1. Croatia gets creative with Alaveteli

    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

    http://reklamacije.net/

    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.

     

  2. Is your local authority making life difficult for wheelchair users?

    If you’re in a wheelchair, it can be tricky enough getting around. So it’s particularly disappointing to learn that some taxi firms charge wheelchair passengers extra, and that some drivers refuse to take passengers in wheelchairs at all.

    If you’re thinking ‘surely that’s illegal’ — well, it is. Only from quite recently, though: it was last April that a law came in which imposed a £1,000 fine for drivers who refused or charged extra for those in wheelchairs.

    But there’s a complication. This fine can only be imposed by councils who keep a designated list of all wheelchair-accessible public hire vehicles: no list, no fines.

    Does it matter? Well, that depends on how many councils are intending to compile the list. And as WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley knows very well, there’s one good way to find out information from every local authority: via a Freedom of Information request.

    Doug used WhatDoTheyKnow to submit FoI requests to all 366 taxi licensing councils, and Transport for London, who administer taxi licensing on behalf of all the London boroughs. The results of his research can be seen in full here, or you can quickly check your own local council on this map.

    As indicated, if your council is one of the 59% who, by not keeping a list, are unable to implement the anti-discrimination law, you might like to contact your councillors to let them know how you feel about that.

    Map of councils keeping/not keeping an S167 list by Doug Paulley


    Header image: Derek Mindler (CC by/2.0)

  3. The Welsh Government and Aston Martin: the timeline of a delayed response

    In February 2016, Tom Gallard made a simple request to the Welsh Government through our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com. He wanted to know the exact sum paid to Aston Martin in a much-publicised deal which would bring its luxury car-making facilities to St Athan.

    15 months later, in June 2017, he received the answer.

    Now clearly, this is not an example of an efficient and prompt release of information on request — so let’s look at exactly what happened.

    Tom’s request was not complex, but it appeared to ask for something that the Welsh Government were reluctant to disclose, and as a result, it encountered several obstacles.

    February 24, 2016: request made

    Tom made his one-line request: “Please provide details of the financial support agreed with Aston Martin to create 750 jobs at St Athan.”

    Was there anything in particular that spurred you to make this request?

    “I read a lot of the news reports around the deal to bring Aston Martin to Wales, and I got more and more frustrated as it became clear that no-one was disclosing how much this would cost. I didn’t feel I could judge whether it was a good use of money or not, without knowing how much was being spent”.

    March 23, 2016: reminder sent

    Under the FOI Act, authorities are supposed to respond to request for information promptly, and at most within 20 working days. WhatDoTheyKnow sends its users a reminder when this date has passed, so you can chase your request if needs be.

    According to this official timeline, Tom’s response was due by March 24 at the latest, but in their acknowledgement, the Welsh Government had said that they would reply by March 14, so his reminder wasn’t necessarily premature.

    March 24, 2016: refusal received

    The Welsh Government did reply within the time-limit, albeit on the last possible day.

    Their response confirmed that they did have the information Tom had requested, but stated that it was exempt from disclosure under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to commercial interests. Use of this clause requires the authority to show that the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in releasing it.

    Same day: review requested

    When you receive a refusal in response to your FOI request, you might think that there’s nothing more you can do — but, as WhatDoTheyKnow’s automated advice explains to users in this situation, you have the right to request an internal review.

    Tom did just that, quoting ICO guidance on commercial interests, noting that the Welsh Government had previously published information on grant funding given to other companies, and particularly, pointing out an apparent misreading of the meaning of ‘public interest’ on behalf of the Welsh Government: “The public interest here means the public good, not what is of interest to the public”.

    “What frustrated me was a refusal in the Welsh Government’s response to engage with the specific case. I had seen them produce a lot of very similarly worded replies to a range of FOI requests. I spent a lot of time reading previous judgements by the Information Commissioner, and felt I had a strong case.”

    Why do you think the Welsh Government might have been so reluctant to release this figure? As you mention, figures for similar deals had been released in the past.

    “A lot of people have found this reluctance odd. It has also been suggested to me, by a couple of well-placed sources, that the figure they have now released is just one part of the support the Welsh Government has agreed to provide to Aston Martin.”

    April 26, 2016: review reminder, response, referral to the ICO

    Tom knew his rights and as he mentioned in this follow-up — two days after he should have received a response — “ICO guidance suggests that if the 20 day limit is to be breached, I should have received an email telling me this, and the reasons for the delay”.

    Whether because of this reminder or not, he received his response that same day. The Welsh Government’s own internal review concluded that they had been within their rights to withhold the information under Section 43 of the FOI Act.

