We’ve recently been considering whether we should add individual courts to WhatDoTheyKnow.com, so that users could make FOI requests to them in public. Doing so would certainly align with our wider mission of making it easy to access information from public bodies; but there are also some clear reasons against their inclusion.
In this post we’ll examine both sides of the issue. But first, some context.
At the moment, FOI requests for information held by courts can be made via the listing on WhatDoTheyKnow for the courts service, HMCTS. Individual courts are generally not considered to be authorities in their own right, so this would mean adding bodies that are not strictly subject to FOI themselves — which is not a new concept for us: we will often list parts of public bodies separately if we think this will help our users.
Transparency is particularly important when it comes to courts, as they exercise the power of the state and their decisions can have huge impacts on individuals, organisations, the environment and society.
In favour of listing individual courts
Further to our general principle that it is good to give access to governmental bodies serving the public, there are some more nuanced reasons to include courts in our listings:
- Requests often end up there anyway. On receipt of a request better answered by a local or individual court, HMCTS will often forward it to them, or advise the request-maker to contact the court directly themselves. The FOI process may be quicker and more efficient for all parties if requests are just sent directly to the court in question.
- It would serve an educational purpose Listing courts individually would promote the fact that FOI requests can be made for information held by courts.
- Information can be obtained from courts via FOI. Statistics, information on spending, details of room usage etc. could all be requested from courts, and we would expect such requests to be successful. Section 32 of the FOI Act exempts court records, meaning they’ll just refuse an FOI request for these, but you should be able to access other information that they hold.
- Separate requests may not trigger the cost limit Under Section 12 of the Act, authorities can refuse FOI requests if it will take them more than a certain number of working hours to provide the information. Requests made to a series of individual courts may not be aggregated for the purposes of considering the cost limits, and more information may be obtained via a series of requests made to individual courts than would be obtained via a request made to the court service centrally.
Against listing individual courts
There is really just one substantial reason against listing courts, but it is important and we give significant weight to it:
- Courts may release sensitive information When authorities respond to a request made through WhatDoTheyKnow, the information they release is published on the website. But there are rights other than FOI that give access to information from courts, eg section 5.8 of the Criminal Procedure Rules and Part 5 of The Civil Procedure Rules 1998. Court officers may consider that, due to these provisions, they are required to release information which it would be irresponsible, and sometimes illegal, to publish in response to requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow.
Having worked our way through these pros and cons, we conclude that listing individual courts on WhatDoTheyKnow is currently high risk, and probably not the best way to pursue greater transparency from the court system.
As in other areas, rather than improving the way requests for information are handled, proactive publication of material such as information on cases before courts, and their outcomes, would be preferable. Information which it is not appropriate to publish should be separated from other material by the courts service.
Another approach is to make FOI requests to bodies such as the police, for material they have presented to courts, and such requests may well be successful.
It is worth noting that there are currently three courts listed on WhatDoTheyKnow:
- Supreme Court of the United Kingdom
- The High Court of the Justiciary, which is the supreme criminal court of Scotland.
- The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
Due to the nature of the work that these courts undertake, we believe they are lower risk listings than others. In the case of the Supreme Court they do even have their own FOI contact point and publication scheme, so should be used to responding responsibly and appropriately to FOI requests.
Image: Tingey law firm
Our Climate programme is benefitting from generous support — £495,907 over three years — from The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activities in the UK.
As you’ll know if you’ve followed along with our updates, mySociety’s Climate programme focuses on the local response to climate change, by sharing open and accessible digital services and data to support faster, fairer, more informed and more effective action.
Now, thanks to funding made possible by National Lottery players, we want to strengthen the ecosystem of local networks and enable citizens and communities to be more engaged in the local climate policy environment. A key part of this is our collaboration with other organisations — we bring our strengths; they bring theirs, and together we create projects that are more than the sum of their parts.
Additionally, we are actively listening to all sorts of organisations to understand what tools and data they need, before wrapping those needs into our development programme: it is this approach that has led to many of the new features on CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer.
