Demo Alaveteli blog and tweets
Posted on by Myfanwy
We’ve recently made a small change to WhatDoTheyKnow. Now, if your request has resulted in a news story, you can add the link as a ‘citation’.
If you’re a journalist or a campaigner, we hope this is a useful way to give your stories some more readership (not to mention a nice inbound link from a high-ranked site for your search engine ratings).
And if you’re simply a citizen whose request was picked up by the press, there’s now a way to share how the information you’ve obtained fits into the news agenda.
There’s a benefit for the wider transparency community, too. We think that, in aggregate, these links will serve to show others just what a simple FOI request can do.
Requests often start off as nothing more than an inkling or a nagging question, but there’s always the chance that one of them will reveal important or interesting information, hitting the news, reaching a wider readership and — who knows? — maybe even changing hearts and minds. For big stories, it will be good to be able to create a permanent record of where it all began.
More broadly, when you use this feature you’ll be helping us to understand what sort of impact the site is having, too. We’re always keen to spot news stories based on WhatDoTheyKnow requests, but papers don’t always cite a source or link back to the site, meaning that our monitoring is often dependent on a manual search where stories look like they might have originated with one of our users.
How to add a citation
You’ll find the feature in the right hand column of your request page. Just click on ‘Let us know’:
…and paste the URL in:
If there’s more than one story, you can click ‘New Citation’ to add another one.
The way we’ve set this feature up, WhatDoTheyKnow users can add a citation to any of their own requests — but if you spot a news story that’s linked to a request that isn’t yours, please do contact the WhatDotheyKnow team.
They’ll assess it and input it if they find it to be valid. Our aim here is, of course, to prevent spammers from adding irrelevant links to the site.
Users of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, on the other hand, have the ability to add citations to any request.
This work is one of the ongoing improvements that we’re working on thanks to a grant from Adessium.
Image: Kaboom Pics
Posted on by Myfanwy
A lie, as the saying goes, can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.
That’s all the more so in the age of social media. Whether it starts as a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, before you know it an untruth can be swept up to make a political point, used in arguments and believed by many — and never mind that there’s no factual basis to it.
In 2016, we pointed out a meme spreading false allegations about immigrants, and that the response to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow was providing a way for people to challenge the post with facts.
Back then, the false rumour being spread was that immigrants were entitled to benefits payments far in excess of the reality. It came to our attention when we realised that the FOI request proving it wrong had become one of the most-visited pages on WhatDoTheyKnow that month.
And now, almost exactly the same thing has happened again.
One of the pages with the highest number of visitors in November was this request asking if people (specifically muslims) using their homes as places of worship are exempt from paying council tax.
The FOI response says “Such an exemption does not exist”.
A quick search reveals that this isn’t the first FOI request on this subject made on WhatDoTheyKnow. In fact, there are several, dating back to 2009, made by different users to a range of different councils.
In 2010 Leeds City Council responded to a request that said, “I heard an alarming rumour that newly built houses in Dewsbury in the million pound price bracket were claiming a large reduction in their council tax because one room was deemed a place of worship”.
The council said: “There is no provision within council tax legislation for discounts or exemptions from Council Tax for residential properties which have a place of worship”.
And in 2009, Cornwall Council responded to a similar request, “There is not an exemption from Council Tax for houses classed as a place of worship”.
We don’t know whether the people making these FOI requests were doing so as a way to challenge the meme’s false claims, or because they saw it and sensibly decided to reserve judgement until they knew the facts. Either way, it’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and these responses will stand as a permanent reference point for anyone who wants to check the facts around this matter in the future.
UPDATE: After tweeting this story, we had a response from Andrew White who gave some further background from his experience on the Parliament petitions service:
We picked this up on the Petitions website as a Google Search alert – updated both this petition https://t.co/1Itmm0s8R2 and https://t.co/aPqIWYzX06 with a link to the Full Fact article. The recent spike had its origin in a Facebook video: https://t.co/bAzc4N1fBc
— Andrew White (@pixeltrix) December 19, 2019
In a terrifying example of how misinformation can be spread in the most unexpected of ways, as you can see in the Facebook video linked to in the tweet, a petition that led with the words Muslims who use their living area’s within their homes as a place of Worship, are exempt from paying Council Tax [sic] was identified by the Amazon virtual assistant Alexa as the most suitable information source for the question “Do Muslims have to pay council tax if they pray in their own homes?”.
Presumably the fact that the petition was located on an official government website gave it, in Alexa’s view, the credibility needed to cite it as a source.
