With the aim of making large scale Freedom of Information investigations easier for community newsrooms and campaigning organisations, we’ve spent the first half of 2020 developing collaboration tools for WhatDoTheyKnow to speed up and bring others into the FOI management process.
In an initial pilot, 17 contributors saved a journalist 6.5 hours by taking on half of the work of managing responses to requests.
We’re actively looking to partner with membership-driven news organisations or impactful campaign groups to run further pilot projects to help refine the features. If that’s you, please get in touch.
FOI can be hard without dedicated tools
We know FOI can be hard work, especially when you make large batch requests that return a huge amount of data.
While our Pro tools make life easier, much of the work simply involves triaging whether you got a response or just an automated acknowledgement, and whether the authority actually released the information you requested.
After that, you then need to sift through various different formats of data, different understandings of the questions, and follow up with clarifications.
All this comes before you can start analysing the data to build up a narrative for a story.
A compelling membership proposition
News organisations are increasingly looking for sustainability by offering memberships – where you pay a monthly fee to support the organisation – instead of relying on advertising revenue to support themselves.
Memberships are still a relatively unproven and unexplored area, and organisations are still in the process of discovery over what makes someone want to pay for their news output. Is it just being able to read the stories, or do people want more involvement?
There’s evidence to suggest that members do want to get more involved.
Crowdsourcing some of the work of the FOI process from the membership presents an opportunity to help take some of the load off journalists, while also bringing members into the reporting process so that they value the final output more.
Many hands make light work
With this new functionality, once you’ve made your requests – either individually or as part of a batch – they can be added to a Project. Contributors can then be invited to the project where they are briefed on what the project is about and the tasks they can help with.
Helping to classifying responses
When you’re making FOI requests, each response to each request needs to be read to establish whether the authority has provided the information asked for – a process that is difficult to automate, given the huge variety of language that can be deployed by authorities. With large batch requests this can be a time-consuming process.
Projects creates a pool of responses that need classifying that contributors can work through to take some of the onus off the project owner.
Contributors read the original FOI request and latest response, and then classify its current status appropriately. This doesn’t take much specialist understanding of FOI, so it’s a really easy way to get lots of people to help out.
Helping to extract data
In larger FOI investigations requesters are usually looking to build up a dataset so that they can compare responses from different authorities.
This usually involves lots of spreadsheets, copy & paste, and hours of hard work.
Projects provides dedicated tools to help build this dataset by creating a pool of requests that contributors can extract data points from using structured forms.
Allowing contributors to help build up a dataset that will be used for real-life reporting and research helps them feel more directly involved and connected to the organisation, hopefully adding value to the membership proposition.
Project owners are then able to download the crowdsourced dataset to investigate, using their analysis tools of choice.
What we learned from our pilot
In our pilot project contributors took on 50% of the classification tasks, accounting for 57% of the 14.8 hours overall spent classifying, saving the journalist around 6.5 hours of the administrative work required before she could start reviewing the data releases. This is a clear indication that crowdsourcing key parts of the FOI investigation process can save a significant amount of time.
The journalist we worked with was enthusiastic about using the Projects interface again in the future, even if she wouldn’t be inviting external contributors. She expressed that it would be ideal to collaborate with interns to help sift through classifications and responses.
With an 82% conversion rate from joining to taking action and nearly 40% of contributors returning for more than one session there’s clearly an appetite from contributors to get involved and help out. The contributors we interviewed understood that by helping with menial tasks, they were allowing the journalist more time to focus on work which required specialist expertise.
A potential for global benefit
Through the Nesta Future News Fund we worked with openDemocracy to design and develop WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to support this collaboration, and ran a pilot collaborative project made up from a batch of over 800 FOI requests.
Projects is of course built into Alaveteli – the platform that powers WhatDoTheyKnow and many other FOI sites around the world, so it’s not just going to be of use in the UK, but for every jurisdiction where an Alaveteli site is utilising the Pro add-on.
Image: Duy Pham
While the UK begins the process of trying to return to some kind of normality after lockdown, full access to information must also be restored.
Back in April, we put out a blog post examining the state of Freedom of Information during the covid-19 crisis, looking at the UK and more broadly across the world. State-sanctioned delays were seen almost universally.
While we understood the difficulties faced by authorities redeploying staff members to the frontline, we said then that the right to information was perhaps more vital than ever. In times of national crisis, transparency is crucial both for retaining trust in our leaders and for keeping check on their activities.
