2023 is a momentous year for us, marking not only mySociety’s 20th anniversary but also the 15th birthday of our flagship Freedom of Information (FOI) service, WhatDoTheyKnow.
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.
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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.
In the year of its tenth anniversary, and by complete serendipity on International Right To Know Day, our site WhatDoTheyKnow has processed its half a millionth Freedom of Information request.
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.
The party took place at Newspeak House, the Bethnal Green hub of Civic Tech and innovation. Playing softly in the background was our specially-tailored FOI-themed playlist.
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.
mySociety celebrated the tenth birthday of its Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com at an event in London on the 3rd of July 2018.
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.
And of course our two leaders, founding director Tom Steinberg and latterly the current Chief Executive Mark Cridge.
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.
Back in February, as you may remember, we announced an evening of celebration in London for WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary.
And then it snowed, public transport ground to a halt, and we made the tough decision to call the party off.
But it was only ever a postponement. Now we’re in a more temperate season and we’re determined to get this milestone celebrated! We’ve rescheduled, and we’re looking forward to an evening of talks covering the project’s past, present and future, not to mention chat, drinks, nibbles and the best FOI-based playlist you’ve ever heard.
If you’d like to come and join us for this event in London on the evening of July 3rd, please email Gemma with more about yourself and why you’d like to come. Spaces are limited so let us know asap if you’d like to attend.
Image: Gaelle Marcel
To help us mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary, we asked volunteers, supporters and users to tell us which Freedom of Information requests from the site’s first ten years particularly stuck in their minds.
The result was an eclectic mix of stories that really show the breadth of how WhatDoTheyKnow has been used. They have very little in common — unless you count the imagination and tenacity of those using FOI to try to uncover significant information.
Doug Paulley, WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer
A exposé that helped bring in the living wage for carers
Doug is one of the team of volunteers who give up their time to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, using their experience and knowledge of FOI to moderate the site, give users guidance, and help set policy. Doug is also an extremely active user of FOI, having used the act to uncover many examples of discrimination and malpractice over the years.
He highlights the story of a care home talking the talk, but very much failing to walk the walk when it came to paying its staff the living wage.
“The exposure brought about by FOI played a significant part in the campaign for Leonard Cheshire, care home operator with 2,100 residents, to significantly increase carers’ wages to (just short of) the voluntary living wage. Journalist Heather Mills covered the story in Private Eye.” Read the whole story here.
Owen Blacker, mySociety trustee
Missing historic information on Cold War targets
Owen co-founded FaxYourMP, the earliest version of mySociety’s WriteToThem, and has been an important part of the organisation ever since — he’s now one of our trustees and a non-executive director. He recalls the building and launch of WhatDoTheyKnow and indeed was one of its earliest registered users.
Owen particularly remembers a pass-the-parcel like series of FOI requests in which he was handed from one organisation to another:
“I went round in circles trying to find out some Cold War information that nobody claims to know any more. In 1980, the entire Civil Service, nationwide, ran a dry run of a Cold War nuclear attack on the United Kingdom, called Operation Square Leg. I’m slightly concerned that we spent a lot of money planning the civil contingencies of a Cold War attack — a sensible things to do, arguably — but no longer know where we were expecting to be hit or at what megatonnage.” Owen links to the requests from this blog post.
Will Perrin, Indigo Trust
Safer streets and better data handling
Will is not only a trustee at Indigo, supporting mySociety’s work with parliamentary monitoring organisations in sub-Saharan Africa, but he’s also a trustee of London’s King’s Cross Community Projects. Indeed Kings Cross — a locality in which Will has a personal stake, with a long record of community action — is the subject of two of the three FOI requests he singled out:
First was the Kings Cross Walkability audit which revealed just how hostile to pedestrians the area was back in 2008. At the time, Will wrote in his blog: “Crossing the road in Kings Cross is a nightmare and now we have an official report commissioned by TfL that sets it out in black and white.”
Today he recalls its impact: “This document underpinned the police taking a corporate manslaughter case against TfL to the Criminal Prosecution Service with regard to a cyclist’s death in 2011. The case did not proceed but was instrumental in changing TfL’s attitude to cyclists’ rights.
“Then this request revealed a massive overspend by Network Rail in refurbishing its own offices at Kings Cross”.
Finally, Will’s third choice of request had wider implications for the country as a whole:
“The National Police Chiefs’ Council revealing that there was no governance system in place for the Automatic Numberplate Recognition System (ANPR) and the existence of Met’s ‘Olympic Data Feed‘ led to a new governance system being instilled; some 2 billion records were deleted along with the introduction of a vastly reduced retention period.” Annotations at the foot of this request give a little more background.
Matthew Somerville, mySociety developer
A long-standing pillar of mySociety’s development team, Matthew wrote the core code behind many of mySociety’s most notable websites and tools, including FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou. He spends his working days coding for mySociety’s useful tools, and much of his free time coding his own useful tools, if his website is anything to go by. What was his most memorable FOI request?
“It was a request asking Royal Mail for information about all their postboxes, made by Tom Taylor. I had to write a crowd-sourcing tool to locate them, as the information provided included street name but no actual location; they then (from another FOI request a few years later) released the co-ordinates as well.”
The data is mapped here. Why is this request significant?
“I’m not sure it’s really significant, but I do get plenty of people telling me they’ve used the site, and it’s something Royal Mail never got around to providing (even though that was their reasoning for refusing to release it)…”
So there we are: a handful of the 458,219 requests that WhatDoTheyKnow has processed to date. There are so many stories around FOI requests: each of them represents someone’s burning question; many of them result in a response that’s important, or fascinating, or historic. And that’s what makes WhatDoTheyKnow so rewarding to work on.
We’ve talked a lot about our new service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information — but it’s not always the professionals who uncover the news stories.
This week, we mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary. As part of the celebrations, we thought we’d look back on the news stories that came about because of requests made through the site. Many of these began with an FOI request submitted by a user with no links to the press, and were picked up by news outlets because the response was of public interest.
From the restrictions on what names can be given to a baby in this country, to an accidental torpedo release, and via a geographically-accurate Tube map, it makes for fascinating reading. You can see them all here.
On 22 February 2008, we posted an announcement on this very blog: “the new mySociety Freedom of Information site is now live”.
More than 450,000 requests later, WhatDoTheyKnow is marking its tenth anniversary: as part of the celebrations, we’ve put together a timeline showing how WhatDoTheyKnow has intersected with the history of FOI in the UK since we first gained our right to information in 2005. If nothing else, you may enjoy looking at the site’s rather more primitive design back in its early days.
The past decade has seen legal challenges, contributions to Parliamentary inquiries, and the development of our code for use in other countries (26 and counting). It has proved that an ambitious project can be kept going thanks to the efforts of unpaid but skilled and dedicated volunteers.
Most of all, though, it’s seen you, the general public, submitting requests for information, and sharing the responses you receive. That was always the idea, and, it turns out, it’s a pretty sound one.