We were glad to see this recent tweet from Andy Mabbett:
— Andy Mabbett (@pigsonthewing) May 5, 2020
Andy has imported the IDs of every authority listed on our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow into Mix’n’match, a tool for helping to link a dataset with existing Wikidata entities. Once a match has been made, the URL of the body’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is available as one of its identifiers (specifically, P8167).
This means that anyone running a project that utilises Wikidata will have the option to include WhatDoTheyKnow data in their site or app.
Andy says, “Wikidata acts as a hub for all sorts of databases and identifier systems. For example, it can be the only way of linking (programmatically, in the linked data sense) an MP’s official parliamentary record to their IMDb entry. I do a lot of work making that happen. As a regular and satisfied user of WhatDoTheyKnow, it appealed to me to add that site’s 24.5K listings of UK public bodies to the mix.”
The best-known site relying on Wikidata is of course Wikipedia, so in theory it would now be feasible, say, to include a template that automatically pulled the relevant WhatDoTheyKnow link into Wikipedia articles about authorities, or to build a browser extension that provided those links when the user visited such articles.
It would also be possible for us to pull information back the other way, so for example we might consider importing the first paragraph of a Wikipedia page for a body and using it within the introduction, as a way of providing context.
The matching of WhatDoTheyKnow authorities confirms which Wikidata URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) relates to each, meaning that these can now be used in “sameAs” metadata headers, scehma.org markup, etc. We think this might have a beneficial effect on the way search engines treat our pages in the future — something we’ll be keeping an eye on to check if that’s true.
Additionally, this works as a nice proof of concept that we can potentially recommend to other Alaveteli sites around the world, given that the Wikidata project is, of course, international.
But first, the bodies need to be checked with the Mix’n’match tool. At the time of writing, 1,302 bodies have been resolved, and can be seen here. Anyone is welcome to help by confirming more matches: just log in with a Wikimedia account.
Thanks to Andy for this initiative — it’s great to see the potential of our data being widened in one fell swoop.
There has already been a mutual benefit to this linking. WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Matt has been able to use examples of failed matches to find cases where our database needed to be brought up to date with name changes. At the same time, Andy says it has helped him and his fellow Wikidata volunteers to create new items about councils and other bodies that were in WhatDoTheyKnow but not Wikidata.
Richard, also one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s volunteer team, says, “I’ve often thought there’s a lot of overlap between what we do on WhatDoTheyKnow and what Wikipedia volunteers are doing — we’re both maintaining lists of public bodies — so any tools for closer collaboration are great.”
Image: Carl Nenzen Loven
We’ve added a new functionality to the Alaveteli Pro codebase, allowing you to download a zip file containing all correspondence and attachments from a batch, and a spreadsheet (csv) to show the progress status of every request.
Alaveteli Pro is our tool for professional users of Freedom of Information. If you’re UK-based, you’re probably most familiar with our local iteration WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — but don’t worry: when we talk about improvements to Alaveteli Pro, you can be sure they’re also part of the WhatDoTheyKnow toolkit.
How to export
You’ll find these tools at the foot of the batch container in the requests list.
Why data exports?
Of course, we like to think Alaveteli Pro is a useful tool in its own right: there’s a lot you can do within the Pro interface, and it was built specifically to help you keep track of all your FOI activity in one place.
But sometimes users want to use external tools – either because they’re just more familiar with them, or because they want to do something beyond the functionality we offer.
Now there’s a simple way to get data out of Alaveteli, allowing you to analyse it with the tools of your choice, or perhaps send a progress report to a supervisor or editor.
It’s part of a programme of work to support cross border journalism between European organisations, supported by Adessium Foundation, allowing us to refine and improve the codebase for the benefit of all Pro users.
The technical bit
Those with a bit of coding knowledge may be interested to hear how we approached the zip download functionality. mySociety developer Graeme explains:
“With batch requests potentially going to as many as 500 different authorities, each request can receive several responses and attachments in return.
“All these emails and files mean that compiling the zip for download could be a lengthy job and would normally cause the request to time out. So for this new feature we’re utilising file streaming to send chunks of the zip as they become available.