WhatDoTheyKnow users have been asking pertinent questions about the pandemic, from requests for data on the number of cases in prisons and care homes, to the basis on which decisions about the national response strategy have been made. Potential students want to know about universities’ plans for the coming year; citizens are asking about measures put in place by their councils to encourage social distancing. And meanwhile, of course, requests for non-coronavirus-related topics are equally pressing: who’s keeping an eye on Brexit, or making sure the climate crisis doesn’t slip off the agenda for example?
The state of play
We’ve been linking to that initial post from the top of WhatDoTheyKnow, so that people making requests could get some background to the delays they might be experiencing.
But since then the global situation has moved on, and so have some aspects of FOI provision. At the time of writing:
- The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is still stating that they “will not be penalising public authorities for prioritising other areas or adapting their usual approach during this extraordinary period.” Therefore, UK public authorities may still delay their requests without penalty. Read more on the ICO website.
- The Scottish Information Commissioner had previously introduced overseen a change that permitted [see below for clarification] a longer period in which authorities might respond to requests, but on 27 May a reversal came into effect and the period returned to its standard 20-day deadline. However, there is still an acknowledgement that the pandemic, and indeed their own previous relaxation of the required timescales, may have a knock on effect to requests made before that date. See full details here.
This does raise the question as to when the ICO foresees a return to business as usual. Of course, each authority will have its own experiences and challenges, with varying reasons for maintaining or removing an expectation of delayed responses. But they are guided by the regulator, and while the ICO continues to excuse lengthened response times, authorities may not hurry to do any different.
UPDATE: A representative from the Scottish Commissioner’s Office contacted us with the following clarification:
The changes in timescales under the FOI (Scotland) Act came about because the Scottish Parliament passed emergency legislation to change the timescales – they were not introduced by the Commissioner. Our position prior to the change in the law was set out in a statement we issued, and our comments, including concerns raised, on the legislation when it was introduced can be read here.
We’ve also sought to emphasise the importance of the duty to respond promptly, even during the period when the deadlines were extended, as set out in our guidance for requesting information during the pandemic. We think it’s important that requesters know their rights, and the right to a prompt response (not just one within 20/60 working days) is something that has remained consistent for FOI users throughout the pandemic.
Time to restore oversight
It’s unquestionably a time of great uncertainty for us all, with many returning to some semblance of normality while still unsure whether the much anticipated second peak is on the horizon. But given a national policy of this staged return, should the ICO not, like its Scottish counterpart, be encouraging authorities to do the same?
One compelling reason is hinted at by the Scottish Commissioner’s own caveat: that the longer the deadlines are allowed to extend, the more of a backlog will build up, causing further delays down the line.
We’d encourage authorities everywhere to re-examine any laxity they may have introduced at the start of lockdown, and to continue to do so regularly: is it still genuinely necessary now that staff may have been moved back from the covid-19 frontline?
And we’d urge them to treat the need for a timely, efficient FOI service as one of the top priorities during this uncertain period.
Image: Andrea Piacquadio
If you were putting in a claim for benefits, challenging an accusation in court or phoning in sick to your employer, would you expect your local authority to be checking your social media presence?
How do you think a stranger might assess you as a parent, were they to skim over any public posts on your Facebook page? If you’ve been on a protest recently, would you be comfortable knowing that your local council was combing through any photos you’ve shared?
A Freedom of Information investigation by Privacy International, using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, has discovered that a significant number of local authorities — 62.5% of those responding to their FOI requests — habitually monitor citizens’ Facebook or other social media profiles to gather intelligence.
What’s more, the majority have no policy in place or measurement of how often and to what extent these investigations occur.
If this concerns you, the first thing you should do is check that your social media privacy controls are up to date. Then you might like to go and read Privacy International’s full report, as well as checking how (or whether) your own local authority has responded to their requests for information.
And finally, you can join Privacy International’s call for stronger guidelines from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner.
Just… maybe think twice about putting it in a public Facebook post?
We’re only joking, of course. Or half joking.
Issues like this need to be shared far and wide. But as Privacy International point out, there are already sobering instances from abroad of threats to those following anti-government accounts. With so many completely unexpected changes to the status quo recently, can we say for certain that it could never happen here?
Image: John Schnobrich
Investigative journalism platform The Ferret has just launched an online training course on using Freedom of Information — and all trainees get a free subscription to our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service for professional users of FOI.
