Our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, WhatDoTheyKnowPro, will have its official launch very soon — and we’re glad to see that it’s already beginning to help generate high-profile news stories based on FOI requests.
During development, several journalists have been putting it through its paces and offering us invaluable feedback which has helped us shape the service — and meanwhile their activity is also uncovering stories of genuine interest. These give a taste of exactly what kind of investigative stories can be supported by WhatDoTheyKnowPro, which makes requests to multiple bodies simpler, as well as organising the responses so that they’re easier to manage.
Here are the WhatDoTheyKnowPro-generated stories we’ve heard about so far:
Student Brexit campaign received ‘as much funding as necessary to win’
Open Democracy and the Ferret uncovered how Vote Leave used a loophole to funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds through a student’s small-scale campaign. The story was subsequently run by multiple other news outlets and legal proceedings towards a judicial review have begun.
British police trained officers in repressive regimes
Scrutiny of documents from the College of Policing revealed that much of its income was coming from countries where there is concern about human rights. The story, by Lucas Amin, was run by the Guardian in September.
Public servants and Scottish ministers paid thousands of pounds to dine with Obama
Investigative journalism platform the Ferret uncovered this story in July, detailing how much public money was spent on senior staff attending a charity dinner with Barack Obama.
Links between Mark Hoban and Price Waterhouse Cooper
The Times and the Daily Mail both ran this story from Patrick Hosking, which revealed the former financial secretary’s ‘forgetfulness’ over prior links with Price Waterhouse Cooper.
Infighting in UKIP over the name Patriotic Alliance
Both anti-far right activists and UKIP officials tried to stop Arron Banks from registering a new political party called the Patriotic Alliance, another story run by the Ferret revealed.
Where British holiday-makers get arrested most often
Back in June, this story by analysed figures from the FCO on where Brits had been detained and obtained consular support, allowing them to state which countries had the most arrests, and how figures had changed over time. The story ran in the Birmingham Mail and was also picked up by other publications in the Trinity Mirror Group.James Rodger
We’re delighted to see such good use being made of WhatDoTheyKnowPro, and we anticipate many more stories emerging once it has fully launched.
Jenna Corderoy, Alaveteli Professional Advocate, brings us an update on the project.
Since our last blog post on Alaveteli Professional — our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists — there have been a few exciting developments.
The batch request feature is coming along nicely: this will allow users of the service to send one Freedom of Information request to multiple authorities and help them to easily manage large volumes of responses.
We’re going to be working with a small group of our beta testers to develop this feature and make sure we release it in a useful and responsible form (click here to apply as a beta tester and get a year’s free access to WhatDoTheyKnowPro, the UK version of the service).
We’ve been pleased to see the first news story to emerge as the result of a request made through WhatDoTheyKnowPro: a response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office showed which are the countries where UK holidaymakers are most likely to get arrested. The full list was covered in the Birmingham Mail.
But we also have plans for this Freedom of Information toolkit to go international: Alaveteli Professional will be a bolt-on option for anyone already running an FOI site on our software platform Alaveteli.
In April, mySociety team members traveled to roll out the first such project, with Info Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site.
We were able to introduce beta users to the features we’ve been developing, such as the ability to keep requests private until the story has been published.
While in the Czech Republic, we held a roundtable discussion with journalists and campaigners, swapping Freedom of Information battle stories and sharing tips and tricks for getting the best results when submitting requests for information, as well as experiences of filing requests to European Union institutions.
mySociety was also invited to give a talk to student journalists based in Olomouc about Info Pro Všechny and Alaveteli Professional in general, discussing success stories generated from our Freedom of Information sites from around the world.
We’re currently working on subscription options, which will allow us to officially launch WhatDoTheyKnowPro as a paid-for service in the UK, and later in the year, we plan to introduce the Pro toolkit to the Belgian Alaveteli site Transparencia.be, which has been making a splash in Belgian politics.
Access to information is a particularly powerful tool in countries like Colombia, where corruption is high and vital peace treaties are underway.
To make accessing information easier for citizens and public authorities alike, a group of journalists in Bogotá including DataSketch, have recently set up the Freedom of Information request platform QueremosDatos (the name of which translates as “We want data/information”).
