Tag Archives: spreadsheets

What to do when an FOI response is not provided in the form asked for

Heard the one about the FOI request for data to be provided in an Excel spreadsheet? The authority printed it out, scanned it, and sent a PDF version of the scan.

You’ll forgive the journalist for being suspicious when an authority goes to such extremes to make it hard to interrogate their data.

In cases like these it’s worth looking at the Information Commissioner’s awareness guidance 29 on ‘means of communication’ (PDF):

This quotes Section 11(1) of the Freedom of Information Act, which stipulates that authorities should comply with your preference for “a copy of the information in [a] form acceptable to the applicant … so far as is reasonably practicable”

The key phrase here is “reasonably practicable”. In the example above, there is no excuse that simply sending the original Excel file – instead of a scanned PDF – was not “reasonably practicable”. 

What then? Well, you should ask for an explanation, and make a formal complaint to the authority quoting the ICO guidance and Section 11(1) or the FOI Act. If that doesn’t get any results, write to the ICO. Here’s the full passage from the guidance:

“If a public authority decides that it is not reasonably practicable to provide the information in the form preferred by the applicant … the authority must tell the applicant and give its reasons. The duty on the public authority is then to provide the information by any means which are reasonable in the circumstances. 

“If the applicant is not satisfied with the decision and wants to make a complaint, they must complete the public authority’s complaints procedure (if there is one). Once this process is complete, if the applicant remains dissatisfied, they may write to the ICO.”

If you are unlucky to deal with an authority which is regularly uncooperative in this manner, it may be worth quoting the awareness guidance 29 and Section 11(1) of the Act in your request for the information to be provided in spreadsheet form, for example:

“I would like this information to be provided in spreadsheet format (xls or csv) in line with Section 11(1) of the FOI Act and ICO Awareness Guidance 29.

Also useful more broadly when looking at the way a request is handled are the guidelines on ‘Request handling’ on the ICO website.

Allowing others to edit your spreadsheet – and tracking what happens

Following on from the previous post on creating and publishing a spreadsheet online, here’s how you allow others to add to that, and how you track what happens:

To allow others to edit your spreadsheet, open it and click on Share (in the top right area) then click See who has access…

A new window will open – towards the bottom of that it will say ‘Sign-in is required to view this item’ which means users need a Google account to see it. Click ‘Change‘ next to that.
3 options will pop up:
  • Always require sign-in – users need to be signed in to their Google account to see this
  • Let people view without signing in – users do not need a Google account to see it, but cannot edit 
  • Let people edit without signing in – users can edit the spreadsheet regardless of whether they have a Google account or not

This last option is best if you want to allow others to add information to your spreadsheet

But what if someone deletes all my data? Setting up alerts

On the same window you can set up the spreadsheet so you are alerted whenever anyone makes changes.

Click on My notification settings.

You will be presented with a number of options for when you are notified of any changes

If a change is made that you don’t like (e.g. someone deletes all data) go to File > Revision history

The spreadsheet will now have the latest change highlighted and above the top row of cells will be a number of new buttons – click on Older to see how the spreadsheet looked before the last change that was made.

Then click Revert to this one to change the spreadsheet back to how it looked then (You will be asked to confirm – click OK).

If this isn’t the version you want to revert to you can keep clicking Older to go back in the spreadsheet’s history. The Newer button will take you in the other direction, to more recent versions.

Making it really easy – allowing updates by form

There’s a better way to allow users to add data to your spreadsheet – creating a form. I explain how to do this here.

Creating and publishing a spreadsheet online

For some investigations it will be useful to create a public spreadsheet of information. There are 3 main reasons why:

  • It’s a better way of displaying data than using a sentence of text
  • It means people can easily see where the gaps are – and fill them in
  • It also allows people to do interesting things with the data, like visualise it, or mix it up (‘mashup’) with information from elsewhere, e.g. maps

One of the most popular tools for creating public spreadsheets of data is Google Spreadsheets, part of Google Docs. Continue reading