WhatDoTheyKnow is a project of mySociety, run by a small team of staff and dedicated volunteers.
In 2022 WhatDoTheyKnow users made 109,653 Freedom of Information requests via WhatDoTheyKnow.
Those requests, and the responses they received, are public on the website for anyone to see.
What’s not quite so visible is the work that the WhatDoTheyKnow team, which is largely made up of volunteers, do behind the scenes.
Some of their most difficult calls arise around the removal of information. WhatDoTheyKnow’s guiding principle is that it is a permanent, public, archive of Freedom of Information requests and responses, open to all.
The team works incredibly hard to maintain the archive in the face of challenges, including the reduction of legal risks; dealing fairly and transparently when people ask for information to be removed from the site; answering users’ questions; supporting citizens to use their rights to FOI; dealing with misuse of the service which breaches our house rules inappropriate content and keeping everything ticking over.
Our default position is not to remove substantive public information requests and responses; however, we act quickly if problematic content is reported to us. And, to help everyone understand exactly what has been removed and why, where possible we record these details on the request page.
To allow for a full 12 months of data, the date range used throughout this report is 1 November 2021 to 31 October 2022.
Headline facts and figures
- 16,354,872 visits to WhatDoTheyKnow.com this year.
- 16,217 new WhatDoTheyKnow user accounts created this year, taking the total number of accounts to 239,540. This represents an increase of 7.6% in the total number of site users since last year.
- 8,912 total number of email threads in the support inbox in 2022… that’s an increase of 11.2%, making it all the more crucial that we continue to recruit volunteers to help spread the load.
- 1,381 requests hidden from WhatDoTheyKnow in 2022
…in the context of 109,653 requests made in the year, and a total of 867,303 requests currently published on the site.
- 171 published requests where we redacted some material in 2022
…usually due to the inappropriate inclusion of personal information, or defamation.
And in more detail
Requests made on WhatDoTheyKnow flagged for our attention
The table below shows the reasons that requests were reported by our users via the site for admin attention this year.
Note that we also receive many reports directly by email, so while not comprehensive, this is indicative.
Reason for attention report Total number Vexatious 117 Not a valid request 109 Contains personal information 89 Request for personal information 85 Contains defamatory material 33 Other 642 Total* 1,075
*The number of requests flagged for attention this year is up 40% on last year. This is largely related to a single campaign of misuse.
Material removed from the site
The following tables show where members of the admin team have acted to remove or hide requests from WhatDoTheyKnow in the last year, and the reason why.
At WhatDoTheyKnow we have a policy of removing as little material as possible, while seeking to run the site responsibly and take different viewpoints into account. Removing substantive FOI requests and responses is a last resort and something we do very rarely. However, we act quickly to remove problematic material.
Request visibility Total number Discoverable only to those who have the link to the request 2 Visible only to the request maker 1,282 Hidden from all site visitors 97 Reason for removing from public view Total number** Not a valid FOI request 1,117 Vexatious use of FOI 43 Other (reason not programmatically recorded*) 221
* Current processes do not create an easily retrievable list of reasons beyond the two above, however due to site improvements made in autumn of this year we expect to be able to provide more detailed information on this in the future.
** The number of requests hidden or removed from the site this year is up by 68% on last year. As above, this increase is largely related to a single campaign of misuse.
Censor rules (targeted redactions to hide the problematic part/s of a request) Total number Number of censor rules applied 746 Number of requests with censor rules applied 171 Number of requests with censor rules applied which are still publicly visible, but with problematic material hidden 165
* Censor rules are used for many purposes, including redacting problematic content and removing personal data which should not be present
Cases relating to GDPR rights
These are typically cases relating to requests to remove data published on the site as per the rights afforded under GDPR, the UK’s General Data Protection Regulations.
Right type Total number of cases* GDPR Right to Erasure 214 Data breaches by third parties 79 GDPR Right to Rectification 15 GDPR Right of Access 21 Data breach – internal** 6 GDPR Right to Object <5 Total 340
* Not all issues raised resulted in material being removed from the site.
