Demo Alaveteli blog and tweets

WhatDoTheyKnow and the Wikipedia citation

Posted on by Myfanwy

Wikipedia is ‘the world’s largest and most-read reference work in history’.

Fundamental to keeping its articles accurate and trustworthy is its policy that all information must be supported by citations — links to independent, third party sources to verify that statements are factual.

Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, as an archive for information released by authorities, has been cited in countless Wikipedia articles, playing a part in combatting misinformation and allowing interested readers to discover more about the topic they’re perusing.

And unlike certain publications (including some UK national newspapers), it’s happily accepted as a reliable source (rightly so when you think about it, of course — all the information we publish is coming straight from the horse’s, or rather the authority’s, mouth, with no journalistic spin).

All that being so, we were curious to see what sort of responses were linked to, and why. Having spent some time clicking through some of those tiny footnotes, we’re pleased to present a selection of the more interesting Wikipedia articles that link to WhatDoTheyKnow as a citation.

What’s the going rate for this unique job?

The College of Arms is allied to the Royal Household; it’s an ancient institution that deals with the granting of new coats of arms, the official register of peers, the flying of flags and other such matters of pomp, circumstance and heraldry.

Coat of ArmsTry explaining to its founders, back in the 1480s, that they would one day be documented on Wikipedia — and that sums paid by HM Treasury to the current Garter King of Arms, Thomas Woodcock, would be available to everyone publicly, thanks to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow.

The Treasury provides a useful note: “It might be helpful if we explain that the Garter King provides a variety of work for the Government including, but not confined to, providing advice  on  the use/misuse and the protection of Royal Arms, reviewing evidence for Peerage claims, and designing new coats of arms. In addition, he has a key role at many ceremonial occasions including the State Opening of Parliament.”

We always applaud an authority going out of their way to give context to a response.

Are they watching us watching them?

TV licensing is a topic that brings a lot of visitors to browse responses on WhatDoTheyKnow, probably because it’s an area that by its very nature is shrouded in uncertainty.

Photo of a TV detector van by EagleashCan detector vans really tell if you are watching television without a licence — and if so, how? How many prosecutions have there been for non-payment? Does the BBC monitor anti-licence campaigns?

Much of our understanding about the workings of the licensing system have come from, or been verified by, FOI responses.

The Wikipedia entry on TV licensing in the UK links to WhatDoTheyKnow in no fewer than 36 of its 232 citations. These include the following nuggets:

…and many more.

Bordering on classified information

Border Five is an informal forum on customs and border management policy issues, made up of the Department of Home Affairs (Australia); the Canada Border Services Agency; The New Zealand Customs Service; The United Kingdom UK Border Force; and the US Department of Homeland Security.

Southern edge (customs border) of Captain Cook wharf, Ports of Auckland, New Zealand. An electric fence is faintly visible behind the historical fence - image by IngolfsonHow to verify that these are indeed the member bodies? With this FOI response from the Home Office.

Clearly, border security is a sensitive issue, and much of the other information requested here — such as the topics discussed and people present at meetings — was refused with a response that they could ‘neither confirm nor deny’ whether the information is held.

On the rails

Image by Andy Brass. The Victoria Viaduct, part of the Leamside Line discontinued railwayDisused railway track the Leamside Line is safeguarded from future building developments, Network Rail confirmed.

Here is an example of an authority complying with the FOI Act despite the fact that at the time of the request they were not subject to it: as they state at the beginning of their response “Although we are not covered by the Freedom of Information Act, we work to disclose information as if we were”.

Subsequently Network Rail was, in fact, deemed to be subject to FOI, as explored by our researcher Alex in this post.

Something special

Special Constable insignia - chart from the Wikipedia pageSpecial constables are unpaid, volunteer members of the police force, and they have their own insignia, which vary from place to place.