“This means that the zip starts downloading immediately and you don’t have to sit watching and wondering whether anything is happening – you can see more and more data being transmitted.”
We hope you find this new feature useful. Please do let us know how you’re using it and any feedback you may have.
Image: Startup Stock Photos
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having an impact on response times to Freedom of Information requests. Please see this information from the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Scottish Information Commissioner. You can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any questions about your requests.
Note: There is now an update to this post, which can be found here.
At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.
Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.
Keeping our rights intact
At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.
Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.
We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:
- A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
- In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
- Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.
Information is vital
More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?
Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?
In the UK, the government has stated a commitment to transparency: “In fast moving situations, transparency should be at the heart of what the government does”. But the gaps in existing data are noted by Jeni Tennison here, alongside a call for private companies to do what they can.
And at the same time, we’ve seen a relaxation of authorities’ obligations under the FOI Act in recognition of stretched resources and depleted staff.
These have taken the form of a notification from the ICO that they will be more lenient towards authorities providing late responses, and messages from authorities themselves that they will be providing a cut-down service.
Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.
Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can. [Update: We now account for the new law in Scotland, but there may be a few existing requests or authorities that we’ve missed out, so please get in touch if you have questions about your request.]
Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.
A global lapse
Meanwhile, in countries around the world, the reaction has ranged from New Zealand’s ‘pro-transparency’ response, documented along with less hopeful dispatches from other countries in this post from Global Investigative Journalism Network, to Hungary’s worrying move to rule by decree.
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we stand by our international community of friends and colleagues who value the citizens’ right to know.
Access to Information and journalists’ networks are monitoring the erosion or upholding of our rights across the world, and will act to preserve them where we can.
Image: Dimitri Karastelev
Vouliwatch is a platform for Greece which strives to make democracy more accessible for all. If you’re familiar with mySociety’s projects, it might be easiest to see it as a mixture of TheyWorkForYou (it publishes MPs’ votes); WriteToThem (making it simple for citizens to contact their representatives), and a campaign for more transparency and better oversight in the country’s parliament, often using Freedom of Information toward these aims.
This year, Vouliwatch found themselves in the extraordinary position of issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. Their Managing Director Stefanos Loukopoulos explained how it all happened, in his presentation at AlaveteliCon.
He left us with quite the cliffhanger — would the case go to court or not? — so we were keen to catch up and find out how it had all resolved. But to begin with, here’s what he told us back in October:
“In Greece, there’s an independent committee known as the “Committee of Control”: it’s made up of judiciary, ombudsmen, and three MPs sit on it as well.
“Its role is to audit and check asset declaration and the finances of MPs, as well as the financial activities of political parties.”
As you’re probably aware, over the last eight years Greece has been in the grips of a massive financial crisis, losing more than 25% of its GDP. Stefanos says, “It’s a situation unknown anywhere else in history.
“The two parties who were in power during the period that led up to the crisis owe, between them, over 350 million Euros to the banks, the majority of which is unserviceable.”
So, that’s the background. And now to the nitty gritty of the case.
“Every year the Committee of Control put out a report. For the last three years it has said exactly the same thing: ‘Some political parties’ have taken public funding which was supposed to be for research, and used it for operational purposes. However, the report doesn’t go into detail of which political party, or how much money.
We were accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!
“The Committee has the power to impose sanctions, and the law is quite clear on this point: if funds are not being used for what they should be, or are stated to be used for, then they need to be returned… but year after year, these powers weren’t used and nothing was done about it.
“We believe people have the right to know what’s happened to this public money. We sent letters, but in return we were just accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!”
“After two years, we finally submitted a formal FOI request. We didn’t expect an answer (and we didn’t get one) but at least we were covered by FOI law, so we knew exactly what information we should have been entitled to. After consulting with a law specialist we decided to take Parliament to the constitutional court. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”
And so that was how Vouliwatch ended up issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. The day Stefanos was telling this tale at AlaveteliCon, things had started to move. He said:
“The legal team at Parliament have suggested just today that the information we asked for has actually been released, but I haven’t received it yet. I’ll keep you updated. I’d love to take them to court really, it would create a far bigger buzz and perhaps open more people’s eyes to what FOI is and how it can work to expose malpractice.”
