We’ve had 109,653 Freedom of Information and Environmental Information Regulations requests made on WhatDoTheyKnow this year. In the run up to the end of 2022 here’s a countdown of 12 of the more unusual ones that have caught our eye this year…
National Highways released 1.25 TB of bat survey data carried out for the Arundel bypass scheme. This was made up of over 115,000 files, that included 786 videos – that’s over 250 hours of footage – 54,570 audio files, 354 spreadsheets and 2,532 images.
We like this because we think it is the largest ever release of information, and as the climate crisis brings urgent challenges for our public institutions to address, access to environmental information will be increasingly valuable to businesses, campaign groups and the general public. You can read more about this release here.
The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency released the nucleotide sequences of the AstraZeneca & Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines used in the UK, after an initial refusal was overturned on review. The response says the companies involved consented to the release.
We liked this because it is a great use of FOI to get such important medical information released and available in the public domain.
Sheffield City Council released the location of every public bin in the city.
We liked this because not only is it really useful information; it is the sort of data that councils should be making freely available to citizens.
Edinburgh City Council released the sewer and cable plans for parts of the city centre.
We liked this because they are chaotically beautiful — not what you’d expect from an underground asset plan.
The Open University released a full textbook in response to a request for the information held on the Early modern Europe: society and culture c.1500-1780 module(s).
We liked this because it’s not not often that you see full textbooks being released.
7: Tower Bridge
The City of London Corporation released a list of the past Tower Bridge lift dates, times, and vessel names from the start of 2022 until now.
We liked this because it generated a long and sometimes amusing conversation on Reddit.
6: War memorabilia
The Ministry of Defence released a WW2 medal card.
We liked this because we’ve never seen something like this obtained by FOI before.
5: Honours board
The Charter Trustees of the Town of Margate released their Freedom of the Town list in a more unusual format.
We liked this because the information released was a photo of a painted wooden board. This is, after all, still a form of recorded information — and a nice permanent one.
4: Seaside nuisance
Brighton & Hove City Council released a copy of all of the bye-laws that apply to the seafront.
We liked this because of the phrase: “no annoying gramophones on the beach”, which may be a slightly outdated view of the worst possible noise nuisance.
3: Big cats
North Wales police released the details of big cat sightings in 2021.
We liked this because the information disclosed in the request was used for a number of news articles in Wales.
2: Library books
One of our users has been doing some research into the top 25 books borrowed from libraries in 2021; here’s an example of one of them.
We liked this because it’s fascinating to see what books people are choosing to read, and how this varies between different areas of the country.
1: Trains galore
And finally, here at WhatDoTheyKnow the team are all big fans of trains. This means we tend to notice the more interesting disclosures on train related topics. Here are some of our favourites from this year:
a. Network Rail released the engineering drawings that were produced during the construction of the London & South Western Railway’s station at Branksome, near Bournemouth in the mid to late 1800.
We liked this because the drawings are beautifully crafted and not something that we get to see very often.
b. Northern Trains Limited released the .wav file of the two jingles used for their station automated announcements system.
We liked this because it’s unusual for audio files to be released and we’ve found so many uses for this!
c. London North Eastern Railway Limited (LNER) released some information about the voiceover artists used for the automated announcements on the Class 800 and Class 801 fleet of trains
We like this because it shows that FOI responses don’t need to be formal or complicated; they just provide, where possible, the information that the request-maker has asked for. LNER is particularly good at this.
d. Transport for London released 3D station layout drawings for the Elizabeth line.
We liked this because it’s really interesting to see how the new stations on the Elizabeth line have been designed, and how the layout works with their surroundings.
We hope you enjoyed 12(ish) of our favourite FOI requests from this year.
WhatDoTheyKnow is a project of mySociety, run by a small team of staff and dedicated volunteers.
In 2022 WhatDoTheyKnow users made 109,653 Freedom of Information requests via WhatDoTheyKnow.
Those requests, and the responses they received, are public on the website for anyone to see.
