In celebration of our millionth public FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve been examining many aspects of the service — and now we come to that huge archive of released information, built up by members of the public asking for what they wanted, and receiving data in response.
So, what’s in there?
The thing is, we don’t know.
Well, that’s not to say we have no idea: of course we do occasionally look at what’s being requested and released via WhatDoTheyKnow. When we find something interesting, we often tweet about it. But with requests being submitted at an ever-increasing rate, there’s no way that we can inspect every single one.
We do, however, have some thoughts about what you can find in the massive public archive that is WhatDoTheyKnow, and it’s not just ‘information that people have asked for’. The meta-benefit of having a big corpus like this free and online is that it provides a lens for examining our own society.
So for example, some of the information just waiting to be analysed by curious researchers, linguists or historians include:
What sort of things people want to know Machine learning technology can now allow a researcher to take a huge dataset like WhatDoTheyKnow’s million public requests, and analyse it. What topics do the most people ask about, which authorities do they make what type of requests to, which type of wording is most likely to gain a response, and all sorts of other questions are just waiting to be answered — should a curious enough researcher want to get their teeth into it.
And incidentally – if an authority analyses the requests made to it over the years, it would also find useful intel on what data it could be publishing proactively, so people don’t even have to submit an FOI request, and they don’t have to expend effort responding to them.
Lessons about how language changes When you have a million questions, and a vast number of responses from authorities, you can start to understand shifts in our language. For example: when did information officers start including pronouns in their signatures? That may not be relevant to the information being released, but it still marks a significant change in social history. And when did society settle on ‘covid’ rather than ‘coronavirus’, ‘Brexit’ rather than ‘leaving the EU’? We reckon there’s a huge value to any linguist or historian who takes a look.
Widely useful information There’s at least one type of information that we know is useful to hundreds of people every year: the acceptance rates at various universities.
Every year, prospective students start to worry about their chance of getting into their preferred institution; and every year (usually on Reddit) they are pointed towards previous releases showing the data; or, where it doesn’t exist, advised to put in their own request for it.
That’s just one example of how information, once published, has a spread far beyond the single person who requested it. There are many more, not least in Wikipedia citations.
When contracts are due for renewal Another common use of the FOI Act is by companies or startups looking for commercial information — such as when a contract is up for renewal so they can submit a tender; or whether certain authorities have a need for the product they’re developing.
A request sent across a number of authorities in the area, or even across the country, can be a very efficient source of intel.
Your esoteric pet subject What are you into? Politics?, Public transport? Cookery, bats, or seagulls perhaps? Whatever it is, you can search WhatDoTheyKnow and see if anyone’s uncovered interesting information about it.
If not, maybe you’ll think of something you’d like to know — and don’t forget you can set up an alert, so you’ll receive an email whenever someone mentions your chosen keyword in a future request or response.
What authorities don’t actually have a record of. We blogged a while back about what it means when your request comes back as ‘information not held’. Sometimes this can be as revealing as the information itself.
Datasets behind news stories. When journalists or researchers use WhatDoTheyKnow or WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to gather data that helps them break a story or write a paper, we always encourage them to link their article or report back to the responses on the site. Because, yes, they’ve found one story, but there may be more to discover in there, and there are always people motivated enough to look. Equally, we’ll link back from the site to their story – look out for the ‘in the news’ section in the right hand column of every request page.
These are just a few examples of the riches to be found in plain view on WhatDoTheyKnow. If it wasn’t for the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, and for WhatDoTheyKnow’s ability to make information truly free, none of this would be available. But it is, and that’s great, so why not dive into the search bar and see what you can find?
Tomorrow, in the final post of this series, we’ll be looking at what we’re doing to bring WhatDoTheyKnow’s benefits to the communities that need them most.
International emergency aid charity Médecins Sans Frontiers are one of the biggest purchasers of medicine worldwide, and naturally it’s important that the drugs they buy are cost-effective. Where possible, they choose generics—white label medicines that contain the same ingredients even if they don’t carry the well-known brand names: think ‘ibuprofen’ or ‘aspirin’ rather than ‘Nurofen’ or ‘Anadin’.
But when a specific medicine is only available as a patented product from a big drugs company and with an equally big price tag attached, MSF, like everyone else, has little choice but to pay.
Curiously, this turned out to be a problem that can be solved, in part, through good web design. Here’s the story.
Obviously, drugs companies have an interest in keeping their medicines under patent. As MSF explained, patents, and in particular the practice of ‘evergreening’ them (extending their life indefinitely by making slight modifications to the medicine’s make-up), give pharmaceutical companies a monopoly on pricing, and can impede access to patients who would benefit from them.
MSF’s online project, the Patent Oppositions Database (PODB) is a resource for helping people challenge medicine patents. PODB helps groups around the world to find each other and work on cases together, and to share previous examples of art and arguments used in lawsuits which may help others in future oppositions.
The site was already up, running and functional, and the concept was sound. But it wasn’t attracting much take-up. On analysis, it became clear that this was because there was no focused experience on the site, encouraging users towards the core interactions which would power the whole concept of collaborating and sharing knowledge.
Where design came in
MSF asked us to suggest improvements that would enable groups to communicate about specific cases, and to improve the sense of community. Our solutions will add intuitive user paths that lead people to existing opposition cases and the information they need, then encourage them to join in by placing discussions and information about contributors on the page.
It’s crucial for MSF that the project reaches its full potential, and with the in-depth design changes we’ve suggested, and have now been asked to implement, we know it will.
You can read more about how we approached this project in our latest case study, over at the mySociety Services website.