Pop open the bubbly — this is huge! Yes, it’s a big day for us, as the number of Freedom of Information requests on WhatDoTheyKnow ticks over to a mahoosive one million. That milestone was reached at 05:34 this morning, when a request to Kent Police was published.
A million public requests! It’s proof of the value of FOI, and of the need for WhatDoTheyKnow. In essence, this big round number represents the vast archive of publicly-available information, built up by hundreds of thousands of individual users over the site’s 15 year lifetime. They’ve asked — and continue to ask — for information from public authorities, at the current rate of two-and-half thousand requests a week.
Why? Because, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, they can; and, perhaps more importantly, thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow, it’s easy. Normal. Unintimidating.
According to our polling, one in ten UK citizens have used FOI. People are doing good things with WhatDoTheyKnow — we celebrated several of them at our recent awards, and over the years we’ve written about the varied and often surprising ways in which people have used our service to change the world. As a small sample of the many amazing uses we’ve seen, here’s how WhatDoTheyKnow has helped people to:
- get to the truth of the Post Office Horizon scandal
- reveal vital environmental information
- investigate into missing children
- protect social housing
- understand what happens to victims of modern slavery
- fight against LOBO loans to local councils
- uncover discrimination towards wheelchair users
- stand up for erectile dysfunction care
But the impact doesn’t stop there. We know from the massive ratio of visitors to requesters that the main use of WhatDoTheyKnow is in viewing information that others have made public. This means that for the same cost to the public purse of processing an FOI request, information has been made much more public and discoverable.
Over the past nine years, 660,000 requests have had 107 million page views (160x). WhatDoTheyKnow is, in systematic terms, a cheap way of getting more benefit from the hundreds of thousands of pieces of public information that have been released through FOI. That benefit will multiply, long into the future, with an archive that will always be available.
And that’s what we mean when we say that information can be free. Free, as in free to fly; and free as in provided at absolutely no cost to anyone who can make use of it.
Thank you to everyone who’s played a part in WhatDoTheyKnow reaching this meaningful milestone: the volunteers who help run the site; the developers who helped to build it and those who continue to refine it; the information officers who gather and respond with information; the funders who understand the worth of our service; and of course all those citizens who, collectively, have asked for information and, together, built up this unparalleled library of knowledge.
Here’s to you all, and here’s to the ten millionth request — which given the exponential rate of growth, will not take ten times as long for us to reach.
If you’d like to assure the future for easy access to information, then please do make a donation. Thank you.
Image: Ivan Lopatin
Wednesday night saw a steady stream of people making their way to one corner of a small square in London. mySociety staff, past and present; friends and associates; stellar users of our services; funders, journalists — in short, folk who had played a part in mySociety’s early years or subsequent history — assembled in Conway Hall to celebrate our twentieth year as an organisation.
It was a wonderful opportunity to look back, sometimes with a slight sense of wonder, but also with some pride. It turns out that when you put together so many people with a bit of mySociety in their history, they have a lot to talk about, even if they come from quite separate bits of our timeline.
Traditionally, we put out an online impact report at the end of the year, covering the previous twelve months. Well, this year we’ve gone all out and covered our whole history as an organisation. Guests had special early access to this, with a print booklet left on each seat. Don’t worry if you weren’t there: we’ll be putting it out as a digital version closer to our usual December publication date.
The report doesn’t just present our history though; some sections look toward our future mission and purpose — something that Louise Crow, our Chief Executive, also folded into her speech. Anecdotes, facts, call-outs and thoughtful sidenotes contributed to an engaging and informative spin through the ‘eras’ of mySociety which you can read here.
And of course, there was the presentation of our awards. A couple of weeks ago, we told you which people and projects had been shortlisted; and now we can reveal the winners.
Driving Institutional Change award
The award was collected on behalf of Richard Bennett, aka the Heavy Metal Handcyclist, by his partner Eryn and sister Perin, and represents his activism and generosity in sharing knowledge with others to make the world more accessible for everyone.
You can read more about his work in our blog post of 2021.
Accelerating Climate Action award
This award was taken by Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, in recognition of the way they’ve turned climate data into tangible climate action, using both our CAPE site and our MapIt API.
We wrote a bit about that in this post.
Exposing Truth award
Journalist Jenna Corderoy was recognised in this category, for her bold and sustained work in uncovering the Cabinet Office’s ‘FOI clearing house’ – bringing about change, using FOI, for the benefit of FOI.
Impactful International Use award
We awarded this one to Ukrainian FOI service Dostup do Pravdy (Access to Truth) – in their absence. The award was collected by our head of Transparency, Gareth Rees, and we’ll make sure it gets to them safely.
We’ve had a long relationship with Dostup; but our most recent coverage of their work can be seen here.
Campaigning for Justice award
The final award was given to Eleanor Shaikh for her tireless research uncovering injustice and official cover-ups around the Post Office Horizon scandal, which we recently wrote about here.
Of course, we really wish we could have given an award to all of our shortlistees, who are all doing such excellent work in their own areas. It was great to see so many campaigners, researchers, journalists and organisations chatting away and comparing notes over their methods: we hope the evening has resulted in some useful connections.
We were extremely touched by all the winners’ words when they came up to the podium to accept their awards. They indicated that our services had allowed them to attain breakthroughs that they either wouldn’t have managed without us, or which would have taken a lot more time and effort.
For us, the evening was a chance to see the living, breathing results of our lines of code and theories of change – ideas that we believe should help people to make a difference, but which are unproven until we hear of such incredible achievements. We are honoured to be a small part of that.
Might you be a part of our future?
Be part of our Board! As all of this activity makes clear, mySociety still has an awful lot to do — and a clear direction to take. If that sounds like something you’d like to be part of, you might be interested in our current Trustee and Non-Executive Director vacancies. As a Trustee or NED, you use your expertise and a little of your time to help steer our direction and input on all our activities. Find out more here.
Help us extend our impact further! Could we work together to achieve more? Part of our mission is to form mutually beneficial partnerships with other organisations, with each side supporting the other. If that sounds like something you’d like to explore further, drop us a line.
Finally, here are a few photos from the evening – click to see them at a larger size.
There was also a professional photographer in attendance, so we’ll make sure to come back and share those images once they’ve been processed – especially those of the award winners, which, it turns out, mobile phone snaps didn’t do justice to!
Thank you so much to everyone who helped make this such a joyous and moving event, from our shortlistees to our guests, and all the staff members who pitched in to make it go smoothly.