* “Data Breach – internal” refers to cases where WhatDoTheyKnow has identified that a data breach may have been caused due to our own staff actions. We take our obligations seriously, and use such instances as a learning opportunity, so these are recorded by us even if very minor, and often when they’re nothing more than a near miss.
High risk concerns escalated for review
Our policies ensure that certain issues can be escalated for review by the wider team and, where more complex, by a review panel that includes mySociety’s Chief Executive. Escalation is typically prompted by threats of legal action, complaints, notifications of serious data breaches, potential defamation concerns, safeguarding, complex GDPR cases, or cases that raise significant policy questions.
Case type* Total number Defamation 49 Data breach 40 GDPR Right to Erasure 33 Complaints 19 Safeguarding / Public harm 13 Takedown 13 GDPR Right of Access 9 Police user data requests 7 Site misuse 7 Data breach – internal 5 Other 39
* Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them. Some cases can relate to two types: for example a GDPR Right to Erasure request may also be a complaint. For the purposes of this table, such instances have been included in the counts for both concerns.
User accounts Total WhatDoTheyKnow users with activated accounts 239,540 New user accounts activated in 2022 16,217 Reason for banning users in 2022 Total Spam 2,160 Other site misuse 300 Total number of users banned in 2022 2,460 Anonymisation* Total Accounts anonymised in 2022 139
* Accounts are anonymised at the user’s request, generally to comply with GDPR Right to Erasure requests.
Users are banned and their accounts may be closed due to site misuse and breach of the House Rules. Anonymised and banned users are no longer able to make requests or use their accounts.
User data requests
Type of request Total Police/law enforcement requests for user data 7 Other requests for user data 6 Material released Total Number of requests, where court orders were produced and we provided the material as required 2
Thank you for reading
We produce this report as we demand transparency from public authorities and it’s only right that we also practise it ourselves.
Additionally, we hope that the report goes some way to showing the type of work the team do behind the scenes, and that running a well-used site like WhatDoTheyKnow is not without challenges.
If there are specific statistics that you’d like to see in subsequent Transparency reports, or you’d like to know more about any of those above, do drop the team a line.
If you’d like to help WhatDoTheyKnow keep up their good work, please consider volunteering or making a donation. Any help small or large is greatly appreciated.
Image: Meriç Dağlı
Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.
Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.
A platform for consumer complaints
The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.
Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.
As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?
Probing travel expenses
Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.
If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.
The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.
That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.
Access to information is a particularly powerful tool in countries like Colombia, where corruption is high and vital peace treaties are underway.
To make accessing information easier for citizens and public authorities alike, a group of journalists in Bogotá including DataSketch, have recently set up the Freedom of Information request platform QueremosDatos (the name of which translates as “We want data/information”).
The platform uses our Alaveteli software, and we thoroughly enjoyed working with the Colombian team to set the site up with them.
We asked María Isabel Magaña, who is coordinating the QueremosDatos project, about the site and its impacts so far:
Why did you decide to set up QueremosDatos?
I first learned about Alaveteli in Spain while I was doing my Masters in Investigative Journalism. There I was introduced to the platform TuDerechoASaber.es and to the power that FOIA and transparency had. I just knew Colombia needed something like that, especially since the Congress had just approved the first law regarding this matter.
What made you choose to use Alaveteli software for your platform?
What I love about Alaveteli is how easy it is to use for both users and admins. Designing the platform and making it useful for any type of person was the most attractive feature Alaveteli had. But also, because of the people behind it. Gemma, Gareth, and so many more people were ready to help me achieve this goal despite the different time zones and how much time it took to get it up and running.
What impact do you hope the site has?
It has been almost six months since we launched the site. The impact has been great! We have helped people make 274 requests to more than 6,000 authorities. The Government has been interested in the project and has helped us get in touch with different authorities to help them learn about FOIA and the Colombian law and how to work with people through the platform. Users love it, especially journalists.
Which responses on the site have you been most excited about seeing?
