Here are a few stories that were in the news recently. They have two things in common — see if you can you guess what they are:
- Money laundering fears as universities accept £52m in cash (Times)
- Almost 1,000 UK homeless deaths recorded in 2020 (ITV)
- Covid bike and walking schemes do not delay ambulances, trusts say (Guardian)
- Councils fail to pay £1.3bn of emergency Covid business grants (Times)
- Covid-19: NHS trusts deny restricting PPE during pandemic (BMJ)
- Half of London boroughs found using Chinese surveillance tech linked to Uighur abuses (Japan Times)
If you’ve been keeping up with mySociety’s posts, it’s probably no surprise that the first thing these stories have in common is that they are all based on Freedom of Information requests — in fact, multiple requests made across many bodies.
We often mention how useful Freedom of Information can be in helping campaigns, journalists or individuals to gather information from a variety of sources, to create a dataset that didn’t exist in one place before.
Naturally we are all in favour of such stories — but we think the organisations and media behind these requests are missing an extra trick, and that’s the second thing they have in common.
In every case, it seems the journalist or organisation has submitted their requests, and gathered the data, then written the story — and that’s the end of it. That data is hidden away, and no-one else can access it to verify the story, dig further or to find more interesting leads.
Journalists understandably gather information for their stories in private so that they aren’t ‘scooped’: this is one factor that led us to develop WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, which allows users to embargo requests and responses until their story has been published. But, once it has, the tool features strong encouragements to put the underlying data live, so that everyone can access it.
After all, at this stage there is often little benefit to the journalist from keeping the data all to themselves — and lots of potential public good from putting it out in the open. This is also a great way of providing extra credibility for a news item, showing that the facts back it up.
Here are those stories again, together with details of the requests that informed them:
- University money laundering fears: The Times surveyed multiple British universities to break this front-page story.
- Homeless deaths: The Museum of Homelessness put in over 300 FOI requests to gain one part of the information backing up their Dying Homeless project.
- Bike and walking schemes not delaying ambulances The charity Cycling UK asked 10 ambulance trusts for their data.
- Councils fail to pay grants 400 FOI requests were issued by the Event Supplier and Services Association to local authorities across England.
- NHS trusts deny restricting PPE: The BMJ sent Freedom of Information requests to 130 acute, community, integrated, and ambulance trusts.
- London boroughs using Chinese surveillance tech FOI requests were submitted to all 32 London councils and the next 20 largest UK city councils.
If you’re a journalist or campaigner yourself, we’d like to suggest that you consider making your data public next time you use FOI like this. Do it via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, or, if you prefer, do it elsewhere: naturally, the choice is yours, though it’s worth noting that data on WhatDoTheyKnow is easy for people to find, thanks to our excellent search engine positions.
Pro also has other features that aid journalists in their investigations, including the ability to send batch requests to multiple authorities.
With our citations tool, you can even link directly to your story, giving it a boost in visibility that is also accelerated by our good standing with Google et al (or other users can link to it in an annotation).
On the other hand, if you’re just an interested citizen who would love to know more about one or more of those news stories, don’t forget that you could use WhatDoTheyKnow to request the same information, and it will then be public for all to see.
For example, if the homelessness or the PPE story is of interest to you, you could make an FOI request to your own council or NHS Trust to get the local picture. Once you have the facts, you might take informed action on them: perhaps lobbying your local representatives for change, or contacting the local media if there’s a story to be told.
And, to help us in our attempts to get more journalists thinking about opening up their data, you could keep your eyes open for stories like these in the future.
If you see one, perhaps give the writer a friendly nudge to publish their data. After all, they’re using transparency to get their scoop — why not also practice transparency for the good of all?
Artificial Intelligence, innovative use of data and the arms industry – now there’s a bunch of areas you’d want oversight on. And yet, a high-profile new government research agency appears to have been absolved from the obligations of public scrutiny before it even begins work.
News broke this week that the treasury has authorised £800 million of funding over the next four years for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). This research agency was originally conceived by Dominic Cummings, and, according to the 2019 Conservative manifesto, will be producing “high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government”.
More explicitly, The Guardian sees the agency very much working in the area of defence, while also noting that many technologies developed in this area have gone on to benefit society more widely. The BBC says ARIA has been inspired by US agency DARPA, which is “credited with funding the development of the internet and GPS”.