So, of course, when catching up with Stefanos a few weeks later, we were keen to know: was the information released, or did they get to go to court?
“In brief, yes, the information was released, so there was no court appearance after all.”
But the effort was still worthwhile on many fronts. The information was, Stefanos says, shocking:
If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.
“The current ruling party Νέα Δημοκρατία (New Democracy) — which, by the way, owes give or take 142,100,000 Euros to the Greek banks (and it should not be forgotten that the banks have been practically recapitalised by the taxpayer on a number of occasions during the crisis) — has been using the state subsidy intended solely for educational and research purposes to repay its loans, for at least two consecutive years. This amounts to about a million Euros.
“The Committee of Control had actually detected this malpractice, but did not impose any sanctions — and worse, actually tried to conceal the story. If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.”
There’s more detail on the whole tale on the Athens Live site. But getting the story out to the wider population has been a struggle, says Stefanos:
“Unfortunately the media landscape in Greece is very problematic, to say the least. All the big mainstream media groups belong to a handful of oligarchs (shipping tycoons, mainly) who have historically had close ties to the traditional political parties, New Democracy and PASOK.
“So, unsurprisingly perhaps, our story was covered only by independent media or left leaning newspapers and was totally ignored by all the big media groups.”
Of course it’s daunting to take your own Parliament to court. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time.
But there have been some visible results from Vouliwatch’s hard work.
“The new president of the committee publicly pledged that they would be stricter during the next auditing process.
“So that’s a positive outcome, but I must say that he didn’t mention anything about adding more details in the next report (which should be published by the end of the month so we are really looking forward to seeing what it will look like).
“Meanwhile, we got in touch with the parliamentary groups of various parties (except for New Democracy of course) asking them to table a parliamentary question on the issue. The only one that took it up was Μερα25 (Mera25), which is the Greek branch if you like of the Democracy in Europe Movement Diem25, and is led by Yanis Varoufakis. The (oral) question was posed in Parliament during its plenary session and the shadow minister of the interior tried to justify New Democracy’s actions by using legally unfounded arguments.
“We countered/deconstructed these in a reply and published it out — and Μερα25 is going to use it in their comeback question.”
And as for Vouliwatch’s day in court? It’s not entirely off the table, though now to the Committee of Control rather than Parliament as a whole: “Currently we’re drafting a lawsuit against the committee for breach of duty and will submit it to the relevant attorney general.”
This sort of work matters in Greece, and not only to uncover malpractice. Even if it’s hard to get mainstream media coverage, it all helps to highlight people’s right to information and how FOI can be used. But Stefanos says it’s not easy:
Our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency
“FOI in Greece is, unfortunately, virtually non existent. Despite the decent legal framework around it, citizens and journalists alike are unaware of their rights and how to exercise them — and the state (as well as public authorities/institutions in general) have failed to communicate it or make it easy for the public to use.
“I think our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency in Greece; however, one may be easily dissuaded and disappointed because in most cases one needs to resort to litigation in order to get a response.
“In other words, we took the case this far because it’s part of our work as an organisation. I doubt that a citizen or journalist would follow the same strenuous course as we did, bearing in mind the costs of litigation, the time required, the legal research etc, etc.”
Is it daunting issuing a lawsuit to government?
“Yes, of course. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time. If we were ordered to pay out a large amount in reparations it would be close to catastrophic for our organisation. However, our case was legally airtight and the chances of losing it minimal, which is why Parliament decided to back off and release the information in the end.”
Bravo Vouliwatch — and we’ll be watching future happenings with great interest.
Stefanos Loukopoulos is the managing director of Vouliwatch and spoke at AlaveteliCon in October 2019.
FragDenStaat (“Ask The State”) is Germany’s FOI site, running since 2011.
Having always provided a platform for the general public to submit FOI requests, the organisation recently made the decision to focus more on the campaigning side of their activities. By using pre-filled FOI requests and encouraging their supporters to send them, FragDenStaat can harness the power of numbers.
