Sunday, 28 April 2013

Phones, trips, banks and blood - FOI roundup

Latest stories in Ireland obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, north and south:

Photo: Duncan Rawlinson
Mobile phone thefts in Derry are up 70%, according to a report in the Derry Journal. 257 phones were reported as stolen in the city in the last year.

After 11 weeks of waiting, the Belfast Telegraph got a response to its request for information from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) about overseas trips. But the information is skimpy. There's little detail as to what the purposes of the trips are or what hotels were used. And the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) is still withholding details of their trips.

In the south, in the Irish Examiner the big story was the European Central Bank's demand that no Freedom of Information requests about the liquidation of the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC) be answered. The Minister of Finance pointed out that the FOI act provided for information to be withheld for a variety of reasons and IBRC requests would probably be denied under the Act's exemptions. But stories have suggested that the ECB have refused to work with the Department at all if information is disclosed.

Meanwhile the Irish Times reveals a letter suggesting that proposed €1 billion public service cutbacks may reduce economic activity by half of one percent; and a report on the Irish Blood Transfusion Service has found major deficiencies in quality assurance procedures.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Fine Art of Colouring In

When you ask for information under FOI, sometimes details have to be held back. What's reasonable, and how should it be done?

On 5 February this year, a requester called Nick Wintour wrote to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, via the What Do They Know website. He wanted to know the cost of the winning tender for a promotional video the service had commissioned, along with a breakdown of the costs and a copy of the tender document.

Their response was provided almost a month late, on 15 April. The video, he was told, cost £11,370 but the details could not be provided for reasons of commercial interest; and he was given, as requested, a copy of the tender document.

It was 50 pages long.

Most of the pages were blacked out - 39 pages in their entirety.

It's quite frustrating to receive a response like this. But is it justified? And how do you do it?

Marker Time

There are two kinds of FOI enquiries which take up a lot of time. One is where an exemption has to be claimed, which requires analysis, argument and careful judgement. That's often hard work, but it's usually interesting.

But there are other enquiries where most of the information is provided, but some needs to be withheld. And that means one thing.

It's chunky black marker time.

Redacting bits of information from a document is laborious and time consuming. It usually involves reading through the paperwork very carefully and obscuring details, usually with a black marker - what my counterparts in the University of Edinburgh used to call 'colouring in'.

It takes ages, after a while the words swim confusingly in front of your eyes, and if you're sitting in a small room, you will find yourself getting high from the marker fumes (some people see this as one of the perks of the job; I couldn't possibly comment).

Getting it right, in these circumstances, is difficult. And yet, it's also essential.

Traps for the unwary

(If you're an FOI requester, sorry about this bit, it's for FOI practitioners and it won't help you - the section you want comes next)

First up, have a big supply of black chunky markers and discard each one the moment it begins to give out: your marking needs to be black, not gray.

Second, don't send the requester a scan of the document: the light from a scanner can often reveal the underlying text. You may end up giving away more than you intended. Photocopy the marked document, and send a scan of the copy.

Thirdly, even blanked out details can be useful. If you're blanking out the names of Professor Hu and Professor Csikszentmihalyi in a document, it won't be too difficult for the requester to figure out who Professor XX is. Try and randomise your blanking.

Fourthly, don't use correction fluid (Tippex, Snopake etc). This can be scraped away to show what's underneath.

Finally, if you want to redact details from an electronic document, do it properly. Don't just put a layer of black boxes on pages of a PDF. Use proper redaction software (such as Adobe Acrobat) and if you have a Word Document with comments turned on, print it to PDF and send this.

What not to redact

Bearing in mind the tediousness of redaction, it's not surprising that FOI officers err on the side of caution - it's easier to blank a whole page than individual words, and there's less chance of missing something. You don't have much time to make decisions, so your process is likely to follow a simple rule: if in doubt, blank it out.

For this reason, if you think the information in your document has been wrongly redacted, don't hesitate to request a review or repeal.

Many organizations prefer to withhold complete documents rather than produce a redacted one, but very often most of the document can be provided with just some withheld. But what can you reasonably expect to be withheld?

