Sending Freedom of Information (FOI) requests can be a daunting job for UK journalists. From the early stages of drafting your request, the risk of not getting the information you need can feel like a minefield.
However, thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow (WDTK), this task has been made a little easier. WDTK, an open platform website powered by MySociety, a charity aimed at promoting online democracy, helps users with requests and makes past requests publicly available.
In this interview, Interhacktives’ Ella Wilks-Harper speaks with Louise Crow, MySociety’s senior developer, about the future of FOIs, government secrecy and open data. Crow opens up about the drawbacks of open data and how governments are releasing large quantities of information that are not of high quality. However, with the help of WhatDoTheyKnow, technology is playing a growing role in helping ordinary people become more data literate; a positive step in holding organisations to account.
How did you get involved in MySociety?
About seven years ago, I came back from living and working in the States, and was looking for something useful to do. MySociety was advertising for people with coding and a certain amount of time, and I had both of them.
Do you think there are limitations of FOIs when people do not have the skills to analyse the returned information or data?
FOIs are used by lots of different kinds of people. I think one of the benefits of having the [government’s] responses [to FOI requests] responses in the open is that anyone can come and interpret the information that has been released. A lot more information is going out into the open.
David Cameron had a vision that your everyday person without any coding skills — otherwise known as an “armchair auditor” — could hold the public sector to account. Do you think they exist?
Almost anything exists. I guess a more important question is whether they exist in significant amounts to hold power to account. I think that’s always going to be difficult, and any solution that is based on data only is going to be a naïve solution. You have to have a look at the nature of power to try and put checks on power, if anyone is to have a chance at holding power to account.
Technology can help. I think what we do at MySociety tries to help the little shift in that balance by making the technology available to ordinary people very good. But I don’t think it can be the only solution.
Journalists like yourself, and having a strong and free press, are a strong opposition to government. All of that stuff has to work together.
What are the other solutions?
I guess it is the scope of civil societies. Journalists like yourself, and having a strong and free press, are a strong opposition to government. All of that stuff has to work together.
Have you noticed any chances in the handling of FOIs and open data in the last five years?
It is hard to say as I have only be working on this project since 2012. Within the last five years, I think the difficulty with open data at the moment or one difficulty with open data at the moment is that it is not driven by demand.
If you look at FOI and open data together, open data is what authorities think people want to know — or, in a more cynical interpretation, what they want to release. So that maybe they [public bodies] don’t like to release data, so it’s very old or they like to release success stories so it’s a specific subset.
Technology can help. I think what we do at MySociety tries to help the little shift in that balance by making the technology available to ordinary people very good.
Do you think FOIs is a stepping-stone for greater transparency?
I think FOIs are definitely one positive step, and the right to access laws* is a really heartening step and to the extent to which technology can help. I don’t kid myself that it’s the only part, but I think that’s worthwhile in terms of transparency.
*[This right of subject access means that you can make a request under the Data Protection Act to any organisation processing your personal data.]
Do you think there is a movement in helping people become more data literate and be more engaged with the vast amounts of data out there?
I think that is one of the big challenges of the modern age: information overload and information provenance. We have seen in political happenings in the last few months this question of [how] you can get lots of information but whether it is of high quality is hard to find out. Google and big platforms have a big role to play there.
At MozFest you spoke about being neutral in your position working in MySociety. Can you expand?
I think a very practical answer to that question is MySociety is a charity. As a charity, we are legally obliged to be politically neutral. That’s kind of what right to information is all about. It is about something that applies for everyone, whether you agree with them or not.
And that has to be a principle across all the rights [right to know, right to information and press freedom] , because life changes and lots of people are going to be using them. Like freedom of speech, it can’t just be something when you say something that I like to hear.
And finally, do you send out FOIs yourself?
You know, I have never sent out one. To be honest, there has never been something yet where I’ve felt like I really need to know this. [But] I have certainly benefited from reading other information that people have requested.