What’s not quite so visible is the work that the WhatDoTheyKnow team, which is largely made up of volunteers, do behind the scenes.
Some of their most difficult calls arise around the removal of information. WhatDoTheyKnow’s guiding principle is that it is a permanent, public, archive of Freedom of Information requests and responses, open to all.
The team works incredibly hard to maintain the archive in the face of challenges, including the reduction of legal risks; dealing fairly and transparently when people ask for information to be removed from the site; answering users’ questions; supporting citizens to use their rights to FOI; dealing with misuse of the service which breaches our house rules inappropriate content and keeping everything ticking over.
Our default position is not to remove substantive public information requests and responses; however, we act quickly if problematic content is reported to us. And, to help everyone understand exactly what has been removed and why, where possible we record these details on the request page.
To allow for a full 12 months of data, the date range used throughout this report is 1 November 2021 to 31 October 2022.
Headline facts and figures
- 16,354,872 visits to WhatDoTheyKnow.com this year.
- 16,217 new WhatDoTheyKnow user accounts created this year, taking the total number of accounts to 239,540. This represents an increase of 7.6% in the total number of site users since last year.
- 8,912 total number of email threads in the support inbox in 2022… that’s an increase of 11.2%, making it all the more crucial that we continue to recruit volunteers to help spread the load.
- 1,381 requests hidden from WhatDoTheyKnow in 2022
…in the context of 109,653 requests made in the year, and a total of 867,303 requests currently published on the site.
- 171 published requests where we redacted some material in 2022
…usually due to the inappropriate inclusion of personal information, or defamation.
And in more detail
Requests made on WhatDoTheyKnow flagged for our attention
The table below shows the reasons that requests were reported by our users via the site for admin attention this year.
Note that we also receive many reports directly by email, so while not comprehensive, this is indicative.
Reason for attention report Total number Vexatious 117 Not a valid request 109 Contains personal information 89 Request for personal information 85 Contains defamatory material 33 Other 642 Total* 1,075
*The number of requests flagged for attention this year is up 40% on last year. This is largely related to a single campaign of misuse.
Material removed from the site
The following tables show where members of the admin team have acted to remove or hide requests from WhatDoTheyKnow in the last year, and the reason why.
At WhatDoTheyKnow we have a policy of removing as little material as possible, while seeking to run the site responsibly and take different viewpoints into account. Removing substantive FOI requests and responses is a last resort and something we do very rarely. However, we act quickly to remove problematic material.
Request visibility Total number Discoverable only to those who have the link to the request 2 Visible only to the request maker 1,282 Hidden from all site visitors 97 Reason for removing from public view Total number** Not a valid FOI request 1,117 Vexatious use of FOI 43 Other (reason not programmatically recorded*) 221
* Current processes do not create an easily retrievable list of reasons beyond the two above, however due to site improvements made in autumn of this year we expect to be able to provide more detailed information on this in the future.
** The number of requests hidden or removed from the site this year is up by 68% on last year. As above, this increase is largely related to a single campaign of misuse.
Censor rules (targeted redactions to hide the problematic part/s of a request) Total number Number of censor rules applied 746 Number of requests with censor rules applied 171 Number of requests with censor rules applied which are still publicly visible, but with problematic material hidden 165
* Censor rules are used for many purposes, including redacting problematic content and removing personal data which should not be present
Cases relating to GDPR rights
These are typically cases relating to requests to remove data published on the site as per the rights afforded under GDPR, the UK’s General Data Protection Regulations.
Right type Total number of cases* GDPR Right to Erasure 214 Data breaches by third parties 79 GDPR Right to Rectification 15 GDPR Right of Access 21 Data breach – internal** 6 GDPR Right to Object <5 Total 340
* Not all issues raised resulted in material being removed from the site.
* “Data Breach – internal” refers to cases where WhatDoTheyKnow has identified that a data breach may have been caused due to our own staff actions. We take our obligations seriously, and use such instances as a learning opportunity, so these are recorded by us even if very minor, and often when they’re nothing more than a near miss.
