Monthly Archives: July 2010

Tips on Freedom of Information requests from James Ball

A couple months ago James Ball came to spend a day teaching Freedom of Information and other skills to the MA Online Journalism students at Birmingham City University. Here are some of his tips:

  • Ring the body before you send any FOI request (their press office, for example) and make it clear that a refusal to provide the information you're asking for will make a really good story too, e.g. 'Culture of secrecy'
  • Avoid asking for personal information – individuals and junior staff are exempt (but not senior staff, i.e. at Level 5 or above of the civil service scale; Director level and other senior staff – e.g. heads of departments – at a local level)
  • Ask for information to be 'anonymised if necessary' to avoid being refused on privacy grounds
  • Ask for street-level detail where possible and relevant
  • Ask for minutes of meetings: steering groups, advisory boards – and ask for the names of the members of those groups
  • If they limit information on the basis of possible 'patchwork' identification argue the case on why it makes little difference
  • If the FOI is refused, ask for it to be taken to internal review and make your case strongly. Internal reviews should be completed within 40 working days. If it fails then, you can take it to the Information Commissioner, but this is likely to take a further 6-12 months at least (some 5-year-old appeals are still waiting for judgements). The story then is likely to be that they have been that they were 'forced to reveal'. Beyond this it goes to the Information Tribunal (you will need a lawyer) and the High Court.
  • Keep up to date with information commissioner rulings at – create a crib sheet of useful rulings to quote and a register of databases mentioned

If you have any other tips, please let us know in the comments.

The logic behind putting election expenses online

I've previously blogged about how to get hold of your local election campaign expenses, and how to easily put them online – but I thought I'd add a third post explaining why I decided to put them online in the form that I did.

I've scanned each expense document (the return forms; each appendix; and each receipt) separately and emailed them to Posterous separately, so that each has its own blog post. This means that each expense document has a unique URL, so people can link directly to it when talking about it.

If all documents were put into a single PDF or all PDFs put into a single blog post it would make it more difficult for people to identify which document was being talked about.

Separating the documents this way also means that people can comment on individual documents, so it's easier to keep track of which documents have been looked at and which not.

Comments also make it easy to find individual posts, as the comment text itself will appear in search engines.

And finally, it means that each blog post – i.e. document – can be tagged separately.

Tagging is possibly the most important part of the whole process, for a number of reasons:

  1. It makes it much easier to find the documents on a search engine. Sites such as Google use tags to understand the content of a page – this is particularly important when dealing with PDFs, as Google cannot 'read' them in the same way it can read plain text.
  2. It also makes it much easier for users to find particular types of documents when browsing the blog itself. The right hand column of the blog has a list of tags that you can click on so that, for example, you are only looking at the expenses of the Labour Party, or documents relating to the short campaign.
  3. This also makes it possible for people to link to specific types of documents, in addition to individual ones, or the blog as a whole.
  4. Finally, tags make it possible to do interesting things with computer scripts. Someone could, for example, write a script to find every document tagged with a particular company name across a number of areas, or to combine results with two tags, or either of two tags.

If you have any other ideas for better ways of putting the material online, let me know.

Getting election expenses from your local elections office

How do you get the expense receipts for election candidates? It’s really very simple – so why isn’t everyone doing it?

You first need to contact the Elections Office for your local council – in Birmingham their email is elections [at] (you should be able to get their contact details by ringing your council’s general contact number)

  • Tell them that you will be arriving later that day and which expense returns you will be looking at. You can look at them all for free in their office, but if you want to take away a copy you’ll have to pay 20p per sheet, so it’s probably best to look at them first before choosing which pages you want copies of.
  • Ask for directions to the office as it may be tucked away – this video shows where Birmingham’s Election Office is located, on up a side alley off Great Charles Street.
  • Expenses are divided into the ‘short campaign’ (the period of around four weeks after an election is announced) and a ‘long campaign’ (the period before the election is announced). I found at least one candidate put all the receipts for both into one bundle, so it’s worth getting both out.
  • Check for missing sheets.

