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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
When you send a Freedom of Information request, a clock starts ticking. Here in the UK, public authorities are bound by law to answer a request “promptly, and in any case within 20 working days” — but of course they can only respond if they’ve received the request.
And, while email is generally reliable, we’re all familiar with the occasional mishaps it can bring: mailboxes that are full, accounts that have been closed down, or messages being returned because they look too much like spam.
Sign here please
Email works a bit like signed-for physical mail. When a letter is delivered to a recipient they either sign to say they’ve received the letter, or the mail company records that there was no-one available to accept the delivery. This lets the mail company keep the sender up to date with where their letter is. Mail servers do the same — the recipient server sends a confirmation that a particular email has been received, or an error code is reported by your mail server if there’s a problem delivering the email.
Like physical mail, we can only verify that the message has been accepted at the destination address. It’s then under the recipient’s control to get it to the right person at that address, a bit like a receptionist receiving a letter for an employee 10 floors above. We think that if an authority’s mail server confirms that one of our emails has been delivered, it’s their responsibility to ensure it reaches the correct people to be able to answer your FOI request.
Proof of receipt
Look at the header of any request on WhatDoTheyKnow, and within 24 hours, in most cases you’ll now see a small green ‘delivered’ confirmation:
Most users can click on this to see further confirmation:
But if you’re the owner of the request, when you click on the green ‘delivered’ link, you’ll see information from the mail logs as the message passed through our server. If there’s ever a query about whether or not a message was delivered, you can hand these on to the authority to help them analyse any issues.
On the rare occasions that something goes wrong, here’s what users will see instead:
– and if it’s your own request, again, you’ll have access to the mail logs.
Small but mighty
This feature might look small, but there’s a lot of thinking behind it — just check the length of the trail on Github, our ticketing system. Anyone will be able to understand the amount of discussion and problem-solving that went into the addition of this small green tick, while the more technically-minded may also find it interesting to see the coding solutions as they unfolded.
This small green tick also gives users something rather powerful: proof that their request was received by the authority’s mail server at a specific time, should that be disputed.
The suggestion for this feature came initially from one of the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers. It took some time to implement, but we’re pleased to say that it has now been made available for all Alaveteli sites in release 0.25.0.0.
mySociety’s flagship Freedom of Information (FOI) request portal WhatDoTheyKnow.com, operating in the UK since 2008, has amassed a whopping 330,000 FOI requests (and counting) from citizens over its eight year life-span.
That equates to approximately 15-20% of all FOI requests made in the UK. It also represents the largest database of FOI requests in the country, having provided a platform for requests and responses to over 17,000 UK public authorities to be published publicly online.
Those are some impressive numbers: however, until now we haven’t known much more about what requests are being made, whether there are trends, or indeed, whether the responses that people are receiving are satisfactory.
We thought it was about time that we took a look under the bonnet of WhatDoTheyKnow to find out the answers to some of these bigger questions.
We decided first to look at what themes and policy areas people were most interested in when making an FOI request. We chose this area because we suspected that many people would be asking for similar things from similar authorities. If this is the case, then this would be a clear evidence-based argument for authorities to increase pro-active publication of certain information.
The task itself was not an easy prospect. WhatDoTheyKnow does not have a tagging or categorising system, so there are over 330,000 requests that we had no quick or easy way of comparing. The volume of data was also so high that we couldn’t reasonably extract every request and analyse which policy area(s) it was relevant to.
To solve this issue, we decided to focus on the 20 authorities receiving the highest volume of FOI requests between 2008-2016. This way we could rely on a large sample of requests for both both local authorities and government departments. The list of authorities is below.
Department for Work and Pensions
Department for Education
Wirral Borough Council
UK Borders Agency
Birmingham City Council
Brighton & Hove City Council
Liverpool City Council
Transport for London
Westminster City Council
Ministry of Defence
Metropolitan Police Service
Bristol City Council
Ministry of Justice
Lambeth Borough Council
Camden Borough Council
Department of Health
Kent County Council
Taking all the requests made to these public bodies gave us a total of 49,500.
With the generous support of Thomson-Reuters, we were able to use OpenCalais, their automated tagging system, to assign one or more thematic tags to each FOI request made. Over 100,000 hyper-granular tags were automatically applied in this way.
