1. Workfare: what happens when the government doesn’t want to release information?

    You might have seen it in the Daily Mirror: the full extent of the Department of Work and Pensions’ legal costs, incurred while fighting the obligation to name the companies who participated in the Workfare scheme.

    Workfare is a government program which required the unemployed to work for one of the participating organisations, in exchange for no pay other than their existing benefits — working out lower than the minimum wage.

    It’s a story in which our site WhatDoTheyKnow is strongly involved. The original request for the list of companies participating in the Workfare scheme was made on the site back in January 2012 by user Frank Zola.

    That request was refused, noting that the information was “being withheld under Section 43 of the FOI Act which relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf”.

    As any WhatDoTheyKnow user is given the means to do, Zola referred the request to the Information Commissioner. They ruled in favour of the release.

    The government were unforthcoming, however, and the matter was taken to tribunal and through the court of appeal. Zola continued to pursue the case doggedly as the government repeatedly questioned the ruling that the information must be released into the public domain. Their defence was that the companies and charities listed as participating in the Workfare scheme might suffer negative effects to their reputation and commercial viability, given the strong swell of public opinion against the scheme.

    In July 2016, four and a half years after the request had first been made, the full list was finally disclosed, and can be seen on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    But the story doesn’t end there. More than one person, including the Mirror’s own reporters, wondered just how much had been spent by defendants on both sides of the legal tussle. In August another user lodged this request with the DWP and discovered that their costs amounted to £92,250.

    Meanwhile, a similar request to the ICO reveals that their costs in defending the case used a further £7,931 from the public purse.

    We highlight this story partly because it shows the value of persistence. WhatDoTheyKnow is designed to help users to understand their rights. If your request is refused, it makes it clear that you have the right to request an internal review, making that route less intimidating to those who don’t know the ropes. If you go on to the appeals process, we hope that having all previous correspondence online helps with that. Other users can also offer help and support via the annotations system.

    In this case though, we think many would have been deterred once the matter had been referred to the higher courts, and we congratulate everyone concerned for sticking to their guns and getting this information out into the public domain.

    In a further twist, it’s perhaps worth relating that a few weeks ago, the supermarket Sainsbury’s contacted the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team and asked us to remove their name from the list of organisations who took part in Workfare, since “a small number of our stores did participate in the government’s Work Experience programme but this was not company policy”. We decided not to comply with this request.

    Image: Andrew Writer (CC-by/2.0)

  2. Spam attack!

    What happens when your site is the target of a major spam attack? That wasn’t something we were particularly keen to find out —  but it’s a scenario we’re now fully acquainted with. That’s all thanks to a recent concerted assault on our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    All is calm again now, and hopefully, as a user of the site, you’ll have noticed very little. Yes, you’ll now have to complete a recaptcha when creating a new request*, and you might have discovered that the site was inaccessible for a couple of hours. Beyond that, everything is pretty much as it was.

    From our point of view, though, it was an emergency situation that meant that several of us had to put down what we were doing and join in with some quick decision-making.

    Alert, alert!

    It was around 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon when Richard, one of the volunteers who helps to run WhatDoTheyKnow, noticed unusual activity on the site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was created to help people send requests for information to public authorities — a service for the wider good. Unfortunately, at this point, it was also doing something quite the opposite of good: it was providing the means for unknown sources to send those same authorities hundreds of spam messages.

    We’d like to apologise to those who were on the receiving end: clearly, spam is a nuisance for everyone who receives it and we’re unhappy to have played any part in its perpetuation.

    We also had a secondary concern. It seemed likely that recipients would mark these incoming emails as spam. When enough people had done that, email providers would see us as an insecure source, and block all our messages, valid or otherwise, potentially preventing the WhatDoTheyKnow system from running efficiently.

    A little fire-fighting? That’s actually situation normal

    Spam is an obvious example of the site being abused, but it’s perhaps worth mentioning that we work hard on many levels to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is only used for its core purpose: the requesting of information under the FOI Act.

