Several Olympics team members have trained and competed on the athletics track in Tooting Bec, London, and it’s a valued facility for local schools and athletics clubs alike. But by 2021, runners were finding that the surface had degraded so much that it was becoming dangerously hard to run on and training in spikes was no longer possible. After rainfall, the uneven surface would be covered in puddles: no longer was it fit for serious training or holding athletics competitions.
In fact, as campaigners pointed out, the track hadn’t been resurfaced for 36 years. Mandy Brown was one of those who campaigned for its refurbishment, and told us how Freedom of Information requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow helped provide the evidence needed to persuade Wandsworth Council to make an upgrade.
As she explained, though, the battle wasn’t as simple as ‘one FOI request and done’. Putting in a request for what they’d thought of as a potential killer stat bore little fruit in the end — but as is so often the case, FOI supported the campaign in other, unforeseen ways.
What was that killer stat?
“Well, we wanted to know spend on the nearby Battersea Park track, which is in a more affluent ward, so we could compare it to spend on Tooting Bec track where the local population is less affluent and more diverse,” says Mandy, explaining the FOI request they submitted.
The thinking was that they might be able to use any disparity in funding to point out the lack of fairness in funding decisions — but the truth turned out to be more complex. There might not have been money for the Tooting track, but there had been funding for a gym in the borough; and England Athletics had been joint funders on the Battersea refurbishment, so it’s not as if the council had shelled out the full amount.
It’s never a waste of time asking for information, though: bringing the facts into the open means that public debate can be based on truth and not assumptions. Plus, the mere fact that citizens have an eye on council expenditure can have an effect, as Mandy says:
“I do think repeated requests for information on the basis of the rejection of the initial application for funding played their part,” says Mandy, who submitted requests such as this one for minutes of the meeting where funding was discussed.
“Now, I believe that what really made the difference in the end was the PR campaign. This led to coverage in both local and national press. But in fact, that was boosted by information from someone else’s FOI request!
“We spotted from another request on WhatDoTheyKnow that pre-covid, more than 80,000 people used the track every year. This turned out to be an incredibly useful statistic to include in our press releases and interviews, and was picked up in every piece of coverage including Wandsworth Council’s own announcement when they finally agreed to fund the resurfacing.
“So when all’s said and done, WhatDoTheyKnow played an important part in the overall campaign due to this publicly-available stat on track usage, and the general pressure applied by asking questions on the spend and decision-making process.”
Thanks to Mandy for sharing this story: we believe that Freedom of Information is always useful in campaigning, for the reasons she mentions, and because public debate always benefits from an injection of factual information.
And you never know: that FOI request you make today could be uncovering information that will inform someone else’s campaign in the future — a neat demonstration of why WhatDoTheyKnow publishes requests and responses in its permanent public archive.
Paul Bradshaw’s name is well known to those working around data and journalism in the UK. He has authored and contributed to several books on the topic, leads an MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University, and acts as a consultant in BBC England’s data unit.
In mySociety’s twentieth anniversary year, we’re looking to see where we’ve had impact, and in a recent conversation with Paul we were pleased when he noted that WhatDoTheyKnow was a something of a catalyst to his work around Freedom of Information for journalism.
In 2009, Paul secured funding from Channel 4 and Screen West Midlands to set up Help Me Investigate, a platform for collaborative journalism. As it happens, that year the same source of funding supported our time-mapping service Mapumental, and Will Perrin’s hyperlocal blog project Talk About Local. The three projects were often covered in the press as harbingers of a new, digital way of doing things.
The basic principle of Paul’s platform was that the internet permits collaboration between many people, each of whom can contribute a small piece towards the labour-intensive work of investigative journalism. It’s an approach we are all very familiar with these days: it is, of course, what we now call crowdsourcing — something mySociety has made use of in many of its own projects through the years, including our own WhatDoTheyKnow Projects.
A user, curious to get to the bottom of something, would share a central question and list out the tasks that needed to be completed in order to answer it. And of course, as often as not, some of these tasks would be the placing of FOI requests through our site, WhatDoTheyKnow.
“When I launched Help Me Investigate”, says Paul, “WhatDoTheyKnow was a major tool in our toolkit, allowing us to easily share FOI requests that others could clone or learn from.”