Once that was complete, we went through each tag and the requests it was associated with. We grouped tags into policy areas and checked for any that had been incorrectly assigned. We then split the authorities into two groups: Local Authorities and Departmental Bodies, to compare the most requested information.
Among Local Authorities, the top requested information concerned:
- Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
- Social Care Information concerning care providers and their funding/operations, care in the community arrangements, social worker qualifications and staffing levels, and information concerning the operation and monitoring of social work departments
- Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
- Authority management Citizens also wish to know with greater detail how authorities are operating internally, requesting management and meeting information, emails about decision-making, and structural information concerning development, contracting and relationships with private companies
- Business rates Concerning long-term empty properties, the impact of rates on town centres, charitable or other discounts, and regeneration.
These are the top five of thousands of tags, but common themes were clear when comparing these authorities.
Generally, requesters have shown they want information in a more detailed form than authorities are currently providing, in particular in the expenditure of public funds and those services catering for complex cross-cutting social issues. Given the ongoing housing crisis in the UK, coupled with the ageing population, it is likely that information concerning these policy areas will be in increasing demand.
Conversely, among Departmental Bodies, the top requested information showed few common themes. This is primarily due to the differences in policy areas between the departments. There were, however, significant spikes in certain policy areas within departments, particularly around immigration, and this will be the focus of future investigation.
In conclusion, we understand that very few FOI requests are completely identical in subject matter, but broad trends are clearly evident.
If Local Authorities proactively publish more granular information about the policy areas we now know citizens are actively interested in, they may see a dip in formal FOI requests.
Publishing information and data in a machine-readable format may even enable other civic technologists like ourselves to build tools to assist councils in their delivery of vital services. Whilst this will not eradicate FOI requests completely, it would hopefully begin a shift in behaviour.
In short: wouldn’t it be great if, instead of authorities seeing FOI as an administrative burden, they began to see pro-active publication as an opportunity to harness the skills, initiative and flexibility of citizens.
If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.
On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.
We believe in an informed vote.
That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.
Check the facts
Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.
They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.
Ask some questions
Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.
But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.
Know where to vote
Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.
Many care worker positions require regular overnight shifts. Depending on the job, you might be there ‘just in case’, with an expectation that you’ll generally get a night of uninterrupted sleep; or you might be there specifically so that you can respond to regular calls for help from clients.
Either way, you’ve been contracted to be away from your home, ready for work if needed. That’s why the law states that the national minimum wage should apply to sleep-in shifts — but as this user discovered through a systematic series of Freedom of Information requests, many councils fail to meet this standard.
It’s always good to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used to uncover this kind of important data. You can read more, check how your own council fares, and see the conversation unfold via some interesting users’ comments on Reddit, or see the original requests on WhatDoTheyKnow here.
You may have seen the blanket press coverage last week: the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the publicly-funded authority which owns the Olympic Stadium, lost its recent tribunal and was ordered to publish its contract with West Ham football club.
This is a story which goes back to last August, when we first blogged that WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt had submitted a request for the contract via the site, on behalf of a group of Football Supporters’ Trusts.
In September, we updated the story as LLDC pushed back from publishing the full contract, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. It seems the subsequent tribunal dismissed this as a valid reason to withhold the information — information which has now been pored over in detail by the nation’s media.
Many concluded that the authority have struck a poor deal on behalf of the general public; we particularly enjoyed a statement from Barry Hearn, former chairman of Leyton Orient, who reportedly stated, “My dog could have negotiated a better deal for the taxpayer.”
Whatever your opinion on the deal itself, we think it’s right that the information should be firmly in the public domain, so that people can clearly see the financial affairs of the authorities they pay for.
Richard Hunt, whose request kickstarted this whole affair, says that it represents a good result for football, too:
The effort to get the contract released under FOI was started by a football fan and then, as the LLDC resisted disclosure, mushroomed into a full scale campaign run by a coalition of football club Supporters Trusts.
It gained such wide support precisely because football fans are taxpayers too, and there was a widespread perception that one such club was receiving public funds to get a new stadium, whereas other clubs had funded new stadia themselves (or more accurately from the revenues earned from their fans ).
It was a rare example of football fans overcoming tribal divisions to work together, and is expected to be showcased at the Supporters Summit meeting organised by the Football Supporters Federation this coming July.
Well done to all involved! You can see the original Freedom of Information request here.
