In our previous post, we identified WhatDoTheyKnow’s current need for sources of funding.
But WhatDoTheyKnow also needs more volunteers to join the team. Since the site’s launch, it’s always depended on a highly-motivated, active group of administrators who work to keep it running.
At mySociety, we’re very grateful for the work the volunteers do; for their part, they tell us that they find the work rewarding and interesting — but we’re always aware that we can’t, and shouldn’t, demand too much from them. The more volunteers we can recruit, of course, the less the workload will be for everyone.
We’ve identified three general areas in which volunteer help would be very welcome, and if you think you’d fit in to any of these, we’d love to hear from you.
- interested in FOI and transparency
- happy to work remotely but as part of a team, communicating mainly via email
- able to dedicate a minimum of a few hours per week to helping run the site
Each of our volunteer administrators give their time freely and are the only reason we can run the service day to day at all.
Being a volunteer is both rewarding but also challenging, as each juggles their day jobs and home lives. So the more volunteers we have, the more we can spread the workload between them.
If you have a specific interest in FOI or transparency, or indeed you’d just like to help support a well used civic tech service then we’d love to hear from you. There is always a diverse range of jobs and tasks needing to be done, even if you can only help a couple of hours a week. We all work from home and communicate via email and other online tools.
If you can help us a volunteer the first thing to do is to write to the team introducing yourself and letting us know about your relevant skills, experience and interests.
- a law student or professional who can offer expertise in the day-to-day running of the site; or
- a legal firm or chambers who could offer legal advice on an ad hoc, pro bono basis
Volunteers with legal backgrounds We take our legal and moral responsibilities in running WhatDoTheyKnow very seriously and we always welcome volunteers with experience of legal matters. Some of the legal aspects of running the site are handled routinely on a day to day basis by the admin team.
They may, for example, remove correspondence which could give rise to claims of defamation, or where personal data is disclosed by an authority mistakenly and they consider continued publication to be unwarranted.
The legal challenges thrown up by operating our service are varied and interesting. Joining us could be an opportunity for someone to get some hands on experience of modern media law, or for a more experienced individual, to provide some occasional advice and guidance on more challenging matters.
We often find ourselves balancing claims that material published on our site could aid criminals or terrorists, or could cause harm in other ways, and we do our best to weigh, and balance, such claims against the public interest in making the material available.
As material published on our website may have been used to support news articles, academic research, questions from elected representatives, and actions by campaign groups or individuals it’s important we don’t remove correspondence lightly and that we’re in a position to stand up, where necessary, to powerful people and institutions.
Legal firms that can offer advice As from time to time there are cases which are more complicated, we would like to build a relationship with a legal firm or chambers that can advise us on an ad hoc basis on defamation, privacy (misuse of private information) and data protection.
The ability to advise on copyright law and harassment law would also be an advantage. And we also on very rare occasions may need help as to how to respond to the threat of litigation.
Could you offer help in this area? Please do get in touch to discuss getting involved.
- a committed, organised, empathetic person who could volunteer a few hours (working from home) a week
In our previous post we mentioned that we’d ideally secure funding for an administrator who could handle our user support mail and deal with routine but potentially complex and time-sensitive tasks such as GDPR-based requests.
While we seek funding for this role, would you be willing to fill it on a voluntary basis? Please get in touch.
Lots to help with
So in summary, what we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running is money, volunteer help, and legal support. If you can help with any of these, or have some ideas of leads we might be able to follow, please do get in touch. It also helps to share this post with your networks!
Image: CC0 Public Domain
If you appreciate our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, then you’d probably like to know that it’ll be around for the foreseeable future.
That will only be a certainty if we can secure new volunteers across a broad range of areas; or new sources of funding for the site — or ideally, both! WhatDoTheyKnow is a free service, run on a charitable basis by a currently very thinly-stretched team of volunteers.
We’ve identified four areas in which we need help:
- Legal support
- Admin support
- Additional volunteers
In this post we’ll be looking at the first of those; and in our next post we’ll talk more about various volunteer roles and ways of helping the site to operate. If you think you might be able to assist in any of these categories, please do read on.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a Freedom of Information service used by millions of people each year, from journalists and campaigners to ordinary people trying to navigate bureaucracy.