All well and good, perhaps, until you see the government’s assertion that “the new body is being set up so it can take fast, agile decisions without bureaucracy.”
Judging by multiple press reports and a comment from Ed Milliband, although the agency is to be funded by taxpayers’ money it will be exempt from Freedom of Information law. While we very much hope this is not the case, this aspect has been reported by several sources.
FOI is explicitly for the purpose of allowing citizens to demand transparency from the institutions which we fund. The Times, reporting this story, also takes a moment to remind readers that it, along with other major news outlets — not to mention organisations including mySociety — is calling for urgent action on declining levels of governmental transparency, and we can see from the ICO’s many notices to Whitehall departments that the current administration are not complying with their obligations.
Our friends at the Campaign for FOI point out that DARPA, the blueprint for ARIA, is in fact subject to the US FOI Act, so removing those obligations would be something that has been built in as part of ARIA’s conception:
This new taxpayer funded body must not be exempt from #FOI. The Act has an exemption to protect commercial interests. The US agency, DARPA, on which it is modelled is subject to FOIA. So ministers have no basis for claiming FOI would give rivals an unfair competitive advantage. https://t.co/Ch4Spnp91S
— Campaign for Freedom of Information (@CampaignFoI) February 17, 2021
Additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team point out that any authority wholly owned by the public sector is subject to FOI unless specific provision is made to exclude it — and so, dodging the obligations of the Act would require either setting up an opaque operating structure for that purpose, or a new exemption to be passed into law under the FoIA.
Meanwhile, our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow does list authorities that are not subject to FOI if there is a good argument that they should be. If indeed it is officially exempted from the Act, we will also take this route with ARIA, just as soon as it formally comes into being.
EDIT: The official government press release is now here, and includes the statement: “Central to the agency will be its ability to deliver funding to the UK’s most pioneering researchers flexibly and at speed, in a way that best supports their work and avoids unnecessary bureaucracy.”
Image: Kevin Ku
Here at mySociety, before pressing ‘post’, we sometimes pass the wording of a tweet or blog entry past a couple of colleagues, just to make sure it strikes the right tone.
So when we saw emails from the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the Cabinet Office’s ‘Rapid Response unit’ going back and forth to get the wording of a tweet absolutely correct, we sympathised.
“The quote would need to be shrunk down to fit, what should the main focus be?”
“Have added some bits, not sure what the highlighted section was meant to be?”
“[Redacted] wants us to delete the tweet for relationship management purposes and replace with the below.”
“I’ll check at this end, but isn’t doing that just going to reignite?”
“It could potentially reignite it, yes. But the Mail Online did not approach us for a comment and their headline is very misleading so feel we should rebut with less confrontational language.”
“But you can’t replace a tweet? You can only delete and then go back on the original article with a new comment, so you’re rebutting twice, only the second time around admitting that you went too hard first time? Which just creates another story. Isn’t it better to just leave it?”
Admittedly the DHSC’s predicament was higher stakes than ours generally is — they were responding to a piece in the Mail Online and tackling disinformation about coronavirus statistics. The email that kicks off all this discussion reads:
“Flagging growing engagement with a Daily Mail article claiming that Covid-19 statistics around fatalities and hospitalisation have been twisted to create fear among the public (6.6k interactions).
“Although not very high engagement, the article has now been picked up by several high profile lockdown sceptics such as Simon Dolan and Adam Books.
“Given these damaging claims could affect compliance, we recommend that the press office contact the Daily Mail to make them aware of the public health impact, and if possible, include a government line in the article.”
For those who work in communications, and perhaps everyone else too, it is quite interesting to see the authority’s rebuttal process roll into action, with each statement requiring sign-off by a named person, presumably for accountability purposes (these names have, though, been redacted before release).
Available thanks to FOI
How did we come to see these internal memos? Because a WhatDoTheyKnow user requested them under the Freedom of Information Act.
We can’t know this user’s intent*: were they hoping to reveal evidence that there is indeed a governmental coverup over lockdown, or perhaps to argue the case that there is none? Either way, it seems pretty clear from the released email threads that if there is a conspiracy at play, the staff frantically scrambling to get the right message out to the public don’t know about it.
