Last year, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information.
As it’s a new venture, we’re keen to track whether it’s achieving everything we’d hoped for when first planning the service. One of the targets which we set, as a measure of success, is the number of impactful press stories generated by its use.
What might count as impactful? Well, that’s obviously up for debate, but loosely we’d say that we’re looking for news stories that have a wide readership, and uncover previously unknown facts, offer new insights, or bring about change.
Stories in the news
A couple of recent stories, generated through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, have ticked at least a few of those boxes. At mySociety, we keep a position of political neutrality — our services are available to everyone of any persuasion, and we don’t campaign on any political issue — so we present these stories not to comment on their substance, but to note that they certainly fit the criteria above.
Brexit is clearly one of the most vital stories of our day, here in the UK, and while many might feel that we’ve had a surfeit of commentary on the issue, we can only benefit from understanding the facts.
One of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s earliest users, Jenna Corderoy, broke two important stories on that topic. First, that UK parliamentary standards watchdog IPSA is investigating Jacob Rees Mogg’s hard Brexit European Research Group over their second bank account and ‘informal governance structure’. This also ran in the Daily Mail.
Secondly (and this progresses a previous story about expenses – also uncovered thanks to Jenna’s use of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro) there is the widely-reported story that the Electoral Commission had misinterpreted laws around campaigning expenses, allowing Vote Leave to overspend. This was picked up by the BBC and Guardian, among many others.
No matter which side of the Brexit debate you support, hopefully you will agree that it benefits society as a whole to have the facts out in the open.
From FOI request to the national news
As a last thought: it’s interesting to us to see how a story grows from one or more FOI requests into something that hits the national news platforms. We think these stories were broken using a tried and true method that goes like this:
- As a journalist, campaigner or researcher, you might be investigating a topic. Perhaps you’ve heard a rumour that you’re hoping to substantiate, or perhaps you’re inquiring more deeply into a story that’s already in the air. Using FOI, you can retrieve facts and figures to bolster your investigation.
- Once you have a story, you can publish it in a smaller publication like Open Democracy, testing the water to see if it gains any traction.
- If the story is well-received there, it’s easy to approach larger outlets with the proof (in the form of FOI responses) underpinning it.
If you’re a journalist or you use FOI in your professional life and you’d like to try WhatDoTheyKnow Professional for yourself, then head over to whatdotheyknow.com/pro. Put in the code WELCOME18 when you sign up, and you’ll get 25% off your first month’s subscription.
Image: Roman Kraft
An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.
Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.
In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.
The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.
The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.
This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.
A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.
That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”
Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.
On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.
The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:
A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.
– so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.
Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.
He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.
@TheyWorkForYou – @EmmaReynoldsmp is saying that you refused to note that she was on maternity leave next to her voting record? Is that true? Is that something that is under active discussion? it seems to penalise female MPs as it stands https://t.co/7FfPFLY2EP
— Simon Burall (@sburall) February 1, 2018
TheyWorkForYou refusing to note that an MP was on maternity leave? Wait, that doesn’t sound like us…
TheyWorkForYou has one main aim: to make it extremely easy to see what’s going on in Parliament. To that end, we publish debates, voting records, and all sorts of details about MPs such as their job titles, expenses, and even which words they use most often.
Sometimes, interpreting all of these facts needs a little context. Case in point: when an MP is off on extended sickness or maternity leave, the number of speeches and votes they make will, of course, go down. There are many little exceptions like this, in fact: for example, my own MP was, for a while, a teller, meaning that he counted votes and was not normally allowed to vote himself. As you’d expect, this had quite an effect on his voting tally.
Now, the trouble with these exceptions is that they’re not easy to code. Most of TheyWorkForYou’s data actually comes from Parliament itself: they provide all the day’s debates, for example, as XML code, which our automated scripts pick up and publish out in the nice, readable format you see each morning on TheyWorkForYou. That’s how we’re able to publish such a large quantity of content on so many MPs: if TheyWorkForYou was compiled editorially, it’d require a far larger staff than we have.
So in fact, when Emma Reynolds got in touch to ask that we note her maternity leave on TheyWorkForYou, we didn’t refuse. Rather, we told her the truth: that it was a tricky issue that would require a manual bit of coding, but we’d add it to our development list and hopefully get to it.