My favourite response so far has been one regarding victims of the Colombian conflict. It was very exciting to get the information because of what it meant for the person who was requesting it, and because of the historical context my country is going through. I also enjoyed seeing the transformation the police had when giving their answers: at first they always sent a response asking the user to call them. After a few explanations, they’re now sending complete answers to the requests via the site.
Do you know of examples where information obtained through the site has been used?
Yes! Journalists have used it mostly in ongoing investigations regarding medicines, drug trafficking, and abortion. Students have used it for journalism classes and homework too.
What are your future plans for QueremosDatos?
We are confirming an alliance with the government to promote the site in public offices and to teach public servants about what the Right to Know is, and their responsibilities with it. This pedagogy will be replicated in universities to teach different users about their power to request information.
Many thanks to María for answering our questions. It’s been great to see the impact the site has already had on authorities and citizens alike, especially the change in behaviour by certain public authorities.
We’re really looking forward to following the project’s continuing work, and wish the team the utmost success in their quest to make Colombia a much more transparent society!
We recently explained how to use pre-written Freedom of Information requests for a campaign. We’re glad to see this being used by AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site for Europe.
Today, AskTheEU launches a campaign to request the travel expenses of EU Commissioners — and they are calling on the public to help submit a total of 168 requests.
No matter what your feeling are towards the EU (let’s not even go there), we hope that everyone is in favour of transparency. AskTheEU’s campaign follows the discovery from a request that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spent €63,000 on an air taxi to Turkey for the G20 summit. Naturally, they were keen to know whether this level of spending is replicated across the organisation.
After a two-year battle, AskTheEU’s parent organisation Access Info has established that the European Commission will provide information on Commissioner’s travel expenses, but only in two-month bundles.
They’ve already made a start: after submitting legal appeals and new requests, Access Info won access to a handful of documents about the travel expenses of five Commissioners: these can be seen here.
But there’s plenty more to discover, and that’s where the general public comes in. Thanks to the pre-written requests function, all the hard work is already done: it’s just a matter of picking one or two time periods and submitting the already-composed request.
Anyone can participate by going to the campaign website from today. All requests and responses will be made public on AsktheEU.
Image © European Union 2014 – European Parliament (CC by-nc-nd/2.0).
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.
Image: Dean Hochman (CC by 2.0)
Researching in an unstable environment
It’s been nearly two years since the InfoLib Liberia project with iLab Liberia started. In that time the project has faced many hurdles, some predicted, and some completely unforeseen.
The iLab team have seen their country devastated by Ebola, only 11 years after the end of their second civil war, bringing tragedy and instability along with it. As you can probably imagine, the impact of curfews, fear and death in communities has made it difficult for people to continue with their daily lives. The social impact of such a disease is wide-reaching. Distrust, marginalisation and exclusion can be directed at those who show symptoms, or even who suffered and survived.
These are challenges that our local partners have had to contend with every day, both when holding training sessions and more crucially when researching the impact of the project on people’s lives.
However, by far the largest hurdle for this particular project has been a mixture of low internet penetration and lack of government will to release information. The team on the ground have been working tirelessly to create an ecosystem of requesting and training Public Information Officers (PIOs) to reply – even providing them with tablets to scan documents without needing electricity, let alone a computer. But if those officers have no access to the information that has been requested, their jobs become virtually impossible.
The project is now drawing to a close and we’re undertaking our final research survey. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what we’ve learnt about the impact of our joint Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
When designing the project we decided that impact could best be measured in terms of whether or not the project increased confidence in government transparency.
We carried out surveys in January 2016 and April 2016, to provide a baseline picture and then an assessment of impact at midline. The final survey is being conducted in August 2016 just as the project ends.
The first survey – the baseline – was carried out mainly in the rural areas. iLab Liberia teamed up with LFIC to survey 152 participants who had been involved in the FOI workshops that LFIC had held in the counties.
We had to attempt the second survey twice, as it turned out to be more challenging than we’d expected. We needed the participants from the first questionnaire to answer the same questions we’d asked them initially, in order to measure change — but it proved hard to locate all of them.
There were many factors which caused this, but the main one was economic drivers, forcing people to move to where the opportunities are. It’s a problem many researchers must run into working in the field.
