1. 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.
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    Image: Uncle Bucko (CC by-nc/2.0)

  2. 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)

  3. 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)

  4. 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).

  5. 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)

  6. Detention Logs: using FOI to reveal the truth about immigration detention in Australia

    Australia: land of sand, surf and koalas. Renowned for its laid-back attitude and a friendly welcome for all… or so those up here in the northern hemisphere might believe, spoon-fed our preconceptions via the squeaky-clean medium of Aussie soaps.

    What’s not so well-known is Australia’s decades-long resistance to people seeking asylum. Since the early 1990s, Australian Prime Ministers have implemented, upheld and strengthened laws to hold refugees in mandatory, indefinite detention, and to forcibly turn boats away from their shores. Australia has been repeatedly condemned by the UN for inhumane treatment of people in its immigration detention system, and people held inside have maintained continuous protest for years.

    Once you learn all this, it seems perhaps unsurprising that immigration detention is, as website Detention Logs puts it, one of the most “hotly debated, contested and emotional topics in Australia”.

    Getting it out in the open

    Detention Logs is among the most purposeful and systematic uses of Freedom of Information we’ve seen yet.

    It’s not a mySociety-affiliated project (although one of its founders is also a member of Open Australia, who use our Alaveteli software to run the RightToKnow site), but it is one that’s very much in our sphere of interest. We wanted to write about it because it’s a great example of putting FOI to work in order to get truth out into the open, and make societal change.

    At the time the project was set up, Australia’s detention centres were run by the British companies Serco and G4S; access is, as you might expect, limited. However, contractors to the government must report to them, and the report documents fall under the citizens’ Right To Know via Australia’s Freedom of Information Act.

    Reports are made whenever an ‘incident’ of note occurs in one of the nation’s detention centres; that covers assault, accidents, escapes, riots, the discovery of weapons and several other categories — including births and deaths.

    Detention Logs have, at the time of writing, obtained 7,632 incident reports which cover the period between 3 Oct 2009 and 26 May 2011. These may be explored on their site via a data browser, allowing readers to filter by date, incident type and detention centre.

    Finding the stories

    Like many official documents, these reports were composed for internal eyes only. They can be difficult to decipher, or heavily redacted. Often, they suggest more questions than they answer.

    Users are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a report, then submit a further FOI request for more information: a ‘reporting recipe’ guides beginners in how to do this, and how to pull out stories both for the ‘far view’ (looking at all the data in aggregate) and the ‘near view’ (investigating individuals’ stories).

    For researchers and the technically-minded, there’s also the option to download the data in bulk.

    The result is that the public are gaining an unprecedented understanding of what life is like for detainees — and staff — inside Australia’s detention centres.

    Open data brings change

    The resulting stories are published on their Investigations page, but the data has also been used by national press and beyond.

    Luke Bacon, one of Detention Logs’ founders, told us of a few outcomes:

    • The Detention Logs project was a precursor to the Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files —  more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. These have been presented in an online exploratory browser tool: the project was led by reporter Paul Farrell who is also a Detention Logs founder.
    • In turn, this has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people in the immigration detention system.
    • The data from Detention Logs has been used in research to show that the detention system is causing people to self-harm and attempt suicide.
    • The immigration department started releasing better information about how many people were in detention.

    So — while the issue of detention continues to be an inflammatory topic for the people of Australia, the project has been at least something of a success for transparency.

    It all goes to show what can be achieved when information is shared – and when the work of trawling through it is shared too.

    If you found this project interesting, you might also like to read about Muckrock’s FOI work on private prisons in the USA.

    Image: Kate Ausburn (CC-by/2.0)

  7. 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)

  8. 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)

  9. Transparencia: bringing transparency to Belgium

    “Every citizen has the right to consult every administrative document and make a copy of it”

    That’s article 32 of the Belgian constitution. Pretty clear, isn’t it?

    But until the process is put into the public arena, it’s not that easy to see whether it’s actually being upheld.

    Thanks to the latest Alaveteli launch, that’s about to happen. Anti-corruption NGO Anticor Belgium have just launched a Freedom of Information website Transparencia.be, running on our Alaveteli platform, with our hosting and development support.

    Not only should it make any lapses in authorities’ responses highly visible (acting as a “transparency barometer” is how AntiCor put it), but, as with every Alaveteli website, it will also make the whole process of submitting and tracking a response super-easy for citizens.

    AntiCor strongly believe that increasing transparency of public authority documents will benefit Belgian society as a whole.

    In their experience, most Belgian authorities haven’t respected the country’s access to information laws and often ignore their obligations. AntiCor hope that by exposing these bodies through the new site (and via their extensive network of media contacts) they will improve transparency across the board.

    Volunteer lawyers are on hand to help with tricky cases. This initial launch covers all public authorities in the Brussels region, but AntiCor hope to include all Belgian bodies eventually, too. They also plan to translate the site into Dutch.

    Launching with a splash – and some serious questions

    AntiCor are marking the launch with six requests for information which, they think, ought to be in the public domain, ranging from the release of safety registers for social housing and schools (“Has asbestos been found in your child’s school? By law you are entitled to see the inspection documents”), to analyses of bids for public contracts. You can read more (in French) here.

    Belgian media has been eager to give the new site publicity, an indication of the collective desire for more transparency in the country.