    Again, this is a point at which many requesters might give up, and again it’s one where WhatDoTheyKnow can inform you of your options. If you believe that an authority is withholding information which it should have released, and you have been through the internal review process, you can refer the case to the ICO.

    As this part of the process happened outside WhatDoTheyKnow, Tom helpfully left an annotation on his request page.

    December 6, 2016: amendments from the Welsh Government

    While the case was with the ICO, the Welsh Government sent a further response to indicate that they were changing their reason for exemption: they were now relying on two different sections of the FOI Act: 29(1)(b), the economy, and 36(2)(c), the effective conduct of public affairs, details of which you can see in this response.

    Tom left an annotation to say he’d alerted the ICO to the change in defence, along with some counter-arguments.

    May 31, 2017 ICO ruling

    ICO decisions do not generally come quickly, but it can certainly be worth lodging your complaint with them.

    In this case, they found that the information was incorrectly withheld and ordered that the information be released.

    June 2, 2017, information received

    Two days later, the sum was finally disclosed, and can be seen here.

    – Now that you have the information you requested, will you be using it any way, or are you simply content that it’s now in the public domain?

    “I’m happy it’s out there now. But I’m definitely considering whether I can squeeze out some more details about how else the Welsh Government is supporting Aston Martin.”

    And of course, that path is also open to anyone else who’s interested in this deal. There’s lots more that could be requested through FOI, from what the exact wording of the contract is, to how the outcomes will be monitored, or how the money is to be paid (the ICO decision notes that no payments had been made as of April 2017; if they are made in the future, they might be pro-actively published on the Welsh Government site — or, if not, someone might need to make another FOI request in order to obtain them).

    If you do make a related request, please do mention it in an annotation on Tom’s request so that others can easily find it.

    This was a long story

    As you might expect, at mySociety we are strongly in favour of the citizen’s right to information under the FOI Act.

    Naturally, we prefer it when information is released without a hitch. But those aren’t always the best stories: we hope that by highlighting examples like this, where WhatDoTheyKnow users have shown tenacity and determination, we can show that if you have a valid request, it’s worth sticking to your guns.


    WhatDoTheyKnow makes it straightforward for anyone to request information from public authorities. Your donations help us.
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    Image: Adam Court (CC by/2.0)

  4. Right To Know: the long path to Rights of Way data

    OpenStreetMap is a project that creates and maintains maps all over the world, putting them out as open data that anyone can use.

    While many additions are made by on-the-ground volunteer contributors, the input of other data sources allows OpenStreetMap to make leaps and bounds in its coverage, as you might imagine. But using such data is only possible if it can be reused within the terms of OSM’s share-alike open data licence, the ODbL.

    And that’s where we pick up the story of Robert Whittaker, who used WhatDoTheyKnow in the hope of augmenting the OpenStreetMap offerings for Cambridgeshire, UK.

    Rights of way

    Robert saw a chance to add better data on public footpaths, bridleways, and byways in the county to OpenStreetMap. He explains the background:

    “Councils have a legal duty to maintain an official list and physical map of rights of way, but most councils — including Cambridgeshire — also maintain an unofficial digital map as well. It was the underlying data behind the digital map that I was after.”

    Not just for OpenStreetMap, though — the project’s reuse policy means that once they’ve put the data in place, it’s available for others, too.

    “Having this data — and the right to re-use it — will allow people to create their own maps of the Rights of Way and mix the data with information from other sources. This would then allow, for example, routing software to plan walks using Public Rights of Way and other roads.

    “Cambridgeshire was one of the few councils, until recently, that was not making the data freely available.”

    The right to ask

    So, how do you go about obtaining something like this? If you’re familiar with Freedom of Information or its close neighbour EIR (Environmental Information Regulations), they provide an obvious route, as these pieces of legislation provide us all with the right to request data from public authorities. Robert was very familiar:

    “I’ve made quite a few FOI and EIR requests over the years, mostly through the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow.com. A lot have been for data that will be useful to OpenStreetMap mappers, but I’ve also made requests to gain information about the workings of public authorities, either to inform campaigns, increase transparency, or expose poor decision-making.

    “I think the first FOI request I sent personally was in 2006 to my university to ask for the specification and testing details for an out-sourced student-facing web-app that had a particularly poor user interface. It was to inform a campaign by the Student Union to get improvements made.”

    With this experience in his background, EIR and FOI were the natural routes for Robert in obtaining this data. He made three requests: first, asking for the GIS data, then, to request permission for its reuse; and finally for the related written descriptions.