The video contract mentioned above is a good example, and it's actually been properly done - each page is marked with the relevant exemption to show why it was withheld. This is good practice - often you get pages blacked out without reasons given.

In the contract, some redactions are very justifiable. It includes details on the personnel, their backgrounds and experience. Unless the company are using an Oscar-winning director, or inexperienced interns, there's no reason for you to have their personal details. It's not important. (Personal data is one of the most redacted items. Since most FOI officers also work in data protection, they're particularly cautious about this. In the case of animal research, withholding a person's name may protect them from injury.)

Secondly, information about the company's pricing is probably correctly withheld: it's specialist information of use to competitors and suppliers.

Not so clear is why the company's methodology is secret: making a video is a fairly straightforward process and there's not a great deal of room for different methods. Besides, the results would be plainly seen in the end product. I think someone's been overcautious here.

One particularly bad example of redaction happened to Irish journalist Gerard Cunningham (@faduda on Twitter). He asked for data on the government's Jobbridge scheme which allows companies to take on unpaid interns in receipt of social welfare benefits. The relevant department replied, but refused to disclose the company ID numbers - they said this would allow someone to log on and access the company data. He didn't mind, but he wanted to be able to match companies to jobs they were offering. He suggested they use a simple algorithm to replace the real number with a new one. They refused, saying they were not required to create new information. But of course this isn't creating information, it's obscuring it, in exactly the way you do with a black marker.

If you get a redacted document in response to an enquiry, it's difficult to avoid the feeling that the small amount of information blacked out is exactly the vital information you need. Sometimes it is - but sometimes even though it isn't, it just stares at you, taunting you. The chances are that it's been correctly withheld. But you should certainly been given reasons for the redaction and you should be prepared to challenge any you feel are not justified.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Cost of Knowing

Freedom of Information is not free - so how much can you ask for?

I've recently sent an FOI request to a large number of schools in Northern Ireland, and while many responded quickly - and correctly - some of them demanded money for responding. That's perhaps understandable, since they're clearly not familiar with the law and it probably seems like an unnecessary expense for them; but it's not what the law allows.

One thing that really confuses people is the cost exemption. Under UK law, public authorities are allowed to refuse a request if it would cost too much to answer. In UK central government, and for all Scottish authorities, it's £600; in other cases the limit is £450. Since the main cost of answering requests is staff time, there is a set charge for this. In Scotland, this is £15, which means a requester can get up to 40 hours of staff effort. In other parts of the UK, the amount is £25, so you can expect 24 hours of central government time or 18 hours elsewhere. (Strictly speaking, this is the most you can charge, and you could provide more if you use staff costing less than this; but I don't think anyone actually does this).

The charge you can't charge for

Here's where it gets confusing. This figure is just for estimation purposes: if a request would cost more than this to answer, an authority can legally refuse to provide any information at all. But you cannot actually charge for staff time. One school insisted that I had to pay £50 for the two hours of staff time they thought it would cost to respond, and insisted they had legal advice that said they could do this. I had to explain that under the FOI Act, they can only charge for copying and postage - as long as the staff time was under the cost limit, it's free.

(In Scotland, by the way, they can charge for staff time, but only if it costs over £100, and then only 10% of the amount. In Ireland, in addition to the €15 charge for asking in the first place, there are 'search and retrieval fees' of €20.95, although there is no cost limit, so if you can afford it, ask away. In theory a 'voluminous' request can be rejected, but as there are no guidelines as to what this means, nobody uses it.)

If you're looking for environmental information, of course, things are different yet again. There is no cost limit in either the UK or Ireland, and copying and postage can be charged for. It's not clear whether staff costs can be charged - the Scottish Information Commissioner seems to think so, but recent court cases in Dublin and London seem to contradict this.

Finally, if the materials you ask for are normally published, and charged for, by the authority, they can still do this. Although they shouldn't charge unreasonable fees for this.

Hitting the cost limit

If you've got an enquiry for several authorities, it's worth testing it out on one first - asking for the information, and asking how they collected it and how long this took them. That can be a useful piece of information when approaching other bodies (though they may have quite different filing systems).