High risk concerns escalated for review
Our policies ensure that certain issues can be escalated for review by the wider team and, where more complex, by a review panel that includes mySociety’s Chief Executive. Escalation is typically prompted by threats of legal action, complaints, notifications of serious data breaches, potential defamation concerns, safeguarding, complex GDPR cases, or cases that raise significant policy questions.
Case type* Total number Defamation 49 Data breach 40 GDPR Right to Erasure 33 Complaints 19 Safeguarding / Public harm 13 Takedown 13 GDPR Right of Access 9 Police user data requests 7 Site misuse 7 Data breach – internal 5 Other 39
* Email threads may be either automatically categorised by the system, or manually categorised by the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team on the basis of the information given by the person reporting them. Some cases can relate to two types: for example a GDPR Right to Erasure request may also be a complaint. For the purposes of this table, such instances have been included in the counts for both concerns.
User accounts Total WhatDoTheyKnow users with activated accounts 239,540 New user accounts activated in 2022 16,217 Reason for banning users in 2022 Total Spam 2,160 Other site misuse 300 Total number of users banned in 2022 2,460 Anonymisation* Total Accounts anonymised in 2022 139
* Accounts are anonymised at the user’s request, generally to comply with GDPR Right to Erasure requests.
Users are banned and their accounts may be closed due to site misuse and breach of the House Rules. Anonymised and banned users are no longer able to make requests or use their accounts.
User data requests
Type of request Total Police/law enforcement requests for user data 7 Other requests for user data 6 Material released Total Number of requests, where court orders were produced and we provided the material as required 2
Thank you for reading
We produce this report as we demand transparency from public authorities and it’s only right that we also practise it ourselves.
Additionally, we hope that the report goes some way to showing the type of work the team do behind the scenes, and that running a well-used site like WhatDoTheyKnow is not without challenges.
If there are specific statistics that you’d like to see in subsequent Transparency reports, or you’d like to know more about any of those above, do drop the team a line.
Image: Meriç Dağlı
You can send Freedom of Information requests to more than 45,000 public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. For each of those authorities we need an email address to send those requests to, which means we often need to do some maintenance to keep everything up to date.
For some authorities in our database we don’t have a working email address. We might have had one in the past but it’s now out of date, or the authority might have merged and taken on new contact details – there are many reasons for missing email addresses, but they all leave us in the same predicament: we don’t know where to send your FOI requests for those bodies.
Can you help us find them?
If you have a little time to spare, a small amount of Googling could be a really big help for our users. Just five minutes here and there is all that’s needed to do a little bit of research to find the correct address.
The best starting point is almost always the authority’s website. Look for a dedicated contact email address for Freedom of Information requests.
Top tips for searching:
- Check the contact page.
- Check the footer on the homepage.
- Remember some public authorities such as schools and parish councils have very similar names, so make sure you are looking at the right one.
- If you can’t find a website for the authority itself, there are some other places that you can look: for example the NHS services site or the Get Information about Schools site.
Once you’ve found the right place, make a note of the contact email address. We prefer to use generic email addresses, for example that starting with foi@ or information@ as these tend not to change so often, so if there are multiple addresses given, these are the best ones to go for.
Let us know
If you find some of these missing email addresses please let us know.
We need both the new email address and the source (website address) where you found it, so we can verify the information.
You can send us this information by clicking on “Ask us to update FOI email” link on the public authority’s page. Just fill out the form with all the details that you’ve found.
Then our team of volunteers will use your input to update the database, and you’ll have ensured that people can make requests to the authority. That’s a really useful result.
Time poor but rich in other ways?
We know that your time is very precious and not everyone has the opportunity to help us out with tasks. If you are able to make a donation instead, that is also very helpful toward keeping our FOI service up and running.
Your contributions, however small, really help. Donate here.
