Tag Archives: freedom of information

Finding data in Scotland

I’ve delivered data journalism training in Scotland twice in the past few months, and thought I’d share some tips on what data is available there, given that most guidance on data journalism focuses on data in England or the US.

General statistics and data

Scottish Neighbourhood Statistics has a ‘data download’ page which allows you to download data on a range of topics, each of which has dozens or hundreds of indicators, from ‘Physical environment’ (24 indicators) to ‘Economic activity, benefits and tax credits’ (377 indicators).

Subjects covered include health, housing, access to services, community care, crime, education and ‘special interest’ reports (these include sea fisheries, poverty and cultural event attendance).

Once you’ve downloaded the data you may find that it doesn’t name each local authority but instead uses a series of codes. These are ONS (Office for National Statistics) codes – you can find a master list on Wikipedia.

The Scottish Government Statistics page also provides access to a range of topics, including agriculture, business, tourism, transport and travel.

The Equality Evidence Finder is particularly interesting: this is an attempt to show the equality of different industries across measures such as gender, disability, income and so on. This, for example, is the page summarising the picture for ethnicity in Scottish business, enterprise and tourism.

The General Register Office for Scotland has broad statistics about births, deaths and marriages (known as ‘vital events‘), life expectancy, migration and elections.

And of course don’t overlook Data.gov.uk, where you can subscribe to an RSS feed for new datasets mentioning ‘Scotland’.

Health data in Scotland

ISD Scotland – the Information Services Division of NHS National Services Scotland – provides a range of health data from the right hand column of its home page, from specific conditions including cancer and mental health, through to the NHS workforce, eye care and dentistry, maternity, and prescriptions.

Rather helpfully, NHS Scotland has its own domain at scot.nhs.uk, which means you can a search for Scottish health data on Google by adding site:scot.nhs.uk to any search terms. Using your particular health board (e.g. ‘Grampian’) will also help.

NHS National Services Scotland is another useful domain at nhsnss.org – adding site:nhsnss.org to your search (and, for example filetype:xls) might also bring up some useful data – I found data on gifts and hospitality, payments to GP practices, and cancer waiting times using those.

Health Protection Scotland has regular data reports and publications. And there’s the Scottish Health Survey and Inpatient Patient Experience Survey on the Scottish Government statistics pages.

Education data in Scotland

Education Scotland publishes school reports, publications, and provides school-level information through the Scottish Schools Online portal. Some of this data is available as datasets through the Scottish Government statistics page too, such as this page on school meals.

Environment data in Scotland

Scottish Environment Statistics Online (SESO) publishes datasets on a wide range of indicators from recycling and conservation to air quality and noise pollution.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency monitors environmental conditions and waste, most of which is linked from here.

And Scottish Natural Heritage has a page linking to statistics and reports.

If you are interested in data which has any sort of environmental impact (this can include things like housing and construction) then it may be worth looking into the Environmental Information (Scotland) Regulations (EIR).

This is similar to Freedom of Information laws, but have fewer exceptions and apply to a wider range of public bodies. The book EIR without the Lawyer is a useful guide for journalists.

Data on crime, justice and fire

The Scottish Government statistics pages on crime and justice, covering everything from perceptions of crime to numbers of police, racist incidents, the prison population and re-offending.

They also have data on fires and fire and rescue servicesAudit Scotland also has performance data on the fire and rescue services.

The Judiciary of Scotland has been more open than its English counterpart, with data including judicial expenses, and judgments and sentences – although these are provided as PDFs and feeds rather than more easily downloadable data.

Local government data in Scotland

Audit Scotland’s Council performance pages are a fantastic resource if you’re interested in the performance of services under local authority control. This includes schools, housing, social work and hundreds of ‘performance indicators’, with a spreadsheet for every council.

You can also look at the same data for all councils by service on the services page.

Local government finance data can be found on the Scottish Government statistics site – including council tax collection and budgets.

On housing some local authorities have passed over some or all of their housing responsibilities to housing associations. You can find data on these on the Scottish Housing Regulator site including inspection reports, accounts, performance returns and performance profile, regulation and rules.

The Scottish Parliament

MPs’ allowances are published on the Scottish Parliament website. It’s not particularly easy to download and compare. In these situations it’s often worth searching to see if you can find someone who’s tackled the problem – and Owen Boswarva did (at least, he did in 2011/12), providing a link to the bulk data. If he did it once, he may do it again, if you ask nicely…

Freedom of Information in Scotland

Scotland has its own Freedom of Information Act and its own Information Commissioner, who has a reputation for enforcing the Act more strongly than his equivalent south of the border.

To complicate things, many bodies operating in Scotland will also be subject to the UK FOI Act and the UK Information Commissioner.

You can follow public FOI requests mentioning ‘Scotland’ made using WhatDoTheyKnow, or of course specify a different region like ‘Dundee’ or a related term like ‘Scottish’. And you can look for Scottish public bodies’ disclosure logs, where they may be publishing the latest FOI requests answered.

Scotland also has the INSPIRE (Scotland) Regulations, which provide access to mapping – “spatial” – data.

And more broadly you may be interested in Public Contracts Scotland, which provides access to data on contracts awarded by local authorities, health bodies, education agencies, emergency services and national government.

I’ll be adding to and updating this post as I think of other sources. If you know of any please let me know.

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.

How to investigate

Think something is unjust or unfair – or just curious to know why something happened or how something works? Are you saying “Someone ought to do something”? That someone is you.

Society is only as good as those individuals willing to stand up and ask questions of the people in charge. I’m guessing you’re one of those individuals.

As a seasoned battler with bureaucracy here are my top tips about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to finding things out.

First, though, you might want to know the sort of mindset that helps in an investigation. The good investigator must value his or herself and her right to know. If you paid for it or it’s a public service then you have a right to know how that money is spent or why a decision was made.

An investigator should also have the ability to:

  • Think independently
  • Question received knowledge
  • Laser through bullshit
  • Find facts

What we can’t do at Help Me Investigate is do your investigation for you. And you probably wouldn’t want us to.

Your case is something about which I imagine you feel very strongly and that is always the best motivation for finding out something.

What we will do is provide an environment, tools and a community that can help.

Accessing information is a matter of persistence and will. It took me 5 years of persistent effort and even a High Court case before MPs were forced to disclose their expense receipts. It’s not going to be that difficult to find out why a tree was cut down on your road but the point is that you will need some tenacity and will. Don’t give up at the first hurdle but equally don’t be dispirited if you don’t get results overnight.

The aim of this site is empower people by giving them the tools they need to investigate for themselves and to break investigations up into lots of smaller tasks – ‘challenges’ – that people can complete in their own time. You can find advice on this website and also on my website www.yrtk.org and book ‘Your Right to Know. There’s nothing we can do that you can’t, and you will have much better knowledge of your particular situation and the people involved.

As for making Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests – I’d recommend you use this website: www.whatdotheyknow.com. You can read many other requests (including some of mine) and see how various public bodies respond. The site will also help you keep track of requests and when organisations need to respond.

If you come across a specific hurdle and think we can help, do get in touch.

Tips for creating your own investigation:

1. Be specific

If you want a concrete answer you must ask a concrete question. If you think the council has an unfair parking system try to find a way to quantify that. Ask for a breakdown of tickets issued by street, of revenue raised, etc.

Officials can avoid giving a straight answer to a general question; it’s much harder if you ask a very specific detailed question.

2. Be clear

You must first be clear in your own mind what you want to find out. Then keep your investigation concise.

Have a main point and stick to it. Don’t wander off on personal digressions or gripes. Write grammatically and use a dictionary to spell correctly to avoid being written off as part of the ‘green-ink brigade’.

3. Be reasonable

It’s not always a conspiracy. More likely you’ll find the reason something went wrong was due to incompetence or a failure of communication within the institution.

Avoid personal insults. This leaves you open to being attacked personally yourself and you should want to maintain the moral highground.

4. Manage your expectations

Think in terms of tangible things you can actually do. ‘Get rid of all evil parking attendants’ is not really a manageable goal. Instead think about what you can do: make a phone call, write a letter, send a freedom of information request, do some research, talk to people, campaign.

You should expect to come up against opposition, after all no one likes to admit they are wrong and few people willingly give up power.

You would hope that those in authority understand that in a democracy they serve at the pleasure of the people and that they would welcome the involvement of the citizenry. But I found this is not usually the case and you will have to go some way to collect enough evidence to force change.