Paul Bradshaw’s name is well known to those working around data and journalism in the UK. He has authored and contributed to several books on the topic, leads an MA in Data Journalism at Birmingham City University, and acts as a consultant in BBC England’s data unit.
In mySociety’s twentieth anniversary year, we’re looking to see where we’ve had impact, and in a recent conversation with Paul we were pleased when he noted that WhatDoTheyKnow was a something of a catalyst to his work around Freedom of Information for journalism.
In 2009, Paul secured funding from Channel 4 and Screen West Midlands to set up Help Me Investigate, a platform for collaborative journalism. As it happens, that year the same source of funding supported our time-mapping service Mapumental, and Will Perrin’s hyperlocal blog project Talk About Local. The three projects were often covered in the press as harbingers of a new, digital way of doing things.
The basic principle of Paul’s platform was that the internet permits collaboration between many people, each of whom can contribute a small piece towards the labour-intensive work of investigative journalism. It’s an approach we are all very familiar with these days: it is, of course, what we now call crowdsourcing — something mySociety has made use of in many of its own projects through the years, including our own WhatDoTheyKnow Projects.
A user, curious to get to the bottom of something, would share a central question and list out the tasks that needed to be completed in order to answer it. And of course, as often as not, some of these tasks would be the placing of FOI requests through our site, WhatDoTheyKnow.
“When I launched Help Me Investigate”, says Paul, “WhatDoTheyKnow was a major tool in our toolkit, allowing us to easily share FOI requests that others could clone or learn from.”
Even more than that, he reckons WhatDoTheyKnow was “probably responsible both for me getting started with FOI, and for teaching others to use the FOI Act.”
Since WhatDoTheyKnow’s beginnings, the aim has been to make FOI more accessible to everyone, so this was great to hear. We know that it’s a big leap to become ‘a person who submits FOI requests’, so what does that look like in practice?
“Firstly”, says Paul, “the site reduced the barriers considerably when it came to making an FOI request: knowing where to send that request is a big mental barrier when you lack confidence navigating faceless organisations; and having examples to look at also makes a big difference in being able to imagine what one looks like.”
Once someone has become adept with the Act, we can’t ask for much more than that they pass that knowledge onto others, creating a cascading effect of individuals who understand their rights and how to use them to uncover information. Paul is an example of exactly that:
“It made it possible for me to share that knowledge with others. I’ve used it with hundreds of journalism students to introduce them to FOI: ‘copy this request, find your organisation, paste, and send’ helps get them started, and empowers students who might be otherwise feeling disempowered.”
As proof of impact goes, ‘hundreds of journalism students learning how to use FOI’ certainly seems like a good one — it means that WhatDoTheyKnow has indirectly brought countless FOI-based stories to the public.
Paul listed some of the FOI-based investigations undertaken by users of his site — now no longer live, but visible through the Internet Archive. These include the uncovering of a £2.2 million overspend on Birmingham City Council’s website; police claims of sabotage against Climate Camp protesters; and the varying availability of hormonal contraceptives across different postcodes.
It’s been fascinating to explore Help Me Investigate‘s archived pages, and a real reminder of what people can do when they come together. We are glad that WhatDoTheyKnow has played such a key part in that, and in the training of so many future journalists.
Image: Ashkan Forouzani
It’s a painful subject to think about — children lost and unaccounted for as they migrate across Europe — but it’s also one that it’s vital to monitor and quantify. 24 investigative journalists from 12 European countries have taken on the job, coming together in the crossborder Lost in Europe (LIE) investigation.
According to their findings, 18,292 unaccompanied child migrants went missing in Europe between January 2018 and December 2020 – that’s around 17 children slipping off the records every day, often into the world of crime, human trafficking and prostitution.
Liset Hamming is an investigative journalist who also runs Wob-Knop, the Netherlands’ Freedom of Information site, on our Alaveteli platform. Last year, she messaged to say that a contact of hers within LIE was starting a new investigation.
Liset would be assisting with sending FOI requests to immigration and border enforcement authorities in 16 European countries. We knew right away that the international Alaveteli network could provide exactly the help required.
We made introductions to partners in Croatia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and of course the WhatDoTheyKnow team here in the UK. Then via our partners at Ask the EU help was offered for filing requests in Italy and Spain.
These experts were able to help Liset navigate the individual requirements of the FOI regime in each country, pointing toward the relevant authority and translating or refining the wording of the request being made. In some other countries, Liset made her own contacts.
There’s a surprising amount you need to know before you start making FOI requests abroad. The Alaveteli network contacts were indispensable for their ability to answer questions about their local regimes: what law the requests would go under, what authority to request to, whether people from outside the country were legally eligible to make requests, what the deadlines were for responses and what recourse could be taken if these weren’t met. The information gathered from the various in-country contacts was put together with the preliminary research Lost in Europe had done into the availability of documents on child immigration numbers.
Based on all of this, the requests took two different forms: in some places, it was clear exactly which document type needed to be asked for; while in others this was harder to pin down, and so the requests were more exploratory.
This March, LIE ran a data bootcamp for their member journalists, data scientists and designers, as well as any others (including ourselves and our Alaveteli partners) who were involved in the investigation. They had three objectives for this two-day event:
- Analysis of the most recent statistics, figures, calculation methods and the exchange of data between different EU countries
- Identifying gaps in European laws, procedures and regulations in the field of children’s rights and migration
- Pinning down design, communication and clear storytelling around figures and maps, for a broad public readership
The discussions and outcomes of this intensive meetup were invaluable, and so far it has directly resulted in news stories across major publications in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Greece, France, Romania and the UK.
In the meantime the 16 requests have been filed and are in progress. The first responses from authorities are ‘dripping in’, as Liset puts it. Some FOI proceedings can take a while, as anyone who ever took up a similar challenge will confirm.
The investigation is still in progress, and you can follow along with its latest file here. As a tangible sign of the value already being uncovered, this strand of LIE’s work won first place in the global IJ4EU Impact Award for cross border journalism. We’re very glad to have been able to assist in this small way to a vital investigation.
- On Transparencia for Belgium: request 1 to the General Directorate of the Administrative Police and request 2 to the Federal Police (‘Total number of arrests at or near the border’)
- On Ma Dada for France: Procès-verbaux de la Police Aux Frontières (‘Border Police reports’) to the Ministry of the Interior
- On WhatDoTheyKnow for the UK: Total number of and reason for charges, checks, requests and/or arrests at the border regarding non EU citizens to the Home Office
- On Imamo Pravo Znati for Croatia: Policijskih izvještaja, izjava, optužbi i/ili zapisnika u vezi s provjerama, pretragama i/ili uhićenjima na granici (‘Police reports, statements, charges and / or records related to border checks, searches and / or arrests’) to the Ministry of the Interior, Zagreb
- On Frag Den Staat for Germany: Festnahme an der Grenze (‘Arrests at the border’) to the Federal Police HQ
- On Handlingar for Sweden: Gränshandlingar mellan 1 januari 2014 och 31 december 2020 (‘Boundary documents between 1 January 2014 and 31 December 2020’) to the Police Authority
- On Arthro5A for Greece (the first four requests ever filed on the brand new Alaveteli site!) συλλήψεις και αρνήσεις στα εσωτερικά σύνορα της ΕΕ (‘Arrests and denials at the Eu’s internal borders’) to the Ministry of Citizen Protection, the Greek Police, the National Coordinating Centre for Border Control, Immigration and Asylum and to the Ministry of Immigration and Asylum.
- Requests to the Ministry of Justice in the Netherlands had to be made by post, as they don’t accept FOI correspondence digitally.
Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio