Author Archives: paulbradshaw

AUDIO: Using European information laws for environmental investigations: #Dataharvest13

This year’s Data Harvest festival – #dataharvest13 – featured a number of speakers involved in environmental investigations. We were there to record some fascinating speakers. Continue reading

HMI Health compiles clinical commissioning group FOIs for health sector magazine

Over on Help Me Investigate Health, we’ve published a list of Freedom of Information emails for clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) – the new bodies controlling local health spending in England.

The list was compiled two months ago for Health Service Journal by Tom Warren and Matt Burgess, shortly after the new bodies took control, but is only now being published by HMI.

As part of the process, Matt and Tom also compiled a spreadsheet of CCG websites and FOI webpages.

The leak movement: This Machine Kills Secrets

This Machine Kills Secrets - book on Wikileaks, cryptography, security

Note: this is a lengthy post so you may want to get yourself comfortable!

There is more to leaking than Wikileaks, and a more interesting tale to be told than theirs. In This Machine Kills Secrets, Andy Greenberg looks at that story – and it’s an important read for any journalist interested in working with sources in the 21st century.

The book combines a history of the leaks movement – from cryptography geeks and early document sites like Cryptome – to an overview of the proliferation of new, Wikileaks-inspired sites from Al Jazeera’s leaks site to Unileaks – many of which lack basic security.

Along the way there are insights into every aspect of leaking: the technology, organisational and human factors, the politics and the culture. It’s a timely book as the world embarks on a debate about privacy, security, and transparency sparked by Edward Snowden’s own latest ‘megaleak’. Continue reading

No data doesn’t mean no story

3 examples this week show how you can still tell important stories based on Freedom of Information requests even when you don’t get any results.

In the first, a national story, 54 FOI requests were sent to mental health trusts. 6 could not say how often any form of restraint was used, and:

“Half of them could not provide details of how often their staff had used the controversial and dangerous face-down technique.”

Reporter Mark Easton chose to focus his story not on the use of restraint by the half which did provide details, but rather, as the headline reads: The troubling secrets of England’s mental hospitals.

Knowing what institutions should be doing is important here: Easton notes that:

Under the Mental Health Act 1983, institutions are statutorily obliged to “document and review every episode of physical restraint which should include a detailed account of the restraint”.

The second story is a local one, from the Liverpool Echo, and is more straightforward: Police block Hillsborough horse burns information request tells it succinctly, but again the background to this is key to its newsworthiness:

“injuries to the horse [were] claimed to have been caused by Liverpool supporters caught up in the initial pre-match crush outside the ground … Some campaigners believe questions over the apparent delay in medically assessing the horse, and the lack of a publicly-available vet’s report, could be answered by information in the South Yorkshire Police archive.”

A quote from a spokesperson is needed to explain why the refusal is news:

“If this kind of request can be turned down it makes you wonder about the release of the rest of the information they hold on other issues.”

Finally, Full Fact interrogate the basis behind Government claims about health tourism. It is a factcheck piece, not a news report, so the style is more opinionated (a news story might report on reaction to the refusal, for example from campaigners, experts or opposition politicians).

But their FOI request is refused. After explaining why they submitted it (the Government is proposing to spend more money on vetting patients, but it isn’t clear if that will save more money than it costs) the article reports on why the refusal is significant:

“This isn’t good enough.

“If any Government Minister discloses information in Parliament that informs public debate about an issue, they should be expected to explain where it comes from. The FoI Act itself places the requirement on holders of information that:

“regard shall be had to the particular public interest in the disclosure of factual information which has been used, or is intended to be used, to provide an informed background to decision-taking.”

“As things stand, the Health Secretary is left free to introduce claims into the debate over NHS treatment while providing no means for anyone to check where they come from.”

And, following news convention, it ends with ‘what happens next’:

As such we’ll be requesting a review from the DH under the terms of the 2000 Act so that the information can be disclosed.

For more on ‘bad data’ stories see my earlier post in the Online Journalism Blog.

What data does the Fire Service collect? Notes from a datablog meetup

Cat stuck up a tree

Image by Jonas Lowgren

On February 28 the Birmingham Datablog Meetup hosted a visit from Vikki Holland and Debbie Whittingham from the West Midlands Fire Service. They answered questions on how the Service uses data in both fire prevention and monitoring its activities. Here is a summary of the meetup.

The Fire Service are one of the most advanced users of data in the public sector. With much of their work centred on fire prevention, they draw on a range of data sources to identify and prioritise different risks in different communities. Continue reading

When is a leak not a leak?

Over on Help Me Investigate Education Beth Ashton writes about her experiences of discovering what appeared to be a data leak by the education regulator Ofsted – and the ethical decisions which followed:

“In the end, this was a story about Ofted’s own rules not working retrospectively, or taking into account the permanence of the internet. Ofsted themselves did not seem concerned about the information being available online.”

Read the whole post here.

Understanding probation and justice data – notes from a @bhamdatablog meetup

At a recent Birmingham Datablog meetup we hosted probation data analyst Jason Davies, who very generously spent time highlighting the mistakes that journalists should avoid in reporting the justice system, and useful resources for finding both data and context on crime and justice.

Jason began by making an important distinction between crime data and justice data. Crime data is typically handled by individual police forces and the Home Office.

Once someone is charged, however, they enter the justice system. Information about what happens next – in the courts, the prisons, community service and on probation – is handled by the Ministry of Justice and other related bodies. Continue reading

FOI request refusals – staff names must be given, says Commissioner

Blog Now reports on an Information Commissioner ruling which stipulates that the names of staff refusing a request should be included in the response, despite one department’s attempts to withhold those.

Alistair Sloan writes:

“It described the DWP’s practice of not providing telephone numbers or contact details within its responses and how this makes it very difficult for the appropriate contact to be located within the organisation.  The public authority advised the Commissioner that it did not include these details so as not to breach the privacy of the non-senior staff involved; it described the staff in question as not being in public-facing roles.

“In Paragraph 36 of the decision notice the Commissioner states quite clearly that he does not agree with this approach.  The decision notice states that “if such staff are responding to requests made under the FOIA then he considers this to be a public-facing role which is unlikely to attract an expectation of privacy” (Paragraph 36).”


Following FOI requests – making the most of WhatDoTheyKnow

Over on Help Me Investigate Health, Tom Warren has written a guide to using the Freedom of Information tool WhatDoTheyKnow. Key tips include:

  • Consider sending an FOI directly to the authority if you want to keep it private – but also remember that doing so publicly can be a great way to find contacts and ideas
  • You can use the site to find out an authority’s FOI email address
  • Use advanced search techniques in Google to search just that site

Read the post in full here.