We recently celebrated the 500,000th request made via WhatDoTheyKnow, and also the site’s tenth anniversary. Each month, it’s visited by over half a million people and over 2,500 requests are made via the site. It’s a success story — an example of civic tech that runs at scale, has lasted, and has had an impact to match.
One of the ways that mySociety has always tried to make change in the world is by building things on the web that show how the world could be better. In the case of WhatDoTheyKnow, we asked ‘What would it be like if everyone felt able to ask questions of those with power, and get answers?’.
Our position as a small digital charity allows us to be bold in the things we build, to act as critical friends to institutions of power, and to design for the citizen. In practical terms, it also allows us to ask forgiveness, not permission — without that freedom, many of our sites and ideas would never have seen the light of day. That we have had success with WhatDoTheyKnow is wonderful, but leads us to ask a new question: how can we, again as a small digital charity, ensure its future?
It’s always been a necessary engineering principle for us as software developers, trying to build sites that have impact, to require as little ongoing intervention as possible. However, technology isn’t and shouldn’t be everything — a site that runs on the scale of WhatDoTheyKnow can’t run without different kinds of support. In running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve learned that digital institutions, like other institutions, are shaped by people. The people who originally designed them, for certain, but also those who pick up the torch, who continue to make the day-to-day decisions that keep the institution relevant, humane, responsive and responsible. It’s this support that distinguishes brilliant technical ideas that flame out from those that grow and become so embedded in our culture that they start to fundamentally change the way the world works.
A vital part of that support for WhatDoTheyKnow comes from a handful of volunteers who run the service day to day. These volunteers handle everything from simple user support to advising on complex points of law and policy.
Now the success of the site means that they need help on the front line. We’re always on the lookout for new volunteers — but there are also other things we need to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next ten years and another half a million requests.
We need funding for admin
It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we recruit a part-time assistant, responding to our users’ queries via email. This person would help our amazing team of volunteers support people in all walks of life as they go through the process of requesting information from public authorities.
They’d help to deal with the diverse day to day user enquiries, make sure we meet important deadlines in handling time-sensitive issues like GDPR-based requests, and share feedback to improve our user and volunteer experience over time. The cost of a paid part-time support role would be at least £15k per year.
We don’t currently have any funding for this increasingly essential role, nor indeed any direct funding for WhatDoTheyKnow itself.
We need funding for development
Although WhatDoTheyKnow hasn’t changed fundamentally over the years, there are always ways in which we could improve it — a recent example is our work to start developing features for journalists and other professional users.
The site does also require a certain amount of ongoing development work in order to keep it running at the scale it does. That includes making sure it gets the latest security updates, and dealing with new problems that arise as it grows, such as the fact that the more popular it becomes, the more rewarding a target it becomes for spammers.
Work to maintain Alaveteli, the code that runs WhatDoTheyKnow, also supports the community of Freedom of Information campaigners, journalists and citizens around the world that use Alaveteli-based services to exercise their right to know in 26 countries.
We don’t currently have any financial support for developers to support and maintain WhatDoTheyKnow and it’s important we find at least project funding of £30,000 to £40,000 a year, if not general unrestricted financial support from new funders.
Funding to date
We should acknowledge the funding which has allowed us to run thus far, and for which we are of course very grateful. A grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust originally got WhatDoTheyKnow off the ground; Google’s Digital News Initiative supported the development of Alaveteli Professional, and unrestricted support from a number of funders ensured that mySociety has been able to continue paying their developers to work on the project. It’s perhaps worth noting that this support has, to date, always sustained development rather than administration.
We do have a revenue stream through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our FOI service for professionals such as journalists, but as yet this is very modest. As the service develops, we hope that this may one day become part of the framework that helps sustain WhatDoTheyKnow, but we’re some way from that at this point in time.
Can you help identify a fund or donor who might be willing to cover the costs we’ve identified above for the next year or two? Please get in touch.
Or perhaps we can be more imaginative. One model we’ve seen used to good effect by other sites run on our FOI platform Alaveteli has inspired us to conceive of a similar (but not identical) set-up for WhatDoTheyKnow. This would involve sponsorship from one or more reputable media organisations who could make use of WhatDoTheyKnow for their own journalistic investigations, while also gaining the benefit of recognition across the site.
Of course, that’s just one idea — there must be many other possible models for supporting the site and we’d love to hear any ideas you have in the comments below.
Now you might like to read our second post, in which we’ll be talking about ways you might be able to help with time, rather than money.