Based in Edinburgh, the Ferret is a community journalism initiative that describes itself as ‘for Scotland and beyond’. Since 2012 its members’ investigations have rooted out the truth around local, national and international issues including coronavirus, Brexit, dark money — and much more. They’re a co-operative, so supporters become part-owners. If they want to, they can also access the resources and training to pursue their own stories.
And now, the Ferret’s online Freedom of Information course shares everything the founders know about the use of FOI for tracking down facts. This resource would be useful for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of the act and how to use it, not just for journalism but potentially for campaigning or research purposes too. And it’s not just restricted to the use of FOI in Scotland: you’ll learn everything you need to know to use FOI across the UK… and beyond.
The course costs £30, but six months’ WhatDoTheyKnow Pro usage is bundled in. Since that’s worth £60 on its own, you’re ahead before you even begin.
We’re big fans of the Ferret at mySociety, and we have every confidence that this course will be a springboard for a new generation of great investigative journalists. If you think you might like to be one of them, then why not give it a try? More details here, and in this Twitter thread.
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
Freedom of Information was one tool used in a coordinated campaign to prevent a council from selling off a large part of its property portfolio — including many social housing homes.
Councils, strapped for cash during austerity, have been looking for other ways to raise revenue. As we saw from The Bureau Local’s sold from under you investigation, that has often meant selling off public land and property.
But that can only be done once — the asset, and the benefits from it, are then gone. And when the properties in question are homes, there’s a significant human cost too.
The Stop Haringey Development Vehicle campaign (SHDV) successfully prevented a property deal that would have brought about the demolition of some of the borough’s biggest housing estates so that the land could be redeveloped for enormous profits.
The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.
It was a campaign that gained press attention and community support. It went as far as court, with substantial legal costs covered through crowdfunding.
Hilary Adams told us how SHDV used our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, not just to send FOI requests but also to comb through the requests that were already published on the site to see what previously-released information might be useful.
Back in 2017 Haringey council planned to set up what is known as a Joint Venture Vehicle — basically, a business arrangement between a number of parties — with Lendlease, an Australian multinational property developer.
Hilary tells us, “The deal was widely advertised as having the potential future value of £2 billion. Half the property would have been given to Lendlease, everything to be owned 50/50. The company was not expected to pay, but rather would have borrowed money to use to develop the land, then sell many of the new properties.
“The first part of this plan would have included the transfer of Northumberland Park Housing Estate, one of the largest in Haringey, along with many other smaller estates and individual social housing properties.
“Those properties would have been demolished and replaced with largely private housing with reduced tenancy protections for any remaining social housing tenants.”
But the council had not foreseen the degree to which the community would fight for their homes, and for the right to be included in major decisions that affected their borough.
Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.
Hilary says, “This was a broad-based opposition, both from members of political parties and many other local individuals in the community.
“We feared, with good reason, that much of the social housing would be lost in this process. The sale would have, on day one, included the whole of the Commercial Portfolio of the council which amounted to a value of many millions. It also included the majority of council offices and other properties.
“The second part of the plan would have included Broadwater Farm estate, another very large social housing estate, with a view to demolition and redevelopment with mostly private housing.”
As well as the potential loss of countless homes, with no promise of rehousing within the borough, the plan was being implemented with very little scrutiny.
The councils’ assessment reports were not publicly shared — and the only consultation held was an informal survey at a fun day, asking whether people supported ‘better quality housing’. Of course, most said yes!
FOI as a campaign tool
One of Hilary’s contributions to the campaign was in the assessment of information released through existing FOI requests, and in the putting in of new requests to fill the data gaps.
“I attended a meeting where a local councillor spoke about the plans for the HDV. She had recently been elected and was horrified by what she had discovered.
“Once the campaign had started up, it was this same councillor that suggested I should use your site to coordinate the questions we might need to ask. I became the lead on this part of the campaign, although it was not my only area of work.”
How FOI helped
“The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.
An FOI response can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.
“I took responsibility for collating information that was already on your site and pertinent to us, and also for working out what further questions remained that we might need to ask.
“We had a team issuing the requests, and I kept track of all the responses. That information was all collated and summarised by me and several reports compiled for use with both our media contacts and for our legal challenge.
“Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible. As I am sure you can imagine, even with the site it was a gigantic task and I spent more hours of my life than I would have liked reading some of the most boring and irrelevant responses!”
At this point, we must nod towards our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service, which was in development at the time — but which would definitely help any future campaign with the donkey work of a mass FOI project.
What was uncovered
Hilary continues: “With diligence some gems of information came to light, some of which was already in the public domain — that often feels like it is hidden in plain sight and so our questions led to documents we otherwise might not have thought to consider.