The platform uses our Alaveteli software, and we thoroughly enjoyed working with the Colombian team to set the site up with them.
We asked María Isabel Magaña, who is coordinating the QueremosDatos project, about the site and its impacts so far:
Why did you decide to set up QueremosDatos?
I first learned about Alaveteli in Spain while I was doing my Masters in Investigative Journalism. There I was introduced to the platform TuDerechoASaber.es and to the power that FOIA and transparency had. I just knew Colombia needed something like that, especially since the Congress had just approved the first law regarding this matter.
What made you choose to use Alaveteli software for your platform?
What I love about Alaveteli is how easy it is to use for both users and admins. Designing the platform and making it useful for any type of person was the most attractive feature Alaveteli had. But also, because of the people behind it. Gemma, Gareth, and so many more people were ready to help me achieve this goal despite the different time zones and how much time it took to get it up and running.
What impact do you hope the site has?
It has been almost six months since we launched the site. The impact has been great! We have helped people make 274 requests to more than 6,000 authorities. The Government has been interested in the project and has helped us get in touch with different authorities to help them learn about FOIA and the Colombian law and how to work with people through the platform. Users love it, especially journalists.
Which responses on the site have you been most excited about seeing?
My favourite response so far has been one regarding victims of the Colombian conflict. It was very exciting to get the information because of what it meant for the person who was requesting it, and because of the historical context my country is going through. I also enjoyed seeing the transformation the police had when giving their answers: at first they always sent a response asking the user to call them. After a few explanations, they’re now sending complete answers to the requests via the site.
Do you know of examples where information obtained through the site has been used?
Yes! Journalists have used it mostly in ongoing investigations regarding medicines, drug trafficking, and abortion. Students have used it for journalism classes and homework too.
What are your future plans for QueremosDatos?
We are confirming an alliance with the government to promote the site in public offices and to teach public servants about what the Right to Know is, and their responsibilities with it. This pedagogy will be replicated in universities to teach different users about their power to request information.
Many thanks to María for answering our questions. It’s been great to see the impact the site has already had on authorities and citizens alike, especially the change in behaviour by certain public authorities.
We’re really looking forward to following the project’s continuing work, and wish the team the utmost success in their quest to make Colombia a much more transparent society!
If you’ve been watching the progress of our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists, you might be interested to know that we are now accepting applications for pre-launch access.
Successful applicants will have an early opportunity to put the service through its paces. WhatDoTheyKnowPro will launch as a paid-for service, but as a beta tester you’ll have up to a year’s access for free, because we’re keen to see how you’ll use it — and to hear your feedback on which features are useful.
WhatDoTheyKnowPro is our first launch of Alaveteli Professional, accessed via the WhatDoTheyKnow website and specifically for UK users who utilise FOI in their work or campaigning.
It’s the first instance of the service we plan to make available to other Freedom of Information sites running around the world on our Alaveteli platform.
What you’ll get
Since we last caught up with Alaveteli Professional, we’ve made really concrete progress with several of the features that, at the time of that blog post, were just entries on our long to-do list.
Here’s what users will access:
- The ability to keep requests private until your story has been published
- A powerful private dashboard that helps you track and manage your FOI projects
- A super-smart to-do list that makes it easier to follow the progress of your requests
- Action alerts that nudge you when it’s time to take the next step in a request
And very soon, we’ll also be carefully rolling out the batch request features, which will allow you to:
- Make one request to multiple authorities
- Manage large volumes of responses and easily keep track of the status of each request
- Get regular updates as the responses come in, without overwhelming your inbox
We’re excited about the batch feature in particular, and we know that many of our prospective users are, too. At the same time, we’ve heard some concerns that it might encourage a scattergun approach that wastes authorities’ time.
Our planned development will ensure that people use this feature responsibly, and, consequently, get the best returns from it. This will include a prompt to send a smaller batch initially, so that the remainder of the requests can be refined based on the quality of information that is returned — there’s nothing worse that asking every council in the country for information and then realising that you’ve worded your question in a way that means you can’t use the resulting data!