Image: CC0 Public Domain
We’ve just released version 0.32 of Alaveteli, our open source platform for running Freedom Of Information sites. Here are some of the highlights.
Making correspondence threads easier to navigate
Thanks to our designers, it’s now possible to collapse individual messages in a correspondence thread in order to focus on just the parts you’re trying to read. Plus you can quickly collapse (or expand) all the messages in the thread using the “Collapse all” and “Expand all” links from the “Actions” menu.
Alaveteli Pro users gain the additional benefit of a redesigned sidebar which allows for easier navigation of lengthy correspondence and avoids having to scroll to the top of the request thread to update its status. See Martin’s full explanation here.
Better password security
We’ve started enforcing stricter password length constraints wherever a password is set or updated to help users keep their accounts secure. And we’re also using a stronger encryption method for storing password data, using bcrypt rather than the older SHA1 algorithm to obscure the actual password. (Be sure to run the rake task documented in the release upgrade notes to upgrade secure password storage for all existing users.)
You can read more about what this does and why it’s important if you’re interested in the technical details behind this upgrade.
Authorities not subject to FOI law
We’ve adopted WhatDoTheyKnow’s
foi_notag for authorities to indicate that although the authority is listed on the site, it is not legally subject to FOI law. This could be for advocacy purposes – if it’s felt an authority should be covered by legislation – or where the authority has agreed to respond on a voluntary basis.
foi_notag now causes an extra message to appear under the authority’s name on their page and on all related requests, and removes language about legal responsibilities to reply from the messages sent to users.
To improve the UI, we’ve made a similar change for authorities with the
eir_onlytag to make it clearer that such authorities are only accepting requests about the environment.
(Don’t worry admins, you don’t need to remember all this – we’ve updated the documentation on the edit page to reflect the new functionality!)
Improvements for site admins
We’ve made it easier for admins to ban users who sign up to post spam links in their profile. There’s now a “Ban for spamming” button which is available on the user edit page or as soon as you expand the user’s details in the listing rather than having to manually edit user metadata.
We’ve also made it harder to leave requests flagged as vexatious (or “not_foi”) in an inconsistent state. Previously the site just assumed that vexatious requests would always be hidden. Now the admin interface enforces the hiding of vexatious requests by showing warnings when a request is set as vexatious while it’s visible on the site, and prevents the updated request from being saved until a valid state is selected.
And last but not least – introducing the new Announcements feature!
Easier popup banner management
Site admins will be relieved to hear that they can now update the popup banner message on the site without needing to schedule developer time.
This feature supports multi-language sites so if you set the announcement for your main (default) language, it will appear across all language versions that you have not added a specific translation for.
You can set announcements that will only be seen by fellow administrators when they visit the summary page. (If you’re running a Pro site, you can also have announcements that will only be seen by your Pro admins.)
Announcements for Pro users appear as a carousel at the top of their dashboard. So far we’ve used it on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to publicise new features, offer discount codes, and encourage people to share their published stories with us.
The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!
Our WhatDoTheyKnow.com service makes it really easy to request information from public bodies: all you need to do is describe the information you are seeking, send your request, and the authority provides it to you.
At least, that’s what happens when everything goes smoothly.
The default case
When you request information, the authority generally has two duties under the FOI Act:
- They must confirm or deny whether the information is held
- If they do hold it, they must disclose it.
But, there are circumstances – called exemptions – where the authority can withhold the information, or where they might not even state whether or not they have it at all.
Understanding which exemptions have been applied will also help you to understand what to do next.
The authority have confirmed they hold the information, but refused to release it
Why have they refused?
If your request is refused, the authority must say which exemption/s allow them to do so — have a good read of their response, and find out which one/s have been applied.
You’re looking for a section number that refers to the part of the Act that explains why they can refuse. You can check on FOIwiki’s handy table for the full list of exemptions.
Generally, when citing an exemption, the authority will also include the relevant text from the FOI Act, but if not, you can check it for yourself in the actual wording of the Act.
They did not cite an exemption
Authorities must say which exemption applies to your request — so, double-check that they haven’t done so (look in any attachments as well as in their main email), and once you are certain that they haven’t, write back and ask them to confirm which exemption they are using. Here’s an example of that in action.