Answers to requests already are published where they are made through public websites like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but we think that this should be the norm.
For us, of course, this was the stand-out line from the independent commission on the Freedom of Information’s report, published today. It’s great to have an official endorsement of WhatDoTheyKnow’s core premise. But there is plenty more to take in.
You may remember our announcement last year, that a government commission was to consider restricting access to information, with possible outcomes being the introduction of fees for FOI requests and greater powers for authorities to turn down requests.
Today’s report covers the commission’s findings, and is accompanied by a response on behalf of the government.
That’s a lot of reading, so here’s what you need to know.
No fees for FOI
mySociety, as operators of WhatDoTheyKnow and developers of the international Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, made a submission to the commission.
Along with several other organisations and individuals, we campaigned against introducing charges for making Freedom of Information requests, and encouraged you to share your experiences and opinions in the public consultation.
Many of you were among the 30,000 people who took the time to contribute. Opinion across the board was overwhelmingly against the introduction of fees — and that strength of feeling has been recognised.
In our submission, we argued that introducing a fee for making a Freedom of Information request would have a significant negative impact on our users’ ability and willingness to obtain information from public bodies and would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to serve our users as well as we do now.
The commission stated:
We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.
And in turn, the government response came:
The government agrees with the commission’s view that it is not appropriate to introduce fees for requests … the introduction of new fees would lead to a reduction in the ability of requesters, especially the media, to make use of the Act.
Publishing responses, WhatDoTheyKnow style
As we’ve already mentioned, the commission recommended the WhatDoTheyKnow practice of publishing responses, saying “we think that this should be the norm”, and adding:
We consider that this will have a number of benefits, such as helping requestors to obtain information which has in fact already been released without needing to make a request, reducing unnecessary requests for information that has already been published, and allowing public authorities to avoid answering duplicate requests where they can simply point to information on their websites.
Universities remain accountable
We were also happy to see both the commission and the government reject lobbying from universities seeking to be excluded from Freedom of Information law. The commission wrote:
It continues to be appropriate and important for universities to remain subject to the Act. They are highly important institutions that play a key public role.
You can’t have everything
All indications are that the FOI law will not be substantially weakened, and we’re delighted about that. But of course, we’d have liked the government to take the opportunity to extend and strengthen the FOI Act too.
We and others argued for the extension of Freedom of Information law to cover more public bodies, including organisations that provide key public services, manage national infrastructure or carry out regulation on behalf of the state.
The commission did not consider the extension of the coverage of the Act, but did recognise this as a key omission from its consideration and noted that it had received lots of responses on this subject — and that the Act’s scope ought be reviewed.
We also made the case for time limits for internal reviews, and consideration of the public interest test. The commission agreed, but on these points the government decided not to make any changes to the law.
We are happy to see the government re-state its aspiration to be “the most transparent government in the world” and hope the new guidance to public bodies promised in the statement released today will help prompt them to operate more openly.
We’ll continue to keep an eye on potential breaches to our rights under FOI. But for now, things look a lot better than we might have feared.
A post has been circulating on Facebook, alleging that people are eligible to receive £26 a day/£182 a week in Tesco vouchers on the basis of being immigrants present in the UK. This is alleged to be in addition to the free housing and benefits for clothes, shoes, etc. Can you confirm whether the UK government does indeed provide vouchers of this amount to immigrants in the UK?
The DWP helpfully reply that, in fact, it’s the Home Office who deal with asylum support, while linking to the relevant page on their website which sets the true sum at a far more modest £36.95 per week.
We all know how rumours like these can proliferate on social media such as Facebook, fueling indignation and spreading misinformation. We’re pretty sure that a large proportion of the visits to this page have come from people Googling to check the facts, before commenting on their friends’ Facebook posts, ‘Actually, no – here’s the truth’.
That’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and another reason why the publication of FOI responses can be so useful. We won’t be taking over from Snopes any time soon, but we’re glad to have helped in this particular case.
(And you can help too, by donating to keep WhatDoTheyKnow going.)
As you may remember, the government recently set up an independent commission to examine whether this country’s Freedom of Information laws should be made more restrictive.
Back in November, we explained the changes, showed how similar legislation had had undesirable effects in other countries, and urged you to tell the commission how you felt.