“One element which came up repeatedly, and which helped to sway public opinion was the regularity with which meetings were held, yet no records were kept.
“I eventually collated all of these together, showing a pattern that led us to believe there was a degree of secrecy at play. Public money and resources were being disposed of yet much of the supposedly transparent decision making was anything but.
“Another influential element revealed via FOI was that the property developers were meeting regularly with not only key council officials, but other significant public bodies. These meetings were officially consultative, yet clearly the minutes showed them making important decisions as to how Tottenham should be redeveloped. No representatives of local residents or small and medium local business had any equivalent access to the public authorities in this way with all the direct and indirect influence implied.
“And while councillors were verbally assuring the community that social housing was protected, in reality the paperwork showed commitment only to 31% affordable homes — a very different concept to actual social housing at council rents, which were not secured in the plan. In Haringey there were something like 10,000 on the waiting list, and we could find no evidence, despite verbal assurances, as to how anybody would eventually be housed.
“We also found repeated examples of large amounts of public money being given to developers who would later make significant profits.
“All of this resonated strongly in the community and was fuel to the fire of the campaign both from a media and public opinion perspective.”
Publicity for the campaign
Freedom of Information also came into its own by providing the basis for press coverage.
“We received significant media interest, and the ongoing information we were getting was useful, as new information would act as a focus for a fresh round of media attention.
“I put together a compilation of FOI responses in the hope that by saving journalists work, we would encourage attention on the issues that caused us most concern.
“Each new revelation that we were able to publicise had the effect of building opposition to the scheme and strengthened the campaign against it. We developed a good relationship with a Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, who took a personal and long term interest in the issue.
“In this article, for example, he makes direct reference to something we discovered via FOI: the existence of a shadow board, consisting of council officers and an elected councillor, which was set up prior to the council agreeing formally to the HDV with Lendlease.
“This is a good example of how facts can be hidden in plain sight. Nobody opposed to the HDV had been aware of this until it was revealed in an FOI response. It had been included in one line of a 650 page council report, but few people read every document.
“As this article reveals, this was only one of many vast collections of documents relating to the HDV. In that context, well placed questions can shed light on otherwise hidden corners.
“Naturally we needed to read all the documentation, and there were a few people involved in the campaign who would do so. An FOI response, however, can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.”
FOI contributing to the court case
“Just as with the journalists, I compiled a summary of the FOI responses we felt were most useful, and this was used by the legal team in their preparation.
Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible.
“We lost the legal case, but the one element found in our favour was that the council had failed in their duty to consult.
“That information had been confirmed by FOI requests, by virtue of the limited response. They had been unable to provide much detail in relation to consultation, thus proving that nothing meaningful had taken place.
“However, we were deemed to be out of time and the court case fell. Having said this, we had never expected to win the whole campaign via the courts. Any win would have only meant that they would be required to amend the process — the law would never have stopped the entire plan. We did not doubt they had the legal right to do it: we simply felt that it was not in the best interests of the people of Haringey.
“Our main aim was to delay the signing of the contact with Lendlease long enough that new councillors would be in place and they would vote against the scheme. Unless we had amassed enough information to convince the court to allow the case to be heard, we would not have gained that delay: while the result was awaited, the council were prevented from signing any contract.”
Looking back and looking forward
A new council was voted in with members more sympathetic to the cause; that council halted the HDV and the campaign was eventually won after two long hard years. But is that the end of it?
Hilary reckons so, for now at least: “The nature and vast size of the proposed HDV scheme was unique, and unlikely to be attempted again in the next decade.
“Yes, our campaign had a huge impact, but we think the whole scheme was in danger of collapsing anyway because it was such a bad idea. It had few guarantees of success, and there were many ways in which it could have failed without any intervention from ourselves.
“However, that failure would only have become apparent long after the public land and properties had been privatised, after which we would simply never have got them back.”
And while the campaign succeeded, we cannot be complacent.
“The HDV was conceived in the context of current times. Regeneration in Haringey, and indeed the world, continues to be a hot issue — there’s an international movement to privatise public land, housing and resources.
“But while the underlying issues remain, and regeneration remains a cover for what amounts to social cleansing, we do feel that our campaign contributed to some shift in the discourse around these issues.
“We won, and that was a significant event that has inspired others to try to defend their areas and raised public awareness of all of the issues encapsulated within.”
Hilary continues to campaign with FOI.
“Currently I am involved with the Wards Corner Latin Village campaign and we are using WhatDoTheyKnow to seek information that might help in that struggle.
“Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.”
We’re very glad to be of use in these campaigns, and we wish Hilary the best of luck in future endeavours to preserve this pocket of North London.
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
In May 2019 Pressure Vessels, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), sought to understand increasing levels of stress on the mental health of academic staff.
Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University used Freedom of Information to understand the changing state of staff bodies’ mental health, analysing the demand for counselling and occupational health services within HE.
The first Pressure Vessels report focused primarily on academic staff, while this follow-up broadens the brief to incorporate professional services staff.
“Professional services staff are often marginalised in discussions about the higher education workforce, despite the significant roles they play. They are also more likely to be vulnerable to restructuring and redundancy,” say the study’s authors.
Of course, like every other sector in society, Higher Education has experienced a severe change in working conditions due to the global pandemic. But as Dr Morrish points out, “higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”
The data in Pressure Vessels II was obtained by requests for information made to 17 universities, on staff numbers accessing counselling and referrals to occupational health for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.
The first report inspired Sheffield lecturer Tom Stafford to plot the figures onto graphs for each institution — he also offered to make graphs for any more data that could be obtained from other HEIs.
We are pleased to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used as part of a campaign to understand conditions and press for improvements. It’s just one more example of how our right to information can be used for the greater good. Read Pressure Vessels II here.
Image: Nik Shuliahin
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.
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Image: Dimitri Karastelev
Stuart Lawson is a librarian, one of the editors at the Journal of Radical Librarianship, and a part of the open access movement which advocates that research outputs should be distributed for free and online, with an open license — for the good of all.
So it should come as no surprise to learn that some of Stuart’s recent research, informed by Freedom of Information requests to the UK’s Higher Education Institutes, has focused on research journals — and specifically, how much institutes are paying for subscriptions. You can see the requests here, the data released in this spreadsheet, and the resulting report here.
The study collected details of payments made by HEIs for access to academic journals from 2017-2019, focusing on ten publishers. The research team discovered that the total expenditure was more than £330 million.
We spoke to Stuart and asked for some background to this FOI-based investigation, beginning with an explanation of the original motivation behind it:
“Open access publishing means that research is available to everyone, but there are debates around how that model can be paid for. And since there is currently a mixed system where some publications are open access and some require subscriptions to access, libraries are continuing to pay a lot of money for subscriptions while also trying to find ways to fund open access.
“I am a librarian who wants all research to be published open access rather than behind a paywall, so I felt that it was important to know the financial costs of the current system.
“Previously, the amounts were unknown. It’s impossible to have conversations about the appropriate cost of scholarly publishing if we don’t know what those costs are in the first place!”
The need for FOI
Freedom of Information is, of course, a practical way to obtain data from public authorities, and to build up a nationwide picture. But in this case, it was vital.
“Using the legal tool of FOI was the only way to get this data, as institutions were not voluntarily releasing it.
“One publisher, Elsevier, even had a clause in the contracts signed by libraries that forbade them from telling anyone how much they were spending, unless they were required to via an FOI request.
“These ‘non-disclosure’ clauses are common worldwide in publisher contracts, but thankfully not widely used in the UK (except by Elsevier) because Jisc — the higher education body that negotiates most deals — have worked to remove them”.
Despite the reluctance that one might assume that this signified, Stuart says getting the required information was pretty straightforward once they’d submitted the FOI requests. In fact, the hardest part was the admin:
“A majority of HEIs provided the data promptly, although some refused in the first instance which meant I need to push back and sometimes requested an internal review of the handling of the request.
“Eventually most institutions provided the data, but the hold-outs caused a lot more work for me”.
Making requests in public
Why was WhatDoTheyKnow particularly suitable for this project?
“It was the best way that I knew of to make bulk requests to organisations. But more importantly for me, I wanted to make sure there was a complete public record of all responses so that when I compiled the data, others could verify it”.
That’s one of the reasons that WhatDoTheyKnow is set up to publish FOI requests and responses online, so we were glad to hear this.
And what is Stuart’s desired outcome from this study?
“For people to realise the high cost of subscription charges, and for libraries to question how much they are spending. And perhaps even cancel some of the deals and spend their money on enabling open access instead.”
It’s possible that this piece of research will be enough of an eye-opener to start making a change in this area. But Stuart’s realistic:
“I hope I don’t need to send these requests again in future years, but the situation is still moving quite slowly, so it might be necessary to use WhatDoTheyKnow once again!”
Image: Bruno Mira