This request is also notable because the user, spotting that the authority had not provided everything they had asked for, requested an internal review, as is anyone’s right if they believe their FOI request has not been handled correctly.
To DHSC’s credit, they did go on to provide the missing data, and also went out of their way to give some background information “outside of the scope of the FOI Act, and on a discretionary basis”.
It’s worth noting that, for all the effort put in by DHSC’s communications team, however, Mail Online does not appear to have amended the article.
FOI as fact-checker
As we’re in the midst of a fast-changing pandemic situation, it’s perhaps inevitable that there’s lots of misinformation and confusion flying around at the moment — and thanks to social media, it spreads fast.
Freedom of Information requests can play one small part in countering ‘fake news’, by bringing background information into the public domain, helping us understand the full picture a bit better.
Is it always useful for such data to be public? That’s a matter for debate, and a question that is baked into the ICO’s FOI guidance for authorities.
We’ve been doing some in-depth work around exemptions recently, so it is interesting to see COVID-related requests like this one about ill-effects of vaccines in the light of Section 22 exemptions, which cover ‘information intended for future publication and research information’. We suspect a Section 22 exemption may be applied here.
That request is for Adverse Drug Reaction (ADR) data, and includes the instruction, ‘This information should be made available now as raw data, not held back to be accompanied by any analysis.’
Would that be desirable, or is the release of raw data just opening the door wide for potential misinterpretation and the drawing of erroneous conclusions?
When applying a Section 22 exemption, the ICO says that the authority must perform a public interest test to assess whether there is more public good in releasing the requested information than there would be in withholding it.
Their guidance specifically notes that “In most instances public authorities will not be able to argue that information is too technical, complex or misleading to disclose, or that it may be misunderstood or is incomplete, because they can explain it or set it into context.”
And so, the ideal scenario is that the data is released, with robust explanations and in a way that can be understood by all. That would be a great outcome made possible by FOI**.
* UPDATE: The request-maker has now added an annotation which explains their intent.
** UPDATE: Vaccine adverse reaction data is available, with context, on the GOV.uk website.
Image: Garry Butterfield
Kids in Scotland can start school at the age of four and a half, if that makes sense for them. The school year begins in August, and any child who turns four from the February before can enter Primary 1.
But not every child is ready to progress from nursery to school, just because they’ve hit the age when they’re legally able to.
We spoke to Patricia Anderson from the Give Them Time campaign about how Freedom of Information requests, sent via WhatDoTheyKnow, helped them get the law changed. From 2023, those kids who aren’t quite ready for school will still be able to benefit from more nursery time — and their parents will be able to rest easy that they won’t be charged fees for that extra year.
A confusing state of affairs
We began by asking Patricia to explain a bit more about the campaign, and to spell out the underlying issue for us.
“Give Them Time is a grassroots movement which evolved in 2018 from parents across Scotland sharing their own, often difficult, experiences of applying for a further year of nursery funding for their child”, she told us.
WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign.
“No child in Scotland is legally required to be formally educated in Scotland until the August after they turn five years old. Therefore, any child still aged four at the school commencement date in August doesn’t need to start school (or be home educated) until the following August a year later.
“This is set out in the Education (Scotland) Act 1980, section 32, sub-section 3. However, currently only those with January and February birthdays have an automatic entitlement to a free further year of early learning and childcare (nursery) whereas those children who turn five after the school commencement date in August and by 31st December have to apply to their local authority to be considered for this funding.”
So in other words, while there is a recognition in law that any four-year-olds should have the option to defer, parents have to apply for the relevant funding for all but the youngest (those with birthdays in January or February), but have no certainty that they’ll receive it?
“Yes”, says Patricia. “There seemed to be a lack of awareness of the legal right to defer any child who hadn’t reached the age of five by the school commencement date, as well as a lot of misinformation being passed around about whether parents could even apply to their local authority for funding for a further year of nursery or not.
“With this in mind, I set up a Facebook group called Deferral Support Scotland in May 2018 as I felt there wasn’t a central place where parents could go to find out more about deferral options and what the process was for applying for continued nursery funding in their local authority area.