    And note that we’ve always been careful to protect against abuse. WhatDoTheyKnow does already have several measures in place as standard: we only allow one account per email address; we verify that email addresses are genuine; and we cap the number of requests that users can make each day (a restriction that we only override for users who are demonstrably making acceptable use of our service). We reckon that these measures very much helped to reduce the impact of the attacks.

    Action

    After a quick discussion between the volunteer team, trustees and mySociety staff, we took the site offline to give us time to work on a solution while stopping any more spam from being sent.

    Of course, we then removed all the spam requests and comments from the site and banned the accounts that had made them. We also contacted the affected bodies to let them know what had happened and to assure them that we were taking steps to deal with it.

    When we brought the site back up, a couple of hours later, we did so cautiously and with new restrictions and safeguards in place.

    Spam ‘requests’ had been sent over a period of about 13 hours. There were in the region of 800 made, though only about 500 actually got sent to authorities. Additionally, around 368 spam comments were left on existing requests. These relatively small numbers lead us to believe that they were being made manually.

    Time to breathe… or nearly

    Once we’d discovered the issue, dealing with it and getting the site back up and running took us 2.5 hours.

    Job done — so now we could sit back and relax, eh? But no: the next day we discovered that a couple of other sites running on the Alaveteli platform,  AskTheEu and New Zealand’s FYI, were being subjected to the same attacks.

    So we rolled out the changes we’d made on WhatDoTheyKnow to make them available to all Alaveteli users. And then, finally, we could get back to the everyday work we’d been doing before — making our sites better for you, and the other nice non-spamming people who use them.

    * We’ll be looking at removing it as soon as we can, though, as recaptcha doesn’t offer a very accessible experience for many disabled people. Meanwhile, we can manually remove the recaptcha for specific accounts, so if you’re struggling with it, contact the team to implement this exemption.


    Image: Mark Granitz (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  3. What Do We Know about the EU Referendum?

    Just in case you missed it: a little while ago we had an itty bitty referendum on whether the UK should stay as a part of the EU.

    Given that this has had a small, barely worth talking about really, hardly noticed it impact on British politics, we wondered whether there would be any visible changes in the way that people are using our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Did people suddenly find themselves wanting to know more about Europe-related matters in the run-up to the referendum? What about afterwards?

    Short answer: Yes they did! To both questions!

    Long answer: Same as the short answer…but with graphs!

    What we did

    First we drew up a list of twenty-three keywords which might indicate that the request was at least partly related to either Europe, the EU, or the topics that became part of the debate leading up to the vote: keywords like EU, European Parliament, Schengen, refugee, and, that brave little neologism that could, Brexit*.

    Then we pulled all requests where the requester had used one or more of those phrases** and started number-crunching.

    What we found

    In the period between the May 2015 general election and the June 2016 EU referendum WhatDoTheyKnow sent 1,022 FOI requests that matched our EU keywords. These were generated by 641 unique requesters.

    Looking at these requesters: 79% of them made just a single request, and 96% made four or less. The remaining 25 users made 25% of all EU requests — with three users making more than 20 requests each.

    For the year leading up the election there was an average of 55 users making 75.6 EU-related requests between them each month.

    If we split this into two halves (the last half of 2015 and the first half of 2016), the average number of users per month had increased by 20 in 2016 compared to the second half of 2015 — with a peak in both users and requests in the month before the referendum and a decline in the immediate run-up.

    run-up-eu-requests

    So people had more questions to ask once the referendum was more in the public eye. But maybe that’s just reflecting wider trends across the board. Can we state with certainty that this change was referendum-related?

    Let’s move on to the second question: What happened after the referendum?

    After the referendum

    Comparing the three months before the referendum with the three months after it, we see users and requests are up in the post referendum period.

