Submitting FOI requests – learning from my mistakes

In the last few days I have put together three FOI requests and I have already learnt quite a lot so thought I would share.

The first FOI request was definitely the worst and, luckily for the purposes of demonstration, the only one that I made public through the For those unaware of this platform, it is part of the excellent MySociety brand.

The benefits of using WhatDoTheyKnow are pretty obvious. They put your request in the public domain, which allows peer scrutiny of the institution’s response to your request. Indeed, you often see other users of the site annotating requests to make sure that they are done correctly.

I titled my public request Street trees removed in Islington. It asks for the following from Islington Borough Council:

1. The number of trees removed and the number of trees planted at roadside locations in Islington in the following years 2008, 2009,
2010, 2011 and 2012 (so far).
2. The amount spent on tree removal for the entire council in the following years 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 (so far). If possible, could you break down how much was spent in each council ward?
3. The sites in Islington where trees were removed but nothing planted in their place.
4. The number of trees planted in parks and other green spaces in Islington each year, including 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 (so

Now I have made the request I can already spot a couple of mistakes that bureaucrats may pick me up on. Especially in question 1 where I should have requested the number of trees removed from roadside locations separately. Careful careful wording is essential and I messed up there.

FOI requests also cannot cost the authority any more than £250, so I asked them to include any data they could afford so I could get the information more quickly – authorities get 20 days to respond and if they make a query about the request it gives them another 20 days.

I should have asked for them to contact me by telephone under section 16(1) of the Freedom of Information Act – the duty to assist – if they had any issues with my request.  I would have then had more control over the information I eventually got back. If you’re not sure on how to word your request then call the authority up beforehand using section 16(1) to get them to help you out.

One last thing, make sure that the authority has a history of responding to FOI requests of that nature (especially defence and health bodies) and that nobody has made the same request before. You do not want to wait twenty days simply for the information you get back to be pointless.

The two further requests I have made are extremely carefully worded and I have contacted the authorities ahead of time to find out exactly what I can ask for. Those two are private, but I’ll make sure to blog about them when I get the results back.

Why internet comments are better than vox-pops

I posted the following on last month. To see the original article and the comments left:

John Robinson blogged a couple of days ago about “sticking a fork in ‘man-on-the-street’ interviews“ aka vox-pops. To take his point a little bit further, this pooling of public opinion feels increasingly outdated now readers can choose the issues they want to comment upon.

Vox-pops contain a degree of fakery, in so far as the person whose thoughts are being filmed/recorded is aware that they need to sound somewhat informed and intelligent. The people in the Jimmy Kimmel clip linked to by Robinson take this to its end-point, offering seemingly informed opinions on an event that never happened.

In my experience of being vox-popped – I was once quoted in the Daily Mail after attending a medieval food tasting (see the final line), I have been called on to offer opinions on subjects I would not care to comment on. My answer to the Daily Mail journalist on what I thought about the food is tellingly glib.

With internet comments, and I mean that in broadest possible sense with Twitter etc. included, there is a participatory element. The reader wants to add their own voice to the mix and potentially get feedback from the writer. The reader has made a choice to invest their time in your content, not been stopped on the street and had a question forced upon them.

Of course, artificiality – as any ethnographer would tell you – is relative and trolling shows that comments are not always the place to go for genuine opinions. It’s also worth saying that a creative approach to vox-pops can be really effective. However, my gut instinct is that spurring a reader to comment rather than requesting it on the street is usually a far more effective way of getting them to keep reading your work.

***UPDATE*** 01/012/12: Yesterday I was vox-popped by a student journalist asking whether I thought Tottenham fans should keep calling themselves Yids. I was unnecessarily grumpy about the whole thing – despite helping her out – because being put on the spot with such a loaded question was a little intimidating. She did very well and worked hard to get an  interesting response, but I really did not want to make a comment on this issue.