    The right to refuse

    Unfortunately, the requests did not go as smoothly as he might have hoped. That first request was back in August 2014, and if you read through the stream of responses and annotations, you’ll see that Robert experienced almost the full set of obstacles that can get in the way of an FOI response — from the council simply not responding in time, to their responding with only parts of the data he had asked for, and citing rules which didn’t apply to the situation in hand.

    He also went through the internal review process and eventually took the council to the ICO, citing the Re-use of Public Sector Information regulations to help his case.

    It’s a good thing that Robert is both well-informed and tenacious, as surely these hurdles would have proved discouraging, if not completely off-putting, to many requesters.

    Much of his argument pivoted around a specific exemption — a clause which allows an authority not to provide data under certain circumstances, in this case, the enticingly named EIR 6(1)(b).

    “EIR 6(1)(b) allows public bodies to refuse to provide information in a specific form or format, if it’s already publicly available and easily accessible in another form.

    “The council argued that because they had an online map available on their website, the information about the rights of way was already available and so 6(1)(b) meant they could refuse to release the underlying data.

    “I successfully argued that the map was only a summary or approximation of the underlying data I’d requested. That data contained the actual coordinates of the points and the lines joining them to make up the routes. I think one of the key arguments was that given the data you could generate the map, but given the map you could not recreate the full underlying dataset, you could only obtain an approximation to it.”

    The (almost) right outcome

    Robert was ultimately successful in his first two requests, two and a half years after making that initial request. The third is still being contested.

    “It’s been frustrating, but eventually worthwhile. I’m annoyed at how long it has taken to get to the end, and also annoyed at the public money that the Council has wasted in prevaricating and trying to withhold the information.

    “I think the ICO probably needs more resources to be be able to investigate cases more promptly. I also think it should take a stricter line with public authorities that frustrate requesters or the ICO’s investigations. The ICO already has some additional powers that would help here, but they seem reluctant to use them, even though doing so could speed things up significantly.”

    But even while we await the outcome of the final request, Robert’s patience has already begun to pay off:

    “I’ve already loaded the data into my comparison tool to help mappers improve OSM. Also, thanks to Barry Cornelius, the Cambridgeshire data is now available from his site in a number of different standard formats, for anyone else who wants to use or view it.”


    We run WhatDoTheyKnow so it’s easy for anyone to make an FOI or EIR request — and your contributions help us carry on doing so.
    Donate now

    Image: Uncle Bucko (CC by-nc/2.0)

  5. Using EveryPolitician data: Politwoops

    Politwoops tracks politicians’ tweets, and reports the ones that are deleted.

    Often those tweets are deleted because of a typo: everyone makes simple mistakes with the buttons on their devices, and politicians are no less human than the rest of us.

    But Politwoops’s targets are public servants who use Twitter to communicate with that public. And sometimes the contents of the tweets they delete are not simply the result of bad typing. Those tweets can be especially interesting to people whom those politicians are representing: sometimes they may be evidence of a usually-suppressed prejudice, or an attempt to remove evidence of a previously held opinion that is no longer convenient.

    In effect, Politwoops is a public archive of direct quotes that would otherwise be lost.

    And also… EveryPolitician

    Our EveryPolitician project is an ever-growing collection of data on every politician in the world (we’re not there yet, but we’re over 230 countries and 72,700 politicians in, and counting).

    Like Politwoops, our data includes politicians’ Twitter handles. But also a lot more besides.

    We make that data useful by putting it out in consistent, simple formats — the simplest of which is a comma-separated value (CSV) file for each term of a legislature. In practice, that means if you want a spreadsheet of the current politicians in your country’s parliament, then EveryPolitician is probably the place for you.

    Put them together…

    Now, Politwoops predates EveryPolitician by several years, and they’ve being doing their thing without needing our data just fine. In fact, Politwoops has been happily politwooping since 2010 (Politwoops is a project of the Open State Foundation, based in the Netherlands).

    Behind the scenes, it works pretty much the way you’d expect: with a list of politicians’ Twitter handles for each country where it’s running.

    But… who doesn’t want to add something extra for free? Our data also includes Twitter handles (mostly but not entirely from the same public sources Politwoops were using). So that meant they could take our CSVs and match each line—all that extra data!—with the Twitter handle.

    Better, for free

    So last year, they augmented their data with ours for one very simple win: they get to know party affiliation for the politician associated with each of those twitter handles. Well, actually they get to know lots of other things besides party — gender, date of birth, or… well, all our other data, if they wanted it. But just party? That’s also fine.

    This all means that Politwoops now shows the party of each tweet’s deleter, just because they merged our CSV with theirs. Lovely!