Image: Marten Newhall
In the first post in this series I introduced our new focus around repowering democracy, and in the second I outlined how we think we need to change as an organisation to make this happen. In this final post we’ll give an overview of the new behaviours we’ll adopt across the organisation so that we’re better able to help repower democracy.
Over the next 10 years, we might have two general elections; maybe three rounds of various local elections; and quite possibly a vote for Scottish independence in 2023 – but by and large the elected leaders, civil servants, community leaders and institutions we already have in place today are the ones who will be making the big decisions about democracy and climate over the next decade.
With this in mind we’ve identified seven cross-cutting behaviours we need to adopt in order to deliver our strategy. Below, we introduce each behaviour and the key events and outcomes we are seeking to deliver as we incorporate these into our day to day work.
1. Partner for impact and diversity
We can deliver our greatest impact through and with others. We look for partners with the ‘same goals, different skill sets’: organisations and groups that want to achieve similar outcomes to ourselves, but that might be approaching it in a different way, or have a distinct set of skills so we can each complement what the other is doing.
Understanding, learning from, and seeking to collaborate with the systematic connections and existing networks already active in tackling the democratic and climate challenges ensure that we can best understand the unique contribution we can make to drive the most positive outcomes.
2. Build community everywhere
We’ll seek to build community everywhere, inside and outside our organisation – stewarding and supporting the growth of participant communities around our existing services, enabling a greater sense of ownership by those communities. We’ll help users to help each other more, reach new users, and provide more evidence for the benefits of becoming active citizens.
Building community is a core concept for understanding how to put more power into more people’s hands and better understanding societal needs beyond the needs of individuals. To make this happen we’ll become a more porous organisation, helping us improve at working with and collaborating with others to achieve our shared goals.
3. Advocate for change
Our research work to date has played a relatively passive role in putting forward practical and actionable ideas for how things might be done differently. Considering the scale of the crises we face, we need to advocate and push for more significant and swifter change – pulling the levers of power where they are open to us; aligning with movements for change where they are not.
At its simplest this means getting the word out about how people can work with us, find common cause, and pool our resources in order to increase active pressure for change. We’ll seek to expand our public policy and public affairs skills directly and through partnering, increasing our capacity to really dig into institutions to identify key decision makers and allies.
4. A drumbeat of experimentation
We want to recapture the early approach to experimentation which kickstarted mySociety by placing new bets within each of our programmes, to try new approaches and engage new users and participants who might not be familiar with our work or how they can make use of it.
We will look for every opportunity to move quickly and experiment widely – doing what’s necessary to learn, putting that into practice and looking for ways to ‘put money behind what works’.
5. Everyday equity and inclusion
Whilst technology can achieve many things, it can often serve to reinforce structural inequality. Representation in civic tech suffers from the same shortcomings as the wider tech and civil society fields: with predominantly white leadership and staff, the majority of technical roles and positions of power held by men, limited opportunities for those from historically excluded and as a result underrepresented groups – particularly racially minoritised and disabled people.
We need to better understand and deliver our services in the UK so that they benefit more marginalised communities, and actively work to diversify our workforce – leading to better outcomes for everyone.
6. Home is where the heart is
We started in the UK and we still run our largest active services here. Over the past 18 years we’ve worked with fellow civic technologists around the globe as part of the civic tech community, sharing, adapting and collaborating on building a movement of technology led participation.
Through this strategy we are recommitting to incubating solutions to democratic and climate challenges here in the UK first of all – and working in the open to support partners to adopt this work elsewhere. Through TICTeC we seek to better connect and equip others to undertake effective, evidence-based and impactful work that enhances public participation, transparency and accountability.
7. A bigger idea of team
We have an excellent, experienced and committed team. But we are often thinly spread and constrained around our capacity to explore new ideas at pace and scale and we need to be more inclusive and diverse both as a team and through the partners and communities we serve.