Carter, the project lead at iLab Liberia told us:
“There are several reasons why this happens […]. People migrate a lot between markets, farms. Several persons who participated in the baseline could not be reached as they [had] travelled to other cities/counties. [Or] the job that allowed them to reside in that city/county is no longer available so they might have left seeking after another job.”
Our second attempt was more successful. We managed to contact a large percentage of the original participants in the survey: 112 of the 152.
We’ve found out some interesting things from doing this research. We saw that 74% of people who use the internet daily say it’s their main source of information, though it is still only a small percentage of the population who have access to the internet.
So the next biggest source of information? Radio! 85% of people with with no access to the internet give radio as their main source of information. Thinking of the migration of workers between cities and counties – you suddenly appreciate why Radio is such an important medium for getting hold of information. Thankfully, as you’ll remember from our original blog post, we’re covering both of these media in the InfoLib project.
In the months since we began studying the impact of this project we also learned that fear of making a request has dropped by 5% in the individuals surveyed . The amount of people who reported that they didn’t know how to ask for information dropped from 24% to 21%. This is pretty great news to us as it shows that our training and our encouragement is working – albeit slowly.
Finally we saw the percentage of people who believe government would be more transparent if citizens could see the information they hold rise by 3% to 93% of the surveyed respondents. Even if this figure hadn’t risen, this demonstrates a clear existing demand from the citizens of Liberia for the Government to release more information about its activities which is great news overall!
No project is without its challenges, and as you’ve seen above one of the big ones is ensuring that the same people respond from survey to survey. Not being able to pin down precisely the same set of people means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that we have a true measure in the difference in attitude.
As a result of the economic and social drivers mentioned above, the workforce in Liberia is very transient. This makes disseminating information through radio and internet mediums even more important. This research has shown that these are the primary sources of news and official information for the majority of Liberians, and continuing to improve knowledge about, and access to, information via these sources will empower the population further.
Finally, it can be challenging to demonstrate impact in projects like these, simply because research is not the main focus for our local partners. We partner with local groups because they are passionate, capable, and able to engage and mobilise citizens around a certain issue. We cannot expect small grassroots groups to have the resources or experience to conduct academic surveying, sampling or interviewing that could detect and definitively isolate the short term impact of a small project. This piece of research has provided some encouraging interim results, but most of all, it has provided valuable lessons to us at mySociety in trying to conduct this kind of impact research remotely and in partnership.
While we wait for the outcome of the final survey we can feel cautiously hopeful that this project has caused a small change in the way access to information operates in Liberia. infoLib will continue to run after the project officially ends, and mySociety will continue to support the work that iLab does in this area . However it may take longer than we had expected or hoped, to see the governmental shift towards releasing information.
On January 8th Liberia launched their new Freedom of Information platform, infoLib, based on our Alaveteli software — not just by pressing a button to put the site live, but with a public event that reached many sectors of society.
The launch was a great success: it was attended by representatives from groups including university students, government ministries and NGOs, each of which will be able to use the site for their own needs.
The platform, jointly build by iLab Liberia and mySociety, is Liberia’s first step in streamlining the process of making a freedom of information request.
The Liberian Government and many of the country’s NGOs are excited about infoLib’s ability to monitor when requests come in and to ensure that they are replied to on time.
Attendees expressed happiness with the platform and excitement about what it means for Liberia. Many have said they’re more optimistic that requests will be answered, now that there is a clear, transparent way to scrutinise the government.
The event featured a Q&A session about compliance and functionality: the many questions from the audience were answered by the newly trained Public Information Officers as well as the team from iLab.
So what’s next?
Focus is on driving usage; iLab will be accompanying the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition on their nationwide tour talking about FOI.
In our last post, we talked about how the site is attempting to reach the country’s offline population as well as those who have internet access. On tour, the team will take requests from users, either on paper or directly onto the site if there’s an internet connection.
Growing usage of the site will be a slow process. While there’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s all very new and people want to see proof that it works — so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the coming months.