Image: Climate Reality
Posted on by Alex Parsons
We’ve previously written about how best to proceed when an FOI request has been refused, but when there isn’t a response at all that’s a slightly different problem. However, up until now, we’ve treated both in the same way. We’ve now made some changes to reflect the difference.
If you do receive a response, but feel it’s inadequate or that your request has been wrongly refused, there are two ways of contesting the outcome. The first is to ask for an internal review, where the request is reassessed inside the same authority (by a different team or person). The second is to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
To reflect this, our approach when providing prompts to WhatDoTheyKnow users has been an escalation ladder — suggesting people request an internal review, and then appeal to the ICO if still dissatisfied. However, as we learned when talking to the ICO earlier in the year, that this isn’t always the fastest route to getting a response.
An internal review is useful when disagreeing with a decision, but when the issue is that the statutory deadline for a response has passed, and follow-up messages haven’t been answered — a situation our colleagues at Access Info aptly refer to as ‘administrative silence’ — it can be better to complain directly to the ICO.
According to the statutory code of practice, a public body may take up to 20 working days to undertake a review, and so this route is likely to result in further delay, whereas an intervention by the ICO may have a faster result.
So when a request is overdue, our email prompt will no longer suggest that users might want to seek an internal review, but instead we suggest sending a follow-up message to the authority and note that they can appeal directly to the ICO.
However, if you have an issue with the actual decision of a request (for instance, disputing an exemption applied), internal review is the correct first port of call — and in a surprising amount of cases can be very successful. While we don’t have figures covering all kinds of authorities, for requests made to central government, 22% of internal reviews resulted in some change to the original decision (and 9% were completely overturned) and for local government this figure is between 36-49%.
Both internal reviews and appeals to the ICO can be effective methods at redressing disputes around Freedom of Information requests, but it is important to consider which is the right tool for the situation.
Image: Ümit Bulut
Posted on by Myfanwy
We’ve just come back from a heady couple of days in Oslo, where our AlaveteliCon event brought together those with a shared interest in the technology around Freedom of Information — in all, around 50 journalists, researchers, technologists and activists from 18 different countries.
As our Head of Development Louise announced in her opening words, AlaveteliCon has always been a slight misnomer, given that we’re keen to share knowledge not just with those who use Alaveteli, but with all the FOI platforms in our small but growing community — including MuckRock in the US and Frag Den Staat in Germany, both of whom were in attendance.
It was a timely event for us, as we embark on work to introduce our Alaveteli Pro functionality to newsrooms, researchers and campaigners across Europe, with an emphasis on encouraging cross-border collaboration in campaigns, research and journalistic investigations.
As well as picking up practical tips, we heard a variety of inspiring and instructive stories from FOI practitioners around the world; brainstormed ways forward in increasingly difficult political times; and shared knowledge on funding, publicity, site maintenance, and how to keep good relations with FOI officers.
Some of the most inspiring sessions came when delegates shared how they had used FOI in campaigns and investigations, from Vouliwatch’s Stefanos Loukopoulos explaining how they had taken their own government to court, to Beryl Lipton of MuckRock explaining why the government use of algorithms can have effects that are unforeseen, and indeed petrifying.
There was an affecting story from freelance journalist Mago Torres, who told us about a long campaign to map clandestine graves of those caught up in the war against drugs in Mexico; and from Camilla Graham Wood of Privacy International, on that organisation’s work to uncover some of the rather sinister but not widely known technologies being put into use by police services in the UK.
So much knowledge came out of these two days. We don’t want to lose it, so we’ll be making sure to update the conference page with photos, videos and the speakers’ slides as soon as they’re available. Meanwhile, you can follow the links from the agenda on that page to find the collaborative documents where we took notes for each session.
Posted on by Myfanwy
At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?
Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.
But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.
Brexit and the border
As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.
He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.
Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.
A hard-won result
Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.
FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.
Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.
Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.
What was revealed
What did it tell us?
“It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.
“The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.
“Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).
“This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.
A lack of transparency
The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.
“To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.
“Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.
“In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.
“I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them — and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.
This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.
“I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.
WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.
“By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.
“Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.
“Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.
“DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.
Pursuing a refused response
But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:
“The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.
To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.
“It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.
“The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.
“When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.
And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.
But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.
While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?
I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.
“I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.
“Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.
“Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.
“I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.
“FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”
Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:
“Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”
He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!
Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.
Posted on by Myfanwy
In 2016, Theresa May described modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time”. “These crimes must be stopped,” she said, “and the victims of modern slavery must go free”.
But words alone do not ensure results, it seems. The data mapping project After Exploitation has discovered that a sizable number of vulnerable victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are — far from ‘going free’ — actually being held in UK detention centres with a view to deportation.
Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow played a vital part in the project’s research, both in helping identify what data was available, and in bringing about its release.
One result of his many recommendations was the employment of ‘Detention Gatekeepers’ — independent overseers who check the status of detainees, and that they are legitimately held. If they are found to be in this country as a result of human trafficking or modern slavery, they should be offered help via the National Referral Mechanism.
We spoke to Maya Esslemont, founder of After Exploitation, to learn how the use of WhatDoTheyKnow has helped uncover the true numbers of those who have been let down by this system, information which the government had previously denied that they held.
She told us:
“Through FOI requests, we uncovered the number of potential and recognised victims of human trafficking who have been deported since 2016 or detained in 2018.
“This completely needless and unjustifiable use of detention on vulnerable people, for whom there was never any realistic chance of removal, demonstrated huge failures in Detention Gatekeeping, the process meant to prevent vulnerable people from being detained.”
Maya explained that, prior to these findings, a gap in the publicly-available data impeded any understanding of the number of vulnerable detainees:
“Although the Government releases quarterly statistics outlining the number of ‘potential’ victims of trafficking, very little is known about the number of recognised victims who are later deported, detained, or left at risk of re-trafficking due to a lack of safehousing. Our project hoped to demonstrate the scale of these issues”.
FOI seemed like the obvious route to uncovering these figures, says Maya, in part because it was clear where the information must be held, if it existed:
“The Home Office oversees both immigration enforcement and victim support and recognition. This is a clear conflict of interest, but it did mean that we knew all the outcome information must be held in the same place.”
The group found that by checking the archive of previous FOI requests published on WhatDoTheyKnow, they could discern exactly what data existed, and more importantly, could cite prior responses as proof of its existence.
“As suspected, but denied until now, the Home Office holds highly specific, readily available information on immigration, detention and deportation outcomes of trafficking victims.
“We knew from Parliamentary correspondence that some trafficking victims’ asylum outcome data was held as far back as 2015, but nobody had any idea that such readily available data on the actual detention existed.
“When we trawled through Home Office FOI requests submitted by others on WhatDoTheyKnow, it was clear that information on detainees’ vulnerability was held — and it was after we referenced these previous request outcomes, dated since 2016, that the Home Office started providing data on trafficking specifically.”
We were most interested to hear this, as it further justifies one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s key features – that all requests and responses are published online. We talk a lot about how this can make the information accessible to wider numbers of people, but here is an example of that archive going on to inform a further set of requests, bringing about important results.
And visibility wasn’t just useful in helping the campaign discover the existence of the vital data, but also, Maya believes, provided an extra incentive for the Home Office to release the information in accordance with the FOI Act:
“I submitted a fair few FOI requests privately, but most received a rejection. However, since moving the same requests to a public platform, we’ve found that a majority have been fulfilled.
“Many charities and journalists may be tempted to submit FOI requests privately so that the responses can be ‘saved’ for exclusive research or stories, but this exercise seemed to prove that it can be more effective to ask for information as publicly as possible.”
(We should mention that our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service does allow for the private submission of requests which are then published at a later date — although there’s no requirement to submit privately. Pro users can enjoy the best of both worlds, using the organisational features and the batch request functionality, and making requests in private or in public according to which strategy they find most effective.)
Having uncovered this crucial data, After Exploitation has worked with other organisations to get their findings more widely known:
“The charity Women for Refugee Women managed to secure a debate in Westminster Hall on the detention of trafficking victims. As part of this debate, MPs discussed research by their organisation and by After Exploitation.
“Political interest in this issue should be commended, but the Immigration Ministers’ response was very concerning. Caroline Nokes MP claimed that the use of detention on 507 potential trafficking victims was justified, as many were recognised during the time they were in detention.
“However, we believe the fact that hundreds of vulnerable people were deemed suitable for detention in the first place is deeply worrying.”
The research gained wider attention, too:
“MPs and journalists at the Guardian, Sky News, Independent Online and Thompson Reuters picked up our research paper Supported or Deported?.
“In response to the findings, 23 NGOs signed our open letter asking for greater data transparency on human trafficking support outcomes, and for an end to Home Office involvement in vulnerability screening and trafficking decision-making. A week later, Diane Abbott MP tabled an urgent question in Parliament asking the government about the detention of exploited people.
“However, the Government response showed how much work is left to do. The Immigration Minister dismissed the Government’s own data as not robust enough to provoke change, whilst also using this same data to clear its reputation on the length of detention.