If we’re going to operate in a way that is commensurate with the crises we face, we’ll need to find new and imaginative ways to do more; enhancing our collective skills further, with new staff who can help us collaborate more effectively and work better with others to achieve our goals.
We’ll invest in community building roles, with outreach and network skills to give us more capacity to better connect, learn and collaborate; we’ll rejuvenate our approach to volunteering, expanding the ways for more people to contribute their time in more meaningful ways to support and extend our work – becoming a more open and porous organisation along the way.
We’ll work in partnership with people, communities and institutions to harness digital technology in service of civic participation.
We’ve learned a lot about what we need to change in order to make the shifts we’ve identified, in order to be ready to repower democracy.
Our experience over the past 18 years has taught us that advocacy campaigns and policy influencing is more effective when it’s done in partnership, and that we offer a specific set of skills and experience that many organisations do not have inhouse. We plan to partner more with a broad range of experienced people and partners outside of the organisation.
We need to rethink our definition of the team beyond the confines of just the staff – our volunteers, board members, and not least the wider community of which we are all part helps forge a bigger, better definition of what mySociety needs to be.
We’ve recognised that we can’t just play one side of the game: it’s not enough just to empower citizens, we need to prime institutions to be capable of responding to that empowerment.
And along with all of this we’ll need to increasingly rethink where power lies, and where we refocus our activity beyond government and the public sector.
Where we go next
The thoughts outlined in these three posts set out the direction of travel for our work over the next few years – over the next few months we’ll be working through what this means for our existing programmes and services, how we live up to the three shifts and fully incorporate our new behaviours.
In developing this thinking we’ve drawn upon support from across our whole team, board members, staff and volunteers, with lots of input from external peers and advisors. I’m especially grateful to the New Citizenship Project who have helped us imagine what the #citizenshift means for our day to day work and have helped us work though how we might put that into practice.
If you have any thoughts on how you might help repower democracy, I’ll put all three of these posts on Medium for comments and further discussion.
Image: Ussama Azam
WhatDoTheyKnow is kept up and running by a dedicated team of volunteers. Do you have the time or skills required to help? If you think you might like to lend a hand, read on to see what they do on a daily basis, as well as some examples of desired site improvements.
One of the volunteers’ many tasks is to maintain what we believe to be the largest existing database of public bodies in the UK (38,362 of them…and counting).
This requires quite a bit of time and effort to keep up to date: email addresses change; bodies merge, get new names or just cease to exist.
The turnover of the financial year always brings an extra slew of required changes; presumably many bodies like to use this date for a nice neat cut-off in their records. So, to give a snapshot of the sort of admin work the volunteers undertake, let’s take a look at every task April 1 brought the team this year.
Thirteen new authorities were added. Some of them are so new that they haven’t yet had any FOI requests made through the site. Perhaps you’ll be the first?
- The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service was formed through the merger of two existing services.
- 39 NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups became defunct, and nine new bodies were added:
- NHS North West London Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Kirklees Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Coventry and Warwickshire Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Black Country and West Birmingham Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS North East London Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Frimley Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Hampshire, Southampton and Isle of Wight Clinical Commissioning Group
- NHS Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes Clinical Commissioning Group
- We also marked 2 NHS Trusts as defunct and added one successor: the University Hospitals Sussex NHS Foundation Trust.
- We’ve added the new UK Health Security Agency, which has been set up to work on public health threats, combining elements of Public Health England with NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
- All district, borough and county councils in Northamptonshire (eight in total) were abolished on 1 April to be replaced by two new unitary authorities:
When we add a new body that replaces an existing one, we also make sure that no-one can make requests to the now-defunct authority — while at the same time, requests made to it in the past, along with any responses, are still available to view, and requests in progress can still be followed up.
We also set up page redirects to the new body, and replicate all of the metadata that helps WhatDoTheyKnow’s system work behind the scenes. It might be a bit of a faff but it’s worth the effort to keep things running smoothly.
Many thanks to volunteer Martyn for completing the lion’s share of the work listed above.