What happens if a body decides your request will cost more than the limit? They can refuse your request, but it shouldn't stop there. Their decision ought to be based on a reasonable estimate. Let's take an example.

Broken premises

You work for a local authority. A requester wants to know how many premises have been broken into in the last 20 years. As an FOI officer, your first call will be to the head of security, if there is one, or the director of premises or estates. They may have a handy file called 'break-ins' in which case you can answer within the hour. But they probably don't. They may have files of correspondence with the police. But these may not go back 20 years, they won't include any break-ins that were not reported, and they will mostly be about other things. This is probably not going to be very productive, but it may be the best you can do. The files are probably not large, so it won't take more than a couple of hours to look through them.

On the other hand, a good FOI officer should have good contacts. If you know the person who actually goes round checking out premises security - I once worked with such a man with the splendid name of George Bernard Shaw - you might discover that all such incidents would be recorded on the relevant premises file.

A quick investigation, however, reveals that the authority owns 300 premises, from headquarters buildings to toolsheds, and the files go back 60 years or more. You pick up a file at random and flick through it. It takes you fifteen minutes to look through, and discover that there was a break in noted in 1994. Based on this estimate, and guessing there are at least 300 files to be considered, you decide it would take at least 75 hours to read through them all. Congratulations, you've hit the cost limit.

But you can't quite stop there. How are the files organised? By region? By type of premises? By decade? Or just alphabetically? If you want to do your job properly, you need to think about this.

Under the UK legislation, authorities are supposed to offer 'advice and assistance' and this includes helping them bring their request within the cost limit. You should offer to provide an answer from a subset of the files, if this would be possible. Of course, in this case, you need to give them an idea of what they could realistically ask for - files going back only 5 years, say, or only one part of the council area. This might be all they need. You should explain how you worked out the cost estimate.

Narrowing the estimate

If you send an authority a narrowed request following a cost refusal, they are allowed to treat this as a new request. (They cannot treat your request for details on how they arrived at their cost estimate as a new request, as happened to Lyra McKee of The Muckraker.)

This was the Police Service of Northern Ireland, verging on obstruction.

It can be frustrating to have to wait a further 20 days to get the information, so it's important for both sides to have clear details of the records involved. It's important as well to have a sound basis for your calculation. In 2010, the Information Commissioner reported on the attempts by Queen's University Belfast to withhold data on tree rings:
As part of its initial arguments for refusal of the request, QUB had stated that the requested data was held electronically on 150 disks and manually in paper files. QUB’s initial estimate for the time taken to comply with the request was 12 months of full-time work for one person.
When the Commissioner's staff investigated, however, they came to a different conclusion:
at the inspection of 26 February 2009 the Commissioner noted that there were in fact only 67 disks, which contained 150 folders of relevant data. The Commissioner examined a sample of the disks, and established that the raw data, approximately 11,000 tree measurement samples, was held electronically in an average of 20-60 folders per floppy disk. .. the Commissioner established during the inspection that on average it would take approximately 5 minutes to transfer the data folder to folder using Notepad. Accordingly, the Commissioner estimated that it would take approximately 12.5 hours to complete the transfer of all disks and make a copy.
It's important, therefore, to have a realistic estimate. It's also important, as a requester, to be flexible about what information can be provided. You could, in the council example, ask for information on the past 2  years instead of 20 years. But unless the files are organized chronologically, this may not be of much benefit; each file would still have to be examined, although not all pages would have to be considered if the papers are in date order.

There is one solution to this problem that's rarely attempted, although it is often almost as good: use a sample instead. If all you want to know is how often council premises get broken into, you can get almost as good information simply by extrapolating from a random selection of files. If you're familiar with Douglas Hubbard's book How to Measure Anything, you'll know that a small sample can often provide amazingly accurate information. From just 30 of the 300 files - which would take less than 8 hours to examine - you should get a pretty clear picture of how rare or common break-ins are.

Of course, this might not be the sort of information you want. And if it is, you're probably not going to make  yourself popular with FOI Officers. But if it gets you answers within the cost limit, it's worth going for.

