Recently the discharge of untreated sewage into the sea and rivers has been in the news in the UK. This prompted us to update and expand our coverage of organisations responsible for such activities on our access to information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Since a ruling in 2015 all organisations which provide certain water and sewage related services have been considered public bodies for the purposes of the Environmental Information Regulations; this means everyone has a right to the environmental information they hold. Even private water and sewage companies can be considered public bodies under the regulations.
We often describe WhatDoTheyKnow.com as a Freedom of Information website, but it can be used to obtain public information under a range of access to information legislation, not just the UK and Scotland’s Freedom of Information Acts. So if you want environmental information about sewage we’d love to see you requesting it, in public, via WhatDoTheyKnow.
We’ve listed water companies on WhatDoTheyKnow for some time, and we have now specifically collected those responsible for sewers into their own category. This will hopefully assist people considering making a request for information and help ensure requests are directed to appropriate organisations.
We’re always keen to see requests made in a responsible manner. Anyone considering making a request for information should check relevant bodies’ websites for the information they are seeking before making a request. Some organisations publish some information about releases of untreated raw sewage, and information about their plans to monitor, and reduce, such occurrences. Where information is collated by a central body, requesting it once, from that body, is more efficient than requesting it from many bodies. The Environment Agency for example collates and publishes some data on storm overflows centrally.
We list the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Highways bodies (which are responsible for surface drainage from roads), and many other relevant bodies on WhatDoTheyKnow.
Before making your own requests it’s a good idea to look at work which has already been done by others to collate, present and share information: for example the Rivers Trust have published a map of where the sewerage network discharges treated effluent and overflows of untreated effluent and storm water into rivers in England & Wales.
The current interest in this subject in the UK has focused on MPs’ consideration of the Environment Bill. Proposals for the Bill include provisions requiring the publication of information on the location of “storm overflows” and the frequency, duration and volume of discharges from such overflows. We’re keen to see timely proactive publication of information rather than having information only released on request; we’re more than happy to see the need for our service reduced by greater proactive transparency from public bodies.
We would like to see news articles, campaigners and academics citing, and linking to, the sources of the data on which their work is based. This improves the credibility of the work, and enables others to check, and build on, what has been done. Requesting information in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com makes such citations and links easy to offer.
Image: Ivan Bandura
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.
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.”
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