1. NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on WhatDoTheyKnow

    We’ve just listed Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on our UK Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com. These new bodies bring together NHS organisations and local councils with the aim of better co-ordinating health and care services in England (see NHS England’s webpage introducing them).

    In most parts of the country Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships are unimaginatively named. In a few places though the bodies have been more adventurous: we have the bold and strident sounding Success Regime Essex, as well as Together We’re Better in Staffordshire, Transforming Health and Social Care in Kent and Medway, Joined Up Care Derbyshire and one called BOB.

    Some of these bodies appear to be just coming into being, with almost nothing about them online at all and others are more established with staff, websites, boards and published meeting minutes. When researching these organisations we found a handful offered Freedom of Information contact addresses, and commendably Kent and Medway’s even has a log of responses it has already made to FOI requests.

    Most Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships will be subject to Freedom of Information (FOI) law as all their members are public bodies. Some may not be subject to FOI though, for example Surrey Heartlands Sustainability and Transformation Partnership appears to have private company Virgin Care as a member, exempting it from the relevant definition; we list the body on WhatDoTheyKnow anyway as part of our activism seeking to expand the scope of the law.

    What information will a Sustainability and Transformation Partnership hold?

    A few partnerships publish their key governance documents (constitutions, terms of reference, memoranda of understanding), and minutes and papers from their boards; these can give an insight into the organisation’s activities and reading them may suggest information which could be made public via a Freedom of Information request. If the basics of board minutes, and governance documents aren’t published you can use WhatDoTheyKnow to get them online and easily for everyone to access.

    FOI responses from Kent and Medway show large sums of money being paid to “consultants/external advisory firms” to develop a Sustainability and Transformation Plan and hint at bodies elsewhere doing similar. Freedom of Information requests could be made to partnerships elsewhere to ask for information on their budgets and spending.

    The future

    It is anticipated that Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships may “evolve” into “Accountable Care Organisations” ACOs, responsible for all public healthcare in a region; this would make them immensely important public bodies.

    We’ll keep an eye on the organisational changes and try to keep our service up-to-date.
    Maintaining the database of public bodies is a key part of running WhatDoTheyKnow; we have to react to reorganisations in the public sector, and bodies forming, merging, changing their names or ceasing to exist.

    NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships on WhatDoTheyKnow

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    Image: LydiaShiningBrightly (CC-by/2.0)

  2. What we’ve learned thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow this month

    In the past month over 4,600 Freedom of Information requests made via our site WhatDoTheyKnow resulted in information being released. Volunteer Molly Williams has picked out a few highlights.

    The autopsy of Alexander Litvinenko

    The autopsy of the former Russian spy who was killed in November 2006 by radioactive polonium-210, which is believed to have been slipped into his cup of tea on Putin’s orders, has been described by a pathologist as “the most dangerous post-mortem examination ever undertaken in the western world”.

    An FOI request sent via WhatDoTheyKnow.com to Barts Health NHS Trust, whose care Litvinenko came under when he fell ill with the poisoning, revealed the detailed step-by-step procedure used to carry out his post-mortem safely. The examination determined how he was murdered.

    Read the full response here.

    Thousands of NHS and health bodies are listed on WhatDoTheyKnow, so if you have queries on the data they hold, it’s a great place to start.

    Grenfell displaced person plans

    An FOI request sent after the fire that killed 80 people and burned down a large block of flats in the Kensington and Chelsea area revealed the progress of plans to rehome those left homeless.

    Some key details revealed were that:

    • all regeneration plans have been put on hold in Kensington and Chelsea
    • emergency hotel accommodation in Kensington and Chelsea was offered to all made homeless by the fire
    • there were 179 offers of temporary accommodation made, of which 65 were accepted
    • everyone affected has a dedicated Housing Officer to help them find a new home
    • the council aim to rehome everyone who was made homeless by the fire by June 2018

    Read the full response to the request here.

    Crime statistics at Leeds Festival

    An FOI request sent via WhatDoTheyKnow revealed all the crimes reported from Leeds Festival over the past five years — including sexual offences, drugs, and fraud. It also showed that 2016, the latest year for which statistics were available, was the worst year for crime at the festival, with 200 offences reported. See the request and the full stats here.

    Letter from Chris Grayling ordering GTR to fund a £13.4 million improvement to Southern Rail

    How do you phrase a difficult letter? After it was quoted in national media, a message from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, fining Govia Thameslink Railway for £13.4 million, is now available in full for everyone to read.

    In the letter Grayling stated that “passengers who depend on Southern have been badly let down” and went on to outline what the money will be spent on, including more on-board staff and £7m on “improvements that will directly benefit passengers”.