Photos: Sally Bracegirdle and Lizetta Lyster
Thank you for joining us to celebrate mySociety’s 20th anniversary. It’s brilliant to be able to toast 20 years of using data and digital tools to empower people.
One of my favourite descriptions of our work was written a few years ago by the journalist Zoe Williams. She said “Any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions – whether Democracy Club or mySociety – collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.”
I think magic is a really appropriate metaphor here, maybe stage magic, where something seemingly impossible happens. Sometimes, as in mySociety, there are clever technical tricks, but mostly, what makes it seem magical is that no-one can imagine that someone would spend so many hours practising to make the trick work.
To build a thing that sustains for 20 years, is hard. I’m going to try to tell a bit of the story of the services and projects, but there’s another story, which is a story of people. People who care and go above and beyond, sometimes above and beyond what is reasonable, to make mySociety what it is. That is what makes the impossible possible.
With all the people and photos from different times in the life of the organisation, it feels a bit like the mySociety ‘eras’ tour.
So I thought maybe I would sketch out the different eras of the organisation and how they led us to this point.
Era 1: the early days
mySociety was launched in 2003, 12 years after the launch of the ‘web’ itself. I came across it three years later in January 2006 when I used a site PledgeBank.com to sign an online pledge, a novelty at that point. The pledge was to “pay £10 into a fund that aims to fill a public advertising space with something thought-provoking” if 350 other people would do the same things. According to my emails, in the same minute, I volunteered to write some code to screen scrape official information about the Northern Ireland Assembly, and later that evening joined two of the mailing lists.
I must have been excited. Lots of people were – mySociety represented a unique opportunity to use technical skills to do something good.
When I first worked for mySociety later that year, I think I was employee no 5, joining Tom Steinberg and the first three developers – Chris Lightfoot, Matthew Somerville and Francis Irving, and a group of dedicated volunteers. They were in the middle of an exceptionally creative period, having already launched three public facing services – including WriteToThem (which was born as FaxYourRepresentative). They had also taken on TheyWorkForYou, the parliamentary monitoring site, which had been developed by a group of volunteers.
That era of creativity continued, with brilliant new services:
In 2007 FixMyStreet was launched, a simple way for people to report local issues.
It was followed in 2008 by WhatDoTheyKnow – a service for making FOI requests, created as a result of multiple suggestions in an open call for proposals.
Oh, and also the first ever Downing Street e-petitions site.
So, an era of productivity, but also, like many new organisations, one of huge financial instability.
At mySociety’s 5th birthday party, Tom said: “We know from the continued influence of newspapers, some born in the 19th century, that political media needs longevity to gain the reach and legitimacy required to transform whole systems and to challenge the expectations of whole populations. mySociety needs to work out how to be here not just in 6 months, but in 20 years.”
So that first era defined two grand challenges – how can the web be used “to tip the relationship between people and government, in favour of the people”, and how can you embed that mission inside an organisation that can survive long enough to make it stick.
Era 2: International community and reuse
I think the second era of mySociety is the era of international reuse. Our code had always been open source, and there had been a couple of new sites built with it by this time.
But now we extracted and built customisable software in collaboration with partners around the world, and fostered an international community to accelerate reuse and impact. Alaveteli was the first product of that era, a framework extracted from WhatDoTheyKnow to power new FOI sites. AlaveteliCon in 2012 was our first significant international event, and was accompanied by an install lab where people could bring laptops and work together to get new FOI sites running.
This era brought efficiencies of reuse, but in the same way that the most powerful thing about civic tech can be the idea that someone, somewhere has built this tool because they expect you to want to ask a question of those in power, or check what your representative’s been doing, sometimes the most powerful part of international work is not the reuse of the code itself, but the encouragement that comes from a set of friends and colleagues around the world that don’t think that what you’re doing is crazy.
As the field grew and matured enough to settle on a name – ‘civic tech’ – mySociety also took a more structured approach to understanding impact. This work stepped up a gear in 2015 with the first TICTeC – the Impacts of Civic Tech conference. TICTeC has run in person or online every year since then, convening thousands of researchers, funders and practitioners to share their knowledge and experience.
In all there have been 87 projects based on our code, with 48 still running today, including at least a dozen sites like AskTheEU across Europe, InfoProVsechny in Czechia, KiMitTud in Hungary, Mzalendo in Kenya, and QueSabes in Uruguay that have now passed their own 10th anniversaries. We learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t and not every project has lasted. But when reuse works, it’s a huge force multiplier. Alaveteli has been one of the real successes in this respect and it’s been very exciting to see new features, such as the tools we subsequently built for journalists, have immediate impact not just in the UK but across the world.
I’m very happy that we’re continuing to learn and share internationally through TICTeC and our Access to Information network where along with partners we’re sharing approaches around the technology, but also how it works with other modes of action – journalism, campaigning, and strategic litigation and legislative change.
So the first of many thanks this evening go to Transparency programme lead, Gareth Rees, who has juggled the many, often conflicting demands of running a large UK platform, a successful international open source project, a pan-european learning network and several other projects with fortitude and meticulous planning, ably supported by Graeme Porteous and Jen Bramley.
They also go to Gemma Moulder, our incredible Events Manager, who has been the heart of the TICTeC community. And please mark your calendars, now that she’s organised the hell out of this anniversary party, she’s going to be turning her attention to TICTeC 2024 next spring.
Era 3: Real products
So the first era of mySociety defined two problems to make progress against, with perhaps the more challenging one being how to run services for long enough to have impact at scale. In 2015 Mark Cridge joined as Chief Executive faced with two big tasks – to be mySociety’s first non-founder chief executive, a transition point at which many organisations fail, and to develop the commercial side of the organisation into a sustainable business.
mySociety Ltd had always taken on commercial work, but in 2016 we made a decision to focus on a product in order to scale revenue and generate profit to actually contribute significantly to the parent charity. That product became FixMyStreet Pro, designed to help councils handle fault reporting. And in time mySociety Ltd became SocietyWorks. As of today, SocietyWorks has 28 clients for FixMyStreet Pro, and 6 for our second significant product, WasteWorks. In that time FixMyStreet has gone from 850k problem reports to now 4.4 million.