Even more than that, he reckons WhatDoTheyKnow was “probably responsible both for me getting started with FOI, and for teaching others to use the FOI Act.”
Since WhatDoTheyKnow’s beginnings, the aim has been to make FOI more accessible to everyone, so this was great to hear. We know that it’s a big leap to become ‘a person who submits FOI requests’, so what does that look like in practice?
“Firstly”, says Paul, “the site reduced the barriers considerably when it came to making an FOI request: knowing where to send that request is a big mental barrier when you lack confidence navigating faceless organisations; and having examples to look at also makes a big difference in being able to imagine what one looks like.”
Once someone has become adept with the Act, we can’t ask for much more than that they pass that knowledge onto others, creating a cascading effect of individuals who understand their rights and how to use them to uncover information. Paul is an example of exactly that:
“It made it possible for me to share that knowledge with others. I’ve used it with hundreds of journalism students to introduce them to FOI: ‘copy this request, find your organisation, paste, and send’ helps get them started, and empowers students who might be otherwise feeling disempowered.”
As proof of impact goes, ‘hundreds of journalism students learning how to use FOI’ certainly seems like a good one — it means that WhatDoTheyKnow has indirectly brought countless FOI-based stories to the public.
Paul listed some of the FOI-based investigations undertaken by users of his site — now no longer live, but visible through the Internet Archive. These include the uncovering of a £2.2 million overspend on Birmingham City Council’s website; police claims of sabotage against Climate Camp protesters; and the varying availability of hormonal contraceptives across different postcodes.
It’s been fascinating to explore Help Me Investigate‘s archived pages, and a real reminder of what people can do when they come together. We are glad that WhatDoTheyKnow has played such a key part in that, and in the training of so many future journalists.
Image: Ashkan Forouzani
We recently ran a survey, asking the public to tell us how they’ve used our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow.
To get people thinking, we put a number of prompts on social media: we asked journalists to tell us what stories they’ve uncovered through the site; and campaigners and activists to tell us how they’ve used FOI to underpin their efforts.
But WhatDoTheyKnow isn’t just useful for grand causes. Our final prompts (example below) asked: Did you use WhatDoTheyKnow just because you wanted to know something?
For all that FOI can be used to uncover vitally important information — information that changes hearts and minds, that even potentially brings down governments — there’s no doubt that it is also a useful tool for the person who simply starts wondering about something, and knows that the answer is held by our public authorities.
Such a person is Bristolian Steve Woods, who has been using WhatDoTheyKnow since its launch in 2008 — and continues to lodge a request whenever something piques his interest. From the cost of the Mayor of Bristol’s trip to a sustainable cities and towns conference in Geneva, to more details about an art piece named the Black Cloud Pavilion, and noble enquiries about the local council’s commitment to open standards, Steve has made 60 requests through WhatDoTheyKnow at the time of writing.
We asked him to explain more about some of the more unusual ones.
The rubber bands request
“How many elastic bands – in terms of either numbers or weight – does the Royal Mail procure and/or consume per year?” was the main information that Steve asked for in this request.
He explains, “As a child in the 1950s and ’60s, I was taught not to litter, so I got really frustrated at seeing the large number of rubber bands dropped in the street by posties as they undid the bundles of letters on their rounds.”
Royal Mail obliged with a full response, and the answer may astound you: you can see the exact figures here.
Turned out that Steve wasn’t the only one interested in this figure. “The FoI request is cited on Wikipedia“, says Steve, “and resulted in a piece in the Daily Telegraph. My late brother-in-law used to take the paper and my nieces were delighted to see their uncle’s name in it.”
The Benin Bronze request
Earlier this year, Steve asked the council for updates on progress with repatriating an artefact acquired by dubious means and added to the city museum’s collection in 1935.
“Some years ago, the local media reported that this object was to be repatriated to Nigeria”, begins Steve’s request, adding: “There have been no subsequent reports of its repatriation, so I am assuming this has still to happen.”
We asked Steve to tell us more. “Bristol City Museum & Art Gallery has a single bronze as looted from the Oba’s palace in 1897”, he says. “I learned that discussions about repatriation are still continuing.”