Aggregating requests

Finally, you might have the bright idea of getting your request in by the simple process of splitting it into several requests - either from you, or from a group of friends. The framers of the FOI Act, however, are one step ahead of you: this way of getting round the cost limit won't work. Authorities are entitled to 'aggregate' together records which are obviously part of the same enquiry, or part of a campaign: they can add the costs of all the enquiries together in order to come to a total, and refuse all if the total exceeds what they're allowed.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

What Do We Know Now? - April 2013

Some recent queries answered on the What Do They Know website:

The Police Service of Northern Ireland cannot say how many referrals it has from the Central Investigation Service of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. It would take 3,600 hours to find out.

Body Cameras are not worn in any capacity in Banbridge District Council.

Personal statements are not used to determine entry to Medicine courses in Queen's University Belfast, but they may be used as evidence of mitigating or extenuating circumstances.

The following stories were featured on the @FOIreland twitter account:

The PSNI say there are around 1099 people on the sex offenders register in Northern Ireland, but they don't have a record of how many re-offend. They also reveal that Tasers were used 630 times in the last five years, but it would take too long to work out details of age or ethnicity of those tasered.

Finally, the Department for Employment and Learning revealed the names of 215 organisations and businesses who had employed people using the Youth Employment Service over the past five years. The list includes ASDA, Barnardos, Carrickfergus Borough Council, Halfords, Jollyes Pet Shop, McDonalds, Premier Inn, Sacred Heart Primary School, Sinn Fein, and Subway.

Wind farms, Airport VIPs, and gay blood donors - FOI Roundup

This month's crop of FOI requests from Irish newspapers so far

The Irish Times reports that An Taisce (southern equivalent of the UK's National Trust) has objected to 40% of all planning applications for wind farms received by the government's planning body, despite being 'enthusiastic supporters' of the government's plans to generate up to 40% of energy from renewable sources.

The newspaper also reports on various items of government expenditure - with good news for citizens trying to make ends meet: catering for Cabinet meetings, it turns out, averages just €20, with SPAR being one of the main suppliers. At the same time, the Department of the Taoiseach spend €1,700 on cufflinks. The article highlights the fact that €22,000 was spent in six months on VIP treatment for political visitors to Dublin Airport, with former President Mary Robinson a major user of the service.

(The current promotions page at SPAR Ireland reveals that €20 would buy just 20 packets of Hobnobs. That's easily a whole packet per minister. However, if they're willing to share, there should be enough for a cup of Barry's tea each as well.)

Meanwhile, north of the border, both the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter covered the decision of the UK Information Commissioner to order disclosure of the legal advice received by Health Minister Edwin Poots on the subject of blood donations by gay men. Legal advice is usually prevented from disclosure by Section 42 of the FOI Act, so it's unusual for the Commissioner to decide that the public interest is in favour of disclosure: the key issue here seems to be that in the rest of the UK the policy is now to accept donations from men who have been celibate for a year, yet Northern Ireland retains a lifetime ban. The Minister is said to be considering an appeal. Interesting, if the appeal is successful, a decision on whether to veto disclosure would have to be made jointly by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which has never happened before.

Other stories revealed recently under FOI (and published already via the FOIreland Twitter account, @FOIreland)

Irish Times - senior civil servant 'had an inappropriate level of contact' with Barclay tycoons; and the paper is told that releasing information on the horse meat scandal would not be in the public interest.

Irish Medical Times - representatives of the National Office of Clinical Audit are concerned that results of clinical audits will have to be disclosed under Freedom of Information legislation. (“We are advised by senior counsel that while Freedom of Information requests may well be denied, refusals may result in challenges in courts.") [NOTE: to read this article, you have to pretend to be a medical professional, because the people who run the Irish Medical Times website are idiots]

Irish Independent - retired civil servants have been paid more than €1.3 million for conducting job interviews; and Irish universities have spent €1.7 million on rats and mice for medical experiments.

The Detail: fire crews in Northern Ireland take as much as four times as long to respond to emergencies in rural areas than in urban ones.