“Three weeks later, after hearing disturbing stories of parents’ experiences which indicated varied practices across the country, members of the Facebook group decided to set up a campaign for a more transparent, consistent and child-centred approach to so called ‘discretionary’ deferrals. And so, Give Them Time was born.”
FOI for gathering hard evidence
As with so many campaigns, Facebook had proved to be an effective space for gathering like-minded folk together, and a catalyst for action. But how did Give Them Time move from Facebook to the use of Freedom of Information requests?
“We realised from the outset that to be taken seriously, we needed hard evidence of national disparities rather than anecdotes, so that’s when we started submitting FOI requests to all local authorities across the country. We wanted to establish whether the anecdotal accounts could be supported by factual data.”
WhatDoTheyKnow was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.
FOI was just one of the tools used by this savvy campaign, as they realised that data could be well supplemented with parents’ real life stories.
These testimonies demonstrated the issue well, with one parent saying, “They knew but seem to try to put you off the idea, make statements like ‘they’ll be fine’, etc”.
Others pointed to the stress and frustration of the bureaucracy and mixed messages they had to navigate, all while contending with worries about what was really best for their own child. Patricia explains how the campaign gathered these comments:
“We used online surveys to gather evidence about people’s experiences of finding out about and applying to their local authority for continued nursery funding. The quantitative data provided by the FOI responses supported the findings of our qualitative surveys.”
You can see all the data, qualitative and quantitative, on the Evidence page of the campaign’s website.
The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow
Using FOI is one thing, but the decision to do so via WhatDoTheyKnow does not always follow — so we were curious to learn what had informed the campaign in doing so.
This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. It helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.
“I discovered WhatDoTheyKnow by chance when searching online for deferral information. It was very easy to use and the transparency it provided appealed to us, as we felt it would further enhance the credibility of the campaign.
“It’s very easy to share a link to an FOI response on WhatDoTheyKnow rather than search through emails and forward them on. It also removed the fear we had of potentially sharing confidential information by mistake as responses are published by WhatDoTheyKnow on the internet, and councils know this will happen in advance so it removed the onus on us to police this.”
This was great to hear, as while we’ve heard many benefits to using WhatDoTheyKnow through the years, we don’t think we’ve heard this precise one before. Of course, the ease of publicly linking to a webpage is something that we appreciate, but the added dimension of mitigating the risk of sharing confidential information was a detail we hadn’t considered (and of course, that’s not to say that authorities don’t sometimes make mistakes, but it does add that extra layer of protection, for sure).
Patricia added that WhatDoTheyKnow was integral to their success:
“WhatDoTheyKnow has had an absolutely invaluable impact on the campaign. The credibility it helped us to achieve, as well as the actual data provided by the FOI responses, enabled us to successfully lobby the Scottish Government to change the law.
“On 7 December 2020, the process was started to amend existing legislation so that from August 2023, any four-year-old deferring their primary one start will automatically be entitled to a free further year of early learning and childcare.”
You should use it, too
Finally, we asked if Patricia had any advice for anyone else wondering whether to use FOI for their campaign, or to help bring about a change in the law.
“Don’t hesitate to use it. This WhatDoTheyKnow website is an absolutely phenomenal tool to have freely available to the public. WhatDoTheyKnow helps the public to use FOI legislation in the way it was intended without fear.”
We often cover stories of corruption, injustice, finance and other very adult topics — and while those are all crucial matters that deserve transparency, it is also very gratifying to hear about the site being used to benefit thousands of children and their families, in a way that hurts no-one and removes worry and frustration for many. Well done to the Give Them Time campaign.
Image: Jelleke Vanooteghem
mySociety services help people be active citizens, whether by speaking truth to power, communicating directly with politicians, or demanding change on your doorstep — and that’s true for the area of climate activism as much as it is for any other burning issue.
By listing some of the ways you’ve been using our services to help the climate, we hope to inspire others to do the same, and to consider new ways in which you might be able to use them to push the climate agenda even further.
At the beginning of 2020, mySociety made a commitment to the planet, adding Climate to our existing workstreams of Transparency, Democracy and Community.
There are many experienced and knowledgeable organisations already working to fight the climate crisis. Accordingly, much of our work in this area has involved teaming up with these existing institutions, to offer the skills we do have and which they are often lacking: data wrangling, service design, site development, research and so on.