And this National Lottery funding has already allowed us to embark on an ambitious outreach plan, speaking to a wide network of NGOs, charities, campaign groups, journalists, researchers and local authorities across the UK — those who are working in climate, those in associated spaces and even those with a more tangential relationship to the issue (because it’s a truism that climate will affect every area of life). We’ve been finding out where our commonalities are, how our data and tools can be of help, and what opportunities there might be to work together.
We will, of course, continue to keep you informed as we make progress — and we want to offer our sincere thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund for their help in making that progress happen.
How can we overcome barriers to accessing good data and documentation?
Last week, a global audience came together online for the third TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.
Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion of one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.
In our third Surgery, the discussants explained the barriers they’ve experienced in accessing good-quality data and information, and then some of the ways they’ve found to meet these challenges, and ideas for what might be missing.
It was fascinating to learn how similar the issues are, as well as where they diverge, in the several countries represented by our speakers and by the audience.
This time around, our expert panel comprised Nehemiah Attigah of Odekro in Ghana; Laura Zommer from Chequeado in Argentina; Khairil Yusof representing the Sinar project in Malaysia; Sym Roe of Democracy Club, in the UK; and Nati Carfi of Open Data Charter, in Argentina.
Data is often not in the right format to use digitally or is not machine-readable – documents have to be scanned and then digitised through OCR.
Officialdom/authorities can be problematic in a number of ways:
- They might demand unwarranted fees for information;
- They might be ignorant of legislation such as FOI that requires them to provide information on demand;
- Laws might be contradictory, for example one law might penalise officials who give out information, while another gives citizens the right to request it;
- There might a low level of understanding as to how the data could be used;
- There can be concerns that the data would uncover the authorities’ own corruption;
- They might stop publishing data or change the format it is in, due to political circumstances;
- They might work to different deadlines or timescales than is useful for organisations’ needs.
Even if the data is available, it can be too complex for a non-expert to understand.
Good open source code that exists might not be suitable for every country’s circumstances.
- When authorities can see the data in use, it’s much easier for them to understand why it’s needed – so resources showing examples of where civic tech is working elsewhere (for example in other countries) or making prototype tools that show what could be done might be a solution.
- Groups could publish stories in the media about what happens when data stops being published or changes in a way that damages the tools people rely on.
- Could data sources be archived to provide a permanent home in case the official sources stop publishing them?
- Educating the public to make them understand data better – through blog posts, podcasts, ‘data translators’ or whatever means.
- Publishing case studies that explain solutions that haven’t worked, as well as those that have.
- Training for NGOs and organisations on how to engage with authorities.
- Training for the public on how to use data.
- Translating existing guidance on open data standards into languages other than English.
- Producing resources that explain the value of open data standards rather than just advocating for open data standards in of themselves.
- Research how access to information laws apply to datasets and how those laws work in practice.
Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.
We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to six people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.
Suffering from Zoom fatigue? Understandable! We’re all tired of staring into a computer screen, we all miss seeing what people look like from the shoulders down, and we can quite see why some organisations are delighted to be running in-person events again.
But here’s something worth noting: while the wider world suddenly saw the point of remote events during lockdown, disability activists have been fighting for them for years — long before the pandemic hit. And at mySociety, we’ve come to realise that there are some benefits of virtual events that we shouldn’t be so quick to give up.
Opening doors to wider audiences
Throughout the last couple of years, our events have been freely accessible to those who find travel or in-person meetings difficult. This is no small thing, on all sides. Input from a wide range of viewpoints is valuable, providing lived experience that we might otherwise have missed.
Disability isn’t the only reason that people might not be able to, or want to travel. Some are protecting vulnerable housemates or family, and still need to self isolate even if wider society no longer mandates it.
Many have made commitments to travel less in the face of the climate emergency. Even if that’s not the case, it now feels odd to travel out of town to an event, giving up hours or even a whole day, when we’re used to joining from the comfort of our own homes. Plus, if an event is just the right fit for your work, but happens to be on a different continent, it’s now perfectly possible to be a part of it.