In addition to this, iLab are going to be running FOI surgeries on community radio stations in the counties and Monrovia. People will have the opportunity to phone in and make an FOI request, and the answers to previous FOI requests will be shared.
Finally we’ll be working on training up the last PIOs and building their skills to give them the best chance to answer requests promptly, online, and with the relevant information.
Everything’s going to plan so far, and there are many aspects of this launch that people launching Alaveteli sites in the future can learn from. Thanks for sharing your progress, iLab, and best of luck as you go into the next phase of your journey.
Alongside several UK organisations, we’re campaigning against the proposed changes to the Freedom of Information Act.
Now, the changes are just that – proposed ones – so you might think that it’s hard to do more than speculate over what they might mean for Freedom of Information in this country.
But wait! Here at mySociety, we are in touch with people and organisations who run Freedom of Information websites all over the world. Many of them have seen the introduction of such restrictions (and some have successfully challenged them).
So in this post, we gather together their experiences along with existing research, to provide evidence and context to the changes currently being discussed.
Perhaps you’d like to use some of the following examples when you write to your MP.
For a government to desire such restrictions is nothing new: a 2011 report by Toby Mendel for the World Bank* examines several countries which have been through exactly that (and, more cheerfully, lists those where the law was changed to extend FOI rights). One statistic stands out from that report:
Emily O’Reilly, the Irish information commissioner, noted that the impact of the amendments had been to reduce the rate of requests by 50 percent, to decrease requests (other than those for personal information) by 75 percent, and to cause a drop of 83 percent in requests by the media—all within one year.
Ireland introduced fees for initial requests, and also for any subsequent internal and independent reviews. They also extended protection to some government records showing the workings of civil servants, and to documents referring to security, defence and international relations. The decision was later reversed in order to “restore the balance”.
*Amending Access to Information Legislation: Legal and Political Issues by Toby Mendel, 2011
In Germany, we are told by Arne from the FOI website Frag den Staat, bodies may charge up to 500 € for the processing of information requests.
Fair enough, you might think — but let’s look at a couple of examples.
Like when the Ministry of Transport charged the maximum fee for the provision of data on railway infrastructure. They said that the fee covered the required inspections; they didn’t mention that the data could be found in PDFs that already existed internally.
Similarly, the Federal Office of Consumer Protection charged 500 € for answering eight questions about their website, asking about costs, usage and data protection: it’s hard to comprehend how that could have required quite so much effort.
Arne points out that the fee isn’t applied consistently, either: the same request made to a number of similar institutions (for example universities) will result in some information being provided for free, while others charge.
Finally, he says it’s clear that some people are intimidated by the mere possibility of being charged. Auto-replies from the Foreign Office include details of possible costs, whether or not they apply, which can be very off-putting for inexperienced users.
Hungary recently saw the introduction of very similar restrictions.
In response, FOI-championing website Atlatszo.hu got together with other NGOs to put together this damning assessment:
The new law gives state institutions the option to deny information requests [..] if they involve preparation for “future decision”, but most importantly, it introduces a requirement that those who approach various institutions for information may have to pay for their queries.
The various state bureaus may charge a fee if they decide that the request for information places an unwarranted additional workload on the staff. Besides being highly arbitrary grounds for denial, the financial costs are a natural deterrent to even attempting to find out important information.
The organisation also predicts that fees will lessen the will of average people to file requests. Here’s an excerpt from a recent interview with Atlatszo.hu’s Editor-in-Chief :
“They are charging fees so people won’t file so many requests,” says Bodoky, adding that while Atlatszo isn’t very happy with the situation, it won’t be deterred. “We will pay the small fee and continue to make requests, but citizens and activists who have started to use freedom of information quite a lot may not want or be able to.”
Richard Hunt, who runs the FOI site Informace Pro Všechny, as well as actively using FOI here in the UK, tells us that in the Czech Republic, there is no statutory charge for requests. However a clause states that costs can be recovered.
There have been high profile cases reported by the press, because the press were the requesters.
When HN (a leading financial daily newspaper) asked the finance ministry to provide the details under the Freedom of Information Act of the Kč 6.2bn in tax payments and penalties that have been forgiven since 2006, the ministry asked for processing fees of more than Kč 250,000. (£6,500).
Richard also tells us that the costs requirement both adds to the bureaucracy around requests, and acts as a disincentive for people making requests. In order to collect the money, public bodies require the name, address and date of birth of all requesters.
In a post-communist society people remain wary of showing themselves, especially in causing potential trouble for the authorities.
In the USA, fees may be levied based on the amount of work required, as calculated by the public body receiving the FOI request.
Our friends at Muckrock highlight two cases where the costs would have been at levels far beyond the reach of ordinary requesters: $270,000 for details of contracts between the FBI and a contractor, and $452,000 for summary information on a mail surveillance program.
While we imagine that the cost structure would differ here in the UK, these cases serve as an extreme example of how, if bodies wish to, they can use restrictions to ensure that their information remains inaccessible.
A similar story comes from RightToKnow in Australia, who were stymied by this move when trying to investigate the treatment of immigrants in detention centres:
While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.
In Australia, the exact clause is “the work involved in processing the request would substantially and unreasonably divert the resources of the agency from its other operations”—and we’re told that this is one of the most-commonly used reasons for refusing access.
Sometimes it’s used fairly but more often than not it’s used by agencies to interpret the request in such a way as to create the “practical refusal reason”.
In the UK, we’re looking at a lowering of the threshold for requests to be refused because of cost, which equates to the effort, or manhours, involved.
Fees are not applicable across all kinds of request in Australia, but where they are, they can be used in a way that’s contrary to the spirit of the law:
At the state level there are application fees across every state and territory (except the ACT). RightToKnow has a number of examples where it appears agencies are deliberately using application fees to frustrate requesters.
The Spanish site Tu Derecho A Saber tells us that costs and bureaucratic processes have a severely dampening effect on the number of citizens who are willing to make requests. They draw a parallel with WhatDoTheyKnow: in our first year of operation, we processed over 19,000 FOI requests. But in the same time period, Tu Derecho A Saber saw just 3,400 requests.
Spain’s FOI law also protects internal discussions, along with drafts, communications and papers considered before writing up any regulation.
They’re also fighting against a general lack of adherence to the FOI laws by public bodies. The result of all of these impediments? A drop in the number of requests processed, which have gone from 160 a week, to around 6.
Inevitably such restrictions have an effect on how FOI is perceived:
Frustration makes people see FOI laws as useless or too relaxed.
- In Israel, requests are limited to whatever can be gathered within four hours’ work. This effectively limits responses to information which has already been prepared.
- In Ukraine, the ability to mark information as ‘for internal use only’, and a highly bureaucratic system for making requests, led to a culture of concealed corruption.
Why this matters
We’ve already written about what the proposed changes would mean for us here in the UK: see our blog posts here and here.
But there are wider implications, too. At AlaveteliCon, we learned that other countries look to the UK (and WhatDoTheyKnow) as a shining example of how things could be. Any change in our laws will have an effect far beyond our own boundaries.
If we’re to keep what, as became evident when we listened to the stories of others, for all its faults is a world-class FOI system, we need to take action now. See below for how you can do that.
Changes to the UK Freedom of Information Act are not a foregone conclusion. We can win the fight against the proposed restrictions — and we have examples to prove it.
At AlaveteliCon the Freedom of Information technologies conference, we heard of successful protests in:
Australia and Uruguay, where bodies were obliged to accept requests via email
Hungary, where the government’s attempts to label requests as ‘vexatious’ was overturned
If you feel strongly that your right to information should not be impeded, check these simple actions you can take right now.
1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition
Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.
If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
Use WriteToThem.com to tell your MP why Freedom of Information is important and how restrictions would affect you, or society as a whole.
3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story
SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.
Banner image: Andy Arthur (CC)
Ireland: Brad Herman; Germany: Roger Matthewes; Hungary: Xavi; Czech Republic: Abejorro34; USA Hien Nguyen; Australia: Andrea Ferrera; Spain: Javi Muro; Elsewhere: Ilya Grigorik; Why this matters: Anders Sandberg; Successes: Joãokẽdal (all CC)
We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.22!