If you want to, you can quote the part of the FOI Act which says that they must do this: Section 17 (1)b:
A public authority which, in relation to any request for information, is to any extent relying on […] a claim that information is exempt information must […] give the applicant a notice which—
- states that fact,
- specifies the exemption in question, and
- states (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.
They did cite an exemption
Once you know which exemption has been used, you are in a good position to examine whether it has been correctly applied .
FOIwiki’s table lists all the exemptions that an authority can use, and includes some technical details about how they can be applied.
Some exemptions have very little room for appeal and the decision to apply them is obvious: for example, the Ministry of Defence won’t release plans for an upcoming battle in a time of war, making a request for this type of information pretty futile.
Others rely much more on the judgement of the authority who’s dealing with your request. Under Section 38, for example, a request can be turned down because it might ‘endanger the physical or mental health of any individual’– but in many cases, assessing how someone’s mental health might be affected by the release of information must require a certain amount of prediction.
Some exemptions allow an authority to use additional tools for assessing whether or not to release information:
- A public interest test
- A prejudice test
They said they’d applied a Public Interest Test
Some exemptions, known as ‘qualified exemptions’, require the authority to apply a Public Interest Test. This may give you more opportunity to ask for a review.
You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s qualified, in FOIwiki’s table.
In short, a public interest test sees the authority trying to weigh up the benefit to the general public of the information being released against the safeguards that the exemption is trying to provide, and decide which has more weight. The ICO provide good information about Public Interest Tests, with several examples of how they have been applied in the past.
If you think you can demonstrate that the Public Interest Test has come down on the wrong side of this weighing up exercise, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the end of this article for next steps.
They said they’d applied a Prejudice Test
Some exemptions, called ‘prejudice based’ exemptions, require a prejudice test. Again, this might also give you more opportunity to ask for a review.
You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s prejudice-based, on FOIwiki’s table.
Generally speaking, it’s applied to exemptions which seek to protect certain interests — for example, Section 29 of the Act allows exemption where release might do harm to the economy.
The prejudice test is a way for the person dealing with the request to check that the perceived threat is ‘real, actual or of substance’, and that there’s a reasonable risk that the release would cause the harm that the exemption is trying to protect against. There is a good explanation in the ICO guidelines.
As with Public Interest Tests, if you can demonstrate that the Prejudice Test has come up with a decision that is arguably misapplied, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the foot of this article for next steps.
They didn’t apply a Public Interest test
This probably means that the exemption is “absolute”, which makes it hard to challenge.
First, check on FOIwiki’s table that the Section the authority is using is an absolute exemption.
If it is:
- You might like to consider how cut-and-dried it is that the information falls within the class that the exemption protects. If it is clearly covered by the exemption (for example you have asked for information that is self-evidently provided to the authority by Special Forces) then there isn’t much point in going any further. But suppose you have been told that, under Section 21, the information is accessible via other means. Section 21 is an Absolute exemption but may be open to a challenge if, for example, there are circumstances which prevent you from accessing the information.
If it’s not:
- Ask the authority what public interest test they applied (or more details of how they applied it).
The authority won’t confirm or deny whether they hold the information
Why won’t they confirm or deny?
If confirming or denying whether the information is held would actually reveal exempted information in itself, then the authority may refuse to do so.
You can read more about this in the ICO’s guidance.
Can I do anything if they ‘neither confirm nor deny’?
Yes — you can challenge this stance if you have reason to believe that confirming or denying that they hold the information would not reveal exempted information in itself. However, it can be a time-consuming and potentially difficult route to take, and even if you are successful in getting the authority to confirm that they have the information, you may then find that an exemption is then applied, taking you practically back to square one.
If you still want the information you’ve requested, there are some general tactics you can use when faced with an exemption:
- Reduce the scope of your request: Check the exemption cited and, if possible, modify your request to circumvent it.
- Ask for an internal review: if you think the exemption, public interest test or prejudice test has been wrongly applied, you can ask for another member of staff to assess your request and whether you should have received a full, or partial, response.
- Appeal to the ICO: If you’ve had an internal review and still think the decision was wrong, you may make an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Read more about all of these routes on our guidance page.
And here are some other useful links from the Information Commissioner’s Office:
- Guidance to authorities on when requests may be refused
- Guidance for writing a refusal notice
- Guidance on the public interest test
Finally, for now
The ideal is, of course, to submit a request which does not trigger an exemption, as clearly this saves everyone’s time. You can see our advice on writing responsible and effective requests here.
