Our WhatDoTheyKnow.com service makes it really easy to request information from public bodies: all you need to do is describe the information you are seeking, send your request, and the authority provides it to you.
At least, that’s what happens when everything goes smoothly.
The default case
When you request information, the authority generally has two duties under the FOI Act:
- They must confirm or deny whether the information is held
- If they do hold it, they must disclose it.
But, there are circumstances – called exemptions – where the authority can withhold the information, or where they might not even state whether or not they have it at all.
Understanding which exemptions have been applied will also help you to understand what to do next.
The authority have confirmed they hold the information, but refused to release it
Why have they refused?
If your request is refused, the authority must say which exemption/s allow them to do so — have a good read of their response, and find out which one/s have been applied.
You’re looking for a section number that refers to the part of the Act that explains why they can refuse. You can check on FOIwiki’s handy table for the full list of exemptions.
Generally, when citing an exemption, the authority will also include the relevant text from the FOI Act, but if not, you can check it for yourself in the actual wording of the Act.
They did not cite an exemption
Authorities must say which exemption applies to your request — so, double-check that they haven’t done so (look in any attachments as well as in their main email), and once you are certain that they haven’t, write back and ask them to confirm which exemption they are using. Here’s an example of that in action.
If you want to, you can quote the part of the FOI Act which says that they must do this: Section 17 (1)b:
A public authority which, in relation to any request for information, is to any extent relying on […] a claim that information is exempt information must […] give the applicant a notice which—
- states that fact,
- specifies the exemption in question, and
- states (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.
They did cite an exemption
Once you know which exemption has been used, you are in a good position to examine whether it has been correctly applied .
FOIwiki’s table lists all the exemptions that an authority can use, and includes some technical details about how they can be applied.
Some exemptions have very little room for appeal and the decision to apply them is obvious: for example, the Ministry of Defence won’t release plans for an upcoming battle in a time of war, making a request for this type of information pretty futile.
Others rely much more on the judgement of the authority who’s dealing with your request. Under Section 38, for example, a request can be turned down because it might ‘endanger the physical or mental health of any individual’– but in many cases, assessing how someone’s mental health might be affected by the release of information must require a certain amount of prediction.
Some exemptions allow an authority to use additional tools for assessing whether or not to release information:
- A public interest test
- A prejudice test
They said they’d applied a Public Interest Test
Some exemptions, known as ‘qualified exemptions’, require the authority to apply a Public Interest Test. This may give you more opportunity to ask for a review.
You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s qualified, in FOIwiki’s table.
In short, a public interest test sees the authority trying to weigh up the benefit to the general public of the information being released against the safeguards that the exemption is trying to provide, and decide which has more weight. The ICO provide good information about Public Interest Tests, with several examples of how they have been applied in the past.
If you think you can demonstrate that the Public Interest Test has come down on the wrong side of this weighing up exercise, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the end of this article for next steps.
They said they’d applied a Prejudice Test
Some exemptions, called ‘prejudice based’ exemptions, require a prejudice test. Again, this might also give you more opportunity to ask for a review.
You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s prejudice-based, on FOIwiki’s table.
Generally speaking, it’s applied to exemptions which seek to protect certain interests — for example, Section 29 of the Act allows exemption where release might do harm to the economy.
The prejudice test is a way for the person dealing with the request to check that the perceived threat is ‘real, actual or of substance’, and that there’s a reasonable risk that the release would cause the harm that the exemption is trying to protect against. There is a good explanation in the ICO guidelines.
As with Public Interest Tests, if you can demonstrate that the Prejudice Test has come up with a decision that is arguably misapplied, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the foot of this article for next steps.
They didn’t apply a Public Interest test
This probably means that the exemption is “absolute”, which makes it hard to challenge.
First, check on FOIwiki’s table that the Section the authority is using is an absolute exemption.
If it is:
- You might like to consider how cut-and-dried it is that the information falls within the class that the exemption protects. If it is clearly covered by the exemption (for example you have asked for information that is self-evidently provided to the authority by Special Forces) then there isn’t much point in going any further. But suppose you have been told that, under Section 21, the information is accessible via other means. Section 21 is an Absolute exemption but may be open to a challenge if, for example, there are circumstances which prevent you from accessing the information.
If it’s not:
- Ask the authority what public interest test they applied (or more details of how they applied it).
The authority won’t confirm or deny whether they hold the information
Why won’t they confirm or deny?
If confirming or denying whether the information is held would actually reveal exempted information in itself, then the authority may refuse to do so.
You can read more about this in the ICO’s guidance.
Can I do anything if they ‘neither confirm nor deny’?
Yes — you can challenge this stance if you have reason to believe that confirming or denying that they hold the information would not reveal exempted information in itself. However, it can be a time-consuming and potentially difficult route to take, and even if you are successful in getting the authority to confirm that they have the information, you may then find that an exemption is then applied, taking you practically back to square one.
If you still want the information you’ve requested, there are some general tactics you can use when faced with an exemption:
- Reduce the scope of your request: Check the exemption cited and, if possible, modify your request to circumvent it.
- Ask for an internal review: if you think the exemption, public interest test or prejudice test has been wrongly applied, you can ask for another member of staff to assess your request and whether you should have received a full, or partial, response.
- Appeal to the ICO: If you’ve had an internal review and still think the decision was wrong, you may make an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.
Read more about all of these routes on our guidance page.
And here are some other useful links from the Information Commissioner’s Office:
- Guidance to authorities on when requests may be refused
- Guidance for writing a refusal notice
- Guidance on the public interest test
Finally, for now
The ideal is, of course, to submit a request which does not trigger an exemption, as clearly this saves everyone’s time. You can see our advice on writing responsible and effective requests here.
That said, full or partial refusals are not an uncommon occurrence — it’s totally routine for FOI responses to have some material removed (usually personal information such as names and roles of junior officials, or material identifying members of the public), or to turn the request down completely.
There are just over 25 exemptions listed in the Act (the exact number depends on how you count subsections and variants), removing the obligation for bodies to provide information in categories as diverse as any and all communications with members of the Royal Family, to commercial interests and trade secrets — and all sorts of things in between.
We’ll be examining the various exemptions available to authorities and suggesting ways in which you can avoid them. Keep an eye on our blog — and we’ll also link to posts from this post as we publish them.
Image: Scott Warman
If you are using Freedom of Information for a campaign, and you need to request the same information from several different bodies, or a variety of information from one body, it can be useful to put your supporters to work for you.
We recently profiled the Detention Logs project, which is using Freedom of Information requests to uncover conditions in Australia’s detention centres. Anyone can use the information already uncovered to request further documents or clarify ambiguous facts.
One aspect we didn’t mention is that, in order to make this process as quick and simple as possible, Detention Logs provides users with a pre-written FOI request which they can tweak as necessary before sending off to the relevant authority. This is linked to from a button on the Detention Logs website
This nifty bit of functionality could be useful for all kinds of campaigns. If yours is one of them, read on to discover how to set it up.
As you can see, this unwieldy web address contains all the information that RightToKnow, Australia’s Freedom of Information site, needs in order to create a pre-filled request.The URL tells it who the request should go to, what the title of the request is, and what should go in the main body.
It’s quite simple to create these yourself. Just build the URL up in steps:
- Begin by telling the site that this is a new request: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/
- Add a forward slash (/) and then the body you want the request to be sent to (exactly as it is written in the url of the body’s page of the website): https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force
- Add a question mark: This tells the website that we are going to introduce a ‘parameter string’. Now our URL looks like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?
- Input a title: we need to indicate that the next part should go into the ‘title’ field, like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title= and then dictate what the title should be: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title=Police%20brutality Notice that if there is a space between words, it should be shown as %20. To make the process of encoding the URLs easier, you can use an encoder tool like this one: http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/dencoder/
- Input the body of the request, again using ‘%20’ between each word. This is where your URL can become very long! We use the parameter default_letter and the salutation (Dear…) and signoff (Yours…) are automatically wrapped around this by the site, so there’s no need to include them:
So, there you have it. A customised URL that you can set up if you need supporters to send a pre-written request to a specified body or bodies.
As mentioned above, the Detention Logs project used this method to help their supporters request detention centre incident reports, attaching a different URL to each report so that the title would contain the relevant report number. To see the technical details of how they set this up, visit their GitHub page.
Here are some other parameters that can be used in addition to the ones above:
- body – This is an alternative to default_letter which lets you specify the entire body of the request including the salutation and signoff.