    Read the letter in full here.

    There are five railways companies listed on WhatDoTheyKnow. Not all of them are subject to FOI, but we list them anyway because we believe them to be subject to the less-known Environmental Information Regulations (EIR). And of course, as in the case mentioned above, you can always request information from public bodies which correspond with, or contract, organisations not covered by FOI.

    Supernatural crime reports in the West Midlands

    A requester asked for any reports on “ghosts, werewolves, witches, aliens, zombies and the like” to the West Midlands Police. Think this is a frivolous question? Well, in the past 12 months no fewer than 10 supernatural sightings have been filed. Following the response, the requester asked for further information on these mysterious sightings and is currently awaiting more detail.

    Read the full response here.

    Football in Worcester

    A request revealed, within a series of released email correspondence, plans to build a community sports stadium and relocate 3D artificial turf playing fields. It also showed the decision process taken, including consideration of the possible effects on the local area. Read what’s happening to football in Worcester here.

    If you want to know more about Sport England’s plans in your local community, you can send an information request to them via WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Seabird and raptor monitoring on the Isle of Rum

    An FOI request sent to Scottish Natural Heritage revealed details of their monitoring of seabirds and raptors including which species they track, their monitoring methods, and research aims.

    Read the details of the methods, findings and staff involved in the monitoring of these incredible birds on our site, here.

    Platelet donors and donations

    Information released by NHS Blood and Donations under FOI revealed how the number of platelet donors and donations has been gradually decreasing since 2010. When responding, the public body helpfully explained the trend in the statistics:

    “NHS Blood and Transplant has gradually reduced the amount of platelets it collects from platelet apheresis donations and increased the amount of platelets it collects by pooling whole blood donations from whole blood donors. This follows the 2013 recommendation made by the Department of Health’s Independent Advisory Committee on the Safety of Blood, Tissues and Organs (SaBTO) to remove the requirement to provide 80% of platelets to hospitals by apheresis”.

    Read the full response here.

    FOI numbers and staff

    You can even send an FOI request about the handling of FOIs! One requester asked for how many requests to Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council were received in the past three years and the number of staff who deal with them.

    There were a total of 3,160 requests but no designated team dealing with them, which may simply suggest there is an FOI culture embedded throughout the organisation, where the role is combined with other jobs. Read the full response here, and if you, too have a question about FOI requests you might like to send an FOI request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com.


    Image: Plumber John (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  3. Alaveteli Pro: batch requests, a news story, and going international

    Jenna Corderoy, Alaveteli Professional Advocate, brings us an update on the project.

    Since our last blog post on Alaveteli Professional — our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists — there have been a few exciting developments.

    Batch work

    The batch request feature is coming along nicely: this will allow users of the service to send one Freedom of Information request to multiple authorities and help them to easily manage large volumes of responses.

    We’re going to be working with a small group of our beta testers to develop this feature and make sure we release it in a useful and responsible form (click here to apply as a beta tester and get a year’s free access to WhatDoTheyKnowPro, the UK version of the service).

    Getting results

    We’ve been pleased to see the first news story to emerge as the result of a request made through WhatDoTheyKnowPro: a response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office showed which are the countries where UK holidaymakers are most likely to get arrested. The full list was covered in the Birmingham Mail.

    Further afield

    But we also have plans for this Freedom of Information toolkit to go international: Alaveteli Professional will be a bolt-on option for anyone already running an FOI site on our software platform Alaveteli.

    In April, mySociety team members traveled to roll out the first such project, with Info Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site.

    We were able to introduce beta users to the features we’ve been developing, such as the ability to keep requests private until the story has been published.

    While in the Czech Republic, we held a roundtable discussion with journalists and campaigners, swapping Freedom of Information battle stories and sharing tips and tricks for getting the best results when submitting requests for information, as well as experiences of filing requests to European Union institutions.

    mySociety was also invited to give a talk to student journalists based in Olomouc about Info Pro Všechny and Alaveteli Professional in general, discussing success stories generated from our Freedom of Information sites from around the world.

    Next up

    We’re currently working on subscription options, which will allow us to officially launch WhatDoTheyKnowPro as a paid-for service in the UK, and later in the year, we plan to introduce the Pro toolkit to the Belgian Alaveteli site Transparencia.be, which has been making a splash in Belgian politics.

    Photo by Amador Loureiro (Unsplash)

  4. 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)

  5. 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.
    Donate now


    Image: Adam Court (CC by/2.0)

  6. Grenfell Tower: how mySociety can help

    Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.

    As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.

    Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’

    Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.

    We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.

    But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.

    If you want to help campaign

    The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.

    Gather information

    At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.