This request is a great example of how FOI can be used to obtain fuller background detail than is discoverable from newspaper coverage, especially once the media has moved on from a story. The response from the council provides these insights:
“Representatives from NCMM [National Commission for Museums and Monuments] were due to come to Bristol in April 2022 but in the end their busy itineraries couldn’t allow for that. They have become even busier in recent months due to the increased amount of global returns, and pledges to return, that have taken up their time. They have concentrated their efforts with larger institutions but we await direction from them on what they would like to happen next in the Bristol case.”
Meanwhile, Steve points out, “The museum has contributed to the Digital Benin project“.
The city services requests
Steve has also found FOI to be a useful tool for bringing improvements to his local area. “I have made various requests over the years about litter, fly-tipping and enforcement around environmental crimes.
“In conjunction with working with local ward councillors and council officers, these have yielded positive results in the form of more enforcement officers – despite overall council job cuts – plus regular meetings at both ward and citywide level involving council officers, its waste management company, councillors, voluntary sector organisations and other interested parties.”
In 2009, Steve asked what proportion of his council tax was accounted for by weekly food waste collections, explaining his motivation thus: “My brown food waste recycling box was not emptied for one month while [waste management firm] SITA’s workforce was recently on strike. Via my council tax, I paid Bristol City Council for this service, which was not provided.”
The obliging response broke the figures down and came to the conclusion that each payer of council tax contributed 5p per week towards food waste collection.
The Colston request
The toppling of the Edward Colston statue and subsequent re-examination of Colston’s legacy in the city is something that is of interest to many Bristolians, and at the time of writing Steve has just received a response to his request asking what progress has been made by the council in renaming streets named after the slave trader.
“We require that all property owners on a given street provide their consent for its name to be changed, as such a move incurs administrative costs for those individuals/businesses to change legal documents etc. We have no plans to change this position,” says the council.
“We would therefore need to see overwhelming support from property owners on a given road in order to consider contacting all of them to confirm their unanimous consent to begin the process of changing their street’s name. This has not happened for any of the roads that your request mentioned.”
Thanks to Steve for letting us know about his long and interesting use of FOI over the last decade and a half – we hope that he will continue to be curious about the events that unfolds around him, and will continue to use WhatDoTheyKnow to satisfy that curiosity.
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When Joanne Bartley saw a bus go by with an advert for a local private primary school on its side, she knew there was something amiss.
“It just happens that I’d recently made a Freedom of Information request through WhatDoTheyKnow, to check 11-plus pass rates at various primary schools,” she explained. “I was researching whether wealthier schools had more success than schools in poorer communities.”
Joanne lives in Kent, which unlike many counties, still assesses children with the 11-plus test. The bus advert claimed that 94% of the school’s pupils passed it, giving them access to grammar school.
“I had never seen a pass rate as high as 94%, not even in prep schools which can be mostly about 11-plus tuition,” says Joanne.
“So I found the school’s true pass rate, which was much lower, and reported the school advert to the Advertising Standards agency. They upheld the complaint and the advert had to be withdrawn.”
What do small victories like this achieve? Joanne puts is succinctly:
“My FOI request meant that no more parents were conned into paying expensive school fees because of some dodgy statistic! Because most of the country got rid of grammar schools decades ago, the government doesn’t scrutinise the 11-plus test processes very much, and there’s little analysis of entry to grammar schools either.”
Joanne now works for a group called Comprehensive Future, which campaigns for fair school admission and an end to the 11-plus. FOI is a tool they frequently turn to.
“We use WhatDoTheyKnow an awful lot to look at social inequality in access to grammar schools. I use FOI to check how many disadvantaged pupils access the schools, to find out about appeals to these schools and more.”
The campaign’s findings frequently inform media in the education sector, national news stories, and even debates in Parliament.
“FOI requests helped us see the numbers of disadvantaged pupils in the schools that were given £64 million by the government to expand to admit more children from poorer backgrounds.
“And we had a story in the I newspaper, on the large percentages of privately educated pupils who attend grammar schools, based on this FOI request.
“We also looked at how few looked after children (children in care) attend grammar schools compared to other secondary schools and this was highlighted by a Conservative peer in a Lords debate.
“Baroness Berridge said: At the census date last year, 68 of our grammar schools had no looked-after children at key stages 3 or 4. That is a product of not giving priority admissions and selecting on the basis of the entrance test only. If I think back to my school and remove all those children, it would have been a poorer education.
“She must have come across the figure about looked-after children on your website as we hadn’t given it to anyone at the time. So you see WhatDoTheyKnow is a useful resource for everyone!
“The FOI Act means that there’s transparency around school entry, and this is a very healthy thing. WhatDoTheyKnow is also super useful to see what other people are asking about schools and see their results.”
We were glad to hear this: Joanne’s examples make it clear that WhatDoTheyKnow helps campaigns get their causes into the national conversation. It’s free, and available to everyone, and as you can see from the examples given, it can be a very powerful tool.
Joanne agrees: “I just wanted to show the power of your site to make a difference to campaigns like ours. Freedom of Information creates openness around a problem in education that is not much talked about.
“I love WhatDoTheyKnow – it’s made a real difference to our campaign.”
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Journalist Lucas Amin was one of the first to try out our tool for professional users of Freedom of Information, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.
Back in 2017, when Lucas put an early version through its paces, his feedback – together with that of his associate Jenna Corderoy – helped us shape the service to be as useful as possible for investigative journalists.
His comments were positive, but how do we know Lucas really found WhatDoTheyKnow Pro useful? Six years on, he’s still using the tool to help discover and inform his wide-ranging FOI-based scoops.
Lucas says, “I have made FOI requests for more than ten years. During that time I’ve made a few cool spreadsheets to help me track requests. But none of them provided anything like the convenience and power of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro – it has been a total gamechanger.”
Lucas, working for OpenDemocracy, has recently been uncovering information around river pollution and how airlines’ lobbying has impeded the UK’s progress in cutting carbon emissions. These requests were made under the Environmental Information Regulations (a similar regime to FOI, but specifically for access to information about the environment – and also handled by WhatDoTheyKnow).
The exposés broken on the platform are frequently picked up by mainstream media. “Requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro have made it into the Times, Guardian, Observer and Mirror this year alone”, says Lucas, sharing a selection of stories to underline this point.
In this Guardian story from March, we learn that airlines’ submissions to government contested whether vapour trails contribute to the climate impact of flights – in contravention to the views of experts in the field.
A second Guardian story that month also reveals how airlines lobbied for the cut in Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights, as brought in by Sunak in the spring budget. This story was also picked up by the Mirror.
It’s easy to see the link between the requests Lucas has made, and facts that must be exposed in order for us to have a fully-informed public debate. Without the right to request such documentation, the public would be entirely unaware of the type of lobbying going on behind Whitehall doors.
We’re very glad that WhatDoTheyKnow Pro has made it easier for this to happen, and very pleased that Lucas is such a strong advocate!
“If you use FOI, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro is the only way to go,” he says, before making us blush with more praise: “I have nothing but respect, gratitude and admiration for the smart, hardworking team at mySociety! Congrats on 20 years; here’s to 200 more.”
Thanks Lucas, the admiration goes both ways. Long may you continue to bring vital facts into the public arena.
Image: Paul Berry
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Big Brother Watch is a UK organisation that campaigns to defend civil liberties and privacy. As such, they keep a close eye on the ‘surveillance state’: the degree to which authorities are monitoring citizens, and the ever-more sophisticated technology that enables them to do so.
They have recently been investigating the use of Chinese-manufactured CCTV cameras in the UK, submitting Freedom of Information (FOI) requests via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro as one part of their research.
In doing so they’ve uncovered the full extent to which this technology has permeated our schools and colleges, local and central government and beyond. Linked with information about both the capabilities of the tech, and the ways in which these companies support the human rights violations of the Chinese state, Big Brother Watch’s recent report makes for disturbing reading.
The campaign has caught the attention of government, and driven a change in policy over their internal usage of cameras. Hearing of this positive outcome, we were keen to talk to Big Brother Watch and find out more about their use of FOI, and their Head of Research & Investigations Jake Hurfurt filled us in.
What can they see?
Big Brother Watch opposes the rise of surveillance in this country, pointing out that the UK is one of the most surveilled countries in the world with an estimated 6 million CCTV cameras across the nation.
As a society we may have become more accustomed to CCTV in public areas, but most people aren’t aware of recent rapid advances in surveillance functionality — such as facial, gender and even race recognition. And until there is widespread understanding of exactly what these cameras can do, there can’t be informed consent.
