Today we hear from Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s Freedom of Information specialist.
Since 2005 I and my colleagues in the BBC have used FOI as the foundation for certainly hundreds and hundreds, possibly thousands, of news stories and investigations at national and regional levels, across a wide range of topics — health, education, policing, environment, transport, foreign policy, and so on.
This has included revelations on important issues from staff shortages in A&E departments to how officials wrongly dismissed predictions about levels of Eastern European immigration, from which makes of cars are most likely to fail MOT tests to the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from schools, from the cost of policing football games to the identities of individuals who have turned down honours.
Journalism is based on asking people questions, but of course much of the time there’s no guarantee you will actually get them answered.
Freedom of information is a rare and valuable tool because it provides a legal right to some information — a right that can be enforced when necessary by independent bodies, the Information Commissioner and the Information Rights Tribunal. And that means FOI provides the power to obtain certain material in the public interest that otherwise could not be squeezed out of reluctant public authorities.
FOI has made a crucial difference to what the media can find out and what the public knows about what central and local government and the public sector is doing.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Here in the UK, two names are particularly linked to FOI: Professor Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, and Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI correspondent.
Today we hear from Heather about the importance of FOI and how she’s used it, and tomorrow you can read Martin’s views.
I took two important FOI cases through the legal appeals process: one seeking the minutes to a BBC Board of Governors Meeting after the Hutton Inquiry1, and my notable legal victory against the House of Commons for details of MPs’ expenses2.
This victory in the UK High Court fundamentally changed law and policy, and for the first time in its history Parliament had to account to an outside body over how MPs’ claimed expenses. The court ruling and subsequent leak of the data led to a number of high-level political resignations as well as full-scale reform of the parliamentary expense regime and passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. A new government was elected in May 2010 on a mandate of transparency in part due to the scandal
I made extensive use of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, filing about 500 FOIs and writing some 60 newspaper and magazine articles about the law and its impact on democracy from 2005-2010. I used the law to map and monitor public bodies for the first time in a citizen-friendly way in Your Right to Know. Through FOI I was able to flag up current and future problems such as secrecy in food safety regulation, the postcode lottery for criminal justice, the amounts police spend on public liability claims and propaganda.
Freedom of Information, rooted in Enlightenment values, contains within it a key principle of democracy that there must be access to information (and knowledge) for all equally. My approach in my 25-year journalistic career has been to use FOI as a means of testing the promise and practice of democracy. By their responses to FOI requests, we see how agencies truly think about citizens’ rights to access and participate in the political system.
Read the next installment to learn how Martin Rosenbaum’s use of FOI has underpinned hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories at the BBC.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
1Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Heather Brooke v IC and the BBC (2007) EA/2006/0011; EA/2006/0013
2Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner & Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman, Jonathan Michael Ungoed-Thomas  EWHC 1084 (Admin) (16 May 2008)
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.
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.
- October 24 (Monday): Cartoon County in Brighton. Register via Eventbrite or Facebook
- October 25 (Tuesday): Citizen Beta in London. Register on Citizen Beta’s own site.
- October 26 (Wednesday): Gosh Comics in London. Register via Eventbrite or Facebook
- October 27 (Thursday): Wow and Flutter in Hastings. Register via Eventbrite or Facebook
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 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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:
Most users can click on this to see further confirmation:
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.
On the rare occasions that something goes wrong, here’s what users will see instead:
– 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.
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.
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
Department for Education
Wirral Borough Council
UK Borders Agency
Birmingham City Council
Brighton & Hove City Council
Liverpool City Council
Transport for London
Westminster City Council
Ministry of Defence
Metropolitan Police Service
Bristol City Council
Ministry of Justice
Lambeth Borough Council
Camden Borough Council
Department of Health
Kent County Council
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:
- Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
- 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
- Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
- 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
- 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.
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.
Know where to vote
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.
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.