This is a huge achievement, and whilst the success of FixMyStreet, like so many things at mySociety, would never have happened without Matthew, our resident non-evil genius, the transformation into a profitable business has taken a huge team effort – to research, build, price, market, sell, contract, manage and deliver a product that works for citizens and for councils. So, along with Matthew, I want to say thank you to the whole SocietyWorks team – Dave Arter, Sally Bracegirdle, Chris Mytton, Moray Jones, Lizetta Lyster, Bekki Leaver, Jacqueline Lau, Victoria Mihell-Hale, Amelia Nicholas, Nicolle Whitehead, Nik Gupta, Sally Reader and Chris Edwards.
And two special thanks – first to Sam Pearson and to Pete Stevens and co at Mythic Beasts for the seamless work behind the scenes to provide stable infrastructure to support both an unusual digital charity and a growing software as a service business. There’s tons more I could say about this but I will limit myself to this – we’ve come a long way since the days of a fax server in a cupboard.
And second to Angela Dixon – for throwing absolutely everything into SocietyWorks and mySociety and leading the team as Managing Director with the exact combination of thoughtfulness, decisiveness and boundless positive energy that we needed.
Era 4: Citizen empowerment at scale and with nuance
This brings us more or less to the present era. I quoted Tom earlier, saying that political media needed longevity in order to get reach and legitimacy. We’re starting to see the results of some longevity.
Some representative polling in 2021 showed that one in three UK adults have heard of TheyWorkForYou, and one in five have used it. In the last 10 years WhatDoTheyKnow has gone from 100k public FOI requests to close to a million, and informed countless news stories and campaigns.
So how do we use that longevity and reach most effectively? We have some ideas.
Between them, our services span the practical issues that introduce people to civic life – dog mess, housing issues and bin collection, through the many facets of the tens of thousands of public institutions covered by the FOI act, to the fundamental building blocks of our democracy – voting and representation in the UK’s parliaments.
People want to participate in civic life but only if they have a reason to believe it makes a difference. One thing that has become clearer over time is that the real core of our mission with respect to government is not to get it to do better at digital, but to use digital to get it to do better at democracy – to show the kind of transparency, responsiveness and interest in people’s lives that makes participation meaningful. The scale and openness of our platforms gives us a unique perspective on the challenges people hit when they try to engage with democratic institutions. The fact that the platforms sit outside those institutions gives us a point of leverage.
We’ll be using what we’ve learned from our services, and support from the communities that use them, to bring about changes in policy and practice that are directly targeted at those challenges. That way, we’re not just helping people work around obstacles, but removing those obstacles for good.
Alex Parsons has given us hugely valuable insights into how our services are being used, and a credible voice on Access to Information, democratic participation and yes, potholes and dog poo too. Thank you Alex, for being an incredible fount of ideas on where we can go from here.
Reach more and more kinds of people
There are also responsibilities that come with scale, and one is to make sure that our services do more than empower the already empowered. We want to reach more and more kinds of people, with a focus on those who are being democratically underserved, and who are underrepresented amongst our service users.
We recognise that this is an area where we need to learn from others and we’re taking multiple approaches – conducting outreach and research on how we can better support people from marginalised and under-served communities using our core services, and developing partnership work that gives us opportunities to learn, such as the FixMyBlock project with TowerBlocks UK – helping tower block residents understand and exercise their rights, or the Stop and Search Data dashboard we’ve developed with Black Thrive.
Respond on climate
We also need to recognise the era we are entering. This is one in which climate change is no longer the story, but the setting in which all stories take place. In the next decades we have to rapidly make changes across our society – in how we travel, what we eat, how we heat our homes. In order to do that fairly, the decisions we are faced with need participation from all kinds of people: to reduce the harms and share the benefits of this enormous transition. It’s a huge democratic challenge. We’re going to need to continue to learn and experiment, not least in getting people in all kinds of roles the information they need to act together. We’ve been working on a suite of services in our Climate programme to help people track, challenge, coordinate and collaborate. I want to share a couple of examples of that work.
In the Climate Action Scorecards, a project led by Climate Emergency UK scoring local authority plans and action on climate, we see several interesting elements come together – the use of WhatDoTheyKnow Projects to rapidly create datasets from batches of FOI requests, along with research and policy work, so that we can present simple headlines on local climate action that anyone can understand, and at the same time, make an evidenced case to policymakers for better publication of the underlying data. Come to our webinar together with the Centre for Public Data on fragmented data on the 28th of this month to hear more about that.
In the Local Intelligence Hub, we’re working with the Climate Coalition, a coalition with more than 100 member organisations, representing 22 million people across the UK, exploring how a digital service can help them share data to work better as a coalition to have effective conversations about climate action with politicians, and to better understand local areas, and their own movement.
Finally our latest service, Neighbourhood Warmth will bring back a little of the ‘I will if you will’ spirit of Pledgebank to the challenge of home energy across the UK, encouraging neighbours to take action to explore energy efficiency improvements together.
Zarino Zappia leads the climate team – Struan Donald, Alexander Griffen, Emily Kippax, Siôn Williams and Julia Cushion. Thank you to you all for inventing and realising a new generation of mySociety services. And thanks to Zarino for being a collaborative and multi-talented leader, and for quietly rolling his sleeves up and improving everything he touches, across the organisation.
I hope I’ve given you a flavour of how we’ve evolved as an organisation, and how I think we can have the greatest impact in our next era. I’m excited, because I think we are starting to see the shape of what mySociety could be for the long term – a stable and effective institution working with citizens, civil society and digital technologies in the service of a democracy capable of meeting the challenges we now face.
Which makes this a good point to talk about the role of our trustees and directors – a truly inspirational set of people who give up their time and expertise on a voluntary basis to advise, challenge, and connect us, and to help us be the organisation that we aspire to be.
A huge thank you to Ade Adewunmi, Cam Ross, Devin O’Shaugnessy, Jen Thornton, Onyeka Onyekwelu, Rachel Rank, Steve Skelton and Tony Burton, and Gen Maitland Hudson as our Chair of Trustees, and Mandy Merron as the Chair of the SocietyWorks board, as well as all their predecessors, for being sound advisors, and making board meetings something to look forward to.
I also want to take a moment to mark the very sad recent loss of Francis Mainoo, a hugely valued member of both boards, and a kind and generous leader. Like early staff members Chris Lightfoot and Angie Ahl, Francis’ many contributions here and elsewhere will long be remembered.
mySociety simply would not have got to this milestone without the dedication and selflessness of the many people who have supported the organisation in volunteer roles.