At the moment, batch requests can’t be made on WhatDoTheyKnow without help from the site administrators. We’re aware that many journalists and activists already make many batch requests outside WhatDoTheyKnow for this very reason. We’d like more of these requests to be released in public (we estimate that around 15% of UK FOI requests are made via our site): so by including this capability in WhatDoTheyKnowPro, we hope we’ll not only be steering people to use those powers sensibly, but that much more information will also end up in the public domain — maximising its usefulness.
Apply for free access
If that all sounds exciting, then apply here. We’d love to hear how you plan to use WhatDoTheyKnowPro.
Last time we updated you about Alaveteli professional, the Freedom of Information toolset for journalists that we’re building, we were just coming out of our discovery phase.
Since then, we’ve made strides through the alpha and early beta part of our development process. In alpha, the idea is to build dummy versions of the tool that work in the minimum way possible — no bells and whistles — to test concepts, and our assumptions. Having thought hard about the potential problems of Alaveteli Professional, now is the time for us to try the approaches that we believe will solve them, by making prototypes of how the tool might work and testing them with a very small group of users.
In the early stages of beta, our priority has been to get to the point where a Freedom of Information request can go through all its various processes, from composition to response, with the features that a journalist user would need. Once that’s in place, it allows us to add other features on top and see how they would integrate.
This pattern — discovery, alpha, beta, release — is a well-tested method by which to produce a final product that works as it should, while avoiding costly mistakes.
Alpha and beta testing, perhaps unexcitingly, are all about the reduction of risk: in the words of the startup mantra, it’s good to ‘fail fast’— or rather, it’s better to know early on if something doesn’t work, rather than spend time and money on something that doesn’t fit the bill.
So, for Alaveteli Professional, what are the risks that have been keeping us awake at night?
We think the biggest priority is to ensure that there’s actually added value for journalists in using a service like this. Clearly, the Freedom of Information process is already available to all, whether via our own site WhatDoTheyKnow, or directly.
We need to be able to demonstrate tangible benefits: that Alaveteli Professional can save journalists time; help them be more efficient in managing their requests; maybe help them get information that otherwise wouldn’t be released; and give them access to rich data they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.
For all we said about failing fast, the alpha phase also meant committing to some fairly big technical decisions that, ideally, we wouldn’t like to reverse.
Decisions like, do we build the service into the existing Alaveteli codebase, or go for a new standalone one (we went for the former)? From the user’s point of view, should Alaveteli Professional look like a totally different site, or like a registration-only part of WhatDoTheyKnow (we chose the latter)?
And onto beta
As we move from alpha to beta, we’re finding out what happens when real users make real requests through the service, and making adjustments based on their feedback.
What do they think of the way we’ve implemented the ability to embargo requests – does it make sense to them? Do they trust us to keep embargoed requests private? Are they able to navigate between different interfaces in a way that seems intuitive? mySociety designer Martin has been figuring out how to take the cognitive load off the user and give them just the information they need, when they need it.
We’re also returning to prototyping mode to work out how to implement new features, like the ability to send round robin requests to multiple authorities, in an effective and responsible way. The other half of our design team, Zarino, has been showing us that a slideshow in presentation mode can be an effective tool for demonstrating how users might interact with an interface.
As we continue to round out the feature set in the UK, we’re also cooking up plans in the Czech Republic so that later in the year we can present the tools to a new audience of journalists there and again, use their feedback to make the tools more flexible so that they can be used in different jurisdictions.
As you can see, there’s lots going on, and we’re all really excited to be finally getting some real life users in front of the tools that we’ve been thinking about, and working on, for so many weeks. Don’t forget to sign up to the mailing list if you’d like to keep up with Alaveteli Professional as it develops.
Well, we’re delighted to say we’ve been shortlisted for a grant. innovateAFRICA judges will take a few weeks to consider shortlisted applications, and winners will be announced on 30th January.
In the meantime, we thought we’d ask the project’s coordinators, Henry Maina from ARTICLE 19 East Africa and Louise Crow from mySociety, to describe the project in a bit more detail and explain why they think it’s so important.
What is the Alaveteli Professional project?