As Project Leader Arne Semsrott explains: “We are trying to show the possibilities of FOI, using it together as a group or movement with a shared goal, not just as separate individuals”.
It’s an approach they used in a campaign to uncover the hygiene ratings of restaurants (which, unlike the UK, are not routinely published in Germany) — users were invited to file a pre-written request to the relevant authorities, and over 20,000 such requests were made, then the responses published. It’s hoped that doing so will bring about change — FragDenStaat say, “The platform will provide transparency until the authorities do it themselves”.
More recently, a similar campaign sought to reveal the facts behind the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). It began when FragDenStaat requested a study from the German Federal Institute that stated that the weedkiller “probably” isn’t linked to cancer.
“We were told not to publish it”, said Arne. “So we published it”.
This mischievous approach is one of FragDenStaat’s defining qualities, but there’s always a serious point behind it. In this case: “We were told that we weren’t allowed to publish this report, but through FOI, we – and therefore anyone – is allowed to have it. It’s ridiculous.”
This is also an issue which we sometimes come across at WhatDoTheyKnow, where responses come complete with a generic footer prohibiting the publication of the information. Like FragDenStaat we think there’s a good argument against this. Freedom of Information law in the UK as well as in Germany is “applicant blind”, so anyone can request the same document and get a copy of it. That being so, it is more efficient to publish it online, and it saves taxpayers’ money since the authorities aren’t having to respond to multiple requests for the same information.
The German Federal Institute thought differently, however, and FragDenStaat were taken to court for copyright violation.
Officially, the report couldn’t be shared: what now? Arne continues the story: “So we built a one-click mechanism where anyone could make the same FOI request. Within two weeks, 45,000 people had requested it. The Institute had never had so many emails and didn’t know how to cope.
“We know this because we then requested the internal communications around how they were handling it. They developed an online solution with a log-in code to prevent people spreading the report further. We then developed some code to automatically log you in and download it.
“The legal proceedings are still pending but we would like to see a judgment by the Court of Justice on copyright vs FOI.
“If we lose the case it might mean that copyright gets used as a reason for denial in lots more requests. And if this happens, we need to make so much of a fuss that it becomes an unattractive proposition to do so. What we have achieved so far, though, is that we are pretty certain that most public authorities don’t want to confront us that way anymore.”
Since turning into more of a campaigning organisation, FragDenStaat are involved in more than 45 lawsuits. That might seem daunting to some small organisations, but Arne thinks differently:
“Over time we have learnt that one of the biggest tools we have to change the practice of FOI is strategic litigation. We have won most of our cases and are always keen to tackle legal questions that have not been addressed in German courts before. We have the feeling that the FragDenStaat community likes our approach and there are enough people who are willing to donate for our legal costs”.
FragDenStaat consistently bring an inventive angle to their campaigns, which sometimes borders on cheekiness. Asked about this, Arne replies: “To most people, files and documents appear to be the most boring thing on earth (which of course they aren’t!), so we feel that we need a bit of fun to attract people to the topic. And actually it’s way more fun for us that way.
“I do believe that our actions have forced authorities to take us seriously. There are of course people who are not fans of our work, but there are quite a few FragDenStaat supporters among authorities – even if they don’t show that publicly”.
Another campaign focuses on migration politics across Europe, and specifically Frontex, the border force. FragDenStaat have been working in collaboration with Luisa Izuzquiza at AccessInfo to file requests and build up a picture of human rights violations towards migrants: “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe, so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.
This campaign, too, has involved FragDenStaat filing a lawsuit, this time in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The hope is that it will clarify the degree to which Frontex is open to public scrutiny. Again, the costs of litigation are borne by supporters who are encouraged to chip in with a small donation of a few Euros, ideally on an ongoing monthly basis.
Arne says, “EU migration politics is a topic that I have worked on for a long time now. I think that it’s heavily underreported, especially since Frontex has gained a lot of power and budget increase over the last few years. By talking to activists in the field, we learned what kind of documents might be produced by the agency on a regular basis and we began systematically requesting them”.
