1. Ten years of WhatDoTheyKnow

    On 22 February 2008, we posted an announcement on this very blog: “the new mySociety Freedom of Information site is now live”.

    More than 450,000 requests later, WhatDoTheyKnow is marking its tenth anniversary: as part of the celebrations, we’ve put together a timeline showing how WhatDoTheyKnow has intersected with the history of FOI in the UK since we first gained our right to information in 2005. If nothing else, you may enjoy looking at the site’s rather more primitive design back in its early days.

    The past decade has seen legal challenges, contributions to Parliamentary inquiries, and the development of our code for use in other countries (26 and counting). It has proved that an ambitious project can be kept going thanks to the efforts of unpaid but skilled and dedicated volunteers.

    Most of all, though, it’s seen you, the general public, submitting requests for information, and sharing the responses you receive. That was always the idea, and, it turns out, it’s a pretty sound one.

     

  2. ATOS, Capita, PIP… and some persistent FOI requests

    An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.

    Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.

    In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.

    The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.

    The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.

    This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.

    A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.

    That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”

    Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.

    On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.

    The committee are currently in correspondence with the Government over redaction, and arrangements for access to the material.

    The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:

    A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.

    – so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.

    Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.

    He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.


    Image: John-Mark Kuznietsov (Unsplash)

  3. WhatDoTheyKnowPro has launched… quietly.

    If you happen to have visited the WhatDoTheyKnowPro page recently, you might have noticed that we’ve changed from offering free beta testers’ accounts to rolling out the payment interface.

    Yes, we’ve launched! But not with a bang: having quietly introduced the payment option, we wanted to wait for a while and check that there were no issues before making a public announcement. Consider this that public announcement.

    Just a reminder at this stage, in case you haven’t followed along with previous blog posts: WhatDoTheyKnowPro is a Freedom of Information toolkit which provides extra help with sending and organising requests. It’s designed to provide extra functionality for journalists and other people who use FOI in their jobs; if you’re a standard user of WhatDoTheyKnow, there’s nothing to  pay and there never will be. We’ll always keep the site, and all its current functionality, free for everyone.

    The question of price

    Launching WhatDoTheyKnowPro provoked an interesting debate on where to position it, pricewise.

    It’s not that we’ve never put a price on any of our services before: mySociety is a social enterprise, and we charge for some use of our APIs; our council clients pay us for FixMyStreet Pro; you can buy transit-time maps on Mapumental. These sources of income are just part of what help us to provide our core citizen-facing services for free.

    And we’re hardly trailblazers in that respect: in fact, it was fascinating to read the Knight Foundation’s recent report Scaling Civic Tech and see how common it is in our sector to rely on a variety of revenue streams, from user donations to philanthropic grants, to paid-for services.

    But while we may have experience in charging for our services, it’s definitely the first time we’ve had to price up a Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists and professionals!

    What’s it worth?

    We were effectively in the position of many an enterprise startup: with a market proposition that doesn’t exist in this exact form anywhere else. How do you know how to price something in those circumstances? Set it too low and you could miss out on important revenue; too high and you’ll alienate potential customers, many of whom are freelance journalists paying for their work tools out of their own pockets.

    Still, this project has been a process of tackling problems and questions thoughtfully — from deciding which features to include in this initial version, to debating how to encourage journalists to link back to the news stories they’ve created once they’re live. Perhaps we could bring the same approach to pricing.

    Ask the experts

    Fortunately, with over 100 beta testers, we had a pool of users who knew the service well enough to be able to give an expert opinion on how much value it was bringing them. Sending out a survey brought some very useful responses, not to mention feedback about what our beta users liked and what they’d appreciate in future roll-outs.

    WDTKPro survey

    That said, we’re well aware of research indicating that people are not always experts on what they are actually willing to pay.

    And of course, it makes sense that different people will attach different values to a service, depending not only on their own finances but, in this case all sorts of other factors such as how frequently they use FOI and how accustomed they are to paying for technology.

    Faced with responses to the survey that ranged between a suggested price of £1.00 a month to £50.00, that was, in some strange sense, reassuring to know.

    To be fair, those were the extremes. There was a good consensus in the middle and that helped us decide on an introductory price of £10 a month.  We’ll assess this after a few months to see whether it’s bringing the number of sign-ups we expect.

    Open for business

    If you’re a journalist or someone who uses FOI in your work, you can now go and give WhatDoTheyKnowPro a go! We hope you’ll let us know how you find it.


    Image: Sven Scheuermeier (Unsplash)

  4. Explore FOI Information

    How many Freedom of Information requests are sent through WhatDoTheyKnow as compared to those made directly to public bodies? Our new mini-site lets you explore Cabinet Office statistics in comparison to numbers from WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Every quarter, the Cabinet Office releases Freedom of Information stats for a collection of central government ministries, departments and agencies. This provides a good benchmark for understanding how requests made from WhatDoTheyKnow relate to requests made through other routes. Back in 2010 we ran several blog posts about this, though we haven’t released any comparisons in recent years — and we’re now making up for lost time.

    In 2016, WhatDoTheyKnow was the source of 17.14% of requests to audited public bodies. On the other hand, most WhatDoTheyKnow requests (88.51%) went to public bodies that the Cabinet Office figures don’t cover.

    One interesting conclusion from this is that most FOI activity in the UK is not immediately visible from the official statistics. You can read more about what we learned from the numbers, or explore the data for yourself on the mini-site.


    Image: Jerry Kiesewetter (Unsplash)

  5. WhatDoTheyKnow used for research on FOI refusals

    When you send a Freedom of Information request through WhatDoTheyKnow.com, every part of the exchange is published online. Those who have browsed the site will know that you can read the correspondence around each request from beginning to end, including the initial enquiry, auto-replies, any holding letters, messages seeking clarification, and finally, the response — or refusal.

    We built the site so that, when information was released, that information would be available for everyone. The result is the massive online archive, all searchable, that you can find on WhatDoTheyKnow today. That being the case, why do we bother publishing out all the rest of the correspondence? Why not simply publish the end result, that is, the actual information?

    Well, we believe there’s value even in what you might consider the ephemera of everything else, not least that it helps demystify the various steps of the FOI process.

    This week, an article by ‘FOIMan’ Paul Gibbons showed that the publication of this material can also help with research. He was able to look at 250 ‘refusal notices’ — that is, times when authorities had turned down requests for information — and pull out examples of best and worst practice.

    The result will benefit us all, from those requesting information to those who process the requests: for the former, it sets out what to expect from a refusal, and for the latter, it highlights how to ensure that you are sticking to the law as well as ensuring a good experience for the public.

    A refusal, as Gibbons points out, does not have to be a shutting of the gates in the face of the requester: it can help educate, point people towards a better means of obtaining the information they need, or even clarify for the FOI officer where withholding the information may in fact be inappropriate. We’re very glad to have seen our data being used in this way.


    Image: Gemma Evans (Unsplash)

  6. Croatia gets creative with Alaveteli

    Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.

    Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.

    A platform for consumer complaints

    http://reklamacije.net/

    The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.

    Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.

    As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?

    Probing travel expenses

    Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.

    If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.

    The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.

    That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.

     

  7. 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)

  8. 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)

  9. 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)

  10. 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)