Ranks are marked via the designs on their epaulettes, as depicted in this table which cites many FOI requests to the various forces — it’s possible that a contributor to this Wikipedia page submitted a series of requests specifically for the purpose of helping compile the collection.  Here’s an example request, with a photograph of the insignia they provided viewable here.

Banner image: Futureatlas (CC- by/2.0). Coat of Arms: Sodacan (CC by-sa/3.0); Detector van: Eagleash (CC by-sa/4.0); Border fence Ingolfson; Leamside Line: Andy Brass (CC by-sa.2.0); Special Constable insignia chart taken from the Wikipedia page

What they don’t know: “information not held” responses

Posted on by Myfanwy

Under the Freedom of Information Act, you have the right to ask public authorities for information. If they hold the information you’ve requested, in most cases they must release it.

‘If they hold it’ is a key point: of course, if the body doesn’t have the data you’re asking for, they can’t provide it, and accordingly, as permitted by Section 1(1) of the Act, they may issue an ‘Information not held’ response.

For the person requesting the information, this can feel like a blow, but we suggest stopping and thinking… is it surprising, newsworthy even, that the public body didn’t hold the information expected?  Sometimes, it’s as interesting to know that an authority doesn’t collect or store a certain category of information as it would be to obtain it.

Often, though, an ‘information not held’ response may simply be a sign that you should re-request the information from a different body. Given the complexity of government it’s not surprising requests are sometimes misdirected to bodies that don’t actually hold the information requested. Fortunately for request-makers, in such cases Section 16 of the Act requires public bodies to provide advice and assistance and point requesters in the right direction.

Let’s take a look at a few recent examples where the fact that information isn’t held is at best surprising and at worst a matter of potential concern.

An NHS Trust doesn’t have data on hospital ward deep cleans

This request to Wirral University Teaching Hospital asked how many times the wards in Arrowe Park Hospital (one of this NHS Trust’s locations) had been deep cleaned in the months March to May 2020.

The response states that the Trust does not hold this information:

“Wirral University Teaching Hospital (WUTH) does not electronically collate this data, ward cleanliness activity is not measured or audited in this specific manor [sic].”

We think this is interesting information in itself, but the Trust could also have gone into more detail about why such data isn’t collected: is it that deep cleaning doesn’t happen, or is it just not noted? Looking more closely at the wording of the response, perhaps it is recorded, but on paper rather than digitally.

The request-maker didn’t actually specify that they wanted electronic data, so it is a little surprising that this has been assumed.

A curious citizen could issue a follow-up request to find out more, or to ask for copies of paper records if they do exist. Equally, if they felt it worth further probing, they might draw this response to the attention to the local Healthwatch, or their local councillors who could look more deeply into the matter.

DEFRA doesn’t have data on badger cull zone boundaries

A citizen requested maps from DEFRA to show the boundaries of ‘badger cull zones’ from last year and the proposed ones for 2021. As this was a request for environmental information, it was handled under the EIR.

DEFRA’s response quotes the exception at regulation 12(4)(a) of the EIR “which relates to information which is not held at the time when an applicant’s request is received”.

As required by both the FOI and EIR Acts, DEFRA points the user toward the body that it believes will have such information, Natural England, giving them a good idea of what to do next in their pursuit of this data.

In cases like these, where a request is repeated to another authority, we recommend the addition of annotations, linking each WhatDoTheyKnow request page to the other. Anyone can add an annotation, and it helps people discovering the information through, say, a search engine, to follow the request.

The DWP doesn’t have data on frozen pensions

This request seeks information from the Department of Work and Pensions about frozen state pensions, the UK practice of not uprating pensions according to the ‘triple lock’ system if the recipient lives in certain countries abroad.

It would appear that the request-maker is wondering whether it would actually cost the authority less not to administer such freezes.

The DWP state that they don’t hold information on the number of staff working specifically in this area:

“As of March 2021, the DWP has over 90,000 employees spread across different professions (e.g. policy, legal, finance, and operational delivery).