That said, full or partial refusals are not an uncommon occurrence — it’s totally routine for FOI responses to have some material removed (usually personal information such as names and roles of junior officials, or material identifying members of the public), or to turn the request down completely.
There are just over 25 exemptions listed in the Act (the exact number depends on how you count subsections and variants), removing the obligation for bodies to provide information in categories as diverse as any and all communications with members of the Royal Family, to commercial interests and trade secrets — and all sorts of things in between.
We’ll be examining the various exemptions available to authorities and suggesting ways in which you can avoid them. Keep an eye on our blog — and we’ll also link to posts from this post as we publish them.
Image: Scott Warman
The mySociety team have found it increasingly hard to concentrate on work this afternoon, as the numerical counter on WhatDoTheyKnow’s homepage crept ever closer to the 500,000 mark… and at 4:56pm today, the milestone request was sent off. It was to Mid Devon District Council asking for the costs of implementing and maintaining flood defences.
WhatDoTheyKnow has long been mySociety’s most successful site, if you count success by the number of users. Every month, between 500,000 and 600,000 people pay a visit. Some of them submit a request, contributing to the total of ~2,700 made monthly; others come to access the information released by authorities and published in WhatDoTheyKnow’s ever-growing archive of public knowledge.
The site’s success can be ascribed to its simple formula of making it very easy to send an FOI request, which is published online along with the response it receives. The idea of putting the whole FOI process in public was resisted in some quarters during the site’s infancy — indeed, even the concept of responding by email rather than by post was fought against.
But the site, launched soon after the FOI Act came into force in the UK, has gone on to become an accepted part of the country’s landscape, and we’d like to think we’ve played a part in shaping attitudes — and how the Act is implemented.
The requirement for authorities to respond via email has now been enshrined in Ministry of Justice guidance. WhatDoTheyKnow itself is explicitly mentioned as a valid vehicle for FOI requests in the ICO’s documentation, and in 2017 an independent commission even recommended that publishing responses should be ‘the norm’.
The site clearly meets a need. And that need isn’t specific to the UK, as proven by the fact that the open source software on which WhatDoTheyKnow runs, Alaveteli, has also been picked up and is being used to run more than 25 other Freedom of Information sites around the world.
Finally, never let us miss the chance to praise the volunteer team who keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, helping users with their requests, setting site policies and dealing with issues such as accidental data releases from authorities. Without these knowledgeable and dedicated people, we simply wouldn’t be able to provide this service.
And now – onwards to the next 500K!
WhatDoTheyKnow currently has no dedicated funding, and is run by volunteers. If you’d like to see it reach the million-request milestone then why not make a donation?Donate now
Image: Bernard Hermant (Unsplash)
Today is International Right To Know Day.
Right to Know Day was started back in 2002 by international civil society advocates, and has since been officially adopted by UNESCO with the more formal title of ‘International Day for the Universal Access to Information’.
To mark this day I wanted to highlight some of the reasons why having the Right to Know/access to official information is so important, and give examples to illustrate these reasons.
So, here goes:
The Right To Know helps fight corruption and exposes wrongdoings
Being able to access information held by public authorities allows citizens to uncover potential mismanagement of public funds, and abuses of public policies and laws.
Some relevant examples of this include when police use banned restraint techniques in prisons and immigration centres, when government departments miss their own targets and when campaigning groups break electoral law by spending too much money on their campaigns.
The Right To Know helps citizens hold their public authorities and governments to account
Since the introduction of the FOI Act, we all have the opportunity to question the status quo and point out when things just aren’t right.
Like when one dedicated citizen used her Right to Know to make sure schools, local education authorities and the Department for Education were taking the issue of asbestos in schools and the health and safety of teachers and pupils seriously.
Or one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers using his Right to Know to uncover that many councils are not doing the necessary administration work in order to be able to fine taxi drivers who refuse to accept disabled passengers, and therefore implement anti-discrimination law. Holding authorities to account so they do implement this is really important, otherwise discrimination against wheelchair users may continue to get worse.
The Right To Know helps citizens get useful information that matters to them
Sometimes the information you need isn’t freely or easily available, so using your Right to Know to get that information into the public arena is a great idea.