But there’s another way in which we can be useful, with no extra development or resource required from us: thanks to our established suite of services, we can help individual citizens to take action. mySociety’s UK websites are already set up to help people find out facts, ask politicians questions, check how MPs are voting, and demand better for their local communities — all useful tools when you want to tackle climate change.
We’ve had a look at the ways in which you’ve been using our websites in service of the climate, and we’ve found a huge variety of examples. Take a look through, and you might be inspired. And, if you’ve taken another type of climate action through our websites, do let us know so that we can add it to our list!
Changes in your neighbourhood
Trees filter air pollution, absorb carbon and provide shade, so it’s possible to argue that every tree is a benefit to the community. As Friends of the Earth advise, that’s all the rationale you need to lodge a request for a Tree Preservation Order, which means that an existing tree cannot be removed without reason.
Or perhaps there simply aren’t enough trees where you live? Then you can write to your council and request that new ones are planted.
We know that climate change is driving bees away, so those who ask their councils to leave roadside verges unmown and allow wildflowers to grow are also doing their bit to help offset the damage.
Meanwhile, WriteToThem can be used by any campaign which wants its supporters to email their politicians, and there are many with an environmental or climate agenda who have done just that.
Hyperlocal groups are campaigning against the loss of green spaces; the Possible organisation regularly rallies its supporters for innovative climate issues such as ground source heat from parks and better spaces for walking or cycling.
Badverts wants to stop the advertising industry from pushing high-carbon products, and Power For People is pushing for non-profit clean energy companies.
And it’s not just campaigns that use WriteToThem, of course — tens of thousands of you use the site every month to tell your politicians what is important to you, how you’d like them to vote, or to alert them to wrongs that need to be set right.
Emails sent through WritetoThem are private between you and your representative, though, so unless you tell us about it, we can’t know what you’re writing about. All the same, we can say with absolute certainty that many of you are expressing your concerns about the climate — it’s such an important topic that you must be.
Many councils declared a climate emergency in 2019 — but what does that mean in real terms, and what comes next? If your council hasn’t published its Climate Action Plan, and you want to ascertain whether they actually have one (or are perhaps working on it) then a Freedom of Information request might yield answers, and plenty of people have used WhatDoTheyKnow for just this purpose.
Or, if the plans are already written and available to the public, there’s still lots more that might need disclosing: are they being adhered to and working as intended? And are the budgets accurate and adequate? How is money actually being spent?
FOI can be used in a huge variety of ways: for example, to collect disparate data from multiple authorities to make up a coherent dataset showing a nationwide picture — like this one, on behalf of Amnesty International, finding out how local authorities were reacting to childrens’ climate strikes.
Thanks to our Alaveteli software, organisations all over the world are running sites like WhatDoTheyKnow that allow their citizens to ask for information. In Hungary, the KiMitTud site uncovered a river pollution scandal; and on AskTheEU the VW emissions misconduct was hinted at long before the story hit the public consciousness.
Holding politicians accountable
FOI requests can take a while to be processed by authorities, so while you’re waiting you might like to do something a bit more immediate and look up your MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou.
Each MP’s voting record includes a section on the environment, containing all parliamentary votes since 2010 that we’ve identified as relevant. The data — on policies from selling state-owned forests to higher taxes on air fares — comes from the Public Whip website, where votes are analysed and categorised.
In the interests of stressing the importance of the climate emergency, we’re keen to give this Environment section more prominence and detail, but of course we can only include the votes that have been held, and even then only the votes that were recorded in Parliament — not those that were just ‘nodded through’ (see more about this here). However, we’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the key climate-related votes of the future.
The open data accessible through our sites can often be useful for researchers: one example of this is the TheyWorkForYou API, which allows for the analysis of everything said in Parliament, among other uses.
As examples of what can be done, Carbon Brief analysed Hansard to see which politicians mention climate change the most; and the Guardian, using TheyWorkForYou, gave a more rounded score to each MP which also took into consideration their votes and interests.
So – that’s quite a long list, and just goes to show the breadth and diversity of the possibilities afforded by our various online services.