It seems that almost 30,000 people and organisations responded to the consultation — a tremendous number, and testament to the strength of feeling around the matter. The commission announced that it would invite some of the respondents to provide oral evidence, in sessions that happened at the end of January.
Transcripts and videos from those sessions are now available on the gov.uk website. They make for fascinating, if somewhat lengthy, perusal. Attendees are from a variety of organisations, including bodies who deal with incoming FOI requests, and those who campaign for our rights under the Act.
If you don’t fancy trawling through all 286 pages, here are a few of our own highlights — the points which really vindicate a service like WhatDoTheyKnow, with its system of publishing responses in public.
Requesting and responding in public saves money
A number of different respondents made the case for the savings that can be made through transparency in FOI. First there was Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner:
If you’ve actually concluded that, under the Freedom of Information Act, you ought to make something available, it makes common sense to make it generally available because then that gives you a reason for not having to publish it a second time, you just refer people to the lot.Peter Clifton from the Press Association:Some time that is spent answering these responses would be addressed if there was just a much more open approach to data that is often not particularly controversial, it just adds to people’s understanding about the organisations that help to run their lives and I think we should have a more consistent approach.
Ian Redhead, from the National Police Chief’s Council did have a different opinion:I always try to convince my colleagues […] that the more we put on a publication scheme, the less questions we’d receive and that’s proved to be absolutely not correct. In year one, we had 15,000 requests. Last year, we had just under 50,000 and we put a huge amount of information into the public environment. So it doesn’t in any way reduce the level of applications we receive.But Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information had this to say in response:I suspect they are publishing the wrong information. I don’t think they are looking what the requests are. They are getting requests for what software they are using and when the contracts come up for renewal, that is what they should publish.
Requesting and responding in public increases accountability
The benefits of Freedom of Information can’t always be counted in pounds and pence. What price tag can you put on accountability? Lord McNally had a great example from last night’s paper:
Last night in the Evening Standard it’s revealed that Westminster City Council have spent £90,000 on a new Rolls Royce for their Lord Mayor.
It might be embarrassing for Westminster City Council but why shouldn’t the good burghers of Westminster know how much Westminster City Council is spending on their Rolls Royce.
Well, when you talk about cost and benefit, it’s very difficult to get the full cost benefit, but I suspect, both at national level and at local government level, there’s many a pound being saved by people saying, well, if we do this, it will be FoIed and we’ll have hell to pay.
There were some objections to commercial usage of the FOI Act, where a company, for example, requests information about existing contracts from every council in the country. But here was the counter-argument, put a couple of times by the Right Honourable Lord Howard:After all, if that information enables the service to be provided more economically or more effectively, isn’t that a public interest?That wasn’t disputed — and in fact, often the information is available online. Councils already publish all expenditure over £500: the problem arises when requesters want it given in a specific format, meaning it has to be gathered anew.
Requesting and responding in public exposes vexatious requests
There were many mentions of ‘vexatious’ requests — that is, requests which have been submitted with ill intent, whether that be malicious or mischievous.
When requests and responses are published online, one person’s activities become very easy to see, and vexatious behaviour is much more easily proven.
We were interested to see the Police Chief’s Council put a rough figure on the proportion of this kind of request:IAN READHEAD: Oh, I would think vexatious requests are easily less [than] 3 percent of all requests.LORD CARLILE: So it’s a very smart [sic] proportion?MARK WISE: It’s very small.
Several witnesses mentioned the types of vexatious requests they receive, and the ways in which a requester may make requests within the letter, but not spirit of the law.Councillor David Simmonds from the Local Government Authority:It is the vexatious questioner who sends in a request saying: how many members of staff do you have whose first name begins with A, how many whose first name begins with B?, and when challenged says “I am entitled to ask this information under the Act”.As I understand it, it refers to the individual request and not to requests, so the authority would not be entitled to refuse the request on the basis that the person had submitted many hundreds of like requests for no obvious purpose in recent times.Cllr Simmonds did say that he wasn’t absolutely sure about that last point and would follow up with some research.
A final wordWhen this commission was first announced, the government emphasised their commitment to open data, with the implication that there’s less need for FOI when information is proactively published. But Lord McNally had a different take on it:
Just always remember that data, open data, is what government wants to tell you, Freedom of Information is what we want to know.
There’s no word yet as to when the commission’s findings will be released, but we’ll be sure to let you know when they are.