Taking our TICTeC events as an example, in the time we’ve been running them online, we’ve seen participants joining us from around 50 different countries. In person events? It was more like 30.
Video’s just not the same
Recordings and transcripts continue to be useful, but let’s face it: ‘a video will be available after the event’ just isn’t the same thing as proper online options for inclusion. People can’t join in, ask questions or be part of discussions if they’re not engaging in real time.
Providing a wide range of options for people to attend events, whatever the reason they can or can’t attend in person, means creating flexibility in our spaces. Limited time, energy and/or money are barriers that prevent many marginalised groups from becoming activists, and creating hybrid events help address those barriers.
A hybrid approach
Not to say that there aren’t benefits to being in the same room — and providing an option to attend remotely shouldn’t stop organisations from taking the necessary steps to make their venues accessible (we’re looking at you, COP26 conference centre).
We miss those in-person moments as much as anyone, and we do still hope to be running real life events in the future. But we’re committing to a hybrid approach and, from now on, we’ll always ensure that, if you’d rather access the event from home, that opportunity will be available. We’re all ears when it comes to the details that will make this work for everyone, so do get in touch if you have ideas.
In summary, we’ll do our best to ensure that the remote experience is as fulfilling and as close to being in the room as we can make it.
That’s our commitment — are you doing the same?
Image – Sigmund
The goal of mySociety’s climate programme is to try and reduce the estimated 33% of UK emissions that are within the scope of local authorities’ activities. To be systematic about what that might mean, we’ve tried to categorise all local authority services and activities into three broad areas:
- Service delivery is where councils’ direct or outsourced activities have an implication for emissions. This includes their own facilities, services run directly or those externally procured. For instance, waste disposal and coastal protection are both services in this category, and our initial pass put 71 services in this category.
- Enforcement and regulation is where councils have power to reduce third party/citizen emissions through regulatory frameworks. This might include transport or building regulation, or enforcement of regulations of the private rental sector (80 services).
- Place making is where local government have a coordinating/enabling role in emissions generated by third parties/citizens within their boundaries. This will involve fewer actual duties to take action, but a greater coordinating role, including general planning and research, borrowing and investment powers or strategic economic planning (90 services).
Using the ESD standard list of services provided by local authorities in England and Wales, a first pass identified services that might have relevance to emissions reduction (trying to be inclusive when in doubt). A second pass then assigned those services to at least one of the categories above.
The results of this process are in a GitHub repository. This is an initial test of this concept and the list, and classifications may be refined over time. Future additions might further distinguish powers from duties (where authorities can take action versus when they have to take action) and broad/specific service descriptions.
Internally, we’re using this list as a reminder of the wide range of activities local authorities have responsibility for, and to consider whether different groups of these services may be suitable for similar kinds of external interventions or services we might build as part of our work. As a dataset, this might eventually be able to add value directly to services. For instance the description data could be used in a machine learning approach as described in this paper for tagging and improving search of plans in the Climate Action Plan Explorer.
The Climate Change Committee report on local authorities has two alternate ways of dividing local government functions.
The first is a list of areas of local government responsibility that relate to emissions:
- An overarching role to support the economic, health and social wellbeing of communities
- Powers to ensure buildings meet basic energy efficiency standards
- Duties to prevent homelessness and prevent hazards in housing
- Duties to manage risk including climate risks such as flooding
- Duties and powers to protect the environment, wildlife and heritage
- Duties to collect and dispose of waste
- Borrowing and investment powers
The second is a 6 stage “onion” diagram of activities based on the Centre for Sustainability model, where each layer accounts for a larger slice of emissions, but is less directly under the power of the council:
- Direct control: buildings, operations, travel
- Procurement: plus commissioning & commercialisation
- Place shaping: using powers to control development and transport
- Showcasing: innovating, piloting, demonstrating and sharing good practice, scaling and replicating
- Partnerships: leading bringing people and organisations together, coordinating and supporting others, joining others’ partnerships
- Involving, Engaging and Communicating: translating global and national climate change targets for local relevance, with stakeholders to raise awareness, involving people & ideas for local solutions
Most of these fit into the placemaking category used above, but more generally our approach recognises a distinct regulation role that might be supported in a different way by potential future services to placemaking approaches.