- tags – This allows you to add a space-separated list of tags, so for example you can identify any requests made through your campaign or which refer to the same topic. For example, the Detention Logs project used tags like this: &tags=detentionlogs%20incident-number%3A1-2PQQH5
A tag can have a ‘name’ and an optional ‘value’ (created in the form “name:value”). The first tag in the above example is ‘detentionlogs’ (‘name’) and the second tag is ‘incident-number:A1-2PQQH5’ (‘name:value’). The encoder tool above changes the colon to ‘%3’.
If you use this pre-written request tool we’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch if you do.
Almost all the videos on our YouTube channel now have subtitles in English. You can tell which ones do, by the small CC symbol beneath each one:
Watching our videos with subtitles
To switch subtitles on or off, you click the CC sign at the bottom right of every video:
If we’ve already provided subtitles for the video you’re watching, that’s what you’ll see. If you’ve picked one of the few we still haven’t got round to, you get YouTube’s automatically-generated subtitles which — while they do obviously represent great strides in voice recognition technology, compared to how things were only a few years ago — can still be a bit hit and miss.
Subtitles make videos more useful for all sorts of people, from the hearing impaired to those who just want to watch without disturbing others. But of course, English subtitles aren’t necessarily useful for people who speak other languages.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI) recently asked whether we’d mind them translating some of our subtitles into Arabic. Mind? We were positively delighted.
It turns out that YouTube has really upped its game on subtitles, making it much easier to add them to our own videos, and providing the means for others to contribute too.
Here’s how to view subtitles in another language:
Click on the ‘settings’ cogwheel at the bottom right of the video:
You’ll see a short menu pop up. Click on ‘subtitles/CC’:
Then select the language you require: in this case, you have the choice between Arabic, our own English subtitles, or, for potential comic value, the auto-generated version.
Incredibly, you can also select ‘auto-translate’, which takes the English transcript and gives you what appears to be a fairly reasonable version (presumably run through Google Translate) in any one of more than 100 different languages.
Here’s how to contribute subtitles in another language
If you think our videos might be useful for organisations, researchers or students, but that they would benefit from being able to read the subtitles in their own language, you are more than welcome to contribute a translation.
Begin by clicking on the three dots next to the word ‘More’, and then selecting ‘transcript’ from the drop-down menu:
This will show you the existing transcript in written form. At the top you’ll see a dropdown menu with options for the transcripts which are already in place, and at the bottom, ‘Add subtitles/CC’:
Again, you’ll be shown a list of the translations that we already have, and invited to search for the language that you wish to add — in this case, let’s say Greek:
Click on the name of the language, and you get this simple translation interface, with a box below each section of the existing transcript for you to type your translation into. And as you type, you’ll see how the subtitles will look on the video.
And that’s it! You’ve benefited everyone who speaks your language… and of course we here at mySociety will also be very grateful.
That’s one use of SayIt – but we actually built it with a slightly different aim in mind: the storing and publication of transcripts.
SayIt really does transform transcripts – so, if you regularly take minutes of meetings at work, or in another capacity, it’s worth a look.
That’s easy for us to say, we know. But if you play with it for half an hour, we think you’ll see the benefits.
Making online transcripts better for your readers
Traditionally, transcripts of meetings are published as PDFs or Microsoft Word documents. The information is there; you’ve done your duty in making it available – but do you ever wonder if it’s really working for your readers?
For example, let’s say you are a clerk in the local council, and you routinely publish transcripts from council meetings online.
The chances are that residents access your transcripts when they have an interest in one specific topic. Typically your meetings cover many subjects, and readers have to wade through pages to find the part they want. On SayIt, searching is very easy, even for people who are not very familiar with internet technology.
Or suppose that you are a member of a pressure group, and you’ve transcribed a local community meeting to share on your website. You might want to highlight particular parts of the meeting. With SayIt, you can link to individual statements, so it’s simple to share them by email, social media, or on your website.
See some examples
If you’d like to see how your meeting transcripts will look, once they’ve been published on SayIt, have a browse through these two examples:
- Go to this page and sign up.
We’ll ask you for:
- Part of the URL (web address) for your site – for example, if you choose “TotnesCouncil”, your new URL will be http://TotnesCouncil.sayit.mysociety.org. Note that URLs can’t contain spaces or non-regular characters.
- A title: this will appear in the top bar of your website. Don’t sweat too much: you can always change this later. In this example we might choose “Totnes Council meetings”.
