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 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.
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.
Do any of those requests cover the question I’m planning on asking? I can search them to make sure.
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.
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.
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:
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.
None of these are relevant, so I’m going to go ahead and compose my request.
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:
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’.
5. Register or log in
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
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.
This 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.
You may be familiar with WhatDoTheyKnow, our website which simplifies the process of making a freedom of information request.
mySociety also provides the underlying software as a service for councils: it sits on the council website, templated and branded to fit their site’s style. When someone submits a request, it goes directly into the council’s own back-end processes.
Just like WhatDoTheyKnow, the system publishes all requests, and their answers, online. This helps the council show a commitment to transparency – it also has the effect of cutting down on duplicate requests, since users can browse previous responses.
Brighton and Hove Council are the first council to implement the software.
Now, ordinarily, when we sign off a new project for a client, we write up a case study for our blog. But this time, we were delighted to read an interview by Matt Burgess on FOI Directory, which has done all the hard work for us. With Matt’s permission, we are reproducing the piece in full.
The number of Freedom of Information requests public authorities receive is generally rising and central government dealt with more requests in 2012 than in any year since the Act was introduced. One council has decided to try and open up access to their requests using custom software from mySociety.
Brighton and Hove City Council have implemented a custom version of the popular WhatDoTheyKnow website where more than 190,000 requests have been made.
The council hope it will allow others to easily browse requests that have been made and make them more accountable.
We spoke to council leader Jason Kitcat about why the council decided to implement the new system – which was soft-launched at the beginning of November.
Why did you decide to implement the new system?
JK: I personally, and we collectively as a Green administration, believe passionately in openness and transparency. That’s the primary motivation. So digital tools to support making it easier for citizens to access council information I think are strongly in the interest of our city and local democracy.
We also were seeing an increase in the number of FOI requests, many of them similar. So using a system like this helps people to find the information that’s already published rather than submitting requests for it, when it’s actually already been published.
How does it work?
JK: It’s a customised version of the mySociety WhatDoTheyKnow site, delivered by mySociety for us in the council’s branding. It allows anyone to submit their FOI request in a structured way through the web and others can see the requests and any responses. The requests are linked in with the main WhatDoTheyKnow site to help further reduce duplication of requests and enable consistent commenting.
Behind the scenes it also offers workflow management to assist the council team who are responding to the requests.
What benefits will the system have to those answering and making FOI requests?
JK: It opens up the process, helps others to see what is going on even if they aren’t making requests themselves. Particularly important is that it by default puts requested information out there on the web without any more effort by the council or those making the requests.
Were there any obstacles in setting the system up and how much did it cost the council?
JK: Obstacles were mainly stretched resources within the council to prepare for the changed workflow, making sure our information governance was ready for this and that our web team could support the minor integration work needed.
Given this is a web-based ’software as a service’ offering it’s pretty straightforward to implement in the grand scheme of things. I don’t have the final costs yet as we’ve been doing some post-launch tweaks but, as is the way with nimble organisations like mySociety, I think pricing is very reasonable.
Do you think it will improve the council’s performance in responding to FOI requests and make the council more transparent to the public?
JK: Yes absolutely. Not only will the council’s FOI performance be more publicly accountable but I’m hoping we can reduce duplicate requests through this so that our resources are better focused.
Would you say it has been worth creating and why should other public authorities follow suit?
JK: Yes it’s worth it. I think we as councils have to be ever more open by default, use digital tools for transparency and relentlessly publish data. I believe this will result in better local democracy but also is one of the ways we can truly challenge cynicism in the whole political system.N.B.: The website current shows a large number of requests that appear to be unanswered. We asked about these and it includes the number of historic requests that were loaded into the site.————————————Many thanks to Matt of FOI Directory for allowing us to reproduce this interview in full.
WhatDoTheyKnow is mySociety’s Freedom of Information site. You can use it to make FOI requests, and it publishes them – and the responses you receive – for everyone to see.
You might think that making a Freedom of Information request is something that only journalists or investigators do. But actually, one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s aims is to show that anyone can access this right. If there’s something you want to find out, and the information is held by a public body, WhatDoTheyKnow makes it very easy for you to request it.
WhatDoTheyKnow is mySociety’s most-visited site, with around 100,000 people viewing the information on it every week. Not all of those people make FOI requests, but they are all benefiting from the information uncovered by those who do.
And who are those ‘people who do’?
Jonathan works for a digital company in Brighton, as a project manager. He first became aware of WhatDoTheyKnow at a local conference on open data in the city.
