1. Come and see Finnish Freedom Of Information cartoonists

    Think Freedom of Information is a bit of a dry topic? Not when you mix it with some exuberant inky comic art, it’s not!

    Two Finnish cartoonists, Siiri Viljakka and Lauri Tuomi-Nikula, are visiting the UK to speak about their comic book Last Words. This graphic novella imagines one of the founding fathers of Freedom of Information, Anders Chydenius, returning from the grave to see how his ideas are surviving in the modern world.

    Siiri and Lauri will be speaking at four informal meet-ups in London, Brighton and Hastings — entry is free.

    Image: Siiri Valjakka and Lauri Tumoi-NikulaArtwork: Siiri Viljakka & Lauri Tuomi-Nikula

    If you’d like to hear Siiri and Lauri speaking about comics, FOI, and how the two can interact, you can register now at no cost.

    At the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday events, the talk will focus mainly on comics with a side order of FOI.

    At Citizen Beta on Tuesday, it will be the other way around, with Siiri and Lauri fitting in among other speakers on the topic of FOI and civic technologies – full details here. So take your pick, depending on how you prefer your arts/civic rights balance!

    The trip has been made possible by generous donations from several people via a crowdfunder. Thanks to everyone who donated, but special thanks to Dan Berry’s Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast, the Hastings 1066 Country Cartoon Festival, and my dad 🙂

  2. What are YOU doing with mySociety sites?

    If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.

    A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .

    But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.

    Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.

    Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.

    Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.

    Image: Robert Couse-Baker (CC-by/2.0)

  3. Alaveteli Professional – learning more about journalistic use of Freedom of Information

    In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.

    Why are we doing this project?

    Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?

    Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.

    Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.

    That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.

    What we’re doing

    The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.

    We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.

    The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.

    There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.

    What’s next?

    At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.

    Image: Dean Hochman (CC by 2.0)

  4. How 350 FOI requests will increase the chance of success for start-ups

    Gavin Chait hates walking past empty shops.

    We’re talking about shops where the only person inside is a bored cashier, waiting for customers. Gavin sees it as a sign that the business should never have been set up in that location, and, more importantly, as something that’s completely avoidable.

    With his company Whythawk, he’s on a mission to get that changed — and he’s using Freedom of Information to do so. It’s a very interesting case study that shows just how WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information platform, can be used for the social good.

    So, if you have a few minutes, sit back and watch Gavin explain what led him to make 350 FOI requests, one to each local authority in England and Wales — and what he did when many of them were turned down.

    You can read more about the whole project at Pikhaya.com.

    Thanks very much to Gavin for taking the time to talk to us.

    Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve used one of mySociety’s sites? We’d love to hear from you: just drop us a line on communications@mysociety.org.


    Image: Dan Thompson (CC)

  5. The small symbol that tells you all is well

    When you send a Freedom of Information request, a clock starts ticking. Here in the UK, public authorities are bound by law to answer a request “promptly, and in any case within 20 working days” — but of course they can only respond if they’ve received the request.

    And, while email is generally reliable, we’re all familiar with the occasional mishaps it can bring: mailboxes that are full, accounts that have been closed down, or messages being returned because they look too much like spam.

    As Liz’s post yesterday mentioned, our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli now includes a new feature which verifies that your message actually has been delivered.

    Sign here please

    Email works a bit like signed-for physical mail. When a letter is delivered to a recipient they either sign to say they’ve received the letter, or the mail company records that there was no-one available to accept the delivery. This lets the mail company keep the sender up to date with where their letter is. Mail servers do the same — the recipient server sends a confirmation that a particular email has been received, or an error code is reported by your mail server if there’s a problem delivering the email.

    Like physical mail, we can only verify that the message has been accepted at the destination address. It’s then under the recipient’s control to get it to the right person at that address, a bit like a receptionist receiving a letter for an employee 10 floors above. We think that if an authority’s mail server confirms that one of our emails has been delivered, it’s their responsibility to ensure it reaches the correct people to be able to answer your FOI request.