    “It’s a good day for democracy” begins Le Vif, while public broadcasting authority RTBF quotes AntiCor: “Transparency is a basic instrument for improving society – and sometimes the only defence against corruption, the abuse or misuse of public resources”

    La Capitale note that “governments themselves are sometimes unaware of their obligation to transparency to citizens”.

    News outlet Bruzz also underlines AntiCor’s stance on authorities who neglect their duty towards transparency: “In some cases it’s due to careless negligence, but in many cases, it’s down to willful default. [By refusing to disclose documents, authorities can] keep things like a poor use of public money away from public attention, and politicians can go about their business without sufficient democratic control”.

    Let’s hope that Transparencia is the first step towards implementing some of that democratic control. We wish Anticor all the best.

  10. What Do We Know about the EU Referendum?

    Just in case you missed it: a little while ago we had an itty bitty referendum on whether the UK should stay as a part of the EU.

    Given that this has had a small, barely worth talking about really, hardly noticed it impact on British politics, we wondered whether there would be any visible changes in the way that people are using our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Did people suddenly find themselves wanting to know more about Europe-related matters in the run-up to the referendum? What about afterwards?

    Short answer: Yes they did! To both questions!

    Long answer: Same as the short answer…but with graphs!

    What we did

    First we drew up a list of twenty-three keywords which might indicate that the request was at least partly related to either Europe, the EU, or the topics that became part of the debate leading up to the vote: keywords like EU, European Parliament, Schengen, refugee, and, that brave little neologism that could, Brexit*.

    Then we pulled all requests where the requester had used one or more of those phrases** and started number-crunching.

    What we found

    In the period between the May 2015 general election and the June 2016 EU referendum WhatDoTheyKnow sent 1,022 FOI requests that matched our EU keywords. These were generated by 641 unique requesters.

    Looking at these requesters: 79% of them made just a single request, and 96% made four or less. The remaining 25 users made 25% of all EU requests — with three users making more than 20 requests each.

    For the year leading up the election there was an average of 55 users making 75.6 EU-related requests between them each month.

    If we split this into two halves (the last half of 2015 and the first half of 2016), the average number of users per month had increased by 20 in 2016 compared to the second half of 2015 — with a peak in both users and requests in the month before the referendum and a decline in the immediate run-up.

    run-up-eu-requests

    So people had more questions to ask once the referendum was more in the public eye. But maybe that’s just reflecting wider trends across the board. Can we state with certainty that this change was referendum-related?

    Let’s move on to the second question: What happened after the referendum?

    After the referendum

    Comparing the three months before the referendum with the three months after it, we see users and requests are up in the post referendum period.

    EU-related requests Users making EU-related requests
    Pre-referendum 310 216
    Post-referendum 332 252

    Looking month-by-month, we can see this is mostly an immediate spike followed by a drop-off:

    eu ref - either side

    In fact when we looked week-by-week, we could see the largest spike was in the week following the vote. This gives us some definite hints that it was the referendum that was driving this.

    But to make extra sure that this increase really was referendum-related, we compared these changes to the overall WhatDoTheyKnow trends at the time.

    The number of requests made across the platform increased between the two periods (17,246 increased to 19,120) — but there was also a decrease in the number of unique users making requests (4,850 decreased to 4,721).

    This means the post-referendum increase in EU requests was counter to the general flow – and we can use a statistical test (chi-square) to confirm that the difference in users making EU requests is sufficiently different from the overall direction of users to reject the idea they are being driven by the same trend (p < 0.01 for those that want to know) .

    So we can say there is a real difference before and after the referendum: people were asking government for more for more EU-related information after the referendum than before it.

     Notes

    *First appearance in an FOI request: May 2015!

    **Obvious Complaint: But Alex! Aren’t some of those a bit broad? And the answer is yes! In fact we discarded ‘immigration’ and ‘migration’ as keywords because when separated from other keywords, these were mostly requests for information about immigration rules relevant to the requester (although that said, a similar post-referendum peak appears when we looked at these ‘immigration’ requests in isolation. There were just too few to make as big a deal out of the change).

    ‘EU’ as a keyword will similarly be catching requests that have nothing to do with the EU, as EU law is so integrated that appeals to directives or other obligations can make an appearance in requests to just about any public body on just about every topic.

    While the global count of ‘EU related requests’ might be inflated by this, a change relative to the population of all requests (like the one we found) should be robust — assuming that non EU-related requests that mention the EU are not distributed differently to non EU-related requests that don’t. This seems reasonable and so for the sake of this blog post — let’s say that’s so.

    Keywords used

    Here are the words we used (note on why we didn’t include ‘immigration’ or ‘migration’ above); one request often matched multiple keywords:

    Term

    Matches

    European Union

    112

    EU

    780

    European Commission

    22

    EU Law

    44

    European Law

    9

    European Parliament

    18

    EEA

    446

    European Economic Area

    30

    European regulations

    1

    EU regulations

    9

    European directive

    1

    EU directive

    7

    Asylum Seeker

    25

    Refugee

    79

    Resettled

    7

    EU migrants

    5

    European migrants

    2

    EU nationals

    16

    European nationals

    3

    Schengen

    9

    Calais

    9

    Brexit

    46

    EU Referendum

    75


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