I make FOI requests as a Brighton citizen. Mostly I ask about data that is held by the council. For example, I’ve recently made requests about parking revenue, council pay levels – that sort of thing.
These are topics that are of clear interest to everyone in the city – but why does he make these requests?
It is about getting the data into the public domain to start an informed debate.
Public authorities don’t always provide data that is requested (and not always because they are being difficult, or inefficient – there are a number of situations where they are not obliged to). So, has Jonathan received the information he has asked for?
The most important data that I have asked the council to release has been refused. But I am still hopeful they will eventually release it.
All of mySociety’s websites hope to lower the barriers to civic participation; we hope that we encourage people to access channels of communication that they may never have previously considered open to them.
In Jonathan’s case, he says that if WhatDoTheyKnow wasn’t available, he would have made his requests by email – he’s already switched on to the existence and potential of the FOI act. But, he says, WhatDoTheyKnow is “a fantastic resource”.
When information is requested via email, it stays almost entirely hidden from view, unless the recipient chooses to publicise it. But on WhatDoTheyKnow, information becomes fully visible to everyone – all part of starting that ‘informed debate’ that Jonathan mentioned.
Thanks very much to Jonathan for telling us how he uses WhatDoTheyKnow.
This post is part of a mini-series, in which we meet people who regularly use mySociety’s websites.
- See also: FixMyStreet user, Steve and WriteToThem user, Kate.
- If you are a regular user of any of our sites, do drop us a line – we’d love to profile you too.
This month, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow passed a significant milestone: 50,000 registered users.
That doesn’t mean that 50,000 people have used the site to send a request for information – many have signed up simply to receive email alerts*, or to add annotations to existing requests. They’re all part of the WhatDoTheyKnow community, as are the 500,000 monthly visitors who browse the site.
And incidentally, we should give thanks to the bedrock of that community – the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers, who work on the site’s admin, as well as giving advice and support to users. Alex, John, Richard, Ganesh, Alistair and Helen have given up many, many hours of their own time to make sure that WhatDoTheyKnow runs smoothly.
By coincidence, I’ve recently been reading through our archived blog posts, so WhatDoTheyKnow’s history is fresh in my mind.
The project came about as a result of a mySociety call for proposals – we asked you what we should build next, and the idea of an ‘FOI archive’ came out tops.
In February 2008, WhatDoTheyKnow launched. It’s worth mentioning that the concept of FOI requests being made in public was a very new one, and not one that was met by universal delight from public authorities.
Just six months later, the ability to add annotations was added. Since then, we’ve created Alaveteli, our software that lets anyone in the world run their own Right To Know site, anywhere in the world.
Hmm, now what would the number be if we counted the registered users of all the Alaveteli sites around the world…? In any case, we’re really glad to see WhatDoTheyKnow continuing to be used by so many. Thank you for being part of it.
*There are a several ways you can track information on WhatDoTheyKnow:
- Receive an alert whenever someone requests information from a specific body. Locate the public authority on this page, then click the green button marked ‘Follow’. Subscribe to your local council, for example, and you’ll really be up to date with the major issues in your own community.
- Receive an alert whenever a specific word or phrase is mentioned in an FOI request. Search for any phrase, and you’ll also see that green button, inviting you to ‘track this search’. This is useful for campaigners who want to know when certain topics come up, or anyone with a specific interest.
- Follow a request. If you see a request that is of interest to you, again, just find the green ‘follow’ button. Once you’ve subscribed, we’ll email you every time there’s some activity on the request, whether it’s a response from the public authority or a comment from another user.
Today, we are using the phrase “Alaveteli upgrade” rather a lot – and not just because it’s such a great tongue-twister. It’s also a notable milestone for our open-source community.
Alaveteli is the software that underlies WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information website. The code can also be deployed by people in other countries who wish to set up a similar site. If you’re a ‘front-end user’, someone who just uses WhatDoTheyKnow to file or read FOI requests, this upgrade will go unnoticed… assuming all goes well at our end, that is. But if you’re a developer who’d like to use the platform in your own country, it makes several things easier for you.
Alaveteli will now be using the Rails 3 series – the series we were previously relying on, 2, has become obsolete. One benefit is that we’re fully supported by the core Rails team for security patches. But, more significant to our aim of sharing our software with organisations around the world, it makes Alaveteli easier to use and easier to contribute to. It’s more straightforward to install, dependencies are up-to-date, code is clearer, and there’s good test coverage – all things that will really help developers get their sites up and running without a problem.