People have used their Right to Know to get information on when museums are free to visit, where you can post your letters and where you can find a toilet, to name a few examples. All useful information for them personally, but also for the rest of society as well!
The Right To Know helps citizens find out what’s going on in their local communities
It’s important to know what’s going on in your local area so you can get involved, raise objections, think of solutions…or just for curiosity’s sake.
These examples show how people have used their Right to Know to discover plans for local community sports stadiums and facilities, the number of homeless people in the area, and plans for housing developments.
The Right To Know helps citizens get things changed for the better
There are several instances of requests leading to tangible change that make improvements to people’s lives.
For example using the Right to Know led to the exposure of vital information which helped lead to wages going up in one of the UK’s biggest care home operators, and Transport for London changing their attitude to cyclists’ rights.
The Right To Know helps taxpayers find out how their money is spent
Do you ever wonder how your hard earned taxes are being spent? Using your Right to Know uncovers all sorts of interesting, and sometimes controversial, expenditure.
For example the NHS spent £29 million on chaplains in 2009/10, in 2008/09 Birmingham City Council spent £53,000 on bottled water for its staff and Greater Manchester Police spent £379,015 on informants in 2009/10.
Having this information open for all to see sometimes leads to changes in how public authorities spend their budgets.
For example Birmingham City Council went on to change their water policy so they now connect water coolers directly to mains water to save money and resources. This may not have happened if it wasn’t for an active citizen using their Right to Know to reveal this information, and therefore prompt a positive change.
There are plenty more reasons why having the Right to Know is important, but these are the highlights for me. Fundamentally, the Right to Information empowers citizens to be active members of society so they can work towards creating a more fair and just world.
So celebrate your Right to Know, on this day and every day, as it’s an incredibly useful right to have.
Remember, using our WhatDoTheyKnow website makes the process of asking public authorities for information really easy and you can browse what other people have already asked for and the responses they received, so why not check it out.
Since 2015, mySociety have collected and shared open data on the world’s politicians via the EveryPolitician project.
And while we receive emails from across the world pretty much on a weekly basis, asking us to update a dataset, we still can’t say exactly who uses the EveryPolitician data, and for what purpose.
This is largely because we want to place as few barriers as possible to using the data. Asking folk to fill in a form or register with us before they access data which we believe ought to be free and accessible? Well, that would be counter to the whole concept of Open Data.
This fascinating read shares the results of their analysis of the UK’s Persons of Significant Control Register (PSC) in which Global Witness used EveryPolitician data to see if there are politicians who are also beneficial owners of a company registered to the UK.
- An automated system for red-flagging companies
- A visual tool for exploring the PSC register and other associated public interest datasets
The red flagging tool can be used to uncover higher risk entries, which do not indicate any wrongdoing but could be in need of further investigation… such as the 390 companies that have company officers or beneficial owners who are politicians elected to national legislatures, either in the UK or in another country.
The report also highlights some of the challenges faced by Companies House that prevent the register from fulfilling its full potential to help in fighting crime and corruption. We recommend a full read: you’ll find it here.
It is very helpful for us to demonstrate the uses of EveryPolitician data, both for our own research purposes and to enable us to secure the funding that allows us to go on providing this sort of service.
If you have or know of more examples of the data being used, please get in touch with me, Georgie. And if you value open, structured data on currently elected politicians, you should get involved with the Democratic Commons; this is a developing a community of individuals and organisations working to make information on every politician in the world freely available to all, through the collaborative database Wikidata.
Last year, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information.
As it’s a new venture, we’re keen to track whether it’s achieving everything we’d hoped for when first planning the service. One of the targets which we set, as a measure of success, is the number of impactful press stories generated by its use.
What might count as impactful? Well, that’s obviously up for debate, but loosely we’d say that we’re looking for news stories that have a wide readership, and uncover previously unknown facts, offer new insights, or bring about change.
Stories in the news
A couple of recent stories, generated through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, have ticked at least a few of those boxes. At mySociety, we keep a position of political neutrality — our services are available to everyone of any persuasion, and we don’t campaign on any political issue — so we present these stories not to comment on their substance, but to note that they certainly fit the criteria above.
Brexit is clearly one of the most vital stories of our day, here in the UK, and while many might feel that we’ve had a surfeit of commentary on the issue, we can only benefit from understanding the facts.