Along with our trustees, that is particularly true of the people who have volunteered around WhatDoTheyKnow, where scale brings challenges as well as impact. Running a service like WhatDoTheyKnow responsibly takes a significant amount of work – 364 new requests are now made every day through the site and we know that the responsible governance of digital platforms is crucially important to their effect on society.
Richard Taylor, John Cross, Martyn Dewar, William Fitzpatrick, Matt Knight, Luis Lago, Alison Bellamy, Doug Paulley and more before them have put countless hours in helping and supporting WhatDoTheyKnow’s users – thank you all.
And for absolutely invaluable on the spot pro-bono legal advice – when you need it, you really need it – many thanks to Francis Davey, and Matt Lewin.
And thank you too to Helen Cross who, having been a long time volunteer, has taken on the challenge of managing the service with the help of her robot friends, and now with the help of Georgia Kelsey, who has been gamely spelunking into the support mailbox over the last few months.
I’ve talked about the significant progress we’ve made in sustaining ourselves as an organisation. That problem is not yet solved – and I know this is a sympathetic audience, as many of you have played a part in getting us to where we are. The funding question keeps me up at night, because I think it is a genuinely hard problem of finding a financial model to deliver services which are a public good.
So two more sets of thank yous here.
First, to all the funders who have supported our work – with some notables in somewhat chronological order – Tim Jackson for our very first seed funding and Joseph Rowntree for our first philanthropic institutional funding. Long term early support came from OSF, the Omidyar Network and Luminate, Google, and the Indigo Trust. The Quadrature Climate Foundation and the National Lottery are supporting our climate team and the Adessium Foundation, Swedish Postcode Foundation and NED are supporting our international work. Porticus, and the Patrick McGovern Foundation are supporting work across all our programme areas.
Second, to those who’ve worried, along with the Chief Execs, about the money in various different ways – alumnis Abi Broom and Paul Lenz (Abi Broom’s graphs of doom!), Angela and her finance team Yolanda Gomes, and Jill Aquarone and on fundraising the eloquent Asha Pond, and now our latest recruit Alice Williams.
There are many names I haven’t named here – after twenty years, the list becomes too long. But I’m particularly happy to have many people from different points in the life of mySociety, because I think one thing you can see from the vantage point of twenty years is that effort and planning pays off over time in a way that can be hard to see when you’re in the midst of it. If you are at this party, it’s because you are part of the story of mySociety and your help and support has got us to this milestone. And if you don’t think that’s true, perhaps it’s because you’re going to be part of our future in some way.
So I hope you’ll read through a copy of the impact report and feel proud. Thank you to Myf Nixon and Lucas Cumsille Montesinos for telling our story in such a beautiful way, in the impact report and across our sites.
And finally thank you to everyone who has used our services to try to make things better for their communities. Which must be my cue to stop talking and hand over to Myf and Zarino for the second phase of the evening, our anniversary awards, where we recognise some of the incredible stories of change that we’ve been a little part of.
The ways in which people and organisations have used mySociety’s services through the lifetime of the organisation have been impressive, inspiring and sometimes astonishing.
So, to celebrate our 20th anniversary, on 15 November we’ll be presenting awards in five categories, showcasing impactful usage of their services through the years.
- Driving Institutional Change
- Accelerating Climate Action
- Exposing Truth
- Impactful International Reuse
- Campaigning for Justice
The shortlist is as follows:
Driving Institutional Change
- The Give Them Time campaign used WhatDoTheyKnow to get the law changed over funding for nursery care in Scotland.
- John Graham-Cumming In 2009, John used the petitions website that mySociety had built for 10 Downing Street, resulting in Gordon Brown apologising on behalf of the British Government for its treatment of the computer scientist Alan Turing.
- Richard Bennett used WhatDoTheyKnow, coupled with the Equality Act, to make pathways more accessible for wheelchair users, sharing his methods so that others could do the same.
- Privacy International The ‘Neighbourhood Watched’ project used WhatDoTheyKnow to reveal the unchecked use of surveillance technology by police forces across the UK.
Accelerating Climate Action
- Zero Hour Using mySociety’s WriteToThem software, they’ve garnered the backing of over 150 MPs for their draft Climate and Ecology Bill.
- Sustain used data from CAPE, our Climate Action Plans Explorer, to analyse the degree to which local authorities are including food within their strategies to cut emissions.
- Save the Trees of Armada Way Plymouth’s grassroots campaign fought against the removal of much-loved trees in the city centre, using WriteToThem to send emails to the local councillors — apparently, the most emails they had ever received on a single subject.
- Jenna Corderoy Jenna is shortlisted for her investigation — using WhatDoTheyKnow — of the Cabinet Office’s controversial Clearing House, a secretive unit that screened and blocked FOI requests made by journalists and campaigners, often on matters of serious public interest.
- The Bureau of Investigative Journalism Their Sold From Under You project used crowdsourced and FOI data to reveal how much publicly-owned property was sold off by councils across England, in an attempt to fill funding gaps caused by austerity measures.
- Lost in Europe worked with people running FOI sites on our Alaveteli platform, in 12 different countries, to uncover previously unknown statistics around how many children disappear at borders.
Impactful International Reuse
- Dostup do Pravda/Access to Truth The Ukrainian Freedom of Information site continues providing access to information even in the difficult circumstances of war.
- vTaiwan, Public Digital Innovation Space, and the Taiwanese Ministry of Digital Affairs The Taiwanese government uses mySociety’s SayIt software to make deliberations on difficult subjects public and accessible to citizens.
- DATA Uruguay The organisation has built both FixMyStreet and Freedom of Information sites on mySociety’s codebases, changing the way their governments communicate with citizens at both local and national levels.
Campaigning for Justice
- Doug Paulley is a lifelong campaigner for rights for disabled people, using FOI to fight against access discrimination, especially around public transport.
- Eleanor Shaikh has dedicated hours and hundreds of FOI requests to finding out the truth behind the Post Office Horizon scandal, with her findings making front page headlines.
- After Exploitation use Freedom of Information to uncover the failings of the government’s measures to protect vulnerable detainees.
Of course, every single user of our services is a winner in our eyes – but watch this space to find out who takes home the award in each category!
Image: Rene Böhmer
For over a decade and a half, we’ve been working to empower journalists, activists and campaigners, researchers, and tens of thousands of curious citizens to access information from UK public authorities.
Fighting your corner
It’s hard to imagine what the UK’s FOI landscape would look like without WhatDoTheyKnow, but in the early days, we faced many important battles to establish the right to have requests responded to via our platform at all.