Its a big one, with over 400 commits and lots of general improvements.
Luke Bacon improved the design and accessibility of the search form.
Code quality came top of the list at AlaveteliCon 2015. This release includes contributions from James McKinney, Henare Degan, Caleb Tutty, Petter Reinholdtsen and Gorm Eriksen – all helping to clean up code, make Alaveteli work even better and make it easier to translate.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s Public Authority pages were suffering, so we took a dive in to the code around this area. Improving it had a huge impact on the page we were looking at and should have benefits across the application.
Maintenance & Security
We’ve added fixes for CVE-2015-3225, CVE-2015-3227 and CVE-2015-1840, and updated xapian-full-alaveteli for Ruby 2.1 compatibility.
We’re always trying to think of more ways to promote an Alaveteli site, so this release includes new feature developed by Jody McIntyre for the AskTheEU Alaveteli site.
When enabled, each request has a “Create a widget for this request” action available in the sidebar.
Any visitor can copy the iframe embed code to paste on their own website.
It’s just a flick of the switch to enable widgets for all requests on your site!
Waving Goodbye to the Past
Alaveteli 0.22 is the last release to support Ruby 1.8.
We’ve got an upgrading guide available, and we’re always here to help on the alaveteli-dev mailing list.
You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed.
No matter where you are in the world, if you run a Freedom of Information site, you’ll come up against one common issue: how to get people to use it.
It’s not just the usual hurdle that any new website faces, of getting publicity. There’s often a lack of knowledge among the general population about the whole concept of Freedom of Information, and the rights that come with it. Not only do users have to know about the site, but they have to understand why it might be useful for them.
The Freedom of Information conference, AlaveteliCon, was a great place to share ideas on how best to counter that. Here are ten strategies you can put into place right now.
1. Make FOI concrete
Freedom of Information can be rather an abstract concept to the average person, so your tweets, blog posts and press releases might not be getting through to them.
Instead of asking people ‘what would you ask under the FOI act?’ or ‘Isn’t freedom of information a valuable right?’, try asking more concrete questions like ‘what would you like to know about government spending?’ or ‘if you could ask one question about nuclear defence, what would it be?’
You might make a cheap, fun and informative video by going out onto the street and asking such pre-prepared questions to passers-by.
2. Use SEO to your advantage
Alaveteli is built so that it naturally performs well in search engines: the title of any request also becomes the title of the page, one of the main things that Google will consider when deciding how to rank a page for any given search term. And when useful or interesting material is released as a result of a request, that will attract inbound links and again, will be reflected in Google rankings.
The net result of this is that many users will come to your Alaveteli site because they’re interested in a specific topic, rather than because they want to make an FOI request. They may never even have heard of FOI, but they surely want to know about hospital mortality rates or cycling accidents in their local area.
A request on WhatDoTheyKnow, about the faulty brakes on a VW Passat, is one of the consistently most visited pages on the site. Even though the request itself remains unanswered, the page has become a place for Passat drivers to exchange knowledge and experiences.
Pages such as these may even be more frequently visited than your site’s homepage. Look at request pages as a first-time viewer would, and ask yourself if it’s clear exactly what site they have landed on, and what it is for.
Also: once you have created a community of people with a common interest (like the faults in the VW Passat), what could you do with them? Maybe post on the page yourself, offering to show how they could take a similar request to the next stage?
3. Make passive users into active users
The previous point leads to a further question: how can we turn users who land on our sites into active requesters (if indeed that’s a desirable aim)?
One answer might be to explain the concept of FOI somewhere within the request page template, so it’s seen by every visitor.
Another would be to build a user path that encourages readers to make their own request or—perhaps more likely to bear fruit, since making an FOI request tends not to be an impulsive action—include a newsletter sign-up button for people who want to know more.
Alaveteli already includes some actions in the right-hand menu on every request page, but so far they have concentrated on asking the reader to tweet, or to browse similar requests.