    Proof of receipt

    Look at the header of any request on WhatDoTheyKnow, and within 24 hours, in most cases you’ll now see a small green ‘delivered’ confirmation:

    Example of the green 'verified' tick on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

    Most users can click on this to see further confirmation:

    Your request has been delivered - example from whatDoTheyKnow

    But if you’re the owner of the request, when you click on the green ‘delivered’ link, you’ll see information from the mail logs as the message passed through our server. If there’s ever a query about whether or not a message was delivered, you can hand these on to the authority to help them analyse any issues.

    Exmple of a user's view of the mailpath on WhatDoTheyKnow

    On the rare occasions that something goes wrong, here’s what users will see instead:

    What requesters see when something goes wrong on WhatDoTheyKnow

    – and if it’s your own request, again, you’ll have access to the mail logs.

    Small but mighty

    This feature might look small, but there’s a lot of thinking behind it — just check the length of the trail on Github, our ticketing system. Anyone will be able to understand the amount of discussion and problem-solving that went into the addition of this small green tick, while the more technically-minded may also find it interesting to see the coding solutions as they unfolded.

    This small green tick also gives users something rather powerful: proof that their request was received by the authority’s mail server at a specific time, should that be disputed.

    The suggestion for this feature came initially from one of the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers. It took some time to implement, but we’re pleased to say that it has now been made available for all Alaveteli sites in release 0.25.0.0.


    Image: Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (CC)

  6. 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)

  7. Inform yourself before the referendum

    If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.

    On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.

    We believe in an informed vote.

    That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.

    Check the facts

    Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.

    They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.

    Ask some questions

    Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.

    But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.

    You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to ask for information from UK authorities, and AskTheEU for EU bodies — AskTheEU is a site run on our Alaveteli Freedom of Information software.

    Know where to vote

    Democracy Club are the stalwart crew of volunteers who crowdsourced details of all candidates before the UK general election and again before the recent local elections.

    Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.

    Image: Eisenrah (CC)

     

  8. Does your council break the law?

    That’s the question that a WhatDoTheyKnow user recently asked on Reddit, after asking local authorities in the UK how they pay care and support workers on sleep-in shifts.

    Many care worker positions require regular overnight shifts. Depending on the job, you might be there ‘just in case’, with an expectation that you’ll generally get a night of uninterrupted sleep; or you might be there specifically so that you can respond to regular calls for help from clients.

    Either way, you’ve been contracted to be away from your home, ready for work if needed. That’s why the law states that the national minimum wage should apply to sleep-in shifts — but as this user discovered through a systematic series of Freedom of Information requests, many councils fail to meet this standard.

    It’s always good to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used to uncover this kind of important data. You can read more, check how your own council fares, and see the conversation unfold via some interesting users’ comments on Reddit, or see the original requests on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    Image: Fiona Kwan (CC)

     

  9. West Ham stadium ruling: a win for transparency

    You may have seen the blanket press coverage last week: the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the publicly-funded authority which owns the Olympic Stadium, lost its recent tribunal and was ordered to publish its contract with West Ham football club.

    This is a story which goes back to last August, when we first blogged that WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt had submitted a request for the contract via the site, on behalf of a group of Football Supporters’ Trusts.

    In September, we updated the story as LLDC pushed back from publishing the full contract, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. It seems the subsequent tribunal dismissed this as a valid reason to withhold the information — information which has now been pored over in detail by the nation’s media.

    Many concluded that the authority have struck a poor deal on behalf of the general public; we particularly enjoyed a statement from Barry Hearn, former chairman of Leyton Orient, who reportedly stated, “My dog could have negotiated a better deal for the taxpayer.”

    Whatever your opinion on the deal itself, we think it’s right that the information should be firmly in the public domain, so that people can clearly see the financial affairs of the authorities they pay for.