How you can help
If you know of any other changes that haven’t been reflected on the site, please do let us know.
If this post has reminded you how much you enjoy admin, consider joining the team! We always need more volunteers to help us run the site, keep the database up to date, deal with requests to remove material, and support our users. Find out more here.
There are some specific tasks that are top of our wish-list, too:
- We’d love to do some intensive work on our list of parish level councils to make it comprehensive — this could mean a few people working systematically through a list, or several checking how well their local area is represented on WhatDoTheyKnow. Local democracy matters, more so than ever, and transparency is important for bringing happenings to light (as events in Handforth have recently reminded us!).
- We have ambitions to organise our bodies geographically, showing bodies which operate in particular areas, or showing maps of the areas covered by bodies. See this ticket for a discussion of some of the possibilities which we haven’t had the resource to completely finesse.
mySociety has experience in mapping UK governmental areas, but we’re yet to integrate that expertise into WhatDoTheyKnow — do you have the required coding skills to make it happen?
- We’d like to do more organising of the bodies by their function too, helping guide users to the appropriate body fo their request.
If you have skills in web-scraping, spreadsheet wrangling, database maintenance or other relevant areas and think you can help us — please let us know!
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Image: Anastasia Zhenina
In our previous post, we identified WhatDoTheyKnow’s current need for sources of funding.
But WhatDoTheyKnow also needs more volunteers to join the team. Since the site’s launch, it’s always depended on a highly-motivated, active group of administrators who work to keep it running.
At mySociety, we’re very grateful for the work the volunteers do; for their part, they tell us that they find the work rewarding and interesting — but we’re always aware that we can’t, and shouldn’t, demand too much from them. The more volunteers we can recruit, of course, the less the workload will be for everyone.
We’ve identified three general areas in which volunteer help would be very welcome, and if you think you’d fit in to any of these, we’d love to hear from you.
- interested in FOI and transparency
- happy to work remotely but as part of a team, communicating mainly via email
- able to dedicate a minimum of a few hours per week to helping run the site
Each of our volunteer administrators give their time freely and are the only reason we can run the service day to day at all.
Being a volunteer is both rewarding but also challenging, as each juggles their day jobs and home lives. So the more volunteers we have, the more we can spread the workload between them.
If you have a specific interest in FOI or transparency, or indeed you’d just like to help support a well used civic tech service then we’d love to hear from you. There is always a diverse range of jobs and tasks needing to be done, even if you can only help a couple of hours a week. We all work from home and communicate via email and other online tools.
If you can help us a volunteer the first thing to do is to write to the team introducing yourself and letting us know about your relevant skills, experience and interests.
- a law student or professional who can offer expertise in the day-to-day running of the site; or
- a legal firm or chambers who could offer legal advice on an ad hoc, pro bono basis
Volunteers with legal backgrounds We take our legal and moral responsibilities in running WhatDoTheyKnow very seriously and we always welcome volunteers with experience of legal matters. Some of the legal aspects of running the site are handled routinely on a day to day basis by the admin team.
They may, for example, remove correspondence which could give rise to claims of defamation, or where personal data is disclosed by an authority mistakenly and they consider continued publication to be unwarranted.
The legal challenges thrown up by operating our service are varied and interesting. Joining us could be an opportunity for someone to get some hands on experience of modern media law, or for a more experienced individual, to provide some occasional advice and guidance on more challenging matters.
We often find ourselves balancing claims that material published on our site could aid criminals or terrorists, or could cause harm in other ways, and we do our best to weigh, and balance, such claims against the public interest in making the material available.
As material published on our website may have been used to support news articles, academic research, questions from elected representatives, and actions by campaign groups or individuals it’s important we don’t remove correspondence lightly and that we’re in a position to stand up, where necessary, to powerful people and institutions.
Legal firms that can offer advice As from time to time there are cases which are more complicated, we would like to build a relationship with a legal firm or chambers that can advise us on an ad hoc basis on defamation, privacy (misuse of private information) and data protection.