One of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s earliest users, Jenna Corderoy, broke two important stories on that topic. First, that UK parliamentary standards watchdog IPSA is investigating Jacob Rees Mogg’s hard Brexit European Research Group over their second bank account and ‘informal governance structure’. This also ran in the Daily Mail.
Secondly (and this progresses a previous story about expenses – also uncovered thanks to Jenna’s use of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro) there is the widely-reported story that the Electoral Commission had misinterpreted laws around campaigning expenses, allowing Vote Leave to overspend. This was picked up by the BBC and Guardian, among many others.
No matter which side of the Brexit debate you support, hopefully you will agree that it benefits society as a whole to have the facts out in the open.
From FOI request to the national news
As a last thought: it’s interesting to us to see how a story grows from one or more FOI requests into something that hits the national news platforms. We think these stories were broken using a tried and true method that goes like this:
- As a journalist, campaigner or researcher, you might be investigating a topic. Perhaps you’ve heard a rumour that you’re hoping to substantiate, or perhaps you’re inquiring more deeply into a story that’s already in the air. Using FOI, you can retrieve facts and figures to bolster your investigation.
- Once you have a story, you can publish it in a smaller publication like Open Democracy, testing the water to see if it gains any traction.
- If the story is well-received there, it’s easy to approach larger outlets with the proof (in the form of FOI responses) underpinning it.
If you’re a journalist or you use FOI in your professional life and you’d like to try WhatDoTheyKnow Professional for yourself, then head over to whatdotheyknow.com/pro. Put in the code WELCOME18 when you sign up, and you’ll get 25% off your first month’s subscription.
Image: Roman Kraft
Coroners have a key role: they investigate deaths and make recommendations for making society safer, addressing issues which have led to potentially avoidable deaths.
Despite this, coroners, and coroners’ offices, are surprisingly not generally subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
At WhatDoTheyKnow.com we list many public bodies which don’t actually fall under Freedom of Information law as part of our advocacy for greater transparency.
While, over time, we’ve listed a number of coroners following requests from our users, volunteers Kieran and Richard have recently significantly improved our coverage and we now believe we comprehensively cover all coroners in the United Kingdom (in Scotland the Procurator Fiscal performs a role analogous to that of a coroner). You can view the full list on WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
What do coroners do?
According to the Government, coroners investigate deaths that have been reported to them, if it appears that:
- the death was violent or unnatural
- the cause of death is unknown, or
- the person died in prison, police custody, or another type of state detention
Coroners investigate to find out who has died; how, when, and where. They also, rather excitingly, have duties relating to treasure and inquests are held to determine if material found should be defined as such, as well as establishing who found it, where and when.
Coroners around the country have different systems and the degree to which they proactively publish their findings varies. So, as with requests to any public body, you should check their website — if they have one — to see if the information you are seeking has been published before making a request. Often a coroner’s website might be a page, or pages, within a local council site.
Coroners’ Reports to Prevent Future Deaths, and responses to them, are sometimes published by the Chief Coroner on the Judiciary website. Statistical information on the work of coroners is published by the Ministry of Justice.
What information might be requested from a coroner?
- Information about upcoming inquests and hearings.
- Even where a coroner publishes an online listing, you might want to seek more information so that cases of interest can be identified (asking for the “brief circumstances” of a death, for example).
- You might want to ask for information about upcoming inquests relating to those who died in state custody, or those relating to deaths in, or following, collisions on roads — or any other category.
- Or you could request the policies relating to publicising upcoming hearings, to determine if any online listing is comprehensive for example, or to find out if there are mechanisms in place to inform certain people about upcoming hearings. The content of recent notifications of upcoming hearings could be requested.
- The formal “Record of Inquest” relating to a particular case
- Reports to Prevent Future Deaths and responses to those reports Though note that, where a response is from a public body which is subject to Freedom of Information law, making a request to that body might be the best approach.
- Documents relating to particular investigations Regulation 27 of The Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013 states: “The coroner may provide any document or copy of any document to any person who in the opinion of the coroner is a proper person to have possession of it”.
- Information relating to reports of treasure received and the coroners’ findings in those cases.
- Information about decisions made by a coroner These can include decisions to exhume a body, discontinue an investigation, or to hold all, or part, of an inquest in private.
- Correspondence to/from the Chief Coroner and Deputy Chief Coroners.