Many employees deal with a range of issues and do not exclusively focus on one aspect of the DWP’s work. Accordingly, we have no recorded information on how many employees are ‘required to deal with Frozen British Pensions’.”

They did not provide similar detail on the other questions posed by the request-maker, who has now requested an internal review, a recourse when you believe your request has been handled wrongly.

“I cannot believe that the DWP does not know the answers to my questions”, says the user in this request for a review. They might have been more precise about where the response has fallen short, but we’ll see whether this avenue is successful, presumably within the 20 working day limit advised by the ICO for internal reviews.

DCMS doesn’t have data on differing COVID rules for football spectators

A request-maker wonders why the rules around watching football differed depending on where the match is taking place — apparently grassroots football matches were being denied spectators because they were held on private grounds, while matches on public grounds could welcome a crowd:

“Please provide evidence / reasoning on what the difference to the threat of Covid there is between private and public football pitches.”

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport responds that it:

“does not have information within scope of your request. This is because DCMS did not make the decisions on whether spectators may attend sporting events, but followed advice given by the Cabinet Office. This would have been a Cabinet Office decision based on evidence that they were privy to.”

The response then provides an email address for that authority — though we are surprised that the Cabinet Office would not have consulted DCMS or at least provided them with their rationale for this policy.

Have you had a notable ‘information not held’ refusal, or can you spot one in responses recently classified “not held” on WhatDoTheyKnow? If so, let us know, and we might cover it in a future post.

 

Image: Nicholas Bartos

Complaints about FOI requests on public bodies’ relationships with Stonewall

Posted on by Mark Cridge

We’re aware that our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, has recently been used by a number of people as part of a campaign initiated on the Legal Feminist website, encouraging people to submit FOI requests to authorities who have undertaken the Stonewall Diversity Champions process. This usage has provoked some commentary online, and complaints to our support team.

Straight off, we should state that mySociety positively and passionately supports the rights to equality and freedom from harassment for Trans people and their allies.

WhatDoTheyKnow’s site policies prohibit posting information that is unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, discriminatory or profane.

But the issues that this use of our service has raised about what should and should not remain on the site are not straightforward. They present a challenge to our moderation policies, as we’ll explain in more detail.

Background detail

First, here are the facts.

The post linked to above encourages people to request information from authorities who are Stonewall Diversity Champions.

Stonewall, for those who don’t know, grew out of the campaign against Section 28 in the 80s, and now describes one of its missions as to ‘work with institutions to create inclusive and accepting cultures, to ensure institutions understand and value the huge benefits brought to them by LGBT people, and to empower institutions as advocates and agents of positive change’.

This Legal Feminist campaign claims that forcing public bodies “to reveal the detail of their dealings with Stonewall” will have the effect of “putting some pressure on public bodies to withdraw from these schemes”.

As a result, several hundred FOI requests have been submitted to a large range of authorities through WhatDoTheyKnow.

How we moderate

We operate a reactive moderation policy on WhatDoTheyKnow and only respond to issues when they are brought to our attention, or we discover them ourselves through the operation of the service.

It’s unusual for us to know the motivation of people who use WhatDoTheyKnow to submit FOI requests. The site is, like the FOI Act, open to everyone (so long as they abide by our house rules).

One of the core principles of the FOI Act is “Applicant Blindness”. The ICO’s guidance states:

In most cases, authorities should consider FOI and EIR requests without reference to the identity or motives of the requester. Their focus should be on whether the information is suitable for disclosure into the public domain, rather than the effects of providing the information to the individual requester.

We often see requests being made on our service which appear to be pursuing aims that we may agree or disagree with as an organisation, or as individuals; however, we want our service to be open to, and used by, as broad a range of people as possible. We don’t want to just provide a service to those who share our view of the world.

Should these requests be removed?

Our volunteer user support team has been asked to respond to complaints that the FOI requests made as part of Legal Feminist’s campaign are vexatious, hateful and should be removed — and our support team has been striving to approach these complaints in the same way that they approach other complaints about the usage of our service.

As a charity, one of our objectives is to help citizens find out the information that they are entitled to have under the law.

As per our house rules, where requests that are unlawful, harassing, defamatory, abusive, threatening, harmful, obscene, discriminatory or profane are drawn to our attention, we will take action. We will also often remove or redact material that is extraneous to the FOI request itself, if it is vexatious or falls foul of our house rules.

In this case we reviewed two aspects of these requests to determine whether they contravened our house rules or contained vexatious or extraneous material – the body of the requests themselves and also the request titles, which each include a campaign hashtag.

On careful consideration, we determined that the requests themselves do not fall into any of those categories, being requests for information, sent to a number of relevant authorities.

We are satisfied that they are sufficiently focused as FOI requests, and appear to have a serious purpose, in that they have the aim of obtaining information from public bodies.

Once the requests had been made, the authorities began to respond and to release the information sought, if they hold it, as they are (broadly) required to do by law within 20 working days. As per WhatDoTheyKnow’s functions, these responses are also published on the site for all to access.

The requests have resulted in large amounts of information about how Stonewall works with public bodies being made easily available online. We believe that our site has a role to play in making that information available to everyone, enabling informed debate.

Considering the request titles, we determined that the inclusion of a campaign hashtag in the title is extraneous to the purpose of requesting information from public bodies and at odds with the sufficiently focused nature of the requests – seeking to bring pressure on public authorities rather than simply focusing on the requirements of a clear request for information.

For the reasons listed above, we have determined that these requests can remain on the site; however, we have removed the extraneous campaign hashtag from the title of each request.

Campaigning activity on our site

Whilst we very much support campaigners making use of their rights under FOI through our service, as per our current policies, WhatDoTheyKnow is not a platform for promoting those campaigns or a particular point of view. In other instances where our attention is drawn to extraneous material in correspondence we remove it, and we have taken the same approach here.

Image: Ricardo Gomez Angel

Don’t let the auto-responses worry you

Posted on by Myfanwy

We’re seeing increasing instances of misleading information in authorities’ auto-responses, or standardised replies, to Freedom of Information requests.

Automated responses can be useful: they are an additional assurance, on top of our green tick, that your request has been received by the authority. Used well, they might point the request-maker towards commonly-requested information, for example, or give some indication of current service levels.

But some authorities are including statements within their canned text that could cause concern or confusion for people making requests. Let’s take a look at four of the most common examples.

“Please use the form on our own website” 

Reading Borough Council’s auto-response says:

“The process to submit Freedom of Information Act requests has changed to an online request form via Reading Borough Council’s website. This email address will no longer be used to log and respond to FOI requests from the 1st March. Please re-submit your request via the website. […] If you do not process the request via the website, your request will not be actioned.”

And this response from Bury Council states:

“In reply to your email regarding Freedom of Information, if the information you require cannot be found/or is not publicised on the Council’s website you will need to make a formal FOI request which can be done by using the online form at www.bury.gov.uk/foi

Please use this form so that we have all the relevant information in order to reply to your request, we will also acknowledge your request following completion of this form.”

Both examples are displaying poor practice: requests are valid no matter how they are sent to a public body, as long as they:

  •  are in writing
  • state the name of the applicant
  • provide a means of correspondence
  • describe the information sought .

Requests should be accepted whether made by letter, email, or even Twitter, and the authority has no right to oblige you to use their preferred channel — and, as it happens, ICO guidance explicitly recognises WhatDoTheyKnow as a valid means of requesting information under FOI.

Some authorities reference their web form in their auto-response, but then go on to respond to the request anyway — better than not responding, but not ideal, either.

In either case, we’d suggest following up by responding to the authority, citing our help page for FOI officers, and asking for an acknowledgement that they’ll process your request as they are obliged to by law.