    In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:

    If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.

    Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:

    Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.

    Lobby for change

    Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.

    If you want quick answers

    Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.

    If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:

    But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.

    WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.

    What we will be doing

    We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.

    Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.

    Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.

     


    *Unless covered by an exemption.

    Image: Chiral Jon (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  7. 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)

  8. The latest from Alaveteli Professional: prototyping, testing, reducing risk

    Last time we updated you about Alaveteli professional, the Freedom of Information toolset for journalists that we’re building, we were just coming out of our discovery phase.

    Since then, we’ve made strides through the alpha and early beta part of our development process. In alpha, the idea is to build dummy versions of the tool that work in the minimum way possible — no bells and whistles — to test concepts, and our assumptions. Having thought hard about the potential problems of Alaveteli Professional, now is the time for us to try the approaches that we believe will solve them, by making prototypes of how the tool might work and testing them with a very small group of users.

    In the early stages of beta, our priority has been to get to the point where a Freedom of Information request can go through all its various processes, from composition to response, with the features that a journalist user would need. Once that’s in place, it allows us to add other features on top and see how they would integrate.

    This pattern —  discovery, alpha, beta, release — is a well-tested method by which to produce a final product that works as it should, while avoiding costly mistakes.

    Risk management

    Alpha and beta testing, perhaps unexcitingly, are all about the reduction of risk: in the words of the startup mantra, it’s good to ‘fail fast’— or rather, it’s better to know early on if something doesn’t work, rather than spend time and money on something that doesn’t fit the bill.

    So, for Alaveteli Professional, what are the risks that have been keeping us awake at night?

    We think the biggest priority is to ensure that there’s actually added value for journalists in using a service like this. Clearly, the Freedom of Information process is already available to all, whether via our own site WhatDoTheyKnow, or directly.

    We need to be able to demonstrate tangible benefits: that Alaveteli Professional can save journalists time; help them be more efficient in managing their requests; maybe help them get information that otherwise wouldn’t be released; and give them access to rich data they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.

    For all we said about failing fast, the alpha phase also meant committing to some fairly big technical decisions that, ideally, we wouldn’t like to reverse.

    Decisions like, do we build the service into the existing Alaveteli codebase, or go for a new standalone one (we went for the former)? From the user’s point of view, should Alaveteli Professional look like a totally different site, or like a registration-only part of WhatDoTheyKnow (we chose the latter)?

    And onto beta

    As we move from alpha to beta, we’re finding out what happens when real users make real requests through the service, and making adjustments based on their feedback.

    What do they think of the way we’ve implemented the ability to embargo requests – does it make sense to them? Do they trust us to keep embargoed requests private? Are they able to navigate between different interfaces in a way that seems intuitive? mySociety designer Martin has been figuring out how to take the cognitive load off the user and give them just the information they need, when they need it.

    We’re also returning to prototyping mode to work out how to implement new features, like the ability to send round robin requests to multiple authorities, in an effective and responsible way. The other half of our design team, Zarino, has been showing us that a slideshow in presentation mode can be an effective tool for demonstrating how users might interact with an interface.

    As we continue to round out the feature set in the UK, we’re also cooking up plans in the Czech Republic so that later in the year we can present the tools to a new audience of journalists there and again, use their feedback to make the tools more flexible so that they can be used in different jurisdictions.

    As you can see, there’s lots going on, and we’re all really excited to be finally getting some real life users in front of the tools that we’ve been thinking about, and working on, for so many weeks. Don’t forget to sign up to the mailing list if you’d like to keep up with Alaveteli Professional as it develops.


    Image: Jeff Eaton (CC BY-SA)

  9. Now you can request information from the Police Federation of England and Wales

    The Police Federation of England and Wales is the latest body to be added to WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Thanks to the Policing and Crime Act 2017, which came into force on January 31, the Federation is now subject to Freedom of Information. That means that if you make a request for information which they hold, under most circumstances they must provide it.

    These new responsibilities were announced by Theresa May back in 2014 when she was Home Secretary:

    I will bring forward proposals to make the Police Federation – that is, the national organisation and all the regional branches – subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

    I know that some of you will find these changes unpalatable. In particular, I know that some of you will find the Freedom of Information Act an unwelcome intrusion. But the Police Federation is an organisation created by statute, it serves a public function and the Normington Review demonstrated very clearly that it is an organisation in need of greater transparency and accountability. So it is a change that I believe needs to be made.

    Whether it was found unpalatable or not — it happened. Accordingly, that’s now reflected on WhatDoTheyKnow, so if you have a burning question for the Federation, now is the time to ask.


    Image: CodyR (CC by/2.0)

  10. 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).