Freedom of information

Even before the rise of open data, many countries decided to increase the transparency of their governments by introducing freedom of information (FoI) legislation. Such laws enable every citizen to request documents and other material from parts of the government which do not merit special protection (e.g. due to concerns over privacy, national security or commercial confidentiality).

Journalists, activists and CSOs have long had channels of acquiring information. Sometimes, having a good relationship with a press-officer or a civil servant is good enough and making a formal request for information is unnecessary (your friendly press-officer may even feel slightly offended if you don’t ask them nicely first). FoIs generate a lot of paperwork (hence grumpy civil servants), so if you do have the contacts, it may be a good idea to ask nicely first!

Freedom of Information requests often require some degree of preparation, so that the documents or databases that are requested are clearly identified, you know which department or unit is in charge of it and you can address possible concerns over privacy or commercial confidentiality in your request.

While freedom of information legislation is in force in many countries, it was often made before the need for structured data became apparent – thus many laws do not allow the citizen to specify a particular format. Many governments choose to release information on paper rather than in a structured, digital form, making the data processing step more painful. Still, the legally binding character of freedom of information requests often makes them an invaluable tool in the process of gaining access to financial data.

FoI requests may be necessary when you want to get more detail on the projects that government money is funding. Often the transactional spending data released will include only a brief description of the project, if at all. To get more information about it, you might need to submit an FoI request. For instance, if you have the high level payment information for a contract that includes the recipient, location and total amount, but you want to know the details of the contract deliverables, you will probably need to submit an FoI request for the full contract.

A good example of this process is the Sunlight Foundation’s request for information on the Airport Improvement Program in the United States. The program accepts applications from airports around the country for infrastructure improvement grants, such as repaving a runway. Each project is assigned a safety priority rating and is prioritized in a queue. The high level spending information for this program was available in USASpending.gov, but since the priority ratings are specific to this program and not spending data in general, they were not included in that dataset. The Sunlight Foundation submitted a FoI request for the full dataset, including the priority ratings. After that, they were able to determine when airports with low priority projects were getting money, and how often. So the lesson is, if you see some interesting patterns in your high level spending data, don’t be afraid to dig deeper and ask for more detailed program information.

Wanting to submit a request, but not sure where to start, who to address your request to or how to write it? Access Info (http://www.access-info.org/) are an organisation who work to help people obtain the information they require from the public bodies that hold it. They have also produced a toolkit (http://www.legalleaks.info/toolkit.html) to using FoIs. It’s primarily aimed at Journalists, but most of the tips are equally relevant for CSOs.

Any questions? Got stuck? Ask School of Data!

Last updated on Sep 02, 2013.

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