Because of its affordability, Hikvision is the most common provider of CCTV equipment in this country, with Dahua in second place. Both companies are known to supply surveillance equipment that has been used to target ethnic Uyghur minorities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Finally, Hikvision software has known vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers — and in countries like the US and Italy, breaches have been noted where cameras were found to be ‘communicating with China’.
That’s the background: so what prompted Big Brother Watch’s investigation?
Taking a closer look
Jake says, “We’d become aware of Hikvision’s dominance of the UK market. We had also seen the US and Australia move to restrict Hikvision and Dahua, given their links to the atrocities in Xinjiang and their cybersecurity flaws, and were concerned of the risks this posed to privacy and civil liberties in the UK, so decided to dig deeper.”
And, given the methods by which other countries had brought about change in this area, they knew they’d need to be looking at public authorities. That meant that FOI, which gives everyone the right to ask public bodies for the information they hold, was an obvious choice:
“From the start the project was designed as a public-sector focused investigation. We could see that successful restrictions on state-owned firms in other countries had originated in the public sector. It was clear from the beginning that we would ask questions using FOI.”
As Big Brother Watch’s report states, “Over 5 months, [we] submitted more than 4,500 Freedom of Information requests to a range of public bodies to establish where Hikvision and Dahua equipment is in use and what advanced capabilities this equipment has. Some subsequent focused requests were submitted to public bodies who confirmed they do use Hikvision cameras.
“The public bodies included all secondary schools and FE colleges in England, all UK universities, police forces, NHS Trusts, all Oxbridge Colleges, all central government departments, the House of Commons, the three devolved administrations and the Greater London Assembly.”
A survey of surveillance
Our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service is designed for people making large scale investigative FOI requests: it makes it simpler to send FOI requests to specific types of authority in a single batch, and keeps all correspondence private until you are ready to go public.
Jake says, “We used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to send an initial wave of requests to police forces, government departments and the largest local authorities in the country, which acted as a scoping exercise to see how widespread Hikvision & Dahua are from a selection of public bodies.
“Batch requesting and WhatDoTheyKnow’s built-in reminders of when it’s time to chase up a response have been useful. It was also useful in sending requests to public bodies who are hard to contact, as the contact address database is amazing.
“The other helpful feature was the ability to look across requests others have made in the past, to compare responses and see what kind of wording worked and which did not – it’s something I always do when conducting large FOI projects as I can learn from other’s experience in the kind of questions that are successful, or start by knowing more than I would have done otherwise.”
You can read Big Brother Watch’s full report for all the details, but their investigation revealed that three out of five schools, 60% of hospitals, 31% of police forces, 53% of universities, and 73% of councils use Hikvision and Dahua CCTV cameras, representing, in total, 60.8% of our public bodies.
Once the full extent of their usage had been quantified, it was time to get the word out to the people capable of bringing about change — the UK’s elected representatives.
Jake says, “We sent the report to MPs and held an event in Parliament to complement the launch of the report, and we had a good reception.
“Around publication we also got dozens of Parliamentarians to back a pledge to ban Hikvision, and working alongside other NGOs we have been heavily involved in advocacy around a number of bills to push for this. Big Brother Watch does a lot of advocacy in Parliament and the report has supported these efforts.”
Subsequently, with Oliver Dowden describing them as “current and future possible security risks”, the Chinese cameras were banned from being installed in or on government buildings.
The government may have cracked down on their own use of these cameras, but that still leaves thousands of institutions and private companies who may not even be aware of the capabilities or implications of the cameras they’ve installed.
Big Brother Watch are pressing for further action and you can find their campaign page here. If you are concerned, you can add your name to a petition to request that Parliament pass a law to ban this type of CCTV; and you can add sightings of the distinctive cameras to a collaborative Google map.
Thanks very much to Jake for filling us in on the details of how WhatDoTheyKnow played a part in Big Brother Watch’s wider investigation.
You might also be interested to read our 2019 post on Privacy International’s investigation into police use of facial recognition.
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Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?
Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.
This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.
If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.
“The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.”
And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.
Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.
The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.
And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.
This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.
This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.
So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?
Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).
It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.
The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.
Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.
Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”
Divide and conquer
So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”
And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”
So things were looking positive — and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”
Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:
(Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)
We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.
It’s always so cheering to hear about campaigns that have had real results, and this week’s TICTeC Show And Tell gave us plenty of inspiration on that front.
