1. We Know A Lot More: a quarter of a million pieces of information since 2008

    Back in January 2012, I wrote a blog post to mark a milestone: WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information site, had processed 100,000 requests.

    Just three years later, that number now stands at 250,000.

    That represents a quarter of a million requests for information that have been processed through the site, and published for anyone to access.

    Everything we said in that previous blog post still stands:

    WhatDoTheyKnow was set up to give everyone, not just experts, access to information.

    By publishing the requests and responses, it strives to create efficiencies for all.

    And none of it would have been possible were it not for our wonderful, dedicated team of volunteers, who manage the site admin, help users with their queries, and diligently discuss and process any legal challenges that arise. Thank you, Ganesh, Alex, Alistair, Helen, John, Richard and Ben, and thank you, Francis for your legal advice.

    As well as performing a service for the people of the UK, WhatDoTheyKnow also stands as an example of what’s possible. Much of our international activity focuses on helping partners use Alaveteli, our FOI software, to get Right To Know sites up and running in jurisdictions all over the world. It is great to be able to show them that an Alaveteli-based FOI site can thrive.


    Image: Peaceful-jp-scenery (CC)

  2. Another private data leak, this time by Hackney Council

    News has just hit the press of a leak of a significant amount of private data by Hackney Council in a Freedom of Information response to our WhatDoTheyKnow website.

    This is a problem we have been warning about for some time. Islington Council were fined £70,000 for a similar incident in 2012. In light of this fresh incident we again urge all public authorities to take care when preparing data for release.

    Note: we understand all affected residents should have received a letter from Hackney Council. If you have any concerns please contact them or the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    As with the Islington incident, the information was in parts of an Excel spreadsheet that were not immediately visible. It was automatically published on 14th November when Hackney Council sent it in response to a Freedom of Information request, as part of the normal operation of the WhatDoTheyKnow website. All requests sent via the website make it clear that this will happen.

    This particular breach involved a new kind of hidden information we hadn’t seen before – the released spreadsheet had previously been linked to another spreadsheet containing the private information, and the private information had been cached in the “Named Range” data in the released spreadsheet.

    Although it was not straightforward to access the information directly using Excel, it was directly visible using other Windows programs such as Notepad. It had also been indexed by Google and some of it was displayed in their search previews.

    The breach was first hit upon by one of the data subjects searching for their own name. When they contacted us on 25th November to ask about this, one of our volunteers, Richard, realised what had happened. He immediately hid the information from public view and notified the council.

    We did not receive any substantive response from the council and therefore contacted them again on 3rd December. The council had investigated the original report but not understood the problem, and were in fact preparing to send a new copy of the information to the WhatDoTheyKnow site, which would have caused the breach to be repeated.

    We reiterated what we had found and advised them to consult with IT experts within their organisation. The next day, 4th December, we sent them a further notification of what had happened, copying the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). As far as we are aware, this was the first time the ICO was informed of the breach.

    From our point of view it is very disappointing that these incidents are still happening. Freedom of Information requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow are a small fraction of all requests, so it is very likely that this kind of error happens many more times in private responses to requesters, without the public authority ever becoming aware.

    Our earlier blog post has several tips for avoiding this problem. These tips include using CSV format to release spreadsheets, and checking that file sizes are consistent with the intended release. Either of these approaches would have averted this particular breach.

    We would also urge the ICO to do as much as possible to educate authorities about this issue.

  3. Research on the impact of mySociety’s digital tools

    Nick SouthallIn a recent blog post, we summarised the research we commissioned from the University of Manchester’s Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini, on whether or not our core UK websites have an impact.

    The full research paper is now available, and you can download it here pdf.

    Professor Rachel Gibson says: “This research presents a unique and valuable insight into the users of online resources such as FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “Through applying a highly original methodology that combines quantitative and in-depth qualitative data about people’s experience of mySociety sites over time, we provide a picture of how eDemocracy tools are contributing to activism at the local level.

    “We thank all those that contributed to this important study and mySociety for their co-operation in developing this highly rewarding and academically rigorous project.”

    Our thanks to Rachel, Marta and Silvia for conducting this research, which utilised methods not previously used in the civic tech field. We hope that it will prove a useful foundation to our own further research, and that of others.

