Monthly Archives: December 2011

FoI Requests and Private Emails

The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, announced last week that private emails are covered by FoI laws. This clarification in FoI law allows researchers, academics, campaigners and journalists to request the private emails of government officials.

The information commissioner has decided to allow email requests into FoI law since the revelations that members of the Department of Education, headed by Michael Gove, were encouraged to share important information via email in an attempt to avoid FoI requests.

Commenting on the news, Mr Graham stated: “It should not come as a surprise to public authorities to have the clarification that information held in private email accounts can be subject to Freedom of Information law if it relates to official business. This has always been the case – the Act covers all recorded information in any form”.

Surprisingly, some FoI campaigners have interpreted ‘all information’ to include text messages and even post-it-notes.

Guidance regarding FoI requests and private emails can be found on the Information Commissioner’s website — just follow the links.

Ian Silvera

Recipe for an investigation: did Birmingham Council overcharge the TUC march?

He compared the decision with the council allowing an English Defence League demonstration to take place, although the decision to allow that was taken by West Midlands Police.

It’s a good example of a question that can form the basis of an investigation. And if you’re looking for an investigation to do, here’s a quick recipe:

  1. Find out the costs of policing the EDL demonstration, and any charge made to the organisers. If the information is not accessible in any public way (including phonecalls), try a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to West Midlands Police. You might also FOI the council for any correspondence with the police about the demonstration. It’s important to establish what information exists, and which public body holds that information if you can first.
  2. Find out the costs of policing the public sector pay march. As the march did not go ahead in Birmingham, you could get an indicative cost from one of the police forces or local authorities covering the other marches – Greater Manchester Police and Manchester City Council would be obvious first choices. Again, FOI is a useful tool here, and What Do They Know can be useful in finding similar requests: for example, this request includes costings for road closure costs for Manchester Pride 2011
  3. You could also FOI West Midlands Police and any other relevant public bodies for any costings they did in advance of the proposed Birmingham march. 
  4. You would then have the key pieces of information to answer the question of whether the ?10,000 charge quoted to the organisers of the public sector march was unusual by comparing it to the charge quoted to the organisers of the EDL march, and the costs incurred by that march and the public sector marches in other cities.
If you have any other ideas about this or similar questions, let me know.

VIDEO from the Danish investigative journalism conference

Although the website for the Danish investigative journalism conference is, understandably, in Danish, many of the videos from its recent conference are in English. 

Highlights include the MI5 spy turned whistleblower Annie Machon and Finnish journalist Paula Sallinen, who created a fake online identity to investigate paedophiles, but there are plenty more to explore. 

If you use the Chrome browser you can also turn on automatic translation for the text surrounding the videos.

VIDEO: Stephen Grey: tips on internet security for journalists

Stephen Grey is an investigative journalist best known recently for his reports from Afghanistan, but more widely for his investigation into the CIA’s rendition program, published in the book Ghost Plane. I caught up with him at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference in Kiev earlier this year and asked him about internet security.

A lesson in investigation: phone hacking and Milly Dowler

Nick Davies’ piece on what police now know about phone hacking and Milly Dowler is a brilliant example of how a journalist should never cling to one story of events, and also how timelines can be useful in checking stories.

Nick has been at the heart of the phone hacking story, and yet is reflective enough to see when new evidence challenges even his own version of events:

“The new evidence … confirmed almost everything I had reported in July of this year. But one important element shifted: the police could no longer be sure exactly who had caused the particular deletions that led to that “false hope” moment.

“[T]wo pieces of new evidence have made the picture more complex. First, Surrey police have been able to establish the exact timing of the false-hope moment, at 7pm on the evening of Sunday 24 March 2002, three days after Milly was abducted. This was a surprise for the Dowlers who had always recalled that it happened two or three weeks after her disappearance. Original police records show that, understandably in the awful stress of events, their timeframe was distorted.

“Second, Scotland Yard concluded that Mulcaire was not tasked to intercept the girl’s messages until after that date. This was a surprise to Mulcaire who had felt very oppressed by the Dowler revelations and who, according to a close friend, was in tears after he heard the news.

“So who did delete the messages which gave false hope to the Dowlers? At first, one other fragment of new evidence appeared to provide the answer: records showed that Milly’s phone would automatically delete any message 72 hours after it had been listened to. The false-hope moment happened some 75 hours after she was abducted on Thursday afternoon, March 21. But this theory then collapsed, because the records also showed that she had not listened to her voicemail since the preceding day, so the 72-hour period had ended on the Saturday afternoon.”

The lesson is simple: when new evidence emerges, compare it against your own evidence and be prepared to acknowledge that facts may have changed. A witnesses’ perception of time can be affected by their emotional state at the time; potential answers can prove illusory; and the villain of the piece may have come onto the scene after the window of opportunity. Stories are not always as clear as they seem.

VIDEO: The BBC’s Martin Rosenbaum’s tips on FOI requests

Martin Rosenbaum is the BBC's Freedom of Information expert. As well as using FOI to find stories himself, he helps journalists across the organisation use the FOI Act to access information on public bodies. You can see examples of his work on his BBC page, and find him on Twitter @rosenbaum6. In this video he gives some tips on writing FOI requests, including being specific about dates and knowing which organisation holds the information you're looking for.

Roundup: HMI Networks latest

Since the last time

In Help Me Investigate Health we've had the first of the 'Who's Who' series, kicked off with profiles of?Bill Morgan (special adviser on policy development) and Mark Simmonds.?

The roundup of key information from recent stories include questions over selling health data, the closure of walk-in centres, and the link between pepper spray deaths and stimulants.

In Welfare we've highlighted the community on the DWPexaminations message board, while Chie Elliott's investigation into the demise of the Travel for Interview Scheme has been picked up by Oli Conner,?who added Jobseekers' Allowance claimants data.?

Chie visualised the regional variations?that emerged, and?Carl Plant has since mapped the data too (blog post to come).

We're looking for people to publish regular links to relevant news stories on Help Me Investigate Health, Welfare and Education – if you want to get stuck in, email me on

Investigating Charities & Non-Profits.

Charities and Non-profit companies have become a major part of delivering public services. You will find these organisations operating in health care, education, culture and more, yet there seems to be very little media scrutiny into how these companies operate, this could be because they are often seen as small-scale and acting in the public interest – this is not always the case.

The last time you struggled to slot together a brain busting puzzle in the form of a flat pack bookshelf did you know that you were supporting “innovations in architecture and interior design”?

That is the aim of the Ingka Foundation, the tax exempt, non-profit trust that owns Ingka Holding – the parent company of all Ikea companies.

Yes, the home of Meatballs and cheap chairs is a charity, and quite a big one too, The Economist estimates the trusts net worth to be around $36 billion, making it even larger than the Gates Foundation.

(I’ve simplified this example, but you can read the full Economist article here)

So how to we investigate these organisations?
Firstly lets look at how the two types of organisations operate:

Charities – operate under The Charities Act 2006, the key element of which is that they have to operate for charitable purposes. There are 4 core ways in which a charities are legally structured:

Non-Profit – Most operate legally as a company limited by guarantee this means that instead of distributing profits to members they keep the profit within the organisation or use it for another specific reason.

If you intend to investigate either type of organisation your first stop should be the organisations own website. Their website should give details of their aims and objectives, how they intend to achieve these aims, a list of key staff members & trustees and financial information such as annual reports. Most organisations should be more than happy to share this information, even if it’s not published on their website, if they are not willing to share this information it may suggest that something is not quite right.

Most charities will be registered with the Charity Commission (England & Wales) or the The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (Scotland). These bodies exist to regulate charities and to ensure they operate within relevant laws. They operate a list of regulated charities and publish documents related to each one (such as annual accounts). There are some exceptions such as Academy schools, which are regulated by Department for Education (DfE). It’s worth noting that all three regulatory bodies are subject to the Freedom of Information act, which means that you may be able to uncover information about a charities compliance with the Charities Act 2006.

Regardless of whether or not the organisation you are investigating is registered as a charity, it is worth searching the records at Companies House to find further information.

Once you have the basic information on the organisation some of the things to look out for include:

Who’s running the organisation? what else are they involved in?

How is the organisation spending money? Staff salaries? Administration costs? – How much money goes towards the aims of the organisation?

Is the charity / non-profit org benefiting a corporation or individual? -This could be done through various means including procurement or even through the use of volunteers in place of paid workers.

(for example a drug company director might establish a charity to procure drugs from the drug company for distribution to developing countries)   

This is a brief introduction to investigating charities / non-profits, I’m sure you’ll have some more ideas and It’d be great to see those ideas in the comments. 

How do I publish my data online?

If you’ve got some data for your investigation and want to publish it – either for others to see the raw material, or to invite them to help you explore it – there are a number of ways to do it. 

If your data is in Excel, for example, you can use a tool like Tableizer to copy and paste the data to convert it into a HTML table that you can then use in a blog post or webpage.

You can also upload your spreadsheet to Google Docs, and publish the spreadsheet from there. This has the advantage of making it easier for others to work with the data (which they can’t easily do with a HTML table).

Google Docs allows you to publish the data in a range of formats – and will provide HTML for you to embed the spreadsheet too (this page explains how). Another advantage of this approach is that if you update the spreadsheet, these embedded and published versions will update too.

Finally, you may want to consider uploading and publishing your data to a site like BuzzData, a place where data journalists, developers, and other people interested in data share their work. The site allows you to ‘follow’ particular datasets and users, and so is a good way to connect with people who share an interest in your field, and who might be able to help you interrogate the data that you have.