We heard how FOI has been at the heart of investigations in Croatia, France, Scotland and the crossborder Lost In Europe project, along with two deep dives into the state of FOI in the UK — all in the name of International Right To Know Day.
As ever, you can catch up with the event in multiple ways:
- All videos are all available over on our YouTube channel. You can watch the entire event, or pick and choose from the individual presentations, as below.
- Speakers have shared their slides. Access them via the links to each presentation on the TICTeC website.
- We live tweeted as the event happened, including links to reports that were mentioned and previous case studies going into more detail about some of the campaigns mentioned.
The FOI Clearing House: an openDemocracy investigation into freedom of information at the heart of government
Jenna Corderoy (openDemocracy, UK)
openDemocracy’s Jenna Corderoy discussed her recent investigations into the Clearing House, a unit within the UK Cabinet Office that “advises on” and “coordinates” FOI requests referred by government departments.
openDemocracy has uncovered alarming evidence that the Clearing House blocks the release of information and causes lengthy delays; their investigations and subsequent FOI tribunal hearing over Clearing House documents have sparked a UK parliamentary inquiry.
Lost in Europe: deploying the Alaveteli network on a cross-border investigation
Liset Hamming (The Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalists (VVOJ), Netherlands
Ten European FOI sites were used in this Netherlands-based investigation into the thousands of children who go missing as they migrate across European borders. The FOI component of this journalistic investigative research project is led by an Alaveteli insider, running the recently launched Dutch Alaveteli site.
Watch this space (and pay for it): Alaveteli-driven exposure of the misuse of public resources in an election campaign
Dražen Hoffmann (GONG, Croatia)
In April 2021, GONG used the Alaveteli-powered platform ImamoPravoZnati to unveil the practice of funding a YouTube channel by the mayors and country prefect of a county in Croatia, ahead of the May 2021 local elections.
The quaint footage of seaside towns and villages, and boasting of successful projects, in fact concealed a misuse of public resources for the purposes of incumbents’ campaigns. This practice of non-transparent media buying is one that GONG addresses continuously.
Regulating Access to Information
Alex Parsons (mySociety)
The practical reality of Access to Information laws depends on how effective the system of regulation and appeal is.
Alex shares mySociety’s recent work in comparing different systems of regulation in the UK, and parts of our upcoming research that will do the same for regulation across Europe.
Running an Access to Information platform in France: obstacles and success stories
Samuel Goëta (MaDada.fr, France)
Open data in France, says Samuel, looks somewhat like the Tower of Pisa: a beautiful building (open data is mandatory by law), but leaning because its foundations (the Freedom of Information Act) are in bad shape.
Samuel speaks about the weaknesses of FOIA in France, how the French Alaveteli platform madada.fr manages them and the first success stories coming out of the platform. Importantly, MaDada has been responsible for a wider understanding of FOI among French citizens.
A change in the law for school starters in Scotland — through FOI
Patricia Anderson (Give Them Time, Scotland)
Patricia from the Give Them Time campaign speaks about how FOI requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed so that more children in Scotland can benefit from more time at nursery school.
Thanks to the campaign, from 2023 all children in Scotland who legally defer their school start date will be automatically entitled to a further year of nursery funding.
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The Equality Act of 2010 requires that disabled people are not disadvantaged by any ‘provision, criterion or practice’. You might be familiar with its implications in the workplace or in providing customer services, but the law also applies to the public realm.
If we’re thinking about streets, for example, certain clauses of this Act mean that councils have a duty to ensure that access is as easy for a disabled person as it is for anyone else.
We’ve recently become aware of people making good use of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow to challenge cycle routes that are impassable for some, for example where a cyclist would have to dismount to get past, or where an adapted bike or tricycle would not fit through the space allowed.
“I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results”
The request-makers identify barriers to access, and ask the relevant authorities to confirm that all requirements of the Equality Act have been adhered to in their implementation, from the carrying out of an impact assessment to the making of ‘allowances and accommodations’ for those that need them.
It’s easy to find such requests by searching for the term “Was an Equality Impact Assessment carried out at this location” on WhatDoTheyKnow, which brings up several examples.
