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April 12 2012

12:14

February 03 2012

08:15

Video: Heather Brooke’s tips on investigating, and using the FOI and Data Protection Acts

The following 3 videos first appeared on the Help Me Investigate blog, Help Me Investigate: Health and Help Me Investigate: Welfare. I thought I’d collect them together here too. As always, these are published under a Creative Commons licence, so you are welcome to re-use, edit and combine with other video, with attribution (and a link!).

First, Heather Brooke’s tips for starting to investigate public bodies:

Her advice on investigating health, welfare and crime:

And on using the Data Protection Act:

February 01 2011

10:55

Why journalists should be lobbying over police.uk’s crime data

UK police crime maps

Conrad Quilty-Harper writes about the new crime data from the UK police force – and in the process adds another straw to the groaning camel’s back of the government’s so-called transparency agenda:

“It’s useless to residents wanting to find out what was going on at the house around the corner at 3am last night, and it’s useless to individuals who want to build mobile phone applications on top of the data (perhaps to get a chunk of that £6 billion industry open data is supposed to create).

“The site’s limitations are as follows:

  • No IDs for crimes: what if I want to check whether real life crimes have made it onto the map? Sorry.
  • Six crime categories: including “other crimes”, everything from drug dealing to bank robberies in one handy, impossible to understand category.
  • No live data: you mean I have to wait until the end of the next month to see this month’s criminality?!
  • No dates or times: funny how without dates and times I can’t tell which police manager was in charge.
  • Case status: the police know how many crimes go solved or unsolved, why not tell us this?”

This is why people are so concerned about the Public Data Corporation. This is why we need to be monitoring exactly what spending data councils release, and in what format. And this is why we need to continue to press for the expansion of FOI laws. This is what we should be doing. Are we?

October 04 2010

12:24

Open data meets FOI via some nifty automation

OpenlyLocal generated FOI request

Now this is an example of what’s possible with open data and some very clever thinking. Chris Taggart blogs about a new tool on his OpenlyLocal platform that allows you to send a Freedom of Information (FOI) request based on a particular item of spending. “This further lowers the barriers to armchair auditors wanting to understand where the money goes, and the request even includes all the usual ‘boilerplate’ to help avoid specious refusals.”

It takes around a minute to generate an FOI request.

The function is limited to items of spending above £10,000. Cleverly, it’s also all linked so you can see if an FOI request has already been generated and answered.

Although the tool sits on OpenlyLocalFrancis Irving at WhatDoTheyKnow gets enormous credit for making their side of the operation work with it.

Once again you have to ask why a media organisation isn’t creating these sorts of tools to help generate journalism beyond the walls of its newsroom.

April 08 2010

13:58

Review: Heather Brooke – The Silent State

The Silent State

In the week that a general election is called, Heather Brooke’s latest book couldn’t have been better timed. The Silent State is a staggeringly ambitious piece of work that pierces through the fog of the UK’s bureaucracies of power to show how they work, what is being hidden, and the inconsistencies underlying the way public money is spent.

Like her previous book, Your Right To Know, Brooke structures the book into chapters looking at different parts of the power system in the UK – making it a particularly usable reference work when you want to get your head around a particular aspect of our political systems.

Chapter by chapter

Chapter 1 lists the various databases that have been created to maintain information on citizens - paying particular focus to the little-publicised rack of databases holding subjective data on children. The story of how an old unpopular policy was rebranded to ride into existence on the back of the Victoria Climbie bandwagon is particularly illustrative of government’s hunger for data for data’s sake.

Picking up that thread further, Chapter 2 explores how much public money is spent on PR and how public servants are increasingly prevented from speaking directly to the media. It’s this trend which made The Times’ outing of police blogger Nightjack particularly loathsome and why we need to ensure we fight hard to protect those who provide an insight into their work on the ground.

Chapter 3 looks at how the misuse of statistics led to the independence of the head of the Office of National Statistics – but not the staff that he manages – and how the statistics given to the media can differ quite significantly to those provided when requested by a Select Committee (the lesson being that these can be useful sources to check). It’s a key chapter for anyone interested in the future of public data and data journalism.

Bureaucracy itself is the subject of the fourth chapter. Most of this is a plea for good bureaucracy and the end of unnamed sources, but there is still space for illustrative and useful anecdotes about acquiring information from the Ministry of Defence.

And in Chapter 5 we get a potted history of MySociety’s struggle to make politicians accountable for their votes, and an overview of how data gathered with public money – from The Royal Mail’s postcodes to Ordnance Survey – is sold back to the public at a monopolistic premium.

The justice system and the police are scrutinised in the 6th and 7th chapters – from the twisted logic that decreed audio recordings are more unreliable than written records to the criminalisation of complaint.

Then finally we end with a personal story in Chapter 8: a reflection on the MPs’ expenses saga that Brooke is best known for. You can understand the publishers – and indeed, many readers – wanting to read the story first-hand, but it’s also the least informative of all the chapters for journalists (which is a credit to all that Brooke has achieved on that front in wider society).

With a final ‘manifesto’ section Brooke summarises the main demands running across the book and leaves you ready to storm every institution in this country demanding change. It’s an experience reminiscent of finishing Franz Kafka’s The Trial – we have just been taken on a tour through the faceless, logic-deprived halls of power. And it’s a disconcerting, disorientating feeling.

Journalism 2.0

But this is not fiction. It is great journalism. And the victims caught in expensive paper trails and logical dead ends are real people.

Because although the book is designed to be dipped in as a reference work, it is also written as an eminently readable page-turner – indeed, the page-turning gets faster as the reader gets angrier. Throughout, Brooke illustrates her findings with anecdotes that not only put a human face on the victims of bureaucracy, but also pass on the valuable experience of those who have managed to get results.

For that reason, the book is not a pessimistic or sensationalist piece of writing. There is hope – and the likes of Brooke, and MySociety, and others in this book are testament to the fact that this can be changed.

The Silent State is journalism 2.0 at its best – not just exposing injustice and waste, but providing a platform for others to hold power to account. It’s not content for content’s sake, but a tool. I strongly recommend not just buying it – but using it. Because there’s some serious work to be done.

March 17 2010

22:50

March 08 2010

17:42

March 07 2010

22:34

January 06 2010

09:37

January 04 2010

08:40

Happy Birthday to the Freedom of Information Act

Both the Guardian and Herald carry pieces today marking five years since the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act became law.

The Herald reflects on the impact of the Scottish Act, while the Guardian recalls some memorable stories uncovered through use of the legislation.

But, as the Guardian suggests, there are still problems for journalists using the act:

[J]ournalists have also criticised the act as a bureaucratic waste of time and money, with requesters complaining that important information is all too often redacted or withheld by authorities who are keenly aware of the news value of the material they hold (…) Some believe Whitehall and government ministers are getting bolder in manipulating the delays in order to scupper an already weakened FOI law. “It will take a huge scandal to get up steam for a reformed ’strong’ law,” warns one reporter. “In the meantime, ministers are busy weakening it even further.”

On the other hand, are journalists bringing the act into disrepute through the stories they choose to use it for?

Full Guardian story at this link…

Herald piece: ‘The FoI rulings that left a mark on public life’

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December 10 2009

07:15

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16:40

November 10 2009

07:31
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