“We require confirmation of your identity”

In this auto-response, Leeds City Council says:

“Please note in order to process your request, we require confirmation of your identity via a copy of one of the following forms:
– Driving Licence
– Passport
– Birth Certificate
– Council Tax bill
– Utility bill”

Leeds aren’t the only body to automatically mention a ‘requirement’ for confirming the identity of the request-maker in their responses. But in fact, ID is rarely called in, and as you can see in this example, the authority went on to process the request once the citizen had provided their full name.

Even that may have been unnecessary, as our FAQs say:

“Technically, you must use your real name for your request to be a valid Freedom of Information request in law. See this guidance from the Information Commissioner (October 2007). However, the same guidance also says it is good practice for the public authority to still consider a request made using an obvious pseudonym.”

Read the FAQs further to find out more about using a pseudonym to make FOI requests.

“We may charge a fee for the information requested”

Auto-responses like this one from King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust very commonly include a clause saying that they have the right under the Act to charge for the provision of information:

“As a public authority, the Trust may charge a fee for the information requested. Any fees are calculated in accordance with the regulations issued under the Act. If your request generates a fee payment, I will inform you at the earliest opportunity and provide an estimation of costs.”

As we explain in our FAQs, making an FOI request is almost always free, and all the more likely to be so when conducted digitally:

“Authorities often include standardised text in their acknowledgement messages saying they “may” charge a fee, which, understandably, can be a little frightening. Ignore such notices. They hardly ever will actually charge a fee.

“Most of the activities that authorities can charge for, such as photocopying, and postage, don’t usually apply to requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow, which are all conducted via email. Additionally, a public body can only charge you if you have specifically agreed in advance to pay. See more details from the Information Commissioner.”

“We may charge for re-use”

We’ve recently had a couple of users getting in touch about responses stating either that information provided should not be reused because it is copyright, or that there may be a fee for reuse.

For example, this response from Cleveland Fire Brigade states:

“Please note that information supplied in response to the Freedom of Information Act requests provide data for inspection by the enquirer, but does not give automatic right to reuse the information contained in this response which is subject to copyright and is not licensed for reuse including marketing.”

More nuanced responses sometimes point out the difference between use for commercial purposes (disallowed) and use for academic research or journalism (permitted): in this example from Corby Borough Council there is also mention of a fee for such usage:

“Please note that although this information has been released to you, this does not automatically give you the right to reuse the information. Reuse is defined as ‘the use by a person (or company) of information held by the Council for a purpose other than the initial purpose for which it was produced’. With the exception of non commercial research and private study, any other reuse of information (including the posting of material on a website or distributing printed copies at a meeting) may require a license from the Council, which will be subject to a fee. For more information, or to apply for a ‘Reuse of Public Sector Information’ license you can visit […]”

Our stance on the reuse of information can be seen in our FAQs:

“Authorities often add legal boilerplate citing the “Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations 2005”, which at first glance implies you may not be able do anything with the information. They also sometimes put copyright notices on material.

“Careful scrutiny of the legislation, however, shows that you are at liberty to write articles about the information, summarise it, or quote parts of it. It’s WhatDoTheyKnow’s belief that you should feel free to republish the information in full, just as we do, even though in theory you might not be allowed to do so: our policy on copyright explains why.

“If the information you have received is Crown Copyright then you are able to reproduce it under the Open Government Licence but there are some conditions — check that link for more details.”

Plus, since anyone in the world can request the same information, we consider trying to restrict it in this way to be misguided.

So there we are: we hope that this blog post will go some way towards reassuring you if you receive responses like these. And, if you work at an authority, maybe it will encourage you to re-examine your automated messaging so that it is both accurate and helpful for those requesting information.