Shockingly, the reports released show that Frontex are well aware of such abuse but close their eyes to it.
“A report about Libyan refugee camp said it had ‘concentration camp-like conditions’ – and you can be sure that if a German person says that, it is serious. It proves they are aware of the conditions, even though they are doing nothing about them”.
There have been results to this campaign: the European Commission has now issued a statement saying that they would investigate the claims.
Arne Semsrott spoke at AlaveteliCon, mySociety’s conference on FOI and technology, in September 2019.
Arne is one of the folk behind FragDenStaat, which is the German equivalent of our own WhatDoTheyKnow. Unlike many of the FOI sites around the world, FragDenStaat is not run on the Alaveteli platform, but on bespoke software that was inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow in the days before our codebase was made easier to install.
Incidentally, if you are running a campaign, you can also use pre-written requests in tandem with Alaveteli sites, including WhatDoTheyKnow. Instructions are here.
Image: Jen Bramley
We’ve just come back from a heady couple of days in Oslo, where our AlaveteliCon event brought together those with a shared interest in the technology around Freedom of Information — in all, around 50 journalists, researchers, technologists and activists from 18 different countries.
As our Head of Development Louise announced in her opening words, AlaveteliCon has always been a slight misnomer, given that we’re keen to share knowledge not just with those who use Alaveteli, but with all the FOI platforms in our small but growing community — including MuckRock in the US and Frag Den Staat in Germany, both of whom were in attendance.
It was a timely event for us, as we embark on work to introduce our Alaveteli Pro functionality to newsrooms, researchers and campaigners across Europe, with an emphasis on encouraging cross-border collaboration in campaigns, research and journalistic investigations.
As well as picking up practical tips, we heard a variety of inspiring and instructive stories from FOI practitioners around the world; brainstormed ways forward in increasingly difficult political times; and shared knowledge on funding, publicity, site maintenance, and how to keep good relations with FOI officers.
Some of the most inspiring sessions came when delegates shared how they had used FOI in campaigns and investigations, from Vouliwatch’s Stefanos Loukopoulos explaining how they had taken their own government to court, to Beryl Lipton of MuckRock explaining why the government use of algorithms can have effects that are unforeseen, and indeed petrifying.
There was an affecting story from freelance journalist Mago Torres, who told us about a long campaign to map clandestine graves of those caught up in the war against drugs in Mexico; and from Camilla Graham Wood of Privacy International, on that organisation’s work to uncover some of the rather sinister but not widely known technologies being put into use by police services in the UK.
So much knowledge came out of these two days. We don’t want to lose it, so we’ll be making sure to update the conference page with photos, videos and the speakers’ slides as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, you can follow the links from the agenda on that page to find the collaborative documents where we took notes for each session.
We’ve just released two new versions of Alaveteli, our open source platform for running Freedom Of Information sites — one which we’ve packed all of bug fixes, new features and performance improvements into, and one with some important technical updates. Here are some of the highlights.
Making your first request easier
mySociety’s designer Zarino has subtly redesigned the authority search page – which is the first thing most users will see when making a request – to make it easier to find the help links at a glance, making the process feel much more approachable.
Encouraging better quality requests
Part of our advice to users of WhatDoTheyKnow is to keep requests concise and focused. This new feature adds a visual reminder when the request text is approaching the point of being too long for an FOI officer to answer it efficiently:
With a second, stronger warning if the request becomes longer still:
We’ve also added an experimental feature on WhatDoTheyKnow to discourage users from making requests for personal information. (As well as not being valid FOI requests, publishing the responses would result in revealing confidential information about the requester.) By asking the user to clarify what they want to ask before sending a request to authorities which attract a high level of personal information requests, we can try to redirect them to the correct official channel instead:
One-click unsubscribe from notifications
An improvement for site owners and end users: it is now possible to unsubscribe from email notifications about requests that you’re following right from your inbox! (Previously – and still the case with other sorts of email that the site sends – you would have to visit the site and log in to change your email preferences.)