Header image: 愚木混株 cdd20 on Unsplash
The ability to access good quality data and information is pivotal to the success of many civic tech projects, but still remains one of the biggest challenges facing the global civic tech sector.
Therefore, we’re hosting a Surgery on the topic, to bring together civic tech practitioners and researchers from around the world to discuss these challenges, as well as solutions and ideas to tackle them.
We’ll hear perspectives from:
- Khairil Yusof, Coordinator and Co-founder, Sinar Project (Malaysia)
- Nehemiah Yelu Attigah, Co-founder & Principal Lead, Odekro PMO (Ghana)
- Nati Carfi, Executive Director, Open Data Charter (Argentina)
- Sym Roe, CTO, Democracy Club (UK)
There will also be ample opportunity for attendees to provide their feedback on issues they have faced, and their solutions and ideas – so come along ready to contribute!
Ahead of the event, please feel free to share your thoughts on the topic over on this Padlet board, whether you can attend the Surgery or not.
These will then be discussed at the Surgery, and then by the subsequent TICTeC Action Lab (aka working group) that will ultimately commission a project to help tackle one or more of the identified common challenges around accessing quality information for civic tech projects.
About TICTeC Labs
TICTeC Civic Tech Surgeries are part of mySociety’s TICTeC Labs programme, which aims to address the biggest issues facing the civic tech/digital democracy sector, and enhance the effectiveness and potential impact of civic tech projects. This programme is made possible thanks to support from the National Endowment for Democracy.
Who are Civic Tech Surgeries for?
Anyone interested in the use and effectiveness of digital tools to enhance public participation, democracy, transparency and accountability.
We think the event will be of particular interest to civic tech practitioners and researchers, elected government representatives, civil servants, technology companies, funders and software developers, but anyone interested is welcome to attend.
Register to attend
The Civic Tech Surgery will be held virtually on Zoom. You need to register to attend by signing up on this Eventbrite page.
To hear of future TICTeC events and initiatives first, do sign up to our mailing list.
We recently became aware of extensive misuse of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, in connection with the academic status of Taiwanese politician Dr Tsai Ing-wen.
This activity became apparent through a very large quantity of correspondence being sent through the site, all focusing on the validity of Dr Ing-wen’s qualification from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
The majority of this material was repeating the same or very similar FOI requests, and some were not valid requests at all. We also saw mass posting of annotations, some on completely unrelated requests, and new requests which copied the titles of unrelated existing requests in an apparent attempt to evade our attention.
Running the service responsibly
As an organisation, we positively and passionately support the citizens’ right to access information and to hold organisations accountable: this is the very foundation that WhatDoTheyKnow is built upon, and its reason for existing.
Over time, we’ve formulated and consolidated policies to ensure that information on the site is preserved, as far as possible, as a permanent archive. We robustly contest unjustified requests to remove material from our service, and will only remove any substantive Freedom of Information requests and responses if we absolutely have to.
We initially treated this misuse assuming good faith, putting significant effort into removing problematic material from correspondence while continuing to publish elements which could have amounted to a valid Freedom of Information request.
Understanding the problem
Several users took the time to report the misuse of our service to us, for which we are thankful. As a matter of course, we review all material reported to us and assess it before making a decision on what to do. It took our small team of staff and volunteers a significant amount of time to respond to the number of reports made in this case.
Researching the topic more deeply, we discovered a statement from the Information Commissioner on requests they’ve also received on this subject, in which they say:
“The intent of these requests is clearly to try to add weight to theories around the falsification of President Tsai’s PHD, which have already been considered at length by the Commissioner and the Tribunal and found to be entirely lacking in substance.”
Further, both the LSE and the University of London have published their own statements, and a copy of the PhD thesis in question is now available online via LSE’s website.
While rejecting one FOI request on this subject as vexatious, LSE raised the possibility that people in China could be making requests to benefit from the country’s citizen evaluation system, stating:
“We have been made aware that there is the possibility that the LSE has been added to a list of targets to gain social credits in China. As such we believe that your request and the others we received in this time period have not been made for just the purpose of receiving information but for personal gain.”
With this information in hand, we were confident to treat the issue as mass misuse, more akin to spam or even a disinformation attack than to people making misguided requests.
During the course of this situation, we have banned 108 user accounts, most of which have been created to circumnavigate previous bans and to post inappropriate material to our site. We removed more than 300 requests from the site and 1,640 comments from pages.
To put this in context, we only banned 126 newly created user accounts in the whole of 2021, mainly for spamming (see more details in our 2021 Transparency Report).
Current approach to the misuse of service
As a result of this misuse we are taking the following actions.
While we will continue to adhere to our reactive moderation policy in most instances, we may occasionally review activity by new users while this incident is ongoing. When we are alerted to correspondence on the subject in question, we will not be taking our usual approach of trying to preserve any valid FOI request contained within broader correspondence. We will instead make a very quick assessment of whether it appears to be a genuine request for information or part of the concerted misuse campaign, in which case the request will be hidden.
The users making these requests will then be banned without warning or notification. The same will apply to any comments being made on existing requests. It will be up to any users that are banned in this process to make a case to us that they are making genuine FOI requests.
This approach is in line with that we have taken in other instances of misuse of our service.
We have also enabled enhanced anti-spam measures on the site, which will help us deal with other instances of misuse more efficiently.
We may never fully understand what exact circumstances instigated this wave of misuse, but it has been instructive, and has helped us formulate new ways to tackle the always surprising means by which our work – to help citizens make valid requests for information in public – can be temporarily derailed.
Image: Olga Safronova
In one sentence
TICTeC Action Lab #1 is looking for an individual, organisation or joint team to produce a piece of work to showcase examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements and benefits for governments/public institutions and their citizens.
About TICTeC Action Lab #1
As part of the TICTeC Labs programme, mySociety convened the TICTeC Action Lab #1 working group in order to take ideas raised at Civic Tech Surgery #1 forward, and decide together what piece of work would be useful to commission to help civic tech organisations around the world to work more effectively with governments/public institutions.
The TICTeC Labs programme is looking at six key dilemmas facing civic tech. The first of those challenges was how civic tech organisations can work effectively with public and private institutions. Our Civic Tech Surgery #1 discussed some of the challenges and suggested some ways forward. Our Action Lab #1 considered those ideas and decided on a piece of work that could be commissioned to help solve some of the problems raised.
TICTeC Action Lab #1 is comprised of 6 individuals from across the world, who between them have many years of experience working on civic tech and/or the issues that surround the effectiveness of civic tech. You can read more about Action Lab #1 members here.
About this project
TICTeC Action Lab #1 members agreed to commission a piece of work that showcases examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements and benefits for governments/public institutions and their citizens.
The Action Lab believes highlighting successful examples will help civic tech organisations across the world to work more effectively with governments, as it will help them to promote the benefits of civic tech and inspire and motivate government actors, as well as themselves, to start similar civic tech projects in their contexts.
Therefore, the primary target audience for this work are public institutions across the world, as well as civic tech organisations themselves who want to be inspired. The work should include:
- Examples of civic tech organisations working with public institutions (e.g. local governments/councils; national governments; government departments/agencies etc) on civic tech/digital democracy projects that have resulted in tangible improvements for the public institutions and their citizens. By ‘civic tech organisations’, we mean organisations that focus on informing citizens, connecting them with each other and getting them to engage with their governments in order to work together for the public good.
- Examples from multiple countries, ensuring that examples from both the Global South and the Global North are represented.
- Specific details on how the civic tech/digital democracy projects were set up and why; what the challenges were; what the tangible improvements were; and any other details that would be helpful for other civic tech organisations and public institutions who may like to replicate the examples in their contexts.