    Richard Hunt, whose request kickstarted this whole affair, says that it represents a good result for football, too:

    The effort to get the contract released under FOI was started by a football fan and then, as the LLDC resisted disclosure, mushroomed into a full scale campaign run by a coalition of football club Supporters Trusts.

    It gained such wide support precisely because football fans are taxpayers too, and there was a widespread perception that one such club was receiving public funds to get a new stadium, whereas other clubs had funded new stadia themselves (or more accurately from the revenues earned from  their fans ).

    It was a rare example of football fans overcoming tribal divisions to work together, and is expected to be showcased at the Supporters Summit meeting organised by the Football Supporters Federation this coming July.

    Well done to all involved! You can see the original Freedom of Information request here.

    Image: Daniel Coomber (CC)

  10. Publishing responses to FOI requests ‘should be the norm’, says government commission on Freedom of Information

    Answers to requests already are published where they are made through public websites like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but we think that this should be the norm.

    For us, of course, this was the stand-out line from the independent commission on the Freedom of Information’s reportpdf, published today. It’s great to have an official endorsement of WhatDoTheyKnow’s core premise. But there is plenty more to take in.

    You may remember our announcement last year, that a government commission was to consider restricting access to information, with possible outcomes being the introduction of fees for FOI requests and greater powers for authorities to turn down requests.

    Today’s report covers the commission’s findings, and is accompanied by a response on behalf of the government.

    That’s a lot of reading, so here’s what you need to know.

    No fees for FOI

    mySociety, as operators of WhatDoTheyKnow and developers of the international Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, made a submission to the commission.

    Along with several other organisations and individuals, we campaigned against introducing charges for making Freedom of Information requests, and encouraged you to share your experiences and opinions in the public consultation.

    Many of you were among the 30,000 people who took the time to contribute. Opinion across the board was overwhelmingly against the introduction of fees — and that strength of feeling has been recognised.

    In our submission, we argued that introducing a fee for making a Freedom of Information request would have a significant negative impact on our users’ ability and willingness to obtain information from public bodies and would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to serve our users as well as we do now.

    The commission stated:

    We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.

    And in turn, the government response came:

    The government agrees with the commission’s view that it is not appropriate to introduce fees for requests … the introduction of new fees would lead to a reduction in the ability of requesters, especially the media, to make use of the Act.

    Publishing responses, WhatDoTheyKnow style

    As we’ve already mentioned, the commission recommended the WhatDoTheyKnow practice of publishing responses, saying “we think that this should be the norm”, and adding:

    We consider that this will have a number of benefits, such as helping requestors to obtain information which has in fact already been released without needing to make a request, reducing unnecessary requests for information that has already been published, and allowing public authorities to avoid answering duplicate requests where they can simply point to information on their websites.

    Universities remain accountable

    We were also happy to see both the commission and the government reject lobbying from universities seeking to be excluded from Freedom of Information law. The commission wrote:

    It continues to be appropriate and important for universities to remain subject to the Act. They are highly important institutions that play a key public role.

    You can’t have everything

    All indications are that the FOI law will not be substantially weakened, and we’re delighted about that. But of course, we’d have liked the government to take the opportunity to extend and strengthen the FOI Act too.

    We and others argued for the extension of Freedom of Information law to cover more public bodies, including organisations that provide key public services, manage national infrastructure or carry out regulation on behalf of the state.

    The commission did not consider the extension of the coverage of the Act, but did recognise this as a key omission from its consideration and noted that it had received lots of responses on this subject — and that the Act’s scope ought be reviewed.

    We also made the case for time limits for internal reviews, and consideration of the public interest test. The commission agreed, but on these points the government decided not to make any changes to the law.

    Finally

    We are happy to see the government re-state its aspiration to be “the most transparent government in the world” and hope the new guidance to public bodies promised in the statement released today will help prompt them to operate more openly.

    We’ll continue to keep an eye on potential breaches to our rights under FOI. But for now, things look a lot better than we might have feared.

     

    Image: Tom Heinze (CC)