And they’re not over: even today, we face fresh challenges, such as from public authorities who are putting barriers in the way of our users by refusing to answer valid requests unless these are submitted using a particular form. We are determined to continue to highlight poor practice and defend users’ information rights.
Half a million pieces of information
One of the advantages to using WhatDoTheyKnow is that it serves as a permanent archive of requests and responses. Any information that you get released using WhatDoTheyKnow is accessible to others to share and build on. From humble beginnings, there have now been over 500,000 requests that have resulted in the release of at least some information, turning this into a valuable resource.
Given the depth and breadth of the information on the site, it’s hard to pick a few examples to illustrate the impact of requests made through the service but here are some notable releases:
A 2013 request revealed the existence of the Home Office’s Interventions and Sanctions Directorate (ISD), which was responsible for overseeing the controversial hostile environment policy. Working with public and private sector partners, the ISD restricted access to benefits and services for irregular migrants, ensuring that sanctions were enforced. Four years later, the Windrush scandal exposed the devastating human consequences of this policy.
A request to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) uncovered a dispute with HMRC. This made front page headlines, after it was revealed that certain MPs had sought to utilise public funds to employ experts to complete their expense claims for them.
A 2021 request to the Science Museum revealed that the museum had signed a sponsorship agreement with Shell, where it gave an undertaking not to do or say anything that could damage the reputation of the oil company. The existence of this ‘gagging clause’ was reported by Channel 4 News and the Times among others.
Whilst it would be tempting to try to measure the platform’s success by the remarkable volume of information that has been released, or the myriad of news stories that have been written as a result, for me, WhatDoTheyKnow’s true strength lies in its ability to empower individuals. By simplifying and demystifying the requesting process, WhatDoTheyKnow has made it more accessible to individuals who might have otherwise never considered submitting a request for information.
The impact of WhatDoTheyKnow has stretched far beyond the United Kingdom. WhatDoTheyKnow gave rise to Alaveteli, the open-source FOI software that’s helping to open up governments across six continents. In addition to our core platform, we’ve also developed WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. Specifically tailored to journalists, this service enables users to keep their requests private while they work on their stories, before sharing the source data with the world.
None of this would have been possible without the dedication of our volunteer team, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to offer guidance and support to our users, as well as managing the day-to-day running of the site. We’re immensely grateful to them, and all of our donors and funders over the years, whose continued backing has ensured the ongoing success and growth of the service.
We are excited about the next 15 years and we look forward to building on what we have already achieved to help more people to access more information more easily than ever before.
Image: Cottonbro Studio
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As of this year, mySociety has been working for a better democracy for 20 years.
mySociety was formed in 2003 to explore the ways in which the internet could help people to discover, discuss and participate directly in politics, and whether it could empower them to make changes in society and to the political process itself.
Over the last 20 years, this amazing community of designers, coders, volunteers, partners and funders has created and run digital services that have served millions people each year in the UK and around the world; campaigned for transparent, responsive institutions fit for the 21st century; and supported the incredible persistence, dedication and commitment of people who want to understand and participate in decisions that affect their lives and communities.
Through the power of open source software, mySociety’s technical work has gone on to deliver services around the world, and our international outreach and TICTeC programme has brought together a community of people dedicated to the principled use of technology to improve civic life.
The ideas that the organisation was founded on have spread too: mySociety’s principles and approach inspired a culture of user centred design in the use of the web to deliver government services, with the creation of the Government Digital Service and the Parliamentary Digital Service — input that is still benefitting millions of people as they get something done or find information on government websites every day.
A lot has changed since 2003, but some things haven’t changed. Let’s start with our conviction that the quality of our democratic and political life matters deeply, and that digital services can and should be used to improve it.
In an era of misinformation and mistrust, extending the reach of clear and impartial information about the workings of our democracy is vital. As we face the climate crisis, the decisions we have to make as societies need to be open to participation from all kinds of people, not just the well-connected and well-resourced. Our institutions need to evolve to meet the demands of the moment, find new ways of listening to those they represent, and show that they’re worthy of the trust we place in them.
The big questions of how we will live together through the transitions of the next decades, the questions that politics and democracy ultimately decide, are those that deserve the very best tools and data – made with the people who need them to be beautifully simple, tested and improved, and run responsibly.
The other thing that hasn’t changed is that it takes a lot of commitment to build services that help people at scale – from hugely dedicated and expert staff and volunteers who have given up a significant portion of their lives to making mySociety work, to the thousands of people who’ve responded to one of our calls to do a small task, like gathering a single piece of information.
Throughout the year, we’ll be inviting you to join us in recognising those contributions, reflecting on what’s worked, what’s changed, and looking to the future, and what we’ll need to do to rise to the challenges ahead. Please stay with us as we go through what promises to be a fascinating process.
We're committed to this work — but your support is also much needed as we start to shape our future. Please consider contributing, if you can.Donate now
Has our open source Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli had an impact on transparency around the world? We’ve got more than a million reasons to say that yes, it has!
From the makes and models of over 18,000 cars stolen in Argentina to statistics about apricot farming in Tunisia; information about food labelling laws in Uruguay to what was on the menu when visiting heads of state met with the Australian Prime Minister, Alaveteli has enabled people to ask for, and receive, a colossal amount of information that otherwise would most likely not have been openly available.
Our own FOI site, WhatDoTheyKnow, runs on Alaveteli. It’s also free as open source software to anyone around the world who wants to set up an Access to Information service for their own country or jurisdiction — and in the 11 years it’s been available, many have done just that.
Key to Alaveteli is that both FOI requests and responses are published, meaning that each site builds up its own archive of information over time. Even when information is not held by the authority, public knowledge increases, and when requests go unanswered, the very fact that a request was made shows that there is public appetite for the information.
We noticed that the ticker had passed a million at the end of July this year. The lion’s share — more than 840,000 requests — represents requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow. The others are from jurisdictions as wide-ranging as Rwanda, Australia, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In Europe alone, 17 Alaveteli sites are operating; five of these have been launched since 2019, thanks to support from Adessium and Swedish Postcode foundations.
We hope to be able to work with the network of Access to Information platforms in Europe (including some that are not running on Alaveteli) to strengthen their individual and collective impact. We’re looking to help build and connect the ‘community of interest’ around FOI; and to undertake more coordinated and strategic advocacy efforts to improve Access to Information at national and regional levels – all of which will help ensure continued access to information over the long-term.
Thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Helen Cross for finding the examples cited at the beginning of this post, and many more, during a multilingual trawl through the collective Alaveteli sites.
The mySociety team have found it increasingly hard to concentrate on work this afternoon, as the numerical counter on WhatDoTheyKnow’s homepage crept ever closer to the 500,000 mark… and at 4:56pm today, the milestone request was sent off. It was to Mid Devon District Council asking for the costs of implementing and maintaining flood defences.
WhatDoTheyKnow has long been mySociety’s most successful site, if you count success by the number of users. Every month, between 500,000 and 600,000 people pay a visit. Some of them submit a request, contributing to the total of ~2,700 made monthly; others come to access the information released by authorities and published in WhatDoTheyKnow’s ever-growing archive of public knowledge.
The site’s success can be ascribed to its simple formula of making it very easy to send an FOI request, which is published online along with the response it receives. The idea of putting the whole FOI process in public was resisted in some quarters during the site’s infancy — indeed, even the concept of responding by email rather than by post was fought against.
But the site, launched soon after the FOI Act came into force in the UK, has gone on to become an accepted part of the country’s landscape, and we’d like to think we’ve played a part in shaping attitudes — and how the Act is implemented.
The requirement for authorities to respond via email has now been enshrined in Ministry of Justice guidance. WhatDoTheyKnow itself is explicitly mentioned as a valid vehicle for FOI requests in the ICO’s documentation, and in 2017 an independent commission even recommended that publishing responses should be ‘the norm’.
The site clearly meets a need. And that need isn’t specific to the UK, as proven by the fact that the open source software on which WhatDoTheyKnow runs, Alaveteli, has also been picked up and is being used to run more than 25 other Freedom of Information sites around the world.
Finally, never let us miss the chance to praise the volunteer team who keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, helping users with their requests, setting site policies and dealing with issues such as accidental data releases from authorities. Without these knowledgeable and dedicated people, we simply wouldn’t be able to provide this service.
And now – onwards to the next 500K!
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Image: Bernard Hermant (Unsplash)
Back in February, we postponed celebrations for the tenth anniversary of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, because of extreme weather conditions. Gales and snow had shut down public transport; guests from further afield were unsure they’d make it to our London venue.
Little did we know that our rescheduled event would face its own exceptional circumstances. Not only did we find ourselves at the other end of the thermometer, with the hottest temperatures of the year thus far, but we were also competing with England playing a World Cup match.
All this being so, we were glad to see so many people turn out to help us celebrate — though it was pointed out that the Venn diagram between FOI enthusiasts and football fans might have a fairly small overlap. We’ll get our Research department on to that, at some point.
We’d decked the room with some rather unique — but meaningful — decorations: a selection of information uncovered by WhatDoTheyKnow’s users over the past decade (see photo, above), and screenshots of the many FOI sites running on our Alaveteli software around the world.
Talking of Alaveteli sites, we were delighted to welcome among our guests Andreas Pavlou who previously worked with AccessInfo, the organisation who run Europe FOI site AskTheEU, and Claude Archer from Anticor, who run Belgium’s Transparencia.be.
Claude actually drove, without incident, all the way from Brussels — only to scrape against the kerb right outside Newspeak House and get a flat tyre. But mySociety is not just a collection of weedy developers, you know. Well, ok, fair enough, until recently we were just that — but since Georgie joined our ranks a few weeks ago, it turns out that we now have a highly practical colleague who can change a wheel. And that’s just what she did.
That drama aside, the party went smoothly.
There were cakes, of course.
Then some mingling. It was great to meet many WhatDoTheyKnow users, and especially those who employ the site for their campaigns.
And on to the presentations. WhatDoTheyKnow’s Richard Taylor spoke about what it is like to be a volunteer on the site, and the kind of tasks they deal with in keeping the service available for everyone, not to mention free from litigation. You can read his talk here.
We interviewed Francis Irving, who was one of two people to suggest that mySociety build an FOI site when we had an open call for ideas — and who then went on to help build it. Much as we enjoy mySociety’s current status as an established organisation, Francis’ descriptions of our early days and ‘punk’ attitude were rather beguiling.
Finally, investigative journalist Jenna Corderoy shared her experiences of being one of the first people to try WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our toolkit for FOI professionals and activists. In a stroke of incredible timing, she mentioned a story which she’d been working on, saying that she knew it would break soon, but it might be weeks or even a year before it did.
We woke up the next morning to hear that this very story was the BBC’s main headline for the day. Watch this space, because we’ll be asking Jenna to fill us in with some more background, and we’ll be sure to share it all here on the blog.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering… we did eventually switch the big screen over to the football, and all those Civic Tech geeks did actually get caught up in watching the penalty shoot-out decider.
I guess the Venn diagram stretched a little bit that night.
Thank you so much to everyone who came along: we hope you had as much fun as we did.
I’m Richard Taylor, a member of the volunteer team which administers WhatDoTheyKnow.com on a day to day basis, and I spoke at the event highlighting the broad range of people who have collaborated to make WhatDoTheyKnow a success, and sharing some ideas for the future. Here’s what I said:
I’m someone who wants to see our representative democracy working; that’s why I support what mySociety does; I support giving tools to people to help people engage with our society, how we make decisions about running our society, how we run our public services, our health service, policing, how we organise our cities, how we plan development of new homes and design, or evolve, our transport systems.
I joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a user on the 22nd of July 2008, so almost exactly ten years ago. My first Freedom of Information requests were on policing, for the local Stop and Account policy – as you can see from those kinds of requests I’m keen on transparency and accountability of those we give powers over us. I looked up my early FOI requests and I was rapidly onto my local councillor allowances, details of which weren’t online, and as I’m from Cambridge and there were some very Cambridge requests in there too – on the running of the river – on the regulation of punting – a perennial local issue, and for the terms and charges for grazing on the city’s commons. One of the things I do is campaign for proportional police use of TASERs, I made requests on that subject too.
Within just a few days of joining the site I was sending in lists of public bodies to add to the system; and shortly after that I was invited on to the administration team so I didn’t have to bug developer Francis Irving, or the volunteers who’d already started to help running the site, including John Cross, Alex Skene, Tony Bowden to do things like add new bodies, but could make changes myself.
