Crowdsourcing the perfect FOI request

Warning: Liveblogging – prone to error, inaccuracy, and howling affronts to grammar. This post will be improved over the course of a few days.

Gaia Marcus has been working on a dashboard to show the scale of youth homelessness in the UK. It’s not necessarily just street homelessness – that’s fairly unusual in this country. There are plenty of other, more common, kinds of homelessness.

There are a whole range of problems with getting data via Freedom of Information, including tine restrictions, format issues and the dreaded PDF response. To counter that, they’re building a form for an FoI request that seeks to shape the request in a way that deals with those problems.

This is part of a campaign to get bodies to report this data better. They tend to both store and share it in a deeply static format right now – we need to get it in a more open, useful format.

The Human Factor

The discussion focused around dealing with non-expert FOI recipients, who need as much help as possible to produce a quick, useful response. Here’s some key points from the discussion:

  • How deeply should we ask for specific formats? Yes, we should probably ask them to return it in the spreadsheet we sent.
  • Excel versus CSV? Some preference for CSV, but there are good reasons for going Excel – familiarity is one, for example. Google Docs is out due to restricted access. Maybe Excel for those who can’t and CSV for those who can…
  • In extremis you could use SurveyMonkey or Google Docs to allow people to fill in the data directly for you. It does introduce a risk of human corruption of data – but that’s the risk at every stage humans are involved.
  • You should also specify that it should be published as open data on the website – and that saves you the cost of future FOI requests. There’s allegedly some research from Leeds City Council that their FOIs went down since they’ve started publishing Open Data. No-one here’s seen it, though.
  • In case of refusal, is capturing the reason why they can’t fulfil the request useful? The consensus seems to be “yes”.
  • We need to confirm the licence of the data – and ideally it should be Open Government Licence (and you’d need to link to an explanation of that). That way you could publish the data yourself, which you can use as part of a cost argument (fewer FOIs, because we publish this as open data for you).
  • Reference similar requests and highlight why what you’re asking for is significantly different.
  • Beware being classified vexatious by overwhelming authorities with requests.

Here’s the working document used to capture the FOI session input

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