- A description (optional): this is a good place to explain the purpose of your site at a little more length. You might write something like “Transcripts from local council meetings in Totnes, UK, 2014 onwards”. Again, you will have the chance to change this later if you like.
2. Confirm your email address
If this is the first time you have used SayIt, you will need to input your email address, then go to your email and find our automated message so you can click on the confirmation link.
Keep a note of your password, as you will need it whenever you want to edit your site.
SayIt is currently in Beta – that’s to say, it’s functional and live, but we’re still developing it.
In this phase, you can manually type (or copy and paste) each statement of your transcript in. Soon, it will also be possible to import a document of the entire meeting, as long as it’s in the required format – if you have a lot of existing transcripts and you’d like to try this, get in touch and we may be able to help.
In this post, we’ll look at the manual input of speeches.
You will need either a copy of your transcript, or a recording of the meeting you wish to transcribe.
Here’s how to begin:
1. Click on the ‘add your first statement’ button.
2. You can paste, or type, your content directly into the box marked “text”.
In the fields below the text box, you have the option to add more details about this piece of text. None of these fields are mandatory, but all of them add functionality or information to your transcript:
- Date and time If you know these, they are useful because they will help SayIt to order your speeches chronologically. Don’t worry if you don’t know them, though – SayIt automatically arranges speeches in the order that you input them, unless the timestamps tell it otherwise.
- Event and location What sort of meeting was it, and where did it happen? For our example, we might input “Totnes Town Council Meeting” and “Guildhall, Totnes”.
- Speaker Enter a name, and then click on the underlined text to add it to your database. As with all text fields on SayIt, once you have added it, it will be offered as an auto-fill option for subsequent speeches. Attaching names to your speeches also means that SayIt can do clever things, like display everything said by one speaker.
If you are not sure who spoke, don’t worry – you can leave this field blank, or enter a name such as ‘Unknown’.
- Section Meetings often have distinct sections: an introductory period, apologies for absences, following up on agreed actions, etc. Or you might use Section to identify items on the agenda. If you use the Section field, SayIt will automatically arrange your transcript into groups of associated content.
- Source URL If you are taking speeches from a source such as a news report or another website, you can add the web address so that interested people can see it in context.
- Title and tags: These enable you to tag your content – for example, you might want to tag everything to do with road-building, and everything to do with tourism, et cetera. That means that your readers will be able to find the sections of the content they are most interested in.
When you’ve added everything you want to for this part of speech, click “Save speech”.
Well done! You’ve just added your first speech to SayIt.
You can go back and edit it at any time – and that applies to every field.
3. Continue adding speeches.
As you do so, SayIt will be making connections and organising things neatly.
Tip: If you click ‘add another speech like this’ then fields such as ‘event and location’ will automatically be filled for you – you can overwrite them if they are incorrect for your next speech.
Click on ‘Speakers’ to see an icon for everyone you’ve added:
– and click on any one of those icons to see just their speeches:
Clicking on ‘Speeches’ in the top bar will show you every speech you’ve input; if you used Sections, they will be divided up neatly:
You’ve done it
So there you are, now you’ve seen what SayIt can do – we hope you liked it enough to consider using it in the future. Remember, it’s completely free.
Let us know if you hit any problems, or if there are features you’d like us to add. SayIt is in active development at the moment, so your feedback will help shape it. We’d also love to hear if you are using it.
Manual inputting is clearly only practical for shorter meetings (or people who have plenty of time on their hands!). As mentioned above, we’ll be adding the ability to import your transcripts.
They will need to be in the format that SayIt accepts, which is Akoma Ntoso, a schema for Parliamentary document types – you can read more about that here.
If you already have documents in Akoma Ntoso, get in touch and we can get them imported for you.
You can host SayIt on your own servers, but for beginner users it’s quicker and easier to start by creating a version that we host, as described in the steps above.
If you decide later on that you want to host the content yourself, and perhaps embed it on your own website, that option will remain open to you.
SayIt is a Poplus Component – open-source software that is designed to underpin digital democracy projects. It can stand alone, or work with other Poplus Components. The source code is also available for developers to modify and improve, so if you are already imagining more ambitious ways that you might use SayIt on your website, let us know.