The volunteer team
Mine is the same route many of our volunteers took to joining the team running the site in the early years; those making lots of good proposals for bodies to add, or making other suggestions were invited to help out. The way we’ve found new volunteers has changed a little over time, and we have had to keep topping up the pool of volunteers as people have moved on. We started to approach users of the site who were making helpful annotations assisting other users, and who were making great use of the site themselves. We found Ganesh Sittampalam and Doug Paulley that way, both of whom have put huge amounts of time into developing the site, the service. Latterly we’ve moved to advertising for new team members and seeking applications from those who want to join us, and that’s brought us some of our current active volunteers, Michael Bimmler for example.
Volunteers have put in an enormous amount of time into running the site. If you put a cash value on that time I’m sure the volunteers would by far be the biggest donor to the site. The site probably wouldn’t exist, and certainly wouldn’t exist in its current form without volunteer input; so many good ideas for websites get built, often with funding to kick them off, but they don’t do what WhatDoTheyKnow has done, and survive, grow, and thrive. Volunteer input has enabled that.
The site certainly has grown and thrived, we now have around seven million users viewing the site per year; according to Google analytics, and 162,000 signed up users. There are approaching half a million request threads on the site now. An interesting aspect of those statistics is the viewing is not focused on a small handful of requests, but rather visitors are spread broadly across the long-tail of requests and released information. In 2016 17% of requests to central government monitored bodies went via our service; but the vast majority of requests, 88%, go to bodies where central government don’t track FOI request statististics.
The volunteers I’ve mentioned already, plus Helen Cross and Alastair Sloan, have put substantial chunks of time into running the site. There are many others too including Rob McDowell, Ben Harris, Gavin Chait and Peter Williams. The volunteers supporting the service have not just come from the volunteer team, the trustees who’re ultimately responsible for the site are volunteers too, ten years ago mySociety was more of a volunteer based organisation than it is now, trustee Amandeep Rehlon was dealing with the finances on a volunteer basis, we’ve had great moral and policy guidance from Manar Hussain and Owen Blacker, and the chair of the trustees, another volunteer, James Cronin.
We have been amazingly lucky with the volunteers we’ve attracted to the administration team. Doug Paulley is an incredible activist and campaigner on disability rights, and so many of the others are legal and information rights experts, activists and campaigners in their own rights.
Volunteers are only part of the story, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do, and what we want to do without the institutional support of mySociety, and the organisation’s brilliant staff. When the initial developer and project manager Francis Irving moved on he was succeeded by a series of great lead developers, Robin Houston, Seb Bacon, and now Louise Crow and other staff team members, currently Gareth Rees, Graeme Porteous, Liz Conlan …(See Github for the full list of contributors to the code!) the site is supported by the whole mySociety team, including designers Zarino Zappia and Martin Wright, Abi Broom, who runs the show, Gemma Moulder – events organiser from our perspective, who also works on spreading services based on WhatDoTheyKnow around the world, and mySociety’s communications person Myf Nixon. Thanks are also due to ten years’ of mySociety sysadmins including Sam Pearson,Ian Chard, and in the early days volunteers who’d keep things running, Adam McGreggor, and Alex Smith.
A key WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer was Francis Davey who was our volunteer legal advisor for many years. Francis Davey’s top piece of advice which I recall was to avoid court. We’ve pretty much succeeded to date-with that. One of the key roles of the volunteer team is to run what is a relatively legally risky site without getting sued and consequently, probably, taking down not just WhatDoTheyKnow but the rest of mySociety too.
We deal with a lot of defamation claims, personal information takedown requests, and an array of more obscure legal challenges.
As well as trying to avoid getting annihilated via legal processes a key aspect of our approach to running the site is we try our utmost to run it responsibly. What those involved didn’t do is find a legally friendly jurisdiction and anonymously just let the system loose to run unmanaged and unchecked. We’re real accountable people who respond to concerns from all comers, individuals, public bodies, our own users, about what’s published on our site.
What are we doing by running our site?
We’re doing a lot more than just helping users make a request for information to a public body. We’re activists, we’re promoting running our society in a transparent, inclusive, accountable, way, not just by lobbying, making speeches, writing articles, but by doing something, by running our site.
Running our service promotes Freedom of Information and other access to information laws; people come across our site when searching for information they’re seeking; we show what can be obtained by publishing requests and responses; others might find the information they’re seeking directly, or see that they can make a similar request, perhaps adapting a request that’s been made elsewhere to their local public bodies..
Anyone can make a Freedom of Information request by private email to a public body. I’d find that potentially a bit of a selfish action, incurring cost to the public for a response only I might see, but making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow to obtain information which should be accessible to the public automatically makes that information accessible to anyone who searches for it, anyone who Googles for the information. Even if a requester doesn’t themselves do something with the information released by making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com they’ve enabled others to do so. You’re often doing public good just by making a request via WhatDoTheyKnow.com (though do see our advice on making responsible and effective requests).
WhatDoTheyKnow makes something which would otherwise be quite challenging for many people – getting a FOI request and response online – easy. I’m sure only a fraction of users of our site would have taken the time to write a blog about their request, and update it with the response, if they had to do that manually.
A big benefit of making a request on WhatDoTheyKnow.com is many people are already using our site and watching for responses; if you make a request to a local council on WhatDoTheyKnow.com the chances are your local journalists are tracking requests to the local council and they’ll be alerted to any response.
At WhatDoTheyKnow we’re an independent third party, we’re not the requestor and we’re not the public body. This can be useful when there’s a dispute about a response to a request, if a public body denies receiving it for example. We’d love to work more closely with the regulator, the Information Commissioner’s office, we’d love them to use our service more to help them in their role in enforcing the law. Often just having a request on our site can help people get a response, good public bodies really care about the impression those visiting their pages on our site get. Lots of public bodies will get in touch with us if they don’t like the way a request has been classified by one of our users for example.
A really big advantage having information released via our service is people can cite it when they take action based on it, be that action a blog post, an article in the media, an academic publication, or a letter to an MP. You can show, again using WhatDoTheyKnow.com as an independent third party, where the information you are relying on has come from, giving more weight, more credibility, to whatever it is you’re doing, your lobbying, your journalism, your research. WhatDoTheyKnow, and mySociety more broadly, has been in the business of enabling better informed debate and higher quality journalism well before “fake news” entered our lexicon.
We’re always looking for new bodies to add to our site, the database of public bodies which is behind the site keeps growing, we’re now at over 23,000 public bodies. That compares to about 450 public bodies listed on the Gov.uk website, and just 305 in the latest “Public Bodies” report by the Cabinet Office. The big difference is made up by schools, GP surgeries and NHS dentists, all of which are subject to FOI; we also list groups of organisations like companies owned by local government – public bodies in terms of the Freedom of Information Act but all but invisible to central government.