These FOI requests have been inspired by a request-maker going by the name of Heavy Metal Handcyclist, who provides a template for others to use as an example — and whose WhatDoTheyKnow account shows him using the Act to very good effect himself, as for example with this request picking up on some obstructive barriers in Warrington. And he gets results: in this case the issue was dealt with constructively by the authority concerned; and a request to Warwickshire County Council will mean that some ill-placed new barriers in Clifton upon Dunsmore, Rugby will be removed:
We came across this little seam of activism thanks to an article by Jamie Wood, in which the author writes affectingly about how cycling has returned to him some degree of the independence and mobility that his Multiple Sclerosis took away: he goes on to say, however, that there are frequent frustrations in the form of paths blocked by thoughtlessly-placed bollards, posts and barriers that he can’t navigate on his tricycle. Constructive engagement and polite letters to his local council didn’t do the trick, and so he turned to activism.
“In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”
Describing his learning curve, Jamie pointed to the Heavy Metal Handcyclist as well as to this letter on Doug Paulley’s DART website — which brings us full circle, as Doug is a WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer as well as an accomplished campaigner on accessibility for disabled people.
As Doug quotes on his site, court cases have established that:
“The policy of the (Equality Act) is not a minimalist policy of simply ensuring that some access is available to the disabled: it is, so far as reasonably practicable, to approximate the access enjoyed by disabled persons to that enjoyed by the rest of the public.”
We admire the level of knowledge and clarity in these requests and we hope that they bring good results. At the same time, we recognise that this sort of work shouldn’t be left purely to the disabled people who are affected by blockades and impediments: we can all keep an eye open for where such barriers may be making paths impassible for some. And, thanks to the examples linked to in this post, it is simple enough for us all to follow their lead.
As Jamie says, “It’s the Equality Act itself that can be only be used by people directly affected; anyone can make an FOI request”.
He also points us towards this report from the York Cycle Campaign, released last week, identifying more than 30 places across the city where the requirements of Equality Act have not been met. Kate Ravilious from the campaign says, “If City of York Council does not step into gear and rectify the problems, they will be forced to take legal action, which could end up with the council having to fork out as much as £50,000 for every person that pursues action via the small claims court.”
But Jamie points out that Freedom of Information is a softer and sometimes more effective first step towards getting these issues fixed: “In the vast majority of cases, an FOI request should be enough, with no need to resort to legal means.”
The Heavy Metal Handcyclist agrees:
“Whilst it is true that local authorities continue to install barriers to access despite their S.149 obligations, it is entirely possible to force almost immediate removal of barriers both new and predating the EA2010 by using a sufficiently pointy FOI request. To date, only one authority has needed further legal action, with officers in almost all the others immediately recognising the problem and addressing the issue quickly. I’m honestly shocked at how easily FOI can get results in this regard.
“WhatDoTheyKnow has been an excellent tool to catalogue and track FOI requests, particularly with regards to time limits.”
Image: York Cycle Campaign
It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.
According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.
Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.
Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.
We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.
These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.
There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.
Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.
This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:
- Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
- Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
- Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership
The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.
In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.
The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.
- On Transparencia for Belgium: request 1 to the General Directorate of the Administrative Police and request 2 to the Federal Police (‘Total number of arrests at or near the border’)
- On Ma Dada for France: Procès-verbaux de la Police Aux Frontières (‘Border Police reports’) to the Ministry of the Interior
- On WhatDoTheyKnow for the UK: Total number of and reason for charges, checks, requests and/or arrests at the border regarding non EU citizens to the Home Office
- On Imamo Pravo Znati for Croatia: Policijskih izvještaja, izjava, optužbi i/ili zapisnika u vezi s provjerama, pretragama i/ili uhićenjima na granici (‘Police reports, statements, charges and / or records related to border checks, searches and / or arrests’) to the Ministry of the Interior, Zagreb
- On Frag Den Staat for Germany: Festnahme an der Grenze (‘Arrests at the border’) to the Federal Police HQ
- On Handlingar for Sweden: Gränshandlingar mellan 1 januari 2014 och 31 december 2020 (‘Boundary documents between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020’) to the Police Authority
- On Arthro5A for Greece (the first four requests ever filed on the brand new Alaveteli site!) συλλήψεις και αρνήσεις στα εσωτερικά σύνορα της ΕΕ (‘Arrests and denials at the Eu’s internal borders’) to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, the Greek Police, the National Coordinating Centre for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum and to the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.
- Requests to the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands had to be made by post, as they don’t accept FOI correspondence digitally.
Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio