Making the most of WhatDoTheyKnow

The Independent recently got a great story from citizen FOI website whatdotheyknow.com about MPs running tabs in the bars at parliament.

It just goes to show what a great resource whatdotheyknow.com is. If you haven’t used it yet, have a look at it ASAP.

The site allows you to:

  • Make requests to any public authority in the UK
  • Browse past requests made through the site
  • Get FOI advice from its large community of users

I’ve been using it quite a lot recently and have a couple of tips to help you make the most use of it.

1) Remember it’s public!

If you have an especially sensitive FOI, you might want to consider sending it directly to the body you are dealing with – all responses to requests made through WhatDoTheyKnow are put on the site.

Just remember that you should have a good reason for doing this – an open archive of FOI responses is a great asset for an open society and a key part of citizen journalism, allowing others to find you and suggest questions and tactics.

2) Finding contacts

It’s not just the other users that you can get in touch with on WhatDoTheyKnow. The site publishes the email addresses of every information office it sends requests to – especially useful for those public bodies that don’t like to publicise their FOI contacts.

To find these addresses search the site’s list of public authorities and go to the homepage for the one that you want.

On the right hand side of the page is a header saying “More about this authority”. Under there is a tab to view the email address that WhatDoTheyKnow.com sends its requests to.

3) Using Google search

It’s worth using Google to search for information on WhatDoTheyKnow.com. This allows you to really get a handle of the WhatDoTheyKnow archive, giving you ideas for new requests or data that you can combine to make a new story.

To do this use a specific site search in Google like this:

site:whatdotheyknow.com

Follow this with the information you need.

For example, I was recently researching the Territorial Support Group, the Met’s riot squad. To do so, I Googled:

site:whatdotheyknow.com “territorial support group”

The inverted commas meant that Google looked for all pages on WhatDoTheyKnow.com where the words territorial, support and group appeared consecutively as a single phrase – so pages where the words were spread across a page weren’t returned. This saved me from wading through piles of irrelevant results.

If you want to know more about advanced searches on Google, BBC journalist Paul Myers has a good tutorial.

2 thoughts on “Making the most of WhatDoTheyKnow

  1. Pingback: Following FOI requests – making the most of WhatDoTheyKnow | The Help Me Investigate Blog

  2. Hello Mr Norris
    In response to your email you are correct in assuming that if the reply goes to Whatdotheyknow then it is already published. However I would refer you to my previous response and ask that you consider the potential loss that the Council may incur by further distributing the information. The site Whatdotheyknow is very useful to requesters and for the majority of requests there is no issue in information being available. It would be very unfortunate if we had to stop replying to this web site even for one or two requesters because information supplied was not being used with consideration.

    Regards

    Alan Stead
    For FOI Team

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