The ability to advise on copyright law and harassment law would also be an advantage. And we also on very rare occasions may need help as to how to respond to the threat of litigation.
Could you offer help in this area? Please do get in touch to discuss getting involved.
- a committed, organised, empathetic person who could volunteer a few hours (working from home) a week
In our previous post we mentioned that we’d ideally secure funding for an administrator who could handle our user support mail and deal with routine but potentially complex and time-sensitive tasks such as GDPR-based requests.
While we seek funding for this role, would you be willing to fill it on a voluntary basis? Please get in touch.
Lots to help with
So in summary, what we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running is money, volunteer help, and legal support. If you can help with any of these, or have some ideas of leads we might be able to follow, please do get in touch. It also helps to share this post with your networks!
Your donations keep our sites running.Donate now
Image: CC0 Public Domain
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.
About six million people a year visit mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com; there are well over 100,000 registered users, and over 385,000 requests have been made via the service.
Of course, it’s fantastic that WhatDoTheyKnow is so well used, but the growth and popularity of the site brings its own challenges, not least the day-to-day admin that keeps the site running.
Many aspects of the site’s operation are run by volunteers, supported by mySociety’s staff and trustees — and due to the site’s success we’re looking to expand the volunteer team.
What does volunteering involve?
The work is pretty varied, but there are some frequent and recurring tasks:
Dealing appropriately with requests to remove material from the website
This is one interesting challenge which arises fairly often. Sometimes these requests are from public bodies who’ve released information they didn’t mean to; and they can also come from individuals and companies who are named in correspondence on the site.
These decisions are not always as black and white as you might expect. Some recent examples where we had to carefully consider the balance on both sides were:
- Material which Transport for London were concerned could be used to steal a tube train. We considered: was this a genuine risk? Was our publication really increasing the risk? Was the information already available elsewhere? What was the potential value of publishing the information to tube staff and their representatives, travellers and the wider public?
- Sainsbury’s were concerned that published material didn’t reflect their corporate policy on “workfare”. That may have been the case, but we asked ourselves whether that made it inappropriate to continue to publish the information that had been released. Additionally, where did the public interest lie? What legal risks were there arising from continued publication?
Responding promptly and accordingly to accidental releases
Thankfully, the frequency with which public bodies accidentally release personal information in bulk via Freedom of Information responses is decreasing, but the WhatDoTheyKnow team still have to act promptly when this does occur.
We often help users on both sides of the FOI process. For requesters, we can answer questions about FOI and how to use it, and we also work with the staff of public bodies who are at the receiving end of requests.
And all the rest
There’s always more that can be done to promote the service, draw attention to interesting correspondence on the site, and lobby for improvements to our access to information laws.
The wider team at mySociety help people around the world to establish and run their own online Freedom of Information services; and new features are being added to the UK site to make it more attractive to professional users such as journalists and campaign groups. Volunteers have the opportunity to get involved in these activities, helping steer the direction of new projects, based on their frontline experience of being a site administrator.
Keeping the database of thousands of public bodies up to date is another challenge, especially given the frequency of reorganisations in the UK’s public sector.
We work primarily by email, with regular video conferencing meetings, and occasionally meet up in person.
As a volunteer, you can decide how much time you put in, and what aspects of running the service you decide to take part in — but ideally we’re looking for people who can spare at least an hour or two, a couple of days a week.
We understand that people’s external commitments vary over time, and of course, there’s a flexible approach if a team member needs to step away for a stretch now and then.
What makes a good WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer?
There’s one characteristic that all the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have in common: a belief in the value of Freedom of Information, or, more widely, the expectation of transparency and accountability from the bodies which citizens fund.
As for practical skills: perhaps you’ve been involved in moderating discussions on the web, or have experience with access to information, defamation, or data protection law. Or perhaps you have, or would like to gain, experience dealing with “customers” by email.
Primarily we’re looking for people capable of making good judgements, and who can communicate clearly online.