Image: Tonik

Your chance to test out Projects, our newest tool for FOI

Posted on by Jen

Are you investigating, researching or gathering large quantities of data through Freedom of Information requests? Perhaps you’re a journalist, academic or NGO. We’re looking people based in the UK who’d like to try out our new ‘Projects’ feature for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

Projects allows you to crowdsource the extraction of data from multiple (or batch) FOI requests made to multiple authorities. You can set up a project with a brief description of what it is and what you are hoping to achieve, and some tasks that volunteers can complete to help you with this aim (like categorising responses, or answering questions about the data released).

Once that’s done, you can set it up to invite volunteers, who can help you to extract all the information you need from the released responses.

You’ll be able to download your volunteers’ input as a spreadsheet, meaning analysis of the data is much quicker and easier — so you can get on with the task of forming conclusions and writing up your findings.

What we’ll need from you

Projects is still in its nascent stage, so we need feedback from our testers. This will help us improve the service and tailor it to users’ needs, based on real life use cases.

Right now, we handle the setup and importing of the requests you want to work on manually (that is, our developers have to do it) — but we’re working on improving this aspect, and your feedback will be crucial in shaping the direction our development takes. We’re also looking for general comments, once you’ve used the service, on what’s useful and what’s missing; what you tried to do but couldn’t, and what made things easier for you.

If this sounds interesting, please get in touch at pro_team@whatdotheyknow.com. We look forward to hearing from you!

Image: Jessica Lee

New policy paper: Reforming Freedom of Information

Posted on by Alex Parsons

mySociety’s new report on Reforming Freedom of information can be read online or downloaded as a pdf

The right to access official information is fundamental in a healthy and vibrant democracy. Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation is a vital tool in research, journalism, and in supporting citizens and groups to hold their public institutions to account. In the UK, the Freedom of Information Act has now been in operation for over 15 years. Campaigns against adding new restrictions to Freedom of Information are generally successful and reflect the fact that FOI has become part of the constitutional settlement — but at the same time positive changes are resisted.

The Freedom of Information Act is static while the ways in which public services are delivered are changing. The regulator’s FOI work is underfunded and as such there is more focus on the data protection duties within the regulator’s portfolio. The picture of change that comes out of central government statistics is not encouraging, and there is not the data available to understand if this is a broader trend. Freedom of Information is unlikely to be abolished, but there is a danger of it sliding into obsolescence. Over time new classes of public body may never be covered by the Act, more public services are likely to be delivered by private sector organisations, and the legal rights that exist are less able to be enforced by an under-resourced regulator.

Devolution has led to a diversity of approaches where different parts of the Union can learn from useful decisions made in others.  In our new paper, we take advantage of the existing (and potential for future) devolution of Freedom of Information legislation to suggest changes that learn from good examples in different systems. This has led to four sets of recommendations, based on transferring practice from one UK-based system to another:

Improving statistical knowledge of how FOI works in the UK – The Office of the Scottish Information Commissioner has built a comprehensive and invaluable picture of the functioning of FOI in Scotland by collecting statistics on how requests were received and processed by authorities. In the UK, this coverage is limited to central government and a rarely followed requirement that larger authorities publish their own statistics. The majority of FOI requests made to public authorities in the UK are not covered by public statistics, making the regulator (and the interested public) blind to trends over time, and less able to understand whether FOI is functioning well or not. We recommend the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) act as the host of a central repository.

Separating the Information and Data Protection components of the Information Commissioner – The UK’s Information Commissioner has two major roles: data protection and access to information. The first of these roles has always been larger, but its scope and importance has only increased over time. Separating the access to information function and transferring oversight and funding from a government department to Parliament would help solidify the role’s independence and set it up to deal with both current and future challenges.

Improving the operation of FOI and EIR across the UK – Taking examples of different approaches in the UK and Scotland, we recommend both regimes should adopt best practice from the other. This includes differences in philosophy around the strength of exemptions and extension to private operators, but also different practical approaches such as clearer rules on time scales, administrative silence, and harmonising rules on fees for FOI and EIR.