Rails cognoscenti will be aware that series 4.0 is imminent – and that we’ve only upgraded to 3.1 when 3.2 is available. We will be upgrading further in due course – it seemed sensible to progress in smaller steps. But meanwhile, we’re happy with this upgrade! The bulk of the work was done by Henare Degan and Matthew Landauer of the Open Australia Foundation, as volunteers – and we are immensely grateful to them. Thanks, guys.
Image credit: Sashi Manek (cc)
Alaveteli (the software that runs WhatDoTheyKnow) is capable of being translated into any language, and we’ve finally switched on the ability to use the website in Welsh today. Many apologies for the long wait as this has been on our to-do list for well over 2 years…
As you can see, we don’t yet have a complete Welsh translation, and it’s just a start: we’ve done the help pages, and around 6% of the rest. To take a look at what’s been done, just click the “Cymraeg” link at the top of any page.
We’d love it if you could help us get to 100% by adding translations (or correcting any mistakes we’ve made!) at Transifex. You can read more about working with translations for Alaveteli, here and here, or just get in touch if you need a helping hand getting started or have any further questions.
And finally, a massive thank you & diolch to the translators who have already helped us get this far!
The local press in Islington has just reported the accidental release of quite a bit of sensitive personal data by Islington council.
One of our volunteers, Helen, was responsible for spotting that Islington had made this mistake, and so we feel it is appropriate to set out a summary of what happened, to inform journalists and citizens who may be interested.
On 27th May a user of our WhatDoTheyKnow website raised an FOI request to Islington Borough Council. On the 26th June the council responded to the FOI request by sending three Excel workbooks. Unfortunately, these contained a considerable amount of accidentally released, private data about Islington residents. In one file the personal data was contained within a normal spreadsheet, in the two other workbooks the personal data was contained on four hidden sheets.
All requests and responses sent via WhatDoTheyKnow are automatically published online without any human intervention – this is the key feature that makes this site both valuable and popular. So these Excel workbooks went instantly onto the public web, where they seem to have attracted little attention – our logs suggest 7 downloads in total.
Shortly after sending out these files, someone within the the council tried to delete the first email using Microsoft Outlook’s ‘recall’ feature. As most readers are probably aware – normal emails sent across the internet cannot be remotely removed using the recall function, so this first mail, containing sensitive information in both plain sight and in (trivially) hidden forms remained online.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only mistake on the 26th June. A short while later, the council sent a ‘replacement’ FOI response that still contained a large amount of personal information, this time in the form of hidden Excel tabs. As you can see from this page on the Microsoft site , uncovering such tabs takes seconds, and only basic computer skills.
At no point on or after the 26th June did we receive any notification from Islington (or anyone else) that problematic information had been released not once, but twice, even though all mails sent via WhatDoTheyKnow make it clear that replies are published automatically online. Had we been told we would have been able to remove the information quickly.
It was only by sheer good fortune that our volunteer Helen happened to stumble across these documents some weeks later, and she handled the situation wonderfully, immediately hiding the data, asking Google to clear their cache, and alerting the rest of mySociety to the situation. This happened on the 14th July, a Saturday, and over the weekend mySociety staff, volunteers and trustees swung into action to formulate a plan.
The next working day, Monday 16th July, we alerted both Islington and the ICO about what had happened with an extremely detailed timeline.
The personal data released by Islington Borough Council relates to 2,376 individuals/families who have made applications for council housing or are council tenants, and includes everything from name to sexuality. It is for the ICO, not mySociety, to evaluate what sort of harm may have resulted from this release, but we felt it was important to be clear about the details of this incident.
Some time in the middle of last night, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com was used to send its 100,000th FOI request. It was a simple one, made to the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in February 2008, with these aims: to make it easy to file a FOI request, and to keep a public archive of the requests and (more importantly) the responses received from public bodies. The Freedom of Information Act had been in force since 2005, but we wanted to make it fully accessible to people who were not journalists, lobbyists or professional operatives – it is a law that gives us all a right, not just those experts.
At base, mySociety is about giving people power to people who don’t believe that they have any way of affecting the world around them. Giving practical access to the right enshrined in this Act was and is a meaningful way of advancing that goal.
Then, thanks to a flash of inspiration from our late colleague Chris, we saw a great opportunity to increase the value created by the existence of the Act: we built a system that published the entire exchange of messages between users and public bodies online.