If you have ideas on how to encourage users to make requests, you could discuss them on the Alaveteli mailing list, or, if you’re a coder yourself, you could make the changes on your own branch and then submit it to be merged so that everyone can benefit.
4. Contextualise FOI
In the UK we are fortunate that when a news story is based on an FOI request, that’s usually mentioned within the story. It leads to a certain level of understanding of the concept of FOI within the general population.
Whether or not that’s not the case in your country, you could keep an eye out for stories that were clearly researched via an FOI request. Where FOI is commonly mentioned, setting up a Google alert may help.
You can then highlight these stories on a regular basis: for example, on a Facebook page, or on your blog. There was also talk of feeding a Facebook stream onto the homepage of one Alaveteli site.
5. Create a community
Sharing stories is one thing, but communities are a two-way endeavour. Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts all need regular attention.
Post often, reply to users’ comments and queries, and soon you may find that you have a responsive community, and can even ask your followers to do a bit of advocacy for you.
A newsletter is also a useful way of getting your message directly into your supporters’ inboxes.
6. Write about interesting requests
Some requests just appeal more to human interest than others do, and they’re obvious candidates to be blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about. You might also consider putting out a press release.
There was a bit of discussion at the conference about the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘comedy’ requests which are of great interest to the press, but could actually harm the case for FOI. Examples given were:
- Is the New Zealand Prime Minister actually a shape-shifting reptile?
- A series of requests about the zombie apocalypse
In the UK we’ve generally taken the decision not to run these kinds of stories, though the press sometimes pick them up on their own anyway.
Such publicity can lead to ‘FOI is a waste of public money’ campaigns, and it was suggested that it is useful to have a list of the good things that have come from FOI that you can provide in return: here’s one that @FOIMonkey produced in 2012.
A middle ground between publicising ‘silly’ requests and trying to promote dry ones is to identify the stories that are in the middle ground: of great human interest, but with a serious point. Make the relevant requests yourself, if necessary.
As an example, a request such as the menus for food served in prisons can have an underlying political point if framed correctly.
7. Conduct outreach
NGOs and campaigning groups can find FOI a useful tool, and the fact that Alaveteli publishes out the responses can also help them with getting their cause known. A mail-out to likely organisations, or even face-to-face visits, may help.
Muckrock shared that they get users educated early, by conducting ‘FOIA for kids’ outreach (and FOI is also a subject in our own lesson plans).
Here in the UK, we have visited colleges to talk to trainee journalists. While most are aware of the FOI act, many do not know about WhatDotheyKnow and how it can be used not only to make requests, but to subscribe to keywords or authorities of interest.
However, such visits are fairly inefficient: they take time and only reach 50 or 60 students at a time. A better way may be to create and promote materials that colleges can use for themselves.
8. Paid ads
Although Alaveteli sites perform well in organic search, paid ads can give them an extra swathe of visitors.
Both Facebook and Google are potential platforms for ads, and you may be eligible to receive a Google Grant if you are a not-for-profit: these give you Google Ads for free.
mySociety are happy to share our experience in this area, and we will possibly put materials together if there’s enough interest.
9. Friends in high places
Some Alaveteli practitioners found it useful to partner up with a newspaper or online news source. The benefit runs two ways, since Alaveteli can be such a useful tool for journalists.
Dostup Pravda in Ukraine is a part of the country’s most popular news site, and perhaps one of the most expert Alaveteli sites at getting publicity. Pre-launch they ran a sophisticated campaign with celebrities hinting, but not saying explicitly what the forthcoming project would be. Their t-shirt was even worn by an MP on national TV.
For the solo activist, such promotional activity seems almost impossible, but news outlets have the contacts and resources in place to make it almost a routine task for them.
10. Create your own buzz
The press love lists and awards. One FOI site puts out an annual award for the best, the worst, and the most ridiculous requests made in the previous year.
This is a great idea for publicity, because as well as bringing the name of the site into the public consciousness, it also encapsulates a little lesson about how to use—and not abuse—FOI.
Now go and do it
So there you are: ten ideas to promote your site. Do feel free to add more in the comments below. And good luck!
Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.