“This response shows how much harder we have to work before the Government will commit to data transparency, and the way victims are treated.”
We asked Maya what she hoped others would take from the experience of After Exploitation.
“I hope journalists, activists and academics will submit their own FOI requests to contribute to public understanding of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other forms of exploitation such as forced marriage.
“When it comes to human trafficking victim support, there are still so many gaps in our understanding — such as health, wellbeing and legal outcomes. We’re already taking another request to the Information Commissioner’s Office after a rejection on cost grounds, but we hope the ongoing struggle to secure information on trafficking will encourage others to do the same.”
We congratulate the project on what they’ve achieved to date and hope it will act as inspiration to others who seek to uncover injustice or malpractice within our systems.
Posted on by Alex Parsons
Every quarter the Cabinet Office releases Freedom of Information statistics for a collection of central government ministries, departments and agencies. This provides a benchmark for understanding how requests made from WhatDoTheyKnow relate to FOI requests made through other methods. From 2017, mySociety started retrospectively tracking the proportion of FOI requests sent via WhatDoTheyKnow to central government using a minisite — https://research.mysociety.org/sites/foi/ — that explores the data.
This report explores what had and hadn’t changed in the last few years, as well as the number of requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — a new service being piloted that allows embargos of the results of FOI requests for a period — with the goal of bringing more people making FOI requests professionally (such as journalists) into the system and leading to more raw results being made available after the conclusion of a project.
We found that:
- WhatDoTheyKnow accounted for between 15-17% of audited bodies and between 18-21% of ministerial departament FOI requests.
- While the proportion of requests have grown most years since 2010, there was no real change from 2017 to 2018.
- Requests made to central government via WhatDoTheyKnow only make-up around 9-10% of all requests sent via WhatDoTheyKnow in 2018.
- WhatDoTheyKnow Pro requests made up 1% of FOI requests to central government — but most requests using this service went to other areas of the public sector.
Posted on by Myfanwy
In a strike for transparency, journalist Jenna Corderoy has secured the release of documents from the European Research Group (ERG), the pro Brexit lobby of which Jacob Rees-Mogg is a prominent member.
For more than a year, Jenna has been striving to ensure that the facts around Brexit — and the funding that drives it — reach the public domain: she also broke the now-infamous revelations about Vote Leave’s campaign overspending.
The release of material such as this into the public domain is beneficial to all, as it means that public debate is based on facts rather than conjecture. FOI can be a vital tool in ensuring that the documents shaping our society’s future direction are available for scrutiny.
On this latest release, a piece by Jenna and Peter Geoghegan reports:
“The ERG is part-funded by subscriptions paid out of MPs’ parliamentary expenses. As a consequence the group has to supply samples of its research for scrutiny to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority [IPSA] to ensure public money is being properly spent and not used for party political campaigning.”
Using WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — our service for professional users of FOI, which among other features, allows users to hold off from putting request correspondence in public until a story has been published — in January 2018 a request was made to IPSA to see these materials.
The request’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is now public. IPSA initially argued that the release of these materials was exempted under section 43 of the FOI Act as it would prejudice the commercial interests of the ERG, whose research is ordinarily available only to those paying a £2,000 annual subscription.
Subsequently Jenna referred this refusal to the Information Commissioner, who upheld the decision. Determined that the public has the right to see the research, Jenna and Peter did not leave the matter there, taking it to an information tribunal.
The tribunal made the final decision that the material must indeed be released, vindicating the effort and determination Jenna put into pursuing this request and stating that to make the documents available would:
“further transparency, accountability and public trust with respect to the working of Parliament”.
As a result, the documents will be made available on 11 July — keep an eye on OpenDemocracy for news of their release — and we’ll make sure we update the annotations on the original request as further details unfold. Meanwhile, you can see the full tribunal decision here.
Image: Udur Akdemir
Posted on by Myfanwy
Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
Posted on by Myfanwy
‘Sold From Under You’ project used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
Not long ago, we let you know about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s project to map and quantify the scale of properties being sold by councils up and down the country as they try to manage with reduced budgets under austerity.
The investigation, which made use of our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service to send and manage hundreds of Freedom of Information requests, has now been shortlisted for a Data Journalism Award in the Open Data category.
We’re delighted that our platform for professional users of FOI could be of help; this is just the sort of broad data-driven investigation, requiring FOI requests to multiple authorities, that it was conceived for.
You can read BIJ’s interesting account of their methodology and the impact that the project has had here. We wish them the very best of luck for the award finals next month.