If you’ve been feeling helpless about the climate crisis, perhaps this will give you a little hope, and inspire you to take a few small online steps yourself, in service of the planet and our future. Please do let us know how you get on.
A forthcoming tribunal will examine the blocking of FOI requests that have been placed by people living outside the UK.
To those at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow, the matter is quite simple: the UK’s Freedom of Information Act was written explicitly to allow “any person” to request information from a public body. There’s no restriction to say that the requester must be a UK citizen.
A phrase often used is that the FOI process must be ‘applicant blind’. An authority doesn’t have the right to refuse information because of what it knows about the requester. That applies to nationality as much as to any other characteristic.
We vehemently defend this principle, not least because we have seen first hand that important investigations can result from cross-border collaborations — right now, we’re working to support journalists across Europe working on several stories that cannot be confined to one territory.
Associates across the international FOI network are proof positive that this kind of collaboration is invaluable in getting to the truth. Last year, Arne Semsrott of German FOI site FragDenStaat told us of a project they are running in tandem with Spain-based AccessInfo, to find out more about the treatment of migrants in many countries.
“You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe”, he said, “so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.
If each country insisted that its information was only accessible to its own citizens, there would be significantly less opportunity to uncover such cross-border instances of mistreatment, not to mention stories of corruption, malpractice, misspending and cronyism. And as we know, such phenomena are unlikely to respect jurisdictional boundaries.
For a view from closer to home, we can consult a member of the experienced WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team. Richard Taylor comments, “If UK FOI requests were restricted to British citizens or to those living in the UK, that could, depending on how it was implemented, seriously impact our ability to provide WhatDoTheyKnow’s service.
“Providing proof of nationality or residence would be a significant additional hurdle for people making requests, and for us in managing them.”
We question why there is a need for a tribunal to examine a point of the Act that is already quite clear — and, since there is to be one, call upon them to make a judgement that adheres to the letter, and spirit, of this country’s information law.
Image: Max Böhme
This work will support users in taking the next steps, if appropriate, when their requests for information are denied.
A bit of background
In the last few years, there has been a significant and sustained decline in FOI requests being granted by the UK government.
According to the Institute for Government, the proportion of refused FOI requests reached a record level in the third quarter of 2019, with departments refusing to comply in full with more than half of all FOI requests that they received. This compares to around 40% in 2010 and around 30% in 2005.
And yet, our research found that, when challenged, a large proportion of refusals were overturned, suggesting that the fault did not lie with the type of request being made. 22% of internal reviews resulted in the full or partial release of information, and a further 22% of appeals to the ICO led to all or some of the information being released.
For local authorities, up to half of internal reviews – and just over half of all ICO appeals – led to the release of all or some of the information requested. In Scotland, with its own FOI regime, 64% of appeals to the Information Commissioner resulted in the full or partial release of information.
And so, while acknowledging that some refusals are certainly legitimate, there is a clear case for challenging such responses. But to do so is daunting, especially for novice requesters who can understandably be discouraged by an official response citing exemptions in legalese.
This new funding will allow us to approach the issue from four different, but interlinked directions, each intended to inform and support users in challenging government refusals of FOI requests.
- When a WhatDoTheyKnow user confirms that they’ve received a refusal, we’ll be integrating context-sensitive advice. This will inform the user of their right to appeal, give clear guidance on how to assess whether the authority has complied with the law, and also advise on other channels, beside FOI, by which information may be obtained.
- We’ll automatically identify which exemption has been cited in the refusal, giving us the ability to help users better understand why their request has been turned down.
- Based on this finding, we’ll offer context-specific advice for the exemption identified. For example, if the request has been turned down because of cost, we’ll show how to reframe it to fall below the ‘appropriate limit’.
- Finally, once the user has been fully informed, we’ll offer the support they need to escalate the request to an appeal.
Ultimately we hope that this work will help reset the balance on the public’s right to access information, better enabling citizens, journalists and civil society to effectively scrutinise and hold authorities to account.
As always, we’ll also be thinking hard about how to make all of this apply more universally, across the various legislatures that apply in jurisdictions where people are running sites on the Alaveteli platform.
If this interests you, watch this space. We’ll be sure to update when we’ve made some progress on the project.
Image: Tim Mossholder
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