And that’s what we did. The trouble is, our development list is long, and we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to prioritise. This ticket is now a few years old (Ms Reynolds was not the first to ask for a note on her record to explain special circumstances) and it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list above bug fixes and other more urgent additions. TheyWorkForYou is currently unfunded, so of course, projects which have funding and expectations/deadlines attached to that funding take priority.
Note: In retrospect, we recognise that the advice below is not strictly relevant to this post. While we do very much need funding, and also do very much encourage anyone with coding skills to come and help out with our backlog, these two solutions would not alleviate the main obstacle to the issue above, which is that the required data isn’t output by Parliament. So, feel free to read on if you like, but with that in mind. mySociety CEO Mark Cridge put out a series on tweets on Friday which clarify our thinking; you can see those here.
Until we’re able to prioritise this piece of work (or any other that our users/MPs would like to see), there are a couple of solutions.
Ask for Parliament to add such information to their output
As mentioned above, most of TheyWorkForYou’s content is automated, so if there were a data source to show that an MP was on a leave of absence, we could easily pick it up and include it on their page. We’ve asked an MP’s office about this but they replied:
We are not aware of any official source of information about an MP taking leave of absence.
From our point of view, this would be far preferable to a manual solution, which would rely on MPs getting in touch themselves to let us know when exceptions applied. This would almost certainly lead to a situation where some did, and some didn’t, meaning the information could look more accurate than it really was. Many researchers use our outputs, so we wouldn’t want this to become the foundation of a study on MPs’ leaves of absence!
Be the change you want to see
OK, that’s a bit of a hippy-esque maxim, but in this case it’s quite apt.
A small job like this would not take very long or cost very much — the reason we haven’t yet managed it isn’t because it’s a massive piece of work, but because there are so many other pressing tasks.
An MP (or anyone) who wanted to see a new feature could help by making a donation. If you specify that it is for a particular addition to the site, we’ll get back to you to discuss how viable that is, and how we can make it happen.
Or do it yourself! Like most mySociety projects, TheyWorkForYou runs on Open Source code. That means that, if you have development skills, you are very welcome to fork the code and make a pull request for whatever improvements or additions you like. We’ll gratefully merge in any that fit with the site (have a chat with us first to make sure everyone’s on the same page).
If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP), you could even contract one to do this for you.
We hope that’s cleared things up a bit. We’re not out to demonise MPs who take maternity leave, honest. And we’ve lodged an official request for a correction from the Times.
Image: Erik Lundqvist
Our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, WhatDoTheyKnowPro, will have its official launch very soon — and we’re glad to see that it’s already beginning to help generate high-profile news stories based on FOI requests.
During development, several journalists have been putting it through its paces and offering us invaluable feedback which has helped us shape the service — and meanwhile their activity is also uncovering stories of genuine interest. These give a taste of exactly what kind of investigative stories can be supported by WhatDoTheyKnowPro, which makes requests to multiple bodies simpler, as well as organising the responses so that they’re easier to manage.
Here are the WhatDoTheyKnowPro-generated stories we’ve heard about so far:
Student Brexit campaign received ‘as much funding as necessary to win’
Open Democracy and the Ferret uncovered how Vote Leave used a loophole to funnel hundreds of thousands of pounds through a student’s small-scale campaign. The story was subsequently run by multiple other news outlets and legal proceedings towards a judicial review have begun.
British police trained officers in repressive regimes
Scrutiny of documents from the College of Policing revealed that much of its income was coming from countries where there is concern about human rights. The story, by Lucas Amin, was run by the Guardian in September.
Public servants and Scottish ministers paid thousands of pounds to dine with Obama
Investigative journalism platform the Ferret uncovered this story in July, detailing how much public money was spent on senior staff attending a charity dinner with Barack Obama.
Links between Mark Hoban and Price Waterhouse Cooper
The Times and the Daily Mail both ran this story from Patrick Hosking, which revealed the former financial secretary’s ‘forgetfulness’ over prior links with Price Waterhouse Cooper.
Infighting in UKIP over the name Patriotic Alliance
Both anti-far right activists and UKIP officials tried to stop Arron Banks from registering a new political party called the Patriotic Alliance, another story run by the Ferret revealed.