Louise: Alaveteli Professional is a new toolset that we are currently building as a companion service to our existing Alaveteli software. Alaveteli is mySociety’s open-source platform for making public freedom of information (FOI) requests to public bodies.
Alaveteli Professional will provide journalists and those who use FOI in their work with extra functionality and training to ease the process of raising, managing and interpreting FOI requests, which can be a very time consuming and overwhelming task. This is so that they can spend their valuable time on creating more high-impact journalism and research that holds public authorities to account.
Why bring the Alaveteli Professional project to Kenya?
Henry: The project will enable more Kenyan journalists to utilise one critical tool in their armoury: namely the Freedom of Information law enacted on 31st August 2016. It will also complement our earlier training of 25 journalists on the FOI law.
Louise: innovateAFRICA funding will allow us to bring our newly developed toolset to the Kenyan context. The toolset will have already been tried and tested by journalists in the UK and Czech Republic, so we’ll use examples of how these European journalists have successfully used the platform to generate stories in our trainings with Kenyan media. Simply building these tools is not, on its own, enough. For this reason, the Alaveteli Professional project in Kenya will also involve refining the tools for the Kenyan context, the training of journalists, the creation of support materials and the provision of direct assistance in making and analysing requests.
From ARTICLE 19’s experience of training Kenyan journalists on the new FOI law, how will the Alaveteli Professional project help them with their work?
Henry: ARTICLE 19 has trained journalists on the Freedom of Information laws in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. In all our past training, we created manual request protocols and follow-up required making telephone calls. The Alaveteli Professional project will help most journalists to easily file, track and share information about information requests in an easy to engage, review platform.
Why is it so important for journalists and citizens alike to hold authorities to account in Kenya?
Henry: First, journalists and citizens are keen to understand why and how their public servants and officials take decisions. Second, citizens have a right to participate in the management of public affairs and effective engagement is only possible if the citizens are well informed.
Will the project also benefit Kenyan citizens who aren’t journalists?
Louise: Yes. Providing journalists with the extra toolset requires us to first install a standard version of Alaveteli. Therefore, alongside citizens in 25 other countries in the world, Kenyan citizens will be able to use the platform to easily send requests to public authorities, or, as all responses to requests are published on the site, browse already-released information.
Citizens will also benefit even if they don’t use the site at all: they’ll benefit from news stories that expose corruption and mismanagement or missing funds and so on, and thus hold those in power to account.
What impact will the project have on Kenyan information officers/civil servants?
Henry: The project is likely to have great impact on Kenyan information officers and public officials. First, it will offer an objective platform to recognise and reward civil servants that enhance access to information as they will be able to manage requests more efficiently. Second, given the trend in questions, officers will be aware of the information that they can and should proactively disclose to lessen individual requests. Third, it will bolster ARTICLE 19’s ongoing work of training information officers that seeks to help them better understand the law and their obligations under it. Four, most of the government decisions will gain traction with citizens as there will be publicly available information on why and how such decisions were arrived at.
What lasting impact do you hope the project will achieve?
Henry: The Kenyan government will be more transparent and accountable, journalists will be more professional and their stories more credible and factual, allowing the country to entrench democratic values.
Louise: As with all our Alaveteli projects, we hope the project will amplify the power of Freedom of Information and open government, by giving a broad swathe of citizens the information they need to hold those in power to account, and to improve their own lives.
How you can help
So there you are — a little more detail on why we hope to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya. We hope you can see the value as much as we can! If so, and you’d like to help support the project, please do tweet with the hashtag #innovateAFRICA: every such public show of support brings us a little closer to winning the grant.
If you are using Freedom of Information for a campaign, and you need to request the same information from several different bodies, or a variety of information from one body, it can be useful to put your supporters to work for you.
We recently profiled the Detention Logs project, which is using Freedom of Information requests to uncover conditions in Australia’s detention centres. Anyone can use the information already uncovered to request further documents or clarify ambiguous facts.
One aspect we didn’t mention is that, in order to make this process as quick and simple as possible, Detention Logs provides users with a pre-written FOI request which they can tweak as necessary before sending off to the relevant authority. This is linked to from a button on the Detention Logs website
This nifty bit of functionality could be useful for all kinds of campaigns. If yours is one of them, read on to discover how to set it up.