    Image: Nick Southall (CC)

  4. Can you leak a decision that has not yet been made?

    Few of our users realise this, but hardly a week goes by without mySociety receiving a legal threat relating to our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    These might refer to perceived libel in a request, or to material released in error, which an authority now wishes to retract. In the normal course of things, our team deal with legal issues quickly and diligently, occasionally consulting our lawyer – and generally speaking, they never need concern our users.

    On Friday November 7th, at 2:17pm, we received a ‘letter before action’ from Enfield Council’s legal department, asking us to do two things: first, that we take down a certain request, and secondly that we provide them with information on the person who had raised it.

    By 3pm.

    Well, that’s a quick turnaround even by the standards of our crack team of volunteers, even if it had been clear that Enfield had a good legal case. And, once we looked closely, we weren’t at all sure that they did.

    Image by Michael NewmanThe FOI request which had triggered this message seems like a fairly standard one: it asks for information about the closure of public libraries, and how much those closures would contribute towards the council’s stated target of making £65 million of savings over the next three years.

    It is worth mentioning that the name this FOI request was filed under was clearly and demonstrably an impersonation – it claimed to be from the CEO of Enfield Council. In fact, we’d already been in correspondence with the council over this, and, as impersonation is against our site policies, it was a quick and easy decision for us to remove the name.

    But now came this follow-up from the legal department, with its two demands. The second of these – details of the requester – is also a simple matter. At WhatDoTheyKnow, we do all we can to protect our users’ privacy. We would not release a user’s name without a court order, as we state quite explicitly in our Privacy Policy:

    We will not disclose your email address to anyone unless we are obliged to by law, or you ask us to.

    – and indeed, we have only done so once, when compelled to by a court order, in all the site’s long history (currently standing at over 200,000 FOI requests and over 71,000 users).  The other point was slightly more tricky. We do our best to run WhatDoTheyKnow in the most responsible manner possible, for our users and for public authorities. We often have to tread a delicate line in order to do so.

    Often there is a good reason that public bodies want information taken down, and the team routinely act rapidly to remove personal information, and other material that public bodies accidentally release, from our website. When we do take material down, wherever possible we do so transparently, leaving a note explaining what’s been removed and why.

    But, where possible, we do not remove a request from the site, unless there is a very clear reason why its publication is breaking the law. Putting the mischievous name of the requester aside, this appeared to be a standard request about libraries and funding.

    On occasions, like this, when requests to take material down appear unfounded or overzealous, we challenge them.

    The notice before action stated that ‘the public availability of this information is or is likely to be highly damaging to Enfield Council’s ability to properly carry out those projects’. It also referred to ‘confidential and commercially sensitive’ material having been released, but we can find little within the request that is not publicly available elsewhere – for example, on the council’s own website one can find details of the Library Plan Development consultation document, containing very similar information – and nothing that seems obviously sensitive.

    The council  have recently been reported as saying:

    “No decisions have been made yet on the type of library or the location of libraries. The final decision on the library service, location and different types of libraries will be made in February or March next year following the conclusion of this consultation.”

    So – if a decision has not yet been made, the number of libraries to be closed cannot be a leak, as the information does not yet exist.

    For those reasons, we responded to Enfield Council ask for clarification. We took down the request in question as a precaution, while we awaited this clarification. We gave them slightly longer than 43 minutes in which to do so — in fact, we contacted them on 10 November asking them to reply by 5pm on 14 November with clarification on their position.

    For some reason it took them until 13 November to say they wouldn’t be able to reply substantively by then, so we asked them to respond instead by 5pm today — otherwise we would make the request public again.

    No clarification has yet arrived. That being the case, we have made the request live.

    Image: Michael Newman (CC)

  5. Do mySociety sites boost civic participation?

    Image by Phil Richards

    What impact do mySociety sites actually have? We could lose a lot of sleep over this important question – or we could do something concrete, like conducting academic research to nail the answers down for once and for all.

    As slumber enthusiasts, we went for the research option – and, to help us with this commitment we’ve recently taken on a new Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul. Watch this space as she probes more deeply into whether our tools are making a difference, both in the UK and abroad.

    Even before Rebecca came on board, though, we had set a couple of research projects in motion. One of those was in partnership with the University of Manchester, funded by the ESRC, which sought to understand what impact our core UK sites (FixMyStreet, WriteToThem, TheyWorkForYou and WhatDoTheyKnow) have on their users, and specifically on their level of political engagement.