That’s it. There generally isn’t that much to look at in the short campaign receipts so you shouldn’t be there too long.

Curiously, the Birmingham office told me that no one ever comes to look at the receipts (apart from one election candidate), so someone should.

It’s a good idea to bring a laptop if you have one and copy key details across to a spreadsheet (company names, etc.).?

I published?the campaign expenses of candidates in Edgbaston on a website: Edgbaston Election Campaign Expenses 2010?- and I blogged about how I did that.?

Background: A Channel 4 investigation has “raised questions over the election expenses of Zac Goldsmith” – in particular only claiming partial expenses on the grounds that ‘not all material was used’.

The responses of Goldsmith and the Conservative Party suggest “candidates were justified in only accounting for items used as material can become out of date during a campaign … the examples raised could be seen in the returns of other candidates.”

We want to see if this is true. Are other candidates not claiming for the expense of ‘unused’ materials? Or is Goldsmith an exception?

We’ve started one investigation in Birmingham but would really welcome sister investigations in other towns and cities.

Getting election campaign expenses online

I’ve just put all the election expenses for the main 2 candidates in the fiercely fought Edgbaston constituency online so that people can look at them, post comments and link to them if they need to make a point.

Here’s how I did it:

  • I went to the Elections Office in Birmingham to get a copy of the expenses returns. I’ll blog about this separately. Strangely, I was told that, while they could photocopy the documents, they couldn’t photocopy to PDF because they were “too big”. This exercise is at least in part about demonstrating how easily the returns could be put online.
  • I then photocopied each sheet of the returns to PDF, and sent it to my email. Most relatively modern photocopiers can do this.
  • I set up a new blog using called Edgbaston Election Campaign Expenses (for search engine optimisation) and added that email address to the contributors (in the Manage menu)
  • I forwarded each email to the address associated with that blog (
  • I tagged each emailed document by using a standard header for each email that I copied and pasted – at the end of the header were a series of tags in double brackets like this: ((labour, gisela stuart, expenses, edgbaston)). This makes it easy to find particular types of documents.

That’s it.

I’ve still got a bunch of receipts to put on the blog for Gisela Stuart which I’ll try to do tomorrow. And then it’s Hall Green.

The point of the blog is to help provide some context to the Zac Goldsmith election expenses investigation. We’ll also be digging into these receipts for some investigations of our own.

But it’s also to show how it can be done – if you want to get your own candidates’ expenses online, let me know in the comments and I’ll be happy to help out.

June update: Help Me Investigate “Highly commended” in shortlist for Multimedia Publisher of the Year

It seems recognition of Help Me Investigate is spreading: last week the site was shortlisted for Multimedia Publisher of the Year at the NUJ Regional Press Awards.?

The award eventually went to Scottish national news website The Caledonian Mercury, but Help Me Investigate was "Highly commended" and finished second, ahead of big regional publishers including Archant and Northcliffe.

This is a very welcome recognition for all those who have contributed to investigations on the site. Please feel proud ? it?s your site.

Meanwhile, I?ve been bringing in extra support on the site ? Rob Dale and Shane Croucher have been supporting investigations ? in particular the investigation into
How many destitute asylum seekers are there in the UK? Should destitution be a part of asylum seeking process at all?
Where and why are babies being born in hospital without a midwife present?

We?ll be sending Rob, Shane, and some others to the Centre for Investigative Journalism Summer School next week too, so if you need to kickstart an investigation, now might be a good time.

Finally, I am no longer sending monthly emails to every member of the site; instead I am switching site communication to the Help Me Investigate Facebook group and Google mailing list. If you still want to hear what?s happening on the site, please join them at

This will allow you to control your communications, opt out, and communicate with other members more easily.

And if you have any other ideas for how we can best use those tools, let me know.