Allowing people to unsubscribe with ease – if they’ve forgotten that they signed up for notifications or have created a new track by mistake – should help to cut down on the number of messages being marked as spam which should in turn help improve the site’s mail sender reputation. (It also allows admins – if they receive feedback loop notification emails from email providers – to unsubscribe users who’ve marked these emails as spam, preventing further unwelcome emails being sent.)
In version 0.33, as well as our our features and fixes, we’ve added support for Ubuntu releases Xenial and Bionic and withdrawn support for Debian Jessie. The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Version 0.34 contains our Rails 5.0 upgrade work which we’ve released separately to allow reusers time to adapt to new minimum requirements for operating systems and Ruby versions.
We’re no longer supporting Ubuntu Trusty and have also dropped Ruby versions older than 2.3 as that’s the minimum requirement for Rails 5. Upgrade notes are available in the changelog and, as ever, we recommend updating one version at a time to make sure everything’s working smoothly and reduce the risk of missing essential upgrade steps.
Moving to Rails 5.0 will allow us to retain support for major security issues when Rails 6 is released and dropping older Ruby versions removes some key technical barriers to modernising the Alaveteli codebase and allows us to focus on improving Alaveteli Pro so that it can be reused more widely.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed! Special thanks to Nigel Jones and Laurent Savaëte who contributed bug fixes for version 0.33!
Next week Gareth and I will be heading to Tunis to attend the 8th edition of RightsCon. RightsCon is the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age, so we’re thrilled to be hosting a session at the conference about digital Access to Information platforms with our awesome friends at MuckRock.
If you’ll also be there we’d love to talk to you about your campaigns or investigations and how using access to information platforms could help.
As Jen said in her recent blog post, we’ll be spending time this year developing our software platform Alaveteli Pro so more people across the world have access to its digital tools that help with the sending and management of information requests.
We’d love to get feedback on this work and would love to meet organisations who are interested in setting up Alaveteli Pro instances, in order to make access to information easier for citizens in their countries. We’re also very keen to talk to individuals and organisations who are interested in collaborating on cross-border public-interest investigations and campaigns using FOI-generated data.
We’d also love to talk to RightsCon attendees who might be interested in attending our AlaveteliCon event in Oslo on 23 and 24 September, where activists, journalists, technologists and campaigners from across the world will come together to discuss Freedom of Information technologies for creating public-interest investigations and campaigns.
And of course, our Call for Proposals is currently open for our TICTeC Local conference so it’d be great to chat to people interested in presenting their work using digital innovations to help local communities and/or public authorities to foster citizen engagement, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems.
Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, mySociety’s subscription service offering extra tools for journalists and other professional users of FOI, has been running in the UK for just about two years.
During that time we’ve launched, worked closely with users to refine the service, and — happily — watched it play a vital part in the making of several important data-driven news stories, on topics as diverse as Brexit campaign funding and the results of austerity cuts on councils. Journalists, in particular, have appreciated tools such as the ability to send and manage bulk requests to multiple authorities; and the embargo tool that keeps requests and responses hidden until the story has been published.
Now, thanks to support from Adessium Foundation, we are able to bring the same benefits to countries across Europe, and — we hope — some additional synergies that will be borne of organisations working across boundaries. The same functionality that extends WhatDoTheyKnow into the Pro version will be available to FOI sites run on the Alaveteli platform, under the name Alaveteli Pro.
The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.
We’ll be focusing on three areas in order to achieve this aim:
- We’ll give selected existing Alaveteli sites in Europe the technical help they need to upgrade to the Pro version;
- We’ll be helping organisations in three new European jurisdictions to launch brand new Alaveteli sites, making access to information easier for citizens in these countries. The first site will be launched by VVOJ from the Netherlands.
- We’ll encourage cross-border collaborations between journalists and organisations using the sites (both the existing ones and the new ones) to investigate stories that span more than one EU country.
So watch this space: we’ll be sure to keep you posted as the work progresses. The planned start date is next month, and the project is set to run for three years.
We’re looking forward to sharing stories resulting from this initiative once they start rolling out, and supporting the incredible work that journalists do in putting them together.
Image: Emiliano Vittoriosi