#picamp – FOI and Data

picamp logoThere was a good discussion this morning at PI Camp around the conjoined issues of FOI and open data. The room had practitioners from both sides of the FOI fence – civil servants, journalists and bloggers.

The idea for the session came out of my belief that FOI is often a crude tool that can produce more heat than light, and tends to encourage institutional obfuscation rather than a spirit of openness and sharing. So how best to use FOI in a way that builds society and makes the world a better place, and doesn’t become a troublesome burden that just wastes time and scores points (that no one is counting).

We talked about the different mindsets within bodies – attitudes often vary between people with different levels of responsibility and different roles … in the one organisation.

We identified some practical steps to cut the volume of requests:

  • If public bodies published all queries and responses online – it might cut repeat requests.
  • Taking it a step further, if public bodies recognised frequently asked for information they could voluntarily make it publicly available on an ongoing basis and eliminate FOI around those topics.
  • If UK FOIers used the WhatDoTheyKnow website to track requests, it would prevent duplication. There was teh suggestion that journalists are often trying to develop exclusive stories, and end up keeping requests and responses private.
  • If this has to be the case, then afterwards, FOI requesters should try and put the information they received online. Will Perrin suggested that nothing more complicated than saving it into Google Docs and clicking the button to share/publish it on the public internet would allow the material to be indexed and subsequently findable by others.

Paul Evans suggested that there was room to innovate around FOI reputation and satisfaction – perhaps by allowing FOIers on WhatDoTheyKnow to rate their satisfaction with the returned results and the FOI process.

On a smaller scale he suggested that Slugger could run a thread to capture good and bad FOI experiences, documenting the state of local organisations,  leading to an award for the best/worst public body’s FOI process as part of the upcoming Slugger Awards.

It’s significant that the UK government published an enormous amount of data about spending on Friday … which will be sifted through for weeks and months to come. Every statistics student in the country will be basing their dissertation on it!

But the kind of data that is released by bodies isn’t necessarily what people want to see to judge performance and effectiveness.

If transparency is really at the heart of the seniors within government and Executive departments, there’s room for a discussion – perhaps even a forum – with interested parties to help them prioritise what information they could proactively share on a regular and voluntary basis, building in its collection to their processes to cheapen the drain on their scarce finances.

At last week’s ScraperWiki Hacks and Hacker days in Belfast and Dublin, a group of techies (programmers) and journalists (card carrying NUJ members as well as citizen types) got together to explore how existing public datasets could be parsed and analysed. The ability to tool up in data analysis is now a key journalistic skill.

This morning’s Guardian reports on a speech by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in which he said:

… Journalists need to be data-savvy.

These are the people whose jobs are to interpret what government is doing to the people.

So it used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times. But now it’s also going to be about poring over data and equipping yourself with the tools to analyse it and picking out what’s interesting. And keeping it in perspective, helping people out by really seeing where it all fits together, and what’s going on in the country.

Data-driven journalism is the future.

That’s not a conclusive overview of the session, so feel free to add your own comments below, particularly if you have suggestions for how to take this area forward. You can also get a flavour of some of the discussions at PI Camp by listening to the Audioboo’s recorded by Will Perrin after the session.

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  • Linda

    The Police Service of Northern Ireland already published all FOI answers on their website.

  • I found it useful to provoke ‘network chatter’ within my targeted organisation before making the data request. It allowed me to focus the conversation and by addressing emails to several people I think it encouraged them to exchange internal emails that way.

  • Alan, FOI requests that pertain to political and bureaucratic sleaze are bound to be considered ‘troublesome’.

    Ministers and senior civil servants are prepared to use large sums of taxpayers money to trample over whistle-blowers who act in the public interest.

    While picampers were enjoying their ‘Hi-de-hi’ experience in Belfast I took the opportunity to have another look at a project where the rules have been flaunted and the authorities and the MSM appear impotent.

    The NI Water approach to its own claim of openness and transparency has been a bit of a curate’s egg. The exposure of the termination of the online publication of Executive minutes in November 2009 has led to their reinstatement but the 8 page fuller minutes from earlier in 2009 have not. These minutes contained a lot more useful information than the abbreviated 2 page form that arrived just prior to termination.

    The suggestion that I made for the publication of Board minutes has been adopted but unfortunately these are also in the abbreviated form.

    Perhaps the Information Commissioner needs to give stronger guidance on the content of such minutes and the Non-Executive Directors have a role to play in this. The appointment of cronies as NEDs is obviously a backward move so far as the public interest is concerned.

  • Now here’s something that picampers were probably praying for:

    Michael McGimpsey

    Follow me on Twitter and get up-to-date posts on what I’m doing for you!

  • SethS

    As I noted at the discussion, part of the problem is that civil servants still see FOI as troublesome, rather than part of their job – and this is before stuff goes anywhere near ministers.

    Another area, that you partially mention above, is the need for those interested in examing departmental performance to think about what data they want to seee collected. It’s all very well putting in FOI requests, but departments can only respond if they have collected the data it the first place.

    Effectively departments get to decide what data they collect and can be another tool to hide behind.