    A tiny detail...  party affiliation (arrowed) added to @deletedbyMPs tweets [screenshot of https://politwoops.co.uk/]

    A tiny detail… party affiliation (arrowed) added to @deletedbyMPs tweets [screenshot of https://politwoops.co.uk/]

    Although party affiliation was the detail Politwoops went for, it turns out the other data from EveryPolitician was a little too tempting for them to ignore… So recently they’ve been doing some playful analysis on their statistics using the gender breakdown that EveryPolitician data makes possible too. You can see more on the Politwoops website.

    You can too

    To be clear: Politwoops did this, not us. We’re committed to doing the groundwork of finding, collecting and collating the data, and making it available (and, additionally, endlessly checking for updates… if you’re interested in how this all works, you can read our bot’s own blog). We do this so people who want to get on with using the data can do just that. As did, in this case, Breyten and his team at Politwoops.

    EveryPolitician’s data is available as plain CSVs for this kind of thing, but we also provide a richer JSON version too if that’s more useful to you. All the files are downloadable from the website. If you’re a coder who wants to dive in, there are libraries to make it even easier for you (the EveryPolitician team works in Ruby, so we wrote the everypolitician gem, but there are also ports to Python and PHP).

    For more information see the docs.everypolitian.org.

    The EveryPolitician bot wrote its own version of this blog post, which goes into a little more detail of the process.


    Image: Tom Maladova (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  6. Crowdsourcing information on EU commissioners’ travel expenses

    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).

  7. Standing up for erectile dysfunction care: a digital empowerment tool

    What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.

    There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.

    The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.

    Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.

     

    Prostate Cancer tool, built by mySociety

    Educating, campaigning, sharing

    The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.

    If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.

    When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.

    Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.

    How it works

    Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.

    When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.

    PCUK comparison screen

    But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.

    Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.

    Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.

    All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.

     

    Image: Brad Hagan (CC-by/2.0)

  8. Freedom of Information and asbestos in schools

    Lucie Stephens has sent Freedom of Information requests to every Local Education Authority in the country — over 200 of them.

    She’s requesting information about asbestos in schools, and for a reason that’s very close to her heart. Earlier this year, Lucie’s mother, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, a cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to that substance.

    Now Lucie is acting on the promise she made before her mum passed away: “To do my best to make sure no-one else has to suffer like she has.”

    We were really interested to hear how Lucie came to use Freedom of Information as tool in her campaign, so we got in touch to ask her a few questions.

    Your WhatDoTheyKnow profile page and your petition make the reason for your campaign clear – at what point did you realise that Freedom of Information would be a useful tool?

    After Mum’s diagnosis I wanted to know how safe my daughter’s school was. I wrote to them and got a positive response: her school does contain asbestos and they were willing to share this information with me.

    I then wrote to my local council to request the same information for my borough. This took a lot longer, and involved frequently having to chase and remind them of deadlines missed.

    I thought all parents and teachers should know if their school contains asbestos. I didn’t want them to have to struggle to access the information from their local council in the way that I did.

    A friend suggested that FOI would be a good way of getting hold of consistent information, and at this point it also became clear that it would be a useful way to analyse how well asbestos is being managed in our schools.

    Had you heard of the Freedom of Information Act, or used it previously?

    I had heard about FOI before but hadn’t used it. It had always seemed a complicated and challenging process, so I was nervous of it. I knew what questions to ask but was still worried about getting the format right.

    I had made contact with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), as they are also campaigning to get asbestos removed from schools. I asked them to advise on the best wording to use in order to get the information that I required, and they were really helpful.

    Once you have all the data for every school in the country, what will you do with it?

    Every parent and teacher should know if their school contains asbestos.

    I am planning to use the data collected to produce an easy-to-access national map that parents and teachers can use to find out if their school is affected. By telling parents which schools have asbestos we are enabling them to hold their school, local education authority and ultimately (we hope) the Department for Education to account. The map will also be useful for campaigners and journalists concerned with the issue of asbestos in schools.

    What would be the ideal outcome of your campaign?

    I want policy on asbestos in schools to change.

    Each school should be expected to produce an annual report on the extent of asbestos and how it is being managed. This will increase transparency and accountability until we get to the point where all asbestos in schools has been removed.

    At the same time the Department for Education needs to change its approach. It needs to commit to the phased removal from all schools by 2028.

    To achieve this they need to earmark funds specifically for asbestos removal and set annual targets for the number of schools that will be asbestos free. The phased removal should start with the most dangerous schools first but seek to remove all asbestos by 2028.

    By revealing which schools contain asbestos, the campaign will make it easier for parents to hold the DFE to account over their plans for the removal of asbestos.  

    Have any of your FOI requests been turned down?