    Gateways to participation

    It’s perhaps worth mentioning that, while our sites appear, on the face of it, to be nothing more than a handy set of tools for the general citizen, they were built with another purpose in mind. Simply put, each site aims to show people how easy it is to participate in democracy, to contact the people who make decisions on our behalf, and to make changes at the local and national levels.

    Like any other online endeavour, we measure user numbers and transaction completions and time spent on site – all of that stuff. But one of the metrics we pay most attention to is whether users say they are contacting their council, their MP or a public body for the first time. Keeping track of this number ensures that we’re doing something to open democratic avenues up to people that haven’t used them before.

    Questioning impact

    But there are plenty more questions we can ask about the impact we’re having. The University of Manchester study looked into one of them, by attempting to track whether there was a measurable change in people’s political activity and engagement after they’ve used one of our sites. On Monday, researchers Rachel Gibson, Marta Cantijoch and Silvia Galandini presented their findings to an attentive audience at King’s College London.

    The project has taken a multi-pronged approach, asking our users to complete questionnaires, participate in online discussions, or keep a 12-week diary about political and community engagement (thanks very much to you, if you were one of the participants in this!). The result was a bunch of both qualitative and quantitative data which we’ll be able to come back to and slice multiple ways in the future – Gibson says that they haven’t as yet managed to analyse all of the free text diaries yet, for example.

    In itself this study was interesting, because not much research has previously been conducted into the impact of digital civic tools – and yet, as we know from our own international activities, people (not least ourselves) are launching sites all over the world based on the premise that they work.

    Some top-level conclusions

    The research will be published in full at a future date, and it’s too complex to cover all of it within the confines of a short blog post, but here are just a few of the takeaway findings:

      • A small but quantifiable uplift in ‘civic participation’ was noticed in the period after people had used our sites. This could include anything from working with others in the local community to make improvements, to volunteering for a charity.
      • No change was found in the level of political influence or understanding that people judged themselves to have. This was a surprise to the researchers, who had thought that users would feel more empowered and knowledgeable after contacting those in power, or checking up on their parliamentary activity.
      • As with our research back in 2011, the ‘average’ user of mySociety sites was found to be white, above middle-aged, and educated to at least degree level. Clearly this is a userbase which we desperately need to expand, and we’ll be looking carefully – with more research and some concentrated outreach efforts – at how we can do that.
      • Users tended to identify themselves as people who already had an interest in politics. Again, here is an area in which we can improve. Of course, we’re happy to serve such users, but we also want to be accessible to those who have less of a baseline interest.
      • Many users spoke of community action as bringing great satisfaction. In some cases, that was getting together in real life to make improvements, but others saw something as simple as reporting graffiti on FixMyStreet as an action that improved the local area for everyone.

    Thanks to the University of Manchester researchers for these insights and for presenting them so engagingly. We’ll update when the full research is available.

     Image: Phil Richards (CC)

  6. Subscribe to FOI requests on any topic

    Hanging Fruit Bat by Tambako the JaguarIn a recent blog post, we showed how to subscribe to Freedom of Information requests made to your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    All good, but what if you’re interested in a topic, rather than an authority?

    Well, you can set up many different kinds of alert on WhatDoTheyKnow. For example, you can opt to receive a daily email every time an FOI request or response contains your chosen keyword.

    If you’ve also subscribed to a specific body, you’ll receive the alerts all rolled into one email – in fact, however many alerts you set up, they’ll always be aggregated in this way, so there’s no need to worry about flooding your inbox.

    How to subscribe to a word or topic

    Let’s say, for the sake of an example, that you have a particular interest in bats – maybe you work for a bat conservation project, or you’re a student doing a thesis on bats.

    Whatever the case, you might find it useful to receive an email every time an FOI request is made about bats. By subscribing to an alert, you’ll be tipped off if, for example, someone asks about bats causing an impediment to building works, or if new wildlife survey results are released in response to a request.

    1. Search for your term

    Every alert begins with a search.

    Go to the homepage of WhatDoTheyKnow.com and use the search box at the top right of the page:

    WatDoTheyKnow topic search boxSearching for ‘bats’ gives me almost 500 results of FOI requests where the word ‘bat’, ‘bats’ or ‘batting’ is mentioned – either in the request itself, or in the response.