Where British holiday-makers get arrested most often
Back in June, this story by analysed figures from the FCO on where Brits had been detained and obtained consular support, allowing them to state which countries had the most arrests, and how figures had changed over time. The story ran in the Birmingham Mail and was also picked up by other publications in the Trinity Mirror Group.James Rodger
We’re delighted to see such good use being made of WhatDoTheyKnowPro, and we anticipate many more stories emerging once it has fully launched.
Jenna Corderoy, Alaveteli Professional Advocate, brings us an update on the project.
Since our last blog post on Alaveteli Professional — our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists — there have been a few exciting developments.
The batch request feature is coming along nicely: this will allow users of the service to send one Freedom of Information request to multiple authorities and help them to easily manage large volumes of responses.
We’re going to be working with a small group of our beta testers to develop this feature and make sure we release it in a useful and responsible form (click here to apply as a beta tester and get a year’s free access to WhatDoTheyKnowPro, the UK version of the service).
We’ve been pleased to see the first news story to emerge as the result of a request made through WhatDoTheyKnowPro: a response to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office showed which are the countries where UK holidaymakers are most likely to get arrested. The full list was covered in the Birmingham Mail.
But we also have plans for this Freedom of Information toolkit to go international: Alaveteli Professional will be a bolt-on option for anyone already running an FOI site on our software platform Alaveteli.
In April, mySociety team members traveled to roll out the first such project, with Info Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site.
We were able to introduce beta users to the features we’ve been developing, such as the ability to keep requests private until the story has been published.
While in the Czech Republic, we held a roundtable discussion with journalists and campaigners, swapping Freedom of Information battle stories and sharing tips and tricks for getting the best results when submitting requests for information, as well as experiences of filing requests to European Union institutions.
mySociety was also invited to give a talk to student journalists based in Olomouc about Info Pro Všechny and Alaveteli Professional in general, discussing success stories generated from our Freedom of Information sites from around the world.
We’re currently working on subscription options, which will allow us to officially launch WhatDoTheyKnowPro as a paid-for service in the UK, and later in the year, we plan to introduce the Pro toolkit to the Belgian Alaveteli site Transparencia.be, which has been making a splash in Belgian politics.
— mysociety (@mysociety) June 27, 2016
That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.
And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.
This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.
In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.
Information is key
Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):
Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.
And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.
Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:
And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:
Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Oh, and about that data:
All these resignations- will nobody think of the people who maintain parliamentary monitoring websites?
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) June 27, 2016
Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.
That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.
We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.
So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:
At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:
Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:
We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.
As this post goes live, mySociety Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul is out in Mexico, hosting a session at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit.
She’s presenting our latest paper, which seeks to provide a firm foundation for future impact research, by asking the most basic questions about who actually uses civic technology and why.
The headline findings
It’s not a difficult read, but if you’re looking for some easy takeaways, we got ’em. Try these for starters:
- Civic technology is used by a wide spectrum of individuals, but there are big differences between countries, especially when comparing developed countries to developing countries.
- Generally, more men than women use civic tech (although this isn’t the case in the USA).
- In the USA and UK, civic tech users tend to be above the age of 45 (over 70%) and well educated: to degree level or higher.
- In Kenya and South Africa, civic tech users tend to be under the age of 45, and more individuals without higher educational qualifications participate through these platforms.
- Comparative to population of each participating country, users from ethnic minorities are under-represented.
- Confidence in civic tech websites is very high. In each country surveyed, an overwhelming majority of individuals (over 85%) believed that these websites help them to hold the government to account, and believed that the government would behave differently if they were unable to see the information contained on these sites. On average 97% of users would use these sites again.
Now go and read
You can download the paper in full here: Who Benefits From Civic Technology? Demographic and public attitudes research into the users of civic technologies.
You’ve probably seen the recent news story about the guy who bought, then vastly increased the price of a vital drug: it’s been widely shared on social media in the last couple of days.
Not long ago, we blogged about the work we’d done on the Patent Oppositions Database.
You may have found the concepts involved somewhat abstract. If so, now’s a great time to go and read it again, with this news story in mind. It’s an excellent example of what that project is hoping to prevent.
Image: David Goehring (CC)