Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, public bodies in the UK are obliged to respond to requests for information.
Requests for information submitted by the public and by journalists have revealed all kinds of important facts that otherwise may never have come to light, from the relationship Prince Charles has with government, to the link between anti-malarial drugs and mental illness in the armed forces.
The Freedom of Information Act applies to a wide range of publicly-funded institutions, including all levels of government, state schools, hospitals — and even some zoos and museums.
Do most citizens in the UK take advantage of this Right to Information? They do not, perhaps because the majority don’t know about it.
Even if they do, it’s not always simple to work out how to make a request, and for most, the idea is pretty daunting.
And yet, the Freedom of Information Act is a vital tool for society. Public authorities are funded by our taxes: we should be able to ask questions about how that money is being put to use. The Right To Know keeps us all better informed.
mySociety launched WhatDoTheyKnow in 2008 to tackle that issue, and bring the power of the Freedom of Information Act to everybody.
Not only do we make it super-easy to formulate a request and send it to the right contact in the right department of your chosen authority — but all the requests and responses are published in a permanent online archive that anyone can search and browse.
That permanent online archive means that the information isn’t just available to the requester; it’s available to everyone. Over its lifetime, the site has helped hundreds of thousands of people to get information they need, by showing them a simple way to put in a correctly-formatted request.
But the benefit doesn’t stop there. Responses on WhatDoTheyKnow are each viewed on average by 20 people, and some — like the location of every postbox in the UK, or information about faulty brakes in VW Passats — have, to date, been viewed over 80,000 times each, showing that the information really is of wide public benefit.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s publishing of responses is helpful for public bodies, too: many of those views represent a request they don’t have to spend time and resources replying to, because the information is now public and easily found by anyone searching the internet.
Access any UK public authority’s new, current, updated or published FOI requests using WhatDoTheyKnow‘s RSS feeds. Public bodies themselves can use the API to receive new requests, publish responses and proactively disclose direct requests.
WhatDoTheyKnow data is often used on local community sites. Campaigning websites can also use it to encourage users to make requests on a certain subject.
Alaveteli, software for running a Freedom of Information site
Like most mySociety projects, the software that underpins WhatDoTheyKnow is open source and available for anyone who wants to run a Freedom of Information site in their own country. It’s called Alaveteli, and it’s currently deployed in more than 25 countries and jurisdictions all around the world, helping people to put questions to their own public authorities.
WhatDoTheyKnow is administered by a dedicated team of volunteers, who answer questions from the public, handle relationships with authorities, and steer site policy.
Such is their knowledge and experience of FOI in the UK that they have even been asked to give evidence to Parliament at a Justice Select Committee. The team continue to campaign for wider powers under the Act and against threats to its current scope.
Meanwhile, WhatDoTheyKnow is also part of Alaveteli’s global community, who share support and experience of the FOI climate in different countries, via conferences, mailing lists and research papers. That input will be vital as the site goes into the future, facing whatever changes occur in the UK’s own FOI laws.