    Search results about bats on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    2. Refining your results

    Most of these results are highly relevant, but there is one slight complication:

    Wrong kind of bats on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Some of the results contain different meanings of the word ‘bat': there is one about Bat Mitzvahs, several about bus stops which have ‘BAT’ as part of a location code, and one response which mentions baseball bats as a crime weapon.

    We can refine these results, and make sure we only subscribe to the ones we want, with an Advanced Search – click on the link next to the search box to see how.

    Link to Advanced Search on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

     

     

     

     

    WhatDoTheyKnow’s search engine can handle advanced search operators, and also a number of search types that are tailored to the site.

    Advanced search tips

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    For example, you can search within particular date spans, or within requests made by a specific user. If you scroll further down the Advanced Search page, you’ll also see that it’s possible to search for all requests within a certain status type (eg “successful” requests) – and all of these search operators can be used in combination.

    For our immediate needs, however, we only want to ensure that our search brings up results about the right kind of bat. I can do this either by using the – sign, or the word ‘NOT’ in front of words I wish to exclude:

    Search with exclusions

     

     

     

     

     

    Search with exclusions

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Click the Search button again, and you’ll see that this process has weeded out the most obvious irrelevant results.

    If I subscribe to this search string, I will receive an email alert every time (the right kind of) bats are mentioned in a request or response.

    Deciding what you want to receive

    In the example above, I will receive several alerts for each relevant FOI request, over several days, as it goes through the process of getting a response.

    I’ll get one when the request is first made, one when the authority respond to say that the request has been received, one when a response is made, and potentially others, if there is any more correspondence going back and forth, for example in the case of a request for an internal review.

    That can be fine – many users like to track requests in this way. But if you want to, you can refine your search using the ‘status’ operators – for example, if you only want to receive an alert when a request has been successful, you could search for:

    bats NOT baseball NOT mitzvah NOT bus status:successful.

    Now your search results will only find those requests where a response has been received, and the user has marked that it answered their question adequately. You can see the various statuses available here.

    Once you have refined your search results to your liking, you are ready to subscribe.

    Subscribe

    At the top right of the search results page, you will see a green button titled  ‘Track this search':

    Track this search

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    At this point, we ask you to sign up or sign in:

    sign up or in

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    If you already have a WhatDoTheyKnow account, all you need to do is log in, and you’re done – your alert has been set up.

    If you don’t have an account, it’s as simple as filling in your email address, name, and picking a password.

    The site will then send you a confirmation email with a link in it – clicking on this helps to confirm that you are a real person, and that you have entered a genuine email address – which you’ll need, if you are going to receive alerts!

    That’s it

    Now all you have to do is wait for our alerts to come into your email. You can set up as many as you like, for as many topics or authorities as required.

    Every email has a link at its foot, allowing you to delete your alerts when you’ve had enough. If you want to stop receiving one or more of them, just click ‘unsubscribe’.

    Let us know whether you find this service useful, and how you’re using it!

     

     

    Image: Tambako the Jaguar (CC)

  7. How to keep up with hot topics in your local area

    O'Connell Street  by Herr Sharif

    It’s surprising how many people know about our websites, but haven’t heard about one of their useful features: email alerts.

    In previous blog posts, we’ve described how you can set up alerts so that you receive an email every time:

    What do most people subscribe to? Mentions of their own town or city; speeches by their own MP; and FixMyStreet reports within their own area. It makes sense – of course we are interested in the issues which affect our own community.

    Now here’s another way to be the first to know about what’s going on in your local area: you can subscribe to alerts from WhatDoTheyKnow.com, and receive an email every time someone makes a request for information to your local council (or any public authority of your choice).

    Alerts about Freedom of Information requests

    WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information site. It allows people to ask for information from public bodies such as councils, state schools, the NHS, et cetera – and it publishes both the requests and the responses.

    If you ‘follow’ your own local authority, the site will automatically send you an email whenever anyone makes a request to it (condensed into a daily digest).

    Because people use the Freedom of Information act to find out about things that really matter to them, these alerts can be a great way of keeping up with local concerns. If you’re a journalist, a councillor, a local activist or just an interested member of your own community, they can be both fascinating and invaluable.