    EU-related requests Users making EU-related requests
    Pre-referendum 310 216
    Post-referendum 332 252

    Looking month-by-month, we can see this is mostly an immediate spike followed by a drop-off:

    eu ref - either side

    In fact when we looked week-by-week, we could see the largest spike was in the week following the vote. This gives us some definite hints that it was the referendum that was driving this.

    But to make extra sure that this increase really was referendum-related, we compared these changes to the overall WhatDoTheyKnow trends at the time.

    The number of requests made across the platform increased between the two periods (17,246 increased to 19,120) — but there was also a decrease in the number of unique users making requests (4,850 decreased to 4,721).

    This means the post-referendum increase in EU requests was counter to the general flow – and we can use a statistical test (chi-square) to confirm that the difference in users making EU requests is sufficiently different from the overall direction of users to reject the idea they are being driven by the same trend (p < 0.01 for those that want to know) .

    So we can say there is a real difference before and after the referendum: people were asking government for more for more EU-related information after the referendum than before it.

     Notes

    *First appearance in an FOI request: May 2015!

    **Obvious Complaint: But Alex! Aren’t some of those a bit broad? And the answer is yes! In fact we discarded ‘immigration’ and ‘migration’ as keywords because when separated from other keywords, these were mostly requests for information about immigration rules relevant to the requester (although that said, a similar post-referendum peak appears when we looked at these ‘immigration’ requests in isolation. There were just too few to make as big a deal out of the change).

    ‘EU’ as a keyword will similarly be catching requests that have nothing to do with the EU, as EU law is so integrated that appeals to directives or other obligations can make an appearance in requests to just about any public body on just about every topic.

    While the global count of ‘EU related requests’ might be inflated by this, a change relative to the population of all requests (like the one we found) should be robust — assuming that non EU-related requests that mention the EU are not distributed differently to non EU-related requests that don’t. This seems reasonable and so for the sake of this blog post — let’s say that’s so.

    Keywords used

    Here are the words we used (note on why we didn’t include ‘immigration’ or ‘migration’ above); one request often matched multiple keywords:

    Term

    Matches

    European Union

    112

    EU

    780

    European Commission

    22

    EU Law

    44

    European Law

    9

    European Parliament

    18

    EEA

    446

    European Economic Area

    30

    European regulations

    1

    EU regulations

    9

    European directive

    1

    EU directive

    7

    Asylum Seeker

    25

    Refugee

    79

    Resettled

    7

    EU migrants

    5

    European migrants

    2

    EU nationals

    16

    European nationals

    3

    Schengen

    9

    Calais

    9

    Brexit

    46

    EU Referendum

    75


    Image: Speedpropertybuyers.co.uk (CC by/2.0)

  4. Asking questions in public: the Alaveteli experiments

    Suppose we sent an automated tweet every time someone made a successful Freedom of Information request on WhatDotheyKnow — would it bring more visitors to the site?

    And, if you get a response to your first FOI request, does it mean you are more likely to make a second one?

    These, and many more, are the kind of questions that emerge as we refine the advice that we’re offering partner organisations.

    Our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli underpins Freedom of Information sites all around the world. When we first launched it, our only priorities were to make the code work, and to make that code as easy as possible to implement. But, as a community emerged around Alaveteli, we realised that we’d all be better off if we shared advice, successes and ideas.

    And that’s where we began to encounter questions.

    Some of them, like how to get more users, or how to understand where users come from, are common to anyone running a website.

    Others are unique to our partner structure, in which effectively anyone in any part of the world may pick up the Alaveteli code and start their own site. In theory, we might know very little more than that a site is running, although we’ll always try to make contact and let the implementers know what help we can offer them.

    There were so many questions that we soon saw the need to keep them all in one place. At mySociety, we’re accustomed to using Github for anything resembling a to-do list (as well as for its primary purposes; Github was designed to store code, allow multiple people to work on that code, and to suggest or review issues with it), and so we created a slightly unusual repo, Alaveteli-experiments.

    Screenshot of the Alaveteli Experiments repo, showing a table of experiments and summaries of their results

    This approach also gives us the benefit of transparency. Anyone can visit that repo and see what questions we are asking, how we intend to find the answers, and the results as they come in. What’s more, anyone who has (or opens) a Github account will also be able to add their own comments.

    Have a browse and you’ll come across experiments like this one and this one, which attempt to answer the questions with which we opened this post.

    Some of the experiments, like this one to analyse whether people click the ‘similar requests’ links in the sidebar, we’re running on our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow. Others, such as this one about the successful requests listed on every Alaveteli site’s homepage, are being conducted on our partners’ sites.

    Our aims are to find out more about how to bring more users to all Alaveteli sites, how to encourage browsing visitors to become people who make requests, and how to turn one-off requesters into people who come back and make another — and then pass all that on to our partners.

    We hope you’ll find plenty of interest on there. We reckon it’s all relevant, especially to anyone running an FOI website, but in many cases to anyone wondering how best to improve a site’s effectiveness. And we’re very happy to hear your ideas, too: if we’ve missed some obvious experiment, or you’ve thought of something that would be really interesting to know through the application of this kind of research, you’re  welcome to let us know.

    You can open your own ticket on the repo, suggest it in the Alaveteli community mailing list, or email Alaveteli Partnerships Manager Gemma.

     


    Image: Sandia Labs (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  5. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: UK (part 2)

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Today we hear from Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s Freedom of Information specialist.

    Martin Rosenbaum

    Since 2005 I and my colleagues in the BBC have used FOI as the foundation for certainly hundreds and hundreds, possibly thousands, of news stories and investigations at national and regional levels, across a wide range of topics — health, education, policing, environment, transport, foreign policy, and so on.

    Image by Ben Welsh Martin Rosenbaum discusses British open data laws on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011.This has included revelations on important issues from staff shortages in A&E departments to how officials wrongly dismissed predictions about levels of Eastern European immigration, from which makes of cars are most likely to fail MOT tests to the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from schools, from the cost of policing football games to the identities of individuals who have turned down honours.

    Journalism is based on asking people questions, but of course much of the time there’s no guarantee you will actually get them answered.

    Freedom of information is a rare and valuable tool because it provides a legal right to some information — a right that can be enforced when necessary by independent bodies, the Information Commissioner and the Information Rights Tribunal. And that means FOI provides the power to obtain certain material in the public interest that otherwise could not be squeezed out of reluctant public authorities.

    FOI has made a crucial difference to what the media can find out and what the public knows about what central and local government and the public sector is doing.

    Read the next post to learn how FOI has been used by journalists in Hungary.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

     


    Image: Martin Rosenbaum by Ben Welsh CC BY-2.0

  6. Journalists celebrate Freedom of Information: UK

    All this week, we’ll be celebrating International Right to Know Day and the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information with some insights from journalists who have used FOI in their work.

    Here in the UK, two names are particularly linked to FOI: Professor Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, and Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI correspondent.

    Today we hear from Heather about the importance of FOI and how she’s used it, and tomorrow you can read Martin’s views.

    Heather Brooke

    I took two important FOI cases through the legal appeals process: one seeking the minutes to a BBC Board of Governors Meeting after the Hutton Inquiry1, and my notable legal victory against the House of Commons for details of MPs’ expenses2.

    Paul Clarke [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsThis victory in the UK High Court fundamentally changed law and policy, and for the first time in its history Parliament had to account to an outside body over how MPs’ claimed expenses.  The court ruling and subsequent leak of the data led to a number of high-level political resignations as well as full-scale reform of the parliamentary expense regime and passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. A new government was elected in May 2010 on a mandate of transparency in part due to the scandal

    I made extensive use of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, filing about 500 FOIs and writing some 60 newspaper and magazine articles about the law and its impact on democracy from 2005-2010. I used the law to map and monitor public bodies for the first time in a citizen-friendly way in Your Right to Know. Through FOI I was able to flag up current and future problems such as secrecy in food safety regulation, the postcode lottery for criminal justice, the amounts police spend on public liability claims and propaganda.

