking all the requests made to these public bodies gave us a total of 49,500.

    With the generous support of Thomson-Reuters, we were able to use OpenCalais, their automated tagging system, to assign one or more thematic tags to each FOI request made. Over 100,000 hyper-granular tags were automatically applied in this way.

    Once that was complete, we went through each tag and the requests it was associated with. We grouped tags into policy areas and checked for any that had been incorrectly assigned. We then split the authorities into two groups: Local Authorities and Departmental Bodies, to compare the most requested information.

    Among Local Authorities, the top requested information concerned:

    1. Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
    2. Social Care Information concerning care providers and their funding/operations, care in the community arrangements, social worker qualifications and staffing levels, and information concerning the operation and monitoring of social work departments
    3. Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
    4. Authority management Citizens also wish to know with greater detail how authorities are operating internally, requesting management and meeting information, emails about decision-making, and structural information concerning development, contracting and relationships with private companies
    5. Business rates Concerning long-term empty properties, the impact of rates on town centres, charitable or other discounts, and regeneration.

    These are the top five of thousands of tags, but common themes were clear when comparing these authorities.

    Generally, requesters have shown they want information in a more detailed form than authorities are currently providing, in particular in the expenditure of public funds and those services catering for complex cross-cutting social issues. Given the ongoing housing crisis in the UK,  coupled with the ageing population, it is likely that information concerning these policy areas will be in increasing demand.

    Conversely, among Departmental Bodies, the top requested information showed few common themes. This is primarily due to the differences in policy areas between the departments. There were, however, significant spikes in certain policy areas within departments, particularly around immigration, and this will be the focus of future investigation.

    In conclusion, we understand that very few FOI requests are completely identical in subject matter, but broad trends are clearly evident.

    If Local Authorities proactively publish more granular information about the policy areas we now know citizens are actively interested in, they may see a dip in formal FOI requests.

    Publishing information and data in a machine-readable format may even enable other civic technologists like ourselves to build tools to assist councils in their delivery of vital services. Whilst this will not eradicate FOI requests completely, it would hopefully begin a shift in behaviour.

    In short: wouldn’t it be great if, instead of authorities seeing FOI as an administrative burden, they began to see pro-active publication as an opportunity to harness the skills, initiative and flexibility of citizens.

     

    Image: Allison McDonald (CC)

  2. Do authorities respond faster by email or through an FOI website? Our latest research

    When you send a Freedom of Information request through a site like WhatDoTheyKnow, do authorities respond in the same way as to a request sent via email? Our latest research would suggest that there is a small but crucial difference.

    Just one channel

    We provide Alaveteli, the software that underpins Freedom of Information sites all over the world — but of course, those sites are not the only means by which citizens can make FOI requests.

    A Right to Know means that citizens can request information via whatever means are allowed in their country’s law: traditionally, that’s by post, but many authorities will accept requests via phone and email, and there are even examples of responses being obtained via Twitter.

    So Alaveteli sites make a complicated and potentially intimidating process easier, and they also have the benefit that they publish requests and responses online for everyone to access, but they represent just one channel via which information can be accessed.

    Something that we’ve often wondered is whether there is any difference in the way authorities respond via an Alaveteli site, or via the email system.

    An experiment

    So mySociety’s research team got together with Informace Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site, to conduct an experiment.

    The question under scrutiny: Are Freedom of Information requests sent via email treated the same as requests sent via an Alaveteli platform that allows citizens to make requests via an online portal, and publishes all responses publicly on its website?

    We wanted to know:

    • Would responses be the same?
    • Would it take the same amount of time to get a response?
    • Would you overall get a better or worse service via Informace Pro Všechny than via a personal email address?

    These questions are especially pertinent to us because we want to make sure that our technology is working for people, rather than against them. At the very least, we want to ensure that using an Alaveteli platform such as Informace Pro Všechny will provide the same level of service that citizens can expect from using private email addresses. If using a site such as this does not result in the same level of service, then this would be an issue we as civic technologists should know about and try to address.

    Our experiment was simple. We sampled 100 public authorities (town halls and ministries), and sent them two separate requests via a private email address, and two separate requests via Informace Pro Všechny.

    The information requested was deliberately simple and uncontroversial, and clearly subject to Freedom of Information law, to avoid any deliberation by public authorities about whether to release it.

    Findings

    The good news is that using both channels of communication — individual email or Informace Pro Všechny — results in the same quality of response. Neither method of communication was found to be inferior to the other with regard to how substantive the response was.

    The even better news is that use of Informace Pro Všechny resulted in faster responses to requests. Whereas private email requests were provided on average within 9.2 days, responses to requests sent via Informace Pro Všechny took only 7.2 days – two days quicker.

    This is a positive outcome that was by no means certain, and at this point we are unable to fully explain it. It is possible that public authorities were quicker to respond to Informace Pro Všechny requests because these were known to be published online, and therefore, a slower response would be more noticeable.

    Or the quicker response rate via the site could be attributed to the fact that its users are known to be politically active, politically interested or involved in journalism: a quicker response might reduce negative coverage or feedback. Or it could be that other external factors we were unaware of influenced the result.

    More research would be required to determine the causes of these differences, however, at this point, we are simply delighted to say that Informace Pro Všechny is currently the quickest tool to use to request information from government in the Czech Republic.


    Image: A pre-Czechoslovakia dissolution stamp, from 1966. Most FOI responses are much quicker than this, by post or other means. Karen Horton (CC)

  3. Launching TICTeC2015: The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference

    digital london

    25th March 2015, 9.30am – 5.30pm
    2nd Floor, 8 Eastcheap, London, EC3M 1AE

     

    mySociety is delighted to announce the launch of TICTeC2015 – or to give it its proper name, The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference.

    This is the first in an annual series of conferences from mySociety, in which we’ll focus on the impact that civic technology and digital democracy are having upon citizens, decision makers and governments around the world.

    We’ll discuss themes of engagement, participation, institution, social behaviour, politics, community, digital capability, communication and ethics relating to the use and study of civic technology.

    TICTeC2015 will bring together individuals from academic and applied backgrounds as well as businesses, public authorities, NGOs and education institutions to discuss ideas, present research and build a network of individuals interested in the civic technology landscape.

    This one day conference provides the opportunity for researchers to present theoretical or empirical work related to the conference theme.

    We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme.

    Individuals from all backgrounds are welcome to attend the conference, to learn and find out more.

    Click here for more details on the event, how to register and how to submit a proposal.

     

    Photo by Simon Hadleigh-Sparks Licence (CC)

  4. Hello Academics of the world, we would like to work with you!

    We at mySociety build and popularise digital tools worldwide that help citizens exert power over institutions and decision-makers. Or do we?

    Wanting to know whether our well-meaning civic tech is actually making a difference, mySociety recently created the post of Head of Research. My name is Dr Rebecca Rumbul, and I have now been installed in that role for about 6 weeks. I want to know if civic tech like ours is having an impact on citizens and governments, and how such sites operate and negotiate issues not just in the UK, but in the 50 or so countries that we know have digital democracy websites operating in them.

    Into the unkown

    There is enormous scope for interesting and important research to be conducted using sites such as the ones that mySociety and our partners operate. The digital nature of our focus means that we can collect large volumes of data online at a low cost.

    That said, there is nothing quite like making connections on the ground or meeting people face to face. mySociety is a small NGO, and does not have the capacity to conduct all of the research activities it would like on its own.

    Therefore, we are actively seeking to work with academic partners on both qualitative and quantitative research focusing on the impact of civic tech.

    We are planning to conduct research in the following countries. If you are an academic based in one of these countries and interested in our research agenda, please get in touch. We will be very happy to hear from you. Contact me via research@mysociety.org

    Countries:

    • Argentina
    • Chile
    • Hungary
    • Kenya
    • Malaysia
    • Mexico
    • Norway
    • South Africa
    • Ukraine
    • Uruguay

    We conduct and disseminate research regularly. If you would like to hear more about our activities and events, sign up for our newsletter.

    Image credit: Into the Unknown by Gary Gao (angrytoast), CC BY-NC 2.0