    I made my requests to local authorities, asking them to provide the figures for every school in their jurisdiction. Most have not provided information for academies and free schools as they do not have a statutory responsibility for them.

    There were various refusals and partial responses, from authorities which just issued generic statements that ‘all local schools built before 2000 contain asbestos’ with a link to their online schools directory, to those claiming that the information sought would take too long to collect, and so refusing to issue it, or requesting payment before the information could be released.* 

    Some areas withheld data on the number of claims that they had received from teachers, school staff and ex-pupils, stating that the figures were low enough to make it possible to identify the individuals concerned. Some areas refused to release details of the amount of money paid out in claims, stating that this would breach data protection. This rule was not applied consistently, though, as some areas did release figures relating to only one claim and settlement.

    I was very irritated to find some authorities who, because they claimed to be unable to answer one of my seven questions, then refused to answer any of them. To date we only have data from 135 local councils of 152 approached. Some are very overdue in providing the data.

    In gathering the data it was clear that there is huge variety in the ways in which asbestos is being managed in schools. It was also apparent that there is a wide range of ways in which FOI requests are handled.

    What benefits did you get from using WhatDoTheyKnow?

    Without WhatDoTheyKnow I wouldn’t have been able to collect the data.

    The site was really easy to use. It was very helpful in managing the data as it appeared, and in reminding me when authorities were overdue in providing information.

    In some cases I used my right to a review to challenge the handling of a request, and this led to further information being released. I definitely wouldn’t have made a challenge without the site making the process straightforward in the way it does. 

    It has also been great to have the data held on a public site like this, so that I’ve been able to direct journalists and campaigners to the source of the data directly.

    The only challenge with the site was that the number of requests was capped. I can totally appreciate why this was, and in fact when I did contact the team and ask for this cap to be removed so that I could complete the requests in a shorter timeframe, they were very helpful. Having ascertained that I was sending bulk requests for a valid reason, they acted quickly to remove the cap.

     

    You can read more about Lucie’s campaign, and lend your support, on her petition page.

    * Note: Making an FOI request is almost always free, but authorities can charge under certain circumstances, and they can refuse to respond to a request outright if it will cost more than a certain amount — currently £450 — to do so.

    Image: Webercw (CC by-nc/2.0)

  9. 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)

  10. Something in the middle: how Bristol connects

    This year, Bristol Council did something unusual and admirable. As far as we’re aware, they’re the first UK council to have taken such a step.

    Working with mySociety on custom Open311 ‘middleware’ while adopting FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, they now enjoy full flexibility, no matter what the future holds.

    Thanks to this open approach, Bristol will extract more value from their existing systems and lower operating costs. With integrated, open solutions, and the raised quality of report formatting that Open311 brings, everyone will benefit.

    Improving flexibility

    Councils are increasingly understanding the value of flexibility when it comes to service providers.

    Contracts that lock them into a single provider for many years mean that, often, there’s no opportunity to benefit when technology advances, and disproportionate costs can be charged for implementing the slightest changes.

    This desire for flexibility was a strong factor in Bristol City Council’s decision to adopt FixMyStreet for Councils — and that opened the door for a conversation about Open311.

    We’ve always advocated integration via Open311, to the extent that we offer free hook-up with FixMyStreet to any councils who support it.

    Because Open311 is an open standard, it supports the entire landscape of providers like FixMyStreet. Right now, Bristol can accept street fault reports not just from us, but from a full range of services — in other words, any site or app that cares to connect with them can do so. No-one knows what the future will hold: if a game-changing system emerges in the future, it makes sense that you’d be able to accept its reports.

    All well and good: but when Bristol City Council implemented FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, the concept was taken a little bit further. With our collaboration, Bristol created their own Open311 ‘middleware’, sitting between the two systems and talking to both.

    Via this method, their existing CMS, Confirm, can hook up to reports coming through from FixMyStreet. That all works smoothly — but, just as importantly, if Bristol ever decide to replace their CRM provider, they’ll be able to do so with no knock-on effect to FixMyStreet reports. And if they ever decide to replace FixMyStreet with a different provider, or indeed to accept reports from a range of providers, they can do that too.

    Bristol found us via the GCloud procurement system, and are the first metropolitan unitary authority to install FixMyStreet.

    Future plans

    Bristol launched its FixMyStreet service to the public in the summer of 2016.

    This autumn, they added asset-based reporting, meaning that known council properties such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies are all marked on FixMyStreet’s maps. Residents can pinpoint and report the location of faults with these assets far more accurately as a result.

    There’ll be a phased rollout across departments, starting with Highways and moving across departments as Bristol extend their own middleware. We’ll be watching with great interest.

    Find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: Adam Heath (CC by-sa/2.0)