    Freedom of Information, rooted in Enlightenment values, contains within it a key principle of democracy that there must be access to information (and knowledge) for all equally. My approach in my 25-year journalistic career has been to use FOI as a means of testing the promise and practice of democracy.  By their responses to FOI requests, we see how agencies truly think about citizens’ rights to access and participate in the political system.

    Read the next installment to learn how Martin Rosenbaum’s use of FOI has underpinned hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories at the BBC.

    If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.

    But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    1Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Heather Brooke v IC and the BBC (2007) EA/2006/0011; EA/2006/0013
    2Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner & Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman, Jonathan Michael Ungoed-Thomas [2008] EWHC 1084 (Admin) (16 May 2008)

    Images: Cameramen at the Hutton Inquiry by Ben Sutherland CC BY-2.0; Heather Brooke by Paul Clarke CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

  7. Come and see Finnish Freedom Of Information cartoonists

    Think Freedom of Information is a bit of a dry topic? Not when you mix it with some exuberant inky comic art, it’s not!

    Two Finnish cartoonists, Siiri Viljakka and Lauri Tuomi-Nikula, are visiting the UK to speak about their comic book Last Words. This graphic novella imagines one of the founding fathers of Freedom of Information, Anders Chydenius, returning from the grave to see how his ideas are surviving in the modern world.

    Siiri and Lauri will be speaking at four informal meet-ups in London, Brighton and Hastings — entry is free.

    Image: Siiri Valjakka and Lauri Tumoi-NikulaArtwork: Siiri Viljakka & Lauri Tuomi-Nikula

    If you’d like to hear Siiri and Lauri speaking about comics, FOI, and how the two can interact, you can register now at no cost.

    At the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday events, the talk will focus mainly on comics with a side order of FOI.

    At Citizen Beta on Tuesday, it will be the other way around, with Siiri and Lauri fitting in among other speakers on the topic of FOI and civic technologies – full details here. So take your pick, depending on how you prefer your arts/civic rights balance!

    The trip has been made possible by generous donations from several people via a crowdfunder. Thanks to everyone who donated, but special thanks to Dan Berry’s Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast, the Hastings 1066 Country Cartoon Festival, and my dad 🙂

  8. What are YOU doing with mySociety sites?

    If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.

    A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .

    But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.

    Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.

    Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.

    Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.

    Image: Robert Couse-Baker (CC-by/2.0)

  9. Alaveteli Professional – learning more about journalistic use of Freedom of Information

    In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.

    Why are we doing this project?

    Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?

    Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.

    Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.

    That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.

    What we’re doing

    The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.

    We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.

    The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.

    There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.

    What’s next?

    At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.

    Image: Dean Hochman (CC by 2.0)

  10. How 350 FOI requests will increase the chance of success for start-ups

    Gavin Chait hates walking past empty shops.

    We’re talking about shops where the only person inside is a bored cashier, waiting for customers. Gavin sees it as a sign that the business should never have been set up in that location, and, more importantly, as something that’s completely avoidable.

    With his company Whythawk, he’s on a mission to get that changed — and he’s using Freedom of Information to do so. It’s a very interesting case study that shows just how WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information platform, can be used for the social good.

    So, if you have a few minutes, sit back and watch Gavin explain what led him to make 350 FOI requests, one to each local authority in England and Wales — and what he did when many of them were turned down.

    You can read more about the whole project at Pikhaya.com.

    Thanks very much to Gavin for taking the time to talk to us.

    Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve used one of mySociety’s sites? We’d love to hear from you: just drop us a line on communications@mysociety.org.


    Image: Dan Thompson (CC)