As you can see, this unwieldy web address contains all the information that RightToKnow, Australia’s Freedom of Information site, needs in order to create a pre-filled request.The URL tells it who the request should go to, what the title of the request is, and what should go in the main body.
It’s quite simple to create these yourself. Just build the URL up in steps:
- Begin by telling the site that this is a new request: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/
- Add a forward slash (/) and then the body you want the request to be sent to (exactly as it is written in the url of the body’s page of the website): https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force
- Add a question mark: This tells the website that we are going to introduce a ‘parameter string’. Now our URL looks like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?
- Input a title: we need to indicate that the next part should go into the ‘title’ field, like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title= and then dictate what the title should be: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title=Police%20brutality Notice that if there is a space between words, it should be shown as %20. To make the process of encoding the URLs easier, you can use an encoder tool like this one: http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/dencoder/
- Input the body of the request, again using ‘%20’ between each word. This is where your URL can become very long! We use the parameter default_letter and the salutation (Dear…) and signoff (Yours…) are automatically wrapped around this by the site, so there’s no need to include them:
So, there you have it. A customised URL that you can set up if you need supporters to send a pre-written request to a specified body or bodies.
As mentioned above, the Detention Logs project used this method to help their supporters request detention centre incident reports, attaching a different URL to each report so that the title would contain the relevant report number. To see the technical details of how they set this up, visit their GitHub page.
Here are some other parameters that can be used in addition to the ones above:
- body – This is an alternative to default_letter which lets you specify the entire body of the request including the salutation and signoff.
- tags – This allows you to add a space-separated list of tags, so for example you can identify any requests made through your campaign or which refer to the same topic. For example, the Detention Logs project used tags like this: &tags=detentionlogs%20incident-number%3A1-2PQQH5
A tag can have a ‘name’ and an optional ‘value’ (created in the form “name:value”). The first tag in the above example is ‘detentionlogs’ (‘name’) and the second tag is ‘incident-number:A1-2PQQH5’ (‘name:value’). The encoder tool above changes the colon to ‘%3’.
If you use this pre-written request tool we’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch if you do.
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.26! Here are some of the highlights.
Request page design update
After some research in to where people enter the site we decided to revamp the request pages to give a better first impression.
We’ve used the “action bar” pattern from the authority pages to move the request actions to a neater drop-down menu. We’ve also promoted the “follow” button to help other types of users interact with the site.
Since lots of users are entering an Alaveteli on the request pages, it might not be obvious that they too can ask for information. We’ve now made an obvious link to the new request flow from the sidebar of the request pages to emphasise this.
The correspondence bubbles have had a bit of a makeover too. Its now a lot more obvious how to link to a particular piece of correspondence, and we’ve tidied the header so that its a little clearer who’s saying what.
The listing of similar requests in the request page sidebar has been improved after observing they were useful to users.
Also in design-world we’ve added the more modern request status icons, made the search interfaces more consistent and helped prevent blank searches on the “Find an authority” page.
Admin UI Improvements
As an Alaveteli grows it can get trickier to keep an eye on everything that’s happening on the site.
We’ve now added a new comments list so that admins can catch offensive or spam comments sooner.
For the same reasons, we’ve added sorting to the users list and made banned users more obvious.
The CSV import page layout and inline documentation has also been updated.
The new statistics page adds contributor leaderboards to help admins identify users as potential volunteers, as well as a graph showing when site admins hide things to improve the transparency of the site.
Extra search powers
Conversion tracking improvements
The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!
Australia: land of sand, surf and koalas. Renowned for its laid-back attitude and a friendly welcome for all… or so those up here in the northern hemisphere might believe, spoon-fed our preconceptions via the squeaky-clean medium of Aussie soaps.
What’s not so well-known is Australia’s decades-long resistance to people seeking asylum. Since the early 1990s, Australian Prime Ministers have implemented, upheld and strengthened laws to hold refugees in mandatory, indefinite detention, and to forcibly turn boats away from their shores. Australia has been repeatedly condemned by the UN for inhumane treatment of people in its immigration detention system, and people held inside have maintained continuous protest for years.