- Information about the administration of the coroners’ service You might want to ask for information relating to a coroners’ pay, expenses, costs, fees charged, and for information on their performance. Some requests of this nature might be better directed to the relevant local council.
Pracicalities of requesting
While increased transparency surrounding the circumstances of deaths can lead to safety improvements throughout society — for example in our industrial workplaces, hospitals and roads — the families of the deceased do of course deserve sensitivity and respect. We’d suggest that all those requesting, or acting on, information from coroners which relates to people’s deaths should be considerate of that.
Coroners will not be used to receiving requests for information made in public via our service. If you are one of the first people to do so, there may be some initial difficulties. Please let us know how you get on: we would be interested in hearing about your experiences.
Over the last few months, we’ve been working with Hackney Council to design and make a Freedom of Information management system, imaginatively named FOI For Councils — and last time we left you with our pre-development thoughts. Well, now it’s up and running.
With this project, we had two main aims:
- first, to make the process really slick and easy to use for citizens;
- second, to reduce the quantity of FOI requests submitted, relieving some pressure on the Information Officers at the receiving end.
The solution we came up with achieves both those aims, and there’s one feature in particular that we’re super-excited about.
Case Management Integration
One of the development decisions taken early on was for the system to be a very lightweight layer, largely powered by the new Infreemation case management system that Hackney were in the process of commissioning.
Infreemation is targeted primarily at Information Officers, so there was no use in reinventing the wheel and building a heavy backend for our own FOI for Councils software.
Instead we built the FOI request process, using our experience in designing for citizens, and submitted the data directly to Infreemation using their API. This means that every request goes straight in to the case management system used by Information Officers, with no need for double entry; a set-up we’re very familiar with from our work integrating council systems with FixMyStreet.
Information Officers respond to the FOI request through Infreemation, and when they publish the response to Infreemation’s disclosure log, FOI for Councils can pull that response into its innovative suggestions engine, which we’ll discuss shortly.
All this means that Information Officers get to use the tools that are designed directly with them in mind, but citizens get the best experience possible for the process at hand, rather than trying to battle the typical generic forms offered by one-size-fits-all solutions.
On the user side of things we managed to reduce the process to a maximum of 6 screens for the entire process.
Throughout the whole user journey we ask for only three details: name; email address and then the actual request for information.
Each screen provides contextual help along the way, maximising the chances that the FOI request will be well-formed by the time it gets submitted.
Making the process intuitive for the people using it is a key factor in building citizens’ trust in an authority. Too often we see complex forms with terrible usability that almost seem designed to put people off exercising their rights.
So far, so good. But for us, the most interesting piece of the process is the suggestions step.
Before the citizen submits their request to the authority, we scan the text for keywords to see if anything matches the pool of already-published information.
If we find any matches, we show the top three to the citizen to hopefully answer their question before they submit it to the authority. This helps the citizen avoid a 20-day wait for information that they might be able to access immediately. If the suggestions don’t answer their question, the citizen can easily continue with their request.
Suggestions also benefit the authority, by reducing workload when requests can be answered by existing public information.
We’ve tried to make this suggestions step as unobtrusive as possible, while still adding value for the citizen and the authority.
The suggestions system is driven by two sources:
- Manually curated links to existing information
- The published answers to previous FOI requests
The curated links can be added to the suggestions pool by Information Officers where they spot patterns in the information most commonly requested, or perhaps in response to current events.
The intelligent part of the system though, is the automated suggestions.
As FOI for Councils integrates with the Infreemation case management system, we can feed the suggestion pool with the anonymised responses to previous requests where the authority has published them to the disclosure log.
By doing this the authority is making each FOI response work a little harder for them. Over time this automatic suggestion pool should help to reduce duplicate FOI requests.
FOI for Councils also analyses the number of times each suggestion is shown, clicked, and even whether the suggestion has prevented any additional FOI requests being made.
This allows Information Officers to see which information is being asked for, but where existing resources aren’t providing the information necessary to the citizen.
We’ll be keeping a keen eye on how this works out for Hackney, and we’ll be sure to report back with any insights.
As you’ll know if you read our first blog post from this project, we did originally envision a platform that would process Subject Access Requests as well as FOI. In the end this proved beyond the resources we had available for this phase of work.
For us, this has been a really instructive piece of work in showing how authorities can commission process-specific services that connect together to give everyone a better user experience.
If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to talk about project in more detail, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.