There is $2500 USD (inclusive of taxes) available for this work. We are open to what form this piece of work takes – e.g. it could be a set of case studies; interviews; visualisations/images; a literature review; a graphic novel even! Above all, we want the work to be as accessible as possible to ensure it can be easily used in practice. We ask applicants to let us know what approach they will take in their application.
It may be helpful for applicants to look back at schedules from previous TICTeC events to find examples of presentations that discuss how civic tech projects have led to tangible improvements.
How to apply
If you’re interested in producing this piece of work, then please fill in this application form by 28th March 2022. Applications will be reviewed by the TICTeC Labs team at mySociety and the TICTeC Labs Steering Group. Applicants will be notified of the status of their application no later than 15th April. The work will then need to be completed within 8 weeks of the successful applicant being appointed.
What happens after the project
We intend to publish the work you produce, credited to you, on the TICTeC and mySociety website, licensed under a Creative Commons licence. We may make some light edits (beyond proofreading) before we publish. You will be free to make publicly available your own version should you wish to, and any other material based on the research you conducted. The project will then be disseminated by TICTeC Action Lab members, the TICTeC Labs Steering group, and the TICTeC community to ensure it’s used as much as possible.
mySociety will convene a ‘report back’ event at the end of the TICTeC Labs programme to discuss how the programme went and the work commissioned by the programme and its participants. Authors of commissioned work will be invited to attend to present their work.
Please send any queries or questions to email@example.com.
Donations to MPs are in the news again, and TheyWorkForYou allows users to easily see what any individual MP has received. In fact, the site has carried a copy of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests (in which, as Parliament’s website explains, “MPs must register within 28 days any interest which someone might reasonably consider to influence their actions or words as an MP“) since at least 2005.
This hasn’t always been straightforward, and has recently become slightly trickier.
The official register is published as static HTML or PDF, with a simple list of all MPs. We scrape that HTML, convert it into light XML and import it onto the site – which means you can easily see not only the current entry on an individual MP’s page, but also see a complete history of their register without having to view many different copies of the official register.
The XML contains all the data from the official register, but it only parses out basic information like the category of interest. Providing more detail would be great, but is quite a hard problem to tackle.
Recently, Parliament has started using Cloudflare’s bot-protection technology. We assume this change was made with good reason, but as a side effect it has prevented effective scraping of the website, as Cloudflare don’t distinguish between good and bad bots or scrapers.
We know that Parliament was working on an API at least as far back as 2016, from their now-removed data blog, but if this is still in development, it is yet to see the light of day. What they said at the time still stands: their website is still the only means of accessing this data. We don’t think it’s necessary to protect purely static HTML pages such as the Register in quite such a heavy-handed manner.
We do have ways of continuing to get the Register, and TheyWorkForYou is still up to date, so anyone else who has been scraping the official site and has hit issues because of this is welcome to use our data, either via the XML or our API.
Image: Adeolu Eletu
Alongside many others, we are appalled to see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting bloodshed, destruction and assaults on democracy and freedom. We unequivocally condemn this unjustified and unprovoked attack on Ukraine.
Since 2014, we have worked with partners in Ukraine who use our Alaveteli software for the country’s Access to Truth website, where tens of thousands of people have requested information from public bodies. The site was originally started by the Ukrainian NGO Centre of United Actions, in collaboration with the Pravda online news site. In 2017, Centre of United Actions passed the site over to their partner NGO “Human Rights Platform”.
These organisations’ work on transparency and helping citizens to access vital information has been an inspiration to us and many others around the world. Most recently, the Access to Truth site has been used by citizens to find out locations of bomb shelters, a sobering example of transparency laws in practice now being made use of in people’s day to day experience.
We are deeply concerned for the welfare of those we have worked with in Ukraine, as well as users of the Access to Truth platform. We stand in solidarity with them, and stand ready to help wherever we can.
We hope Ukraine’s fight for its own country will be successful and they’ll rise again as a prosperous democratic nation.