Once you learn all this, it seems perhaps unsurprising that immigration detention is, as website Detention Logs puts it, one of the most “hotly debated, contested and emotional topics in Australia”.
Getting it out in the open
Detention Logs is among the most purposeful and systematic uses of Freedom of Information we’ve seen yet.
It’s not a mySociety-affiliated project (although one of its founders is also a member of Open Australia, who use our Alaveteli software to run the RightToKnow site), but it is one that’s very much in our sphere of interest. We wanted to write about it because it’s a great example of putting FOI to work in order to get truth out into the open, and make societal change.
At the time the project was set up, Australia’s detention centres were run by the British companies Serco and G4S; access is, as you might expect, limited. However, contractors to the government must report to them, and the report documents fall under the citizens’ Right To Know via Australia’s Freedom of Information Act.
Reports are made whenever an ‘incident’ of note occurs in one of the nation’s detention centres; that covers assault, accidents, escapes, riots, the discovery of weapons and several other categories — including births and deaths.
Detention Logs have, at the time of writing, obtained 7,632 incident reports which cover the period between 3 Oct 2009 and 26 May 2011. These may be explored on their site via a data browser, allowing readers to filter by date, incident type and detention centre.
Finding the stories
Like many official documents, these reports were composed for internal eyes only. They can be difficult to decipher, or heavily redacted. Often, they suggest more questions than they answer.
Users are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a report, then submit a further FOI request for more information: a ‘reporting recipe’ guides beginners in how to do this, and how to pull out stories both for the ‘far view’ (looking at all the data in aggregate) and the ‘near view’ (investigating individuals’ stories).
For researchers and the technically-minded, there’s also the option to download the data in bulk.
The result is that the public are gaining an unprecedented understanding of what life is like for detainees — and staff — inside Australia’s detention centres.
Open data brings change
The resulting stories are published on their Investigations page, but the data has also been used by national press and beyond.
Luke Bacon, one of Detention Logs’ founders, told us of a few outcomes:
- The Detention Logs project was a precursor to the Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files — more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. These have been presented in an online exploratory browser tool: the project was led by reporter Paul Farrell who is also a Detention Logs founder.
- In turn, this has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people in the immigration detention system.
- The data from Detention Logs has been used in research to show that the detention system is causing people to self-harm and attempt suicide.
- The immigration department started releasing better information about how many people were in detention.
So — while the issue of detention continues to be an inflammatory topic for the people of Australia, the project has been at least something of a success for transparency.
It all goes to show what can be achieved when information is shared – and when the work of trawling through it is shared too.
If you found this project interesting, you might also like to read about Muckrock’s FOI work on private prisons in the USA.
It’s something we wanted to build, and something we believed there was a need for: but wanting and believing do not make a sound business case, and that’s why we spent the first few weeks of the project in a ‘discovery’ phase.
Our plan was to find out as much as we could about journalists, our prospective users — and particularly just how they go about using FOI in their work. Ultimately, though, we were seeking to understand whether journalists really would want, or need, the product as we were imagining it.
So we went and talked to people at both ends of the FOI process: on the one hand, journalists who make requests, and on the other, the information officers who respond to them.
Since we’re planning on making Alaveteli Professional available to partners around the world, it also made sense to conduct similar interviews outside the UK. Thanks to links with our Czech partner, running Informace Pro Všechny on Alaveteli, that was a simple matter. A recent event at the Times building in London also allowed us to present and discuss our findings, and listen to a couple of interesting expert presentations: Matt Burgess of Buzzfeed talked about some brilliant use of FOI to expose criminal landlords, and listed FOI officers’ biggest complaints about journalists. Josh Boswell of the Sunday Times was equally insightful as he ran through the ways that he uses FOI when developing stories.
These conversations have all helped.
The life of an investigative journalist is never simple
The insights our interviewees gave us were turned by Mike Thompson (formerly of mySociety, and brought back in for this phase) into a simple process model showing how journalists work when they’re pursuing an investigation using FOI.
After conceiving of a story that requires input from one or more FOI request, every journalist will go through three broad phases: research; request and response; and the final data analysis and writing. The more complicated cases can also involve refused requests and the appeals process.
For a busy working journalist, there are challenges at every step. Each of these adds time and complexity to the process of writing a story, which is an anathema to the normal daily news cycle. FOI-based stories can be slow, and timing unpredictable — editors do not particularly like being told that you’re working on a story, but can’t say when it will be ready, or how much value it will have.
During the research phase diligent journalists will make a time-consuming trawl through resources like authorities’ own disclosure logs and our own site WhatDoTheyKnow (or its equivalents in other countries), to see if the data they need has already been released.
Where a ‘round robin’ request is planned, asking for information from multiple authorities — sometimes hundreds — for information, further research is needed to ensure that only relevant bodies are included. In our two-tired council system, where different levels of authority deal with different responsibilities, and not always according to a consistent pattern, that can be a real challenge.
Wording a request also takes some expertise: get that wrong and the authorities will be coming back for clarification, which adds even more time to the process.
Once the request has been made it’s hard to keep on top of correspondence, especially for a large round robin request. Imagine sending a request to every council in the country, as might well be done for a UK-wide story, and then dealing with each body’s acknowledgements, requests for clarifications and refusals.
When the responses are in journalists often find that interpretation is a challenge. Different authorities might store data or measure metrics differently from one another; and pulling out a meaningful story means having the insight to, for example, adjust figures to account for the fact that different authorities are different sizes and cater for differently-dispersed populations.
Sadly, it’s often at this stage that journalists realise that they’ve asked the wrong question to start with, or wish that they’d included an additional dimension to the data they’ve requested.
What journalists need
As we talked through all these difficulties with journalists, we gained a pretty good understanding of their needs. Some of these had been on our list from the start, and others were a surprise, showing the value of this kind of exploration before you sit down to write a single line of code.
Here’s what our final list of the most desirable features looks like:
An embargo We already knew, anecdotally, that journalists tend not to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make requests, because of its public nature. It was slightly sobering to have this confirmed via first person accounts from journalists who had had their stories ‘stolen’… and those who admitted to having appropriated stories themselves! Every journalist we spoke to agreed that any FOI tool for their profession would need to include a way of keeping requests hidden until after publication of their story.
However, this adds a slight dilemma. Using Alaveteli Professional and going through the embargo-setting process introduces an extra hurdle into the journalist’s process, when our aim is, of course, to make the FOI procedure quicker and smoother. Can we ensure that everything else is so beneficial that this one additional task is worthwhile for the user?
Talking to journalists, we discovered that almost all are keen to share their data once their story has gone live. Not only does it give concrete corroboration of the piece, but it was felt that an active profile on an Alaveteli site, bursting with successful investigations, could add to a journalist’s reputation — a very important consideration in the industry.
Request management tools Any service that could put order into the myriad responses that can quickly descend into chaos would be welcome for journalists who typically have several FOI requests on the go at any one time.
Alaveteli Professional’s dashboard interface would allow for a snapshot view of request statuses. Related requests could be bundled together, and there would be the ability to quickly tag and classify new correspondence.
Round-robin tools Rather than send a notification every time a body responds (often with no more than an acknowledgement), the system could hold back, alerting you only when a request appears to need attention, or send you status updates for the entire project at predefined intervals.
Refusal advice Many journalists abandon a request once it’s been refused, whether from a lack of time or a lack of knowledge about the appeals process. WhatDoTheyKnow Professional would be able to offer in-context advice on refusals, helping journalists take the next step.
Insight tools Can we save journalists’ time in the research phase, by giving an easy representation of what sort of information is already available on Alaveteli sites, and by breaking down what kind of information each authority holds? That could help with terminology, too: if a request refers to data in the same language that is used internally within the council, then their understanding of the request and their response is likely to be quicker and easier.
Onwards to Alpha
We’re currently working on the next part of the build — the alpha phase.
In this, we’re building quick, minimally-functional prototypes that will clearly show how Alaveteli Professional will work, but without investing time into a fully-refined product. After all, what we discover may mean that we change our plans, and it’s better not to have gone too far down the line at that point.
If you are a journalist and you would like to get involved with testing during this stage and the next — beta — then please do get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.