Before joining the team, new volunteers will have to agree to follow our policies covering subjects such as security and data protection. That said, part of the role may be, if desired, taking a part in developing and refining these, and other, policies as the service grows and changes.
How to apply
If helping us run WhatDoTheyKnow sounds like the kind of thing you’d be interested in doing, then please do apply to join us.
We only have the capacity to bring on and train a few volunteers at a time, and it is important that those chosen to help administer the service are trustworthy and committed to its policies, direction and non-partisan stance. For these reasons, we are recruiting volunteers via a formal application process.
To apply please write to us before the 20th of March 2017, introducing yourself, and letting us know about any relevant interests or experience you have.
What do we offer in return?
As a volunteer, the main reward comes from the satisfaction of assisting users, making good decisions, and helping run what is fast becoming a key part of the country’s journalistic and democratic infrastructure.
Volunteers may be invited to mySociety events and meet-ups, providing a chance to take part in discussions about the future direction of the service and the organisation’s activities more generally. There have been a number of conferences held, where those running Freedom of Information sites around the world have got together to share experiences: one or more volunteers may be invited to join in, with travel expenses paid.
Other ways to help out
If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps there’s something on mySociety’s Get Involved page that is — or you could:
Image: MarkBuckawicki [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
We were shocked and saddened to learn that Peter Williams, one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers passed away earlier this week.
Peter only joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a volunteer in March of this year, however in that short time he had become a valued member of the team.
No stranger to Freedom of Information, he had been using the rights provided for in the FOI Act since shortly after it came into force here in the UK, and had been a user of WhatDoTheyKnow since 2012.
Education and senior executive pay and benefits were some of his particular areas of interest, and Peter was researching the reasons why some public bodies sometimes fail to respond to requests.
As a consequence, Peter had helpfully been collecting information on specialist colleges and schools, and proposing additions and edits to the site. Following the same route that has led to several of our keenest users becoming volunteer administrators, he was invited to join the team so that he could make the changes he was proposing himself.
By all accounts he made a strong impression during his short time on the team, both with his fellow volunteers and across the mySociety team.
“Many aspects of the site’s operation, including dealing with correspondence from users, considering requests to remove material from the site, and discussing our policies and the future development of the service, benefited from Peter’s input”, says one.
Others say: “He was a valued volunteer and a great person”; and “he was a funny, thoughtful and committed guy”.
We were saddened to learn of death of someone who shared our beliefs in the value of making information held by public bodies accessible, and who shared our passion for activism.
All are feeling the loss of a colleague who approached his role with such enthusiasm and diligence, and our team will be the poorer for his absence. On behalf of mySociety, our Trustees and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers our thoughts are with Peter’s family and friends.
As players were quick to notice, decisions made on our politician-sorting game Gender Balance were final. Thanks to volunteer coder Andy Lulham, that’s now been rectified with an ‘undo’ button.
Gender Balance is our answer to the fact that there’s no one source of gender information across the world’s legislatures—read more about its launch here. It serves up a series of politicians’ names and images, and asks you to identify the gender for each. Your responses, along with those of other players, helps compile a set of open data that will be available to all.
Many early players told us, however, that it’s all too easy to accidentally click the wrong button. (The reasons for this may be various, but we can’t help thinking that it’s often because there are so many males in a row that the next female comes as a bit of a surprise…)
In fact, this shouldn’t matter too much, because every legislature is served up to multiple players, and over time any anomalies will be ironed out of the data. That doesn’t stop the fact that it’s an upset to the user, though, and in the site’s first month of existence, an undo button has been the most-requested feature.
Thanks to the wonders of open source, anyone can take the code and make modifications or improvements, and that’s just what Andy did in this case. He submitted this pull request (if you look at that, you can see the discussion that followed with our own developers and our designer Zarino). We’ve merged his contribution back into the main code so all players will now have the luxury of being able to reverse a hasty decision. Thanks, Andy!