We believe that because of this decision to publish all exchanges with public bodies, WhatDoTheyKnow represents a very unusual phenomenon: a third-party web site that takes an existing piece of legislation and makes it better value for money for the taxpayer. Public money was already being spent answering FOI, but by running WhatDoTheyKnow we could magnify the value generated by each request by making it public, without requiring anyone who worked in a public sector to retrain, buy a new computer system or spend any new money.
And this theory turned out to be right. For every request made on the site, around twenty people come to read materials contained on WhatDoTheyKnow. The multiplier is remarkable, and one of the things that we think is most worth celebrating about this site.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s success is only possible because of a team of fantastically dedicated volunteers. These loyal enthusiasts have helped countless users, and do a simply amazing amount of maintenance work to keep the site friendly, helpful and effective. They are astonishingly talented, principled and knowledgeable, and mySociety owes them a debt of gratitude it will never really be able to pay back.
However, to give them a bit of the credit they deserve, and to highlight some of the countless uses of WhatDoTheyknow, we asked them to pick out some notable requests from the last four years.
Helen “The use of the site by campaign groups like the Campaign for Better Transport to find out about bus subsidy cuts as part of their save our buses campaign.”
Alex “This request about the Warmfront boiler installation scheme has a significant number of annotations. What makes it different is that the user patiently persisted with her original FOI requests, and then has carried on by continuing to help loads more people with details of how to complain and lobby for help and general warm encouragement.”
WhatDoTheyKnow is one of mySociety’s most visited sites, with one and a half million unique visitors in 2011. Like our other projects, it was built as an open source project. Thanks to the Open Society Foundation, we are in the process of making it much easier to re-deploy around the world, under the brand name ‘Alaveteli’. As we speak, there are sites based on our code in places as far apart as New Zealand, Kosovo, Brazil, and the EU, and we’re looking forward to helping people from around the world create more grandchild sites in the years ahead.
Our 100,000 request milestone comes at an interesting time for the Freedom of Information Act. It’s currently under scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee, who are investigating whether it works effectively and in the way that it was intended.
As you might expect, at mySociety, we’re passionate about the right to information. We’ll be submitting evidence to the Justice Select Committee to show just how vital FOI is to good government and a good society. If FOI has touched your life, you might want to do the same.
If you haven’t got a penny,
A ha’penny will do,
If you haven’t got a ha’penny,
Then God bless you.
We wish you all a merry and prosperous Christmas – and for those of you who are already feeling quite prosperous enough, may we point you in the direction of our charitable donations page?
mySociety’s work is made possible by donations of all sizes and from all sorts of people. Those donations help fund all the online projects we create; projects that give easy access to your civic and democratic rights. If that’s important to you, show your appreciation, and we promise we’ll make the best use of every penny.
Thank you for sticking with us through this month-long post. We hope you’ve found it interesting and we wish you the very merriest of Christmases.
What’s behind the door? A letter to Santa.
If you can fit them down the chimney, here’s what we’re dreaming of:
More publicly available data Of course, we were delighted to hear in Mr Osborne’s autumn statement that all sorts of previously-inaccessible data will be opened up.
We’re wondering whether this new era will also answer any of our FixMyStreet geodata wishes. Santa, if you could allocate an elf to this one, we’d be ever so pleased.
Globalisation …in the nicest possible way, of course. This year has seen us work in places previously untouched by the hand of mySociety, including Kenya and the Philippines. And we continue to give help to those who wish to replicate our projects in their own countries, from FixMyStreet in Norway to WhatDoTheyKnow in Germany.
Santa, please could you fix it for us to continue working with dedicated and motivated people all around the world?
A mySociety Masters degree We’re lucky enough to have a team of talented and knowledgeable developers, and we hope we will be recruiting more in the coming year. It’s not always an easy task to find the kind of people we need – after all, mySociety is not your average workplace – so we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably easiest to make our own.
Back in February, Tom started thinking about a Masters in Public Technology. It’s still something we’re very much hoping for. Santa, is it true you have friends in academic circles?
FixMyTransport buy-in - from everyone! Regular users of FixMyTransport will have noticed that there are different kinds of response from the transport operators: lovely, fulsome, helpful ones, and formulaic ones. Or, worse still, complete refusal to engage.
Santa, if you get the chance, please could you tell the operators a little secret? Just tell them what those savvier ones already know – that FixMyTransport represents a chance to show off some fantastic customer service. And with 25,000 visitors to the site every week, that message is soon spread far and wide.