    If you’d like to ‘follow’ requests made to your own local council, here’s how:

    1. Go to WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    WhatDoTheyKnow homepage

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The homepage is at www.WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

     2. Search for the authority you want to follow

    As you can see from the homepage screenshot above, WhatDoTheyKnow currently covers more than 15,500 authorities – everything from local councils to Government departments, state schools and more. The easiest way to find the authority you need is to use the search box on the right of the page:

    Searching for an authority on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    In this case, there is only one result for my search term, ‘Brighton Council’.

    search results on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Below this result, I can also see previous FOI requests made to my council.  Here’s where I get a taste of why this alert subscription might be so useful and interesting to me, as a local resident. There are requests about bus subsidies, allotment waiting lists, council salaries, school catchment areas… and lots more.

    If you prefer, you can refine your search results by selecting “requests”, “users”, or “authorities” below the search box – in this exercise, we are looking for your local council, so you should click “authorities”.

    3. Follow

    Follow an authority on WhatDotheyKnow

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    On the right hand side of the page, you will see the title: “Follow this authority”, then the number of people who are already doing so, and a green ‘Follow’ button.

    This button allows you to sign up for email alerts.

    Below it, as you can see, there is also an option to access an RSS feed – this is useful if you use a “Reader” or “News Aggregator” to keep up with blogs and other feeds from a variety of sources.

    But today, we’re signing up for an email alert, so click the green button.

    4. Sign in or sign up

    sign up or sign in2014-09-16 10.13.29

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    At this point, we ask you to sign up or sign in.

    If you already have a WhatDoTheyKnow account, all you need to do is log in, and you’re done – your alert has been set up.

    If you don’t have an account, it’s as simple as filling in your email address, name, and picking a password.

    The site will then send you a confirmation email with a link in it – clicking on this helps to confirm that you are a real person, and that you have entered a genuine email address – which you’ll need, if you are going to receive alerts!

    That’s it

    You are now registered, and you’ll receive an email once on every day that anyone makes a request to your local council, or an existing request is updated (eg the council responds, or someone leaves an annotation).

    Every email alert has a link at its foot, which you can follow to ‘manage’ your alerts: if you want to stop receiving one or more of them, just click ‘unsubscribe’.

    Want more?

    Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to your own council. If you have a particular interest in any authority – perhaps your children’s school, a government department, or local public bodies- you can sign up to alerts in exactly the same way.

    No matter how many alerts you subscribe to, they all arrive in just one email, so they won’t clog up your inbox.

    In a forthcoming blog post, we’ll also be looking at how to subscribe to topics or keywords, and how to use operators to get a slightly more refined alert.

    Image: Herr Sahrif (CC)

  8. Join us for a special ‘Freedom of Information’ meet-up

    INFORMATIONOur next meet-up, on 3rd September, will focus on Freedom of Information (FOI). We really care about FOI at mySociety, which is why we created the FOI request filer WhatDoTheyKnow for UK citizens back in 2008, and Alaveteli thereafter for international use.

    So, we thought, why not host a meet-up to discuss FOI technologies, research and legislation in the UK and beyond?

     

    We’re delighted to be joined at this meet-up by the following guest speakers:-

    Maurice Frankel: Maurice is director of the UK Campaign for Freedom of Information. He has worked with them since it was set up in 1984, and has been its director since 1987.

    Maurice will talk about the possible government restrictions on the right of access to information in the UK; the problems caused by the Freedom of Information Act’s poor approach to public service contracts and the surprising limitations which the courts have imposed on the ministerial veto.

    Marietta Le: Marietta is from the Hungarian investigative journalism NGO Atlatszo.

    Atlatzso is a watchdog NGO and online news site for investigative journalism to promote transparency and freedom of information (FOI) in Hungary. They run various websites including KiMitTud, a freedom of information request generator for the general public, which runs using the Alaveteli platform.

    KiMitTud was launched in May 2012 and has helped people send nearly 3000 freedom of information requests so far. Atlatszo’s investigative journalists have been using it as a tool to dig up new stories and obtain important evidence in corruption cases. However, the success of Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act has led to the Hungarian government introducing a restrictive amendment to the law; a measure that is being challenged at the moment by a joint initiative of media outlets and transparency NGOs.

    Atlatzso also run the Tor-based anonymous whistleblowing platform Magyarleaks and a crowdsourced platform to anonymously report everyday corruption called Fizettem.

    Marietta will join us to speak about setting up an FOI site in Hungary using Alaveteli and the current threats to freedom of information in Hungary, following the recent restrictive amendment to the FOI law.

    Savita Bailur and Tom Longley: Earlier this year mySociety instigated a research project to look at the place that Alaveteli and other FOI online technologies might have in creating cultures of transparency and accountability.

    We want to address this top level question: “In what circumstances, if any, can tools like Alaveteli be shown to have measurable impacts on the ability of citizens to exert power over underperforming institutions?”

    To address this, researchers Savita and Tom have focused on three areas: a literature review to see what research is already out there, in-depth interviews with people who have installed FOI technologies in many different countries, and the compilation of a list of critical success factors. Read more about their research here.

    Savita and Tom are more than halfway through their research, and we’re delighted that they’ll present their preliminary findings at this meet-up.

    We’ll also discuss the latest developments on WhatDoTheyKnow, and Alaveteli developers (as well as other mySociety team members) will be around to answer any questions.

    There’ll be plenty of pizza and beer to go around too, so what could be better?

    Hope to see you there!

    When: Wednesday 3rd September, 6pm – 9pm
    Where: Mozilla Space London
    How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page, so we know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.

    To see where we’ll be holding our next meet-ups over the coming months, check out our page on Lanyrd.

    Photo by Paul Keller (CC)

  9. How to make a Freedom of Information request with WhatDoTheyKnow

    Freedom_of_Information_logoHave you ever wondered how much money your council spent on that new building in town?

    Or perhaps you’ve read a news story and wondered about the facts behind it: for example, just how many passport applications are made every month?

    Maybe you have an interest in a piece of land near your house, or you’re trying to uncover facts about something that happened many years ago.

    These are just a few examples of when the Freedom of Information Act could come in handy. Here in the UK, anyone has the right to ask for information from any public body.

    You can ask central and local government departments, the NHS, the armed forces, state-funded schools and the regulators of bodies such as charities, businesses and other organisations for information – and if they hold it, in most cases, they must respond.

    Not everyone is aware that they have this right, and if they do, they might not know where to begin. That’s why, back in 2008, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow, a site to promote the Freedom of Information process and make it as easy as possible to send requests.

    Like many of our sites, it allows you to make contact with a public body, and also publishes your correspondence online so that others can benefit from your findings.

    What can you ask?

    Note the word ‘information’ in ‘Freedom of Information’ – this act strictly covers your right to request facts and figures, data and, well… recorded information.

    It’s not for asking for data about yourself, and it’s not the place for woolly, indirect queries or requests for opinions. Plus, there’s no point in asking for stuff that the organisation doesn’t hold, or which is already publicly available on their website.

    There are lots more details about this, and links to good sources of advice, on WhatDoTheyKnow’s Help pages.

    How do you make a request?

    We built WhatDoTheyKnow to make the Freedom of Information process really simple for everyone.

    If you’d like to see exactly how to do it, we’ve put together a walk-through, below. Follow these steps, and you can make an FOI request too.

    1. Go to WhatDoTheyKnow.com

    WhatDoTheyKnow homepage

    WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information request website: you’ll find it here.

    2. Make sure no-one has already requested the information you want.

    Before you make your request, we advise you to search (via Google or on WhatDoTheyKnow) to ensure that the information hasn’t already been published. If you’ve already done that, go straight to step 3.

    You can use the search box on the right of the WhatDoTheyKnow homepage to check whether the information is already on our website.

    Search for the name of the authority you want to make your request to.

    Searching for an authority on WhatDoTheyKnow

    I’m searching for my hometown of Brighton’s council, because I want to ask a question about a new development. Clicking through to the council’s page, I can see that 1,789 requests have already been made to them through WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    existing requests on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Do any of those requests cover the question I’m planning on asking? I can search them to make sure.

    searching existing FOI requests on TheySWorkForYou

    My request concerns Circus Street, so I search for that. It’s a fairly recent issue, so I’m going to restrict my results to the last couple of years – I’m not interested in queries about the same street from many years ago.

    search results on WhatDoTheyKnow

    I can further refine my results so that I only see requests which have been successful – that is, where the council have provided the information asked for.