Exploring new paths for Welsh Freedom of Information – Currently the Welsh Parliament/Senedd has the ability to diverge in a similar respect to Scotland and set up a different system that applies to Welsh public authorities. We explore the implications of this and recommend a mini-divergence, where the Senedd legislates to give the Welsh Government the ability to add private organisations executing a Welsh public function to coverage of the Act.

You can find more information in the full report.

WhatDoTheyKnow: one for the admin-lovers

Posted on by Myfanwy

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. 


Ginormous database

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.

New authorities

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?

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!


Image: Anastasia Zhenina

Fish passports? Any fin is possible

Posted on by Myfanwy

People making FOI requests are sometimes accused of embarking on a ‘fishing expedition’  — looking for news stories without a clear idea of what they will dredge up — but a recent request on WhatDoTheyKnow asked for something very specific.

“Could you state”, it asked, “the number of passports issued to British fish since Brexit proper began on 1st Jan 2021?”.

This request was not as fishy as it might at first appear: it was based on a statement in Parliament. On 14 January, commenting on Brexit and its impact on the fishing industry, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said:

“The key is that we have our fish back: they are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.”

Ordinarily, we discourage what might be seen as frivolous use of FOI via our site, but as it happens this request was processed by the authority without complaint. They replied in a straightfaced manner:

“Her Majesty’s Passport Office does not hold the information which you have requested. Animal classification is not captured as part of the passport application process.”

While this might not have been exemplary use of our service, citizens have the right to make requests that clarify puzzling statements from our elected representatives, or to simply highlight that they are incomprehensible.

One of the team says, “It’s understandable that the public might ponder, ‘what did he really mean?’ It could be something of a floccinaucinihilipilification, but it might also relate to a ‘catch certificate’, or one of the many other new items of bureaucracy that have appeared in recent months.”

Another WhatDoTheyKnow team member added, “My reading of that response is that the Government aren’t sure that everyone with a British passport is actually human… and some proportion might well in fact be fish.”

We, however, think that’s something of a red herring, and we’d advise that anyone seriously wanting to surface information about piscine issues might have more luck sending a request to DEFRA, CEFAS, or the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

 —

Image: Fredrik Öhlander

Data: sharing is caring

Posted on by Myfanwy

Here are a few stories that were in the news recently. They have two things in common — see if you can you guess what they are:

If you’ve been keeping up with mySociety’s posts, it’s probably no surprise that the first thing these stories have in common is that they are all based on Freedom of Information requests — in fact, multiple requests made across many bodies.

We often mention how useful Freedom of Information can be in helping campaigns, journalists or individuals to gather information from a variety of sources, to create a dataset that didn’t exist in one place before.

Naturally we are all in favour of such stories — but we think the organisations and media behind these requests are missing an extra trick, and that’s the second thing they have in common.

In every case, it seems the journalist or organisation has submitted their requests, and gathered the data, then written the story — and that’s the end of it. That data is hidden away, and no-one else can access it to verify the story, dig further or to find more interesting leads.

Journalists understandably gather information for their stories in private so that they aren’t ‘scooped’: this is one factor that led us to develop WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, which allows users to embargo requests and responses until their story has been published. But, once it has, the tool features strong encouragements to put the underlying data live, so that everyone can access it.

After all, at this stage there is often little benefit to the journalist from keeping the data all to themselves — and lots of potential public good from putting it out in the open. This is also a great way of providing extra credibility for a news item, showing that the facts back it up.

Here are those stories again, together with details of the requests that informed them:

  • University money laundering fears: The Times surveyed multiple British universities to break this front-page story.
  • Homeless deaths: The Museum of Homelessness put in over 300 FOI requests to gain one part of the information backing up their Dying Homeless project.
  • Bike and walking schemes not delaying ambulances The charity Cycling UK asked 10 ambulance trusts for their data.
  • Councils fail to pay grants  400 FOI requests were issued by the Event Supplier and Services Association to local authorities across England.
  • NHS trusts deny restricting PPE: The BMJ sent Freedom of Information requests to 130 acute, community, integrated, and ambulance trusts.
  • London boroughs using Chinese surveillance tech FOI requests were submitted to all 32 London councils and the next 20 largest UK city councils.

If you’re a journalist or campaigner yourself, we’d like to suggest that you consider making your data public next time you use FOI like this. Do it via WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, or, if you prefer, do it elsewhere: naturally, the choice is yours, though it’s worth noting that data on WhatDoTheyKnow is easy for people to find, thanks to our excellent search engine positions.

Pro also has other features that aid journalists in their investigations, including the ability to send batch requests to multiple authorities.

With our citations tool, you can even link directly to your story, giving it a boost in visibility that is also accelerated by our good standing with Google et al (or other users can link to it in an annotation).

On the other hand, if you’re just an interested citizen who would love to know more about one or more of those news stories, don’t forget that you could use WhatDoTheyKnow to request the same information, and it will then be public for all to see.

For example, if the homelessness or the PPE story is of interest to you, you could make an FOI request to your own council or NHS Trust to get the local picture. Once you have the facts, you might take informed action on them: perhaps lobbying your local representatives for change, or contacting the local media if there’s a story to be told.

And, to help us in our attempts to get more journalists thinking about opening up their data, you could keep your eyes open for stories like these in the future.

If you see one, perhaps give the writer a friendly nudge to publish their data. After all, they’re using transparency to get their scoop — why not also practice transparency for the good of all?

New research agency exempt from scrutiny

Posted on by Myfanwy

Artificial Intelligence, innovative use of data and the arms industry – now there’s a bunch of areas you’d want oversight on. And yet, a high-profile new government research agency appears to have been absolved from the obligations of public scrutiny before it even begins work.

News broke this week that the treasury has authorised £800 million of funding over the next four years for the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA). This research agency was originally conceived by Dominic Cummings, and, according to the 2019 Conservative manifesto, will be producing “high-risk, high-payoff research, at arm’s length from government”.

More explicitly, The Guardian sees the agency very much working in the area of defence, while also noting that many technologies developed in this area have gone on to benefit society more widely. The BBC says ARIA has been inspired by US agency DARPA, which is “credited with funding the development of the internet and GPS”.

All well and good, perhaps, until you see the government’s assertion that “the new body is being set up so it can take fast, agile decisions without bureaucracy.”

Judging by multiple press reports and a comment from Ed Milliband, although the agency is to be funded by taxpayers’ money it will be exempt from Freedom of Information law. While we very much hope this is not the case, this aspect has been reported by several sources.

FOI is explicitly for the purpose of allowing citizens to demand transparency from the institutions which we fund. The Times, reporting this story, also takes a moment to remind readers that it, along with other major news outlets  — not to mention organisations including mySociety —  is calling for urgent action on declining levels of governmental transparency, and we can see from the ICO’s many notices to Whitehall departments that the current administration are not complying with their obligations.

Our friends at the Campaign for FOI point out that DARPA, the blueprint for ARIA, is in fact subject to the US FOI Act, so removing those obligations would be something that has been built in as part of ARIA’s conception:

Additionally, the WhatDoTheyKnow team point out that any authority wholly owned by the public sector is subject to FOI unless specific provision is made to exclude it — and so, dodging the obligations of the Act would require either setting up an opaque operating structure for that purpose, or a new exemption to be passed into law under the FoIA.

Meanwhile, our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow does list authorities that are not subject to FOI if there is a good argument that they should be. If indeed it is officially exempted from the Act, we will also take this route with ARIA, just as soon as it formally comes into being.

EDIT: The official government press release is now here, and includes the statement: “Central to the agency will be its ability to deliver funding to the UK’s most pioneering researchers flexibly and at speed, in a way that best supports their work and avoids unnecessary bureaucracy.”

 

Image: Kevin Ku