Other ways to use SayIt
We’ve recently written about:
We’ll also be looking at the following soon:
– Collaborating with other users on SayIt transcripts
Image: A scribe from the Book of Hours (public domain)
Parliament is back in session – that means that TheyWorkForYou.com will be filling up with lots of new content as our representatives come back to work and start on the rounds of debates, committees, and written answers.
How do you keep up with the stuff that’s relevant to you? Well, you could read it all, every day – or you could be smart, and set up a topic alert.
Receive an alert every time your chosen word or phrase is mentioned
If you’re interested in a specific topic, and you’d like to receive an email every time someone mentions it in Parliament, follow these steps.
1. Search for your chosen topic
Let’s say you’re particularly interested in badger culling, and you’d like to receive an alert every time the word ‘badger’ is mentioned in Parliament.
i) Enter your search term on the homepage:
Tip: If your chosen search term has more than one word, you may find it useful to put it inside quotation marks – otherwise you will receive alerts every time both words are mentioned, even if they are not mentioned adjacently.
ii) Click ‘search’, and you will be taken to a page of search results for your term:
TheyWorkForYou uses ‘stemming’ – so these results contain mentions of words such as ‘badgers’ and ‘badgering’: again, if I want to only receive mentions of the word badger, and none of its derivatives, I should put the word in quotation marks.
iii) Click on the large blue link to the right of the page: “Subscribe to an email alert for [your search term]”.
iv) If you are logged in to the site, that’s it – you’ve subscribed, and you don’t need to do anything more.
If you are not logged in, don’t worry. You don’t need an account in order to sign up for alerts.
Input your email address, and click on the ‘subscribe’ button (NB not the ‘search’ button, but the higher up button marked ‘subscribe’):
We’ll send you a confirmation email.
Click on the link in the email, and there you go – you’re subscribed.
You can sign up for as many alerts as you like: if you are interested in many topics, it is probably worth registering, as you then do not have to go to the bother of inputting your email address and clicking the confirmation link for each one.
In our next post, we will look at how to manage your alerts, and common mistakes that can be made setting them up.
Prefer to receive alerts every time a specified MP speaks? See our previous post.
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We’ve put together a simple guide to Getting Started with Alaveteli. It consists of just seven steps.
At step one, your Freedom of Information website is nothing but a dream. By step seven, you’ll be the proud owner of your very own version, providing a valuable service for your country’s citizens!
What is Alaveteli?
Alaveteli is our platform that allows anyone to run their own Freedom of Information website – like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but tailored to your own country’s Right To Information system.
If you’re considering setting up your own site, it’s inevitable that you’ll have all sorts of questions. We want to be with you every step of the way, to answer all your questions and offer help where you need it.
We’ve made Alaveteli as simple as possible, because we want anyone to be able to use it, without needing much technical knowledge.
So our guide is for everyone, including people who have never before launched their own website (if you have bags of experience, you should read it too – it’s still useful!)
It answers pressing questions like:
- How long does it take to create an Alaveteli site?
- How many people do I need to help me, and how do I find them?
- What technical skills are needed?
- How do I get the site translated into my own language?
- Should I launch with a big bang?
- How many hours a week will I be dedicating to the site, once it’s live?
If you want to know the answers to those questions, go and read it! And if you still have questions, please let us know. We’ll add more detail as it’s asked for.
If you’re technically confident, you should also head to our Alaveteli developers’ guide. Plus you will want to sign up to our Alaveteli mailing list, where you can discuss all things Alaveteli, and get advice, support and the answers to all your questions.
FixMyStreet.com is mySociety’s popular British site for reporting problems like broken street lights and holes in the road. It works because as well as recording reports online, it sends copies to the relevent local governments. It has inspired many ‘grandchildren’ around the world.
Today marks the start of a new era for FixMyStreet as we push out the start of a major design upgrade in Britain, aimed particularly at making the mobile web experience as good as the desktop web experience.
Simultaneously, we’re also launching a guide to using the FixMyStreet Platform as the basis for your website in other countries.
- We’ve set up a new homepage for the FixMyStreet Platform.
- We’ve set up a new mailing list which you can join if you want to talk with us and with other users.
- We’ve published a brand new guide, suitable for technical and non-technical readers, about how and why you should consider using the FixMyStreet Platform to build your FixMyStreet-style website
We’re also here, waiting and ready to give you a hand. So if you’ve ever thought about setting up FixMyStreet outside Britain, there’s no better time to start than today.