     

    search results on WhatDoTheyKnow

    That narrows the results down quite nicely, and it’s easy for me to see that my question has not been answered before. It’s also worth clicking the ‘unresolved requests’ link to check that there isn’t a request awaiting a response.

    3. Compose your request

    Once you’re sure that no-one has made your request before, you can start your own. Click on the green button at the top of the page:

    Make a request on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Type in a one-line summary of your question as the title. As you do so, the site will suggest similar requests which have already been made – another means of ensuring that you are not making a duplicate request.

    Asking a question on WhatDoTheyKnow

    None of these are relevant, so I’m going to go ahead and compose my request.

    Composing a request on WhatDoTheyKnow

    There are some handy tips on the right: keeping your message succinct and focused will get the best results.

    It’s not a good idea to include opinions or complaints: the authority is only obliged to respond to requests for information.

    Be sure to include your name below the “Yours faithfully” sign-off.

    Take a moment to read the note at the foot:

    Your request will be public

    Requests made on WhatDoTheyKnow are published on the site, as well as sent to the public authority – it’s all about making information available to everyone.

    Remember how we searched to see if anyone had already asked this question? If they had, it would have saved me, and the council, some time – that’s why the site does everything in public.

    One result of this is that, if you use the site, your name will be published too (if you prefer for that not to happen, you could make your request using a pseudonym, but if you’re thinking of that do read our advice on the subject first).

    4. Check your request

    Click on ‘preview your public request’ to check it over before you send it.

    If you spot a mistake, or remember something you wanted to add, you can click ‘edit this request’.

    Otherwise, if you’re ready, click ‘send request’.

    Previewing an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow

     5. Register or log in

    sign up or sign in to WhatDoTheyKnow

    If it’s the first time you have used the site, you will need to register.

    Input your email address, name and a password on the right hand side of the page. Then check your email for a confirmation link before you can proceed. If you can’t find your email confirmation, check your spam folder.

    You’ll only have to go through this process once. If you have an account, and are logged in to the site, your request is sent as soon as you click the ‘send’ button.

    6. Await your response

    Success on WhatDoTheyKnow

    Your request has been sent.

    When the authority replies, WhatDoTheyKnow will send you an automated email. The reply is also published on the website; the email will contain the link to it.

    You’ll have a chance to comment on the response, and send a follow-up request if needs be.

    Notice the date on the screenshot above: the authority has 20 working days in which to respond. If you have not received a reply by this time, the site will automatically email you with information about the next steps you should take.

    That’s it! If there’s something you need to know, we hope you’ll go ahead and give WhatDoTheyKnow.com a try.

    A final thought

    Many councils proactively publish information such as comments on planning – which means that a request like the one I make above would not be necessary. It’s always worth checking their website first, to save both your time and the council’s.

    If your council doesn’t publish this kind of information as a matter of course, then the process of making a request can do two things.

    First, it puts the council’s response in public, so that everyone can see it – and second, it goes towards showing that there is a demand for this kind of information. Your request just might prompt your council to start publishing more information.

  10. Sorry, Klingons, but that’s a no

    Klingon_High_Council_Emblem.svgThis week, we received a request to add a new authority to WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information site. Where appropriate, we are happy to do that, although it’s not always possible.

    And this time, it really was not possible: the nomination was for the Klingon High Council.

    On the face of it, one might think the High Council an ideal candidate for Freedom of Information requests – wouldn’t we all like to hold it to account for its long history of war, assassinations, and political intrigue – not to mention its miserable record on equality for female Klingons?

    Sadly, the WhatDoTheyKnow team had to point out to our user that Do’Ha’ ‘oHbe’ yejquv subject to tuqjIjQa’ chut – which, as any native Klingon speaker will tell you, translates as: “Unfortunately, the Council is not subject to the laws of the United Kingdom”. That’s a pre-requisite for any authority that we include on the site.

    On the other hand, of course, any Klingon who is interested in setting up an FOI site for their empire may wish to have a look at our Alaveteli platform.

    Requesting new public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow

    You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to contact any public authority that we have details for.

    If you want to make an FOI request to an authority that is not on the site, you can request it. We do our best to include any authority that is bound by the Freedom of Information Act (and some that are not) – but they are all UK bodies, subject to UK law.

    Ideally, they should also be non-fictional, and located in the present rather than the far-distant future.