I said we were in the business of activism; changing society by doing things. One big part of or Freedom of Information law related activism is listing bodies on our site which are not, or not yet, subject to access to information laws. We’ve listed many bodies before they became subject to the Freedom of Information Act, showing the demand for information, and showing the kind of information people want, but couldn’t access. One example was Network Rail which we listed before it became subject to FOI in March 2015, another was the Association of Chief Police Officers .. however that’s now become the National Police Chief’s Council and MPs failed to make that successor body subject to FOI – in that case it’s not a huge problem as they realise they need to be transparent and they voluntarily comply, but, significantly, the Information Commissioner can’t enforce a law which a body is not technically subject to.
There are always more public bodies to add, we list Housing Associations for example, they’re a another class of body which are not subject to FOI, even coroners aren’t subject to FOI which you might find surprising given their important public role in ensuring our society is safe, and more people don’t die in the future for the same, preventable, reasons people have died in the past. We list some coroners, and volunteer Kieran is working on making our coverage comprehensive. Local medical committees; committees of GPs are another set we’re hoping to add soon.
Maintaining the body database is a constant task. Government is constantly reorganising, we try to keep up with changes recently for example, recently, in research councils, and keeping track of NHS reorganisations is a challenge on its own. There have already been 17 requests to London North Eastern Railway Limited, the Government rail operator of last resort which we listed when it took over running trains on the East Coast mainline about ten days ago.
Seeking improvements to laws which impact our service, its users, and the accessibility of public information
As well as our activism we have a record of more traditional lobbying; sharing the experience running our service has given us experience of the operation of access to information law. We took part in the Post-Legislative Scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 in 2012 for example, and just a few months ago we responded to a consultation by the Cabinet Office on the Code of Practice which bodies responding to FOI requests have take into account.
In terms of what we’re calling for, we’re not FOI fans specifically, we’d actually rather people didn’t have to make FOI requests, we’re in favour of proactively releasing information and running public services transparently, though that said FOI requests are requests for information people want to know; rather than information which public bodies want to publish so they will probably always have their place.
Why not make public bodies consider proactive publication of information of the sort requested, when dealing with a FOI request? That’s a provision which is in the specialised law on access to datasets but doesn’t apply to access to information requests more broadly.
Timeliness of responses, and timeliness of enforcement action from the Information Commissioner are other key things we campaign on. If you want a copy of a FOI response that’s been made to particular union, lobby group, or journalist and is the information behind the day’s news, surely you should be able to get a copy of it pretty much straight away, and there can be no excuse for a body dithering until the 20 working day deadline. The law requires a prompt response; that aspect of the law needs following and enforcing.
We also want to close loopholes in FOI; one terrible one, is if a public body can think of a class of information and list it on its website with a price for it, it becomes exempt from disclosure for free under FOI. This is clearly open to abuse, fortunately few bodies have misused it too-date, but there are examples – just look at your local council’s list of information they make available for a fee.
Running the Site
Some might be interested to know administration has changed as the site has grown. There’s been a constant improvement of the site’s software to make it easier to run, but that needs to continue so we can cope with it getting bigger without having to increase the volunteer effort exponentially in-line with the site’s growth. We’ve outgrown the team@ mailing list system the site started with; we now separate the support mail from discussions among volunteers, and on top of that there’s a separate discussion of legal matters; so people aren’t overwhelmed.
One challenge we have is the workload, and volunteer input, are both variable. Sometimes there’s a week where you really need someone full time running the site. Sometimes you could firefight the incoming issues in maybe an hour a day, or day a week.
Something we’d like to do is encourage past volunteers to join our monthly calls; join the legal discussion list, volunteers list, drop into the support mailbox and help out on occasion, every little helps, following what we’re doing for a week a couple of times a year might provide some outside, detached, input; help keep us on-track, challenge us, and assist us in spotting drifts in policy / practice.
Ideas for the future
We’re always keen to hear any ideas for what we could be doing better, or differently we welcome input from anyone and everyone who cares about the service in some way. Some of the things we could do improve:
- We could do even better at transparently running the site. We already try to run the site as transparently as we can; if we hide a message, or redact content from correspondence, we make clear where we’ve done so and explain why. We don’t though have a transparency report like Google and Reddit do, reporting on takedown requests, how many there have been, who they’ve come from – individuals, requesters, public bodies, public officials, regulated professionals, and how we responded. Requests for user data. One challenge is sometimes the moral thing to do is not shout about and draw attention to something we’ve taken down too quickly; don’t want to draw attention to taking down something that’s still in Google’s cache for example – if we really believe it shouldn’t be online any more.
- We should do more to highlight excellent, interesting and influential, uses of the site. It would be great to have ways within the system to note when responses have been used by others, cited in Parliament, resulted in a news story, or if someone has analysed responses from a range of public bodies around the country for example.
- We have volunteers, but there is no real community of users around the site, or around our lobbying activities, or, to the extent there has been in the past, a community – around mySociety any more. There’s an opportunity there..
- I think we have a duty to be careful with the way the WhatDoTheyKnow pro-service is used. Anyone can sign up for a Gmail account and make requests; but we are doing more than Gmail to encourage and enable FOI requests, and not least the pro system is built on a largely volunteer built and maintained database. Use to-date has apparently been good, and we have a general principle of not spending time discussing hypothetical situations, but, in running the free site as volunteers we’ve always been mindful of the impact of our actions on our reputation, and the reputation of Freedom of Information law itself. For example we ask those considering bulk requests if they’ve carefully selected the set of bodies to make their request to, if the request could be made to a central body rather than lots of local bodies, if a sampling exercise would suffice instead of asking perhaps hundreds of bodies, and we advise on making clear requests in the first instance to reduce the need for clarifications – saving public bodies and requesters time and effort. [Update: following the event we agreed to update our House Rules to include a reference to our advice on making responsible and effective requests|]).
- Lastly, on sustainable funding for the site, ideally I think this would be though a handful of media organisations, campaign groups, or other bodies paying for a pro-service; which would hopefully give them great value in terms of organising FOI requests, prompting them to chase up late requests, saving time finding contact details and easily making bulk requests. Perhaps as the number of individual users of the Pro service grows organisations will see the value of providing access to all their staff.