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#Tip: Advice for making FOI requests in the UK and US

April 3rd, 2014 | No Comments | Posted by in Top tips for journalists

Freedom of Information laws are a game changer for journalists anywhere, opening up the inner workings of government for inspection and now 90 countries have some form of FOI legislation. Sweden set the ball rolling in 1766, the US ‘sunshine’ laws have been in place since 1967 but it took the UK until 2000 to catch up.

As part of Sunshine Week, an annual US event to celebrate and promote open information, IRE and NICAR put together this Soundcloud playlist of “tips, tricks and techniques” for FOIA requests in the US covering resources, tactics, workflows and appeals to help fellow journalists.

Sources for advice in the UK are a bit more disparate, but the FOI Directory has a good list of tips based on personal experience; the government has its own guide to the process; offers advice alongside pending and answered requests and here at we spoke to journalists in the know for this feature.

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#Tip of the day from – how to ask for data under FoI

At a meeting of Hacks/Hackers Canterbury on Monday, Nicola Hughes, a Knight-Mozilla fellow working at the Guardian, was asked a question about how to best get hold of a spreadsheet containing data when using the Freedom of Information Act.

Hughes explained that if the data exists as a spreadsheet or CSV file, the authority is obliged to make it available.

If a council or public body responds by stating it cannot release the data as some is confidential (details of those in foster care, for example), a request can be made to find out what details are in the database or spreadsheet and the person digging for information can then tailor their request to exclude the confidential information.

Ask for the “schema, name and footnotes” and the relationship between them, Hughes said, and then you can ask for what you are interested in.

For more on how to submit and FoI request see this guide.

If you have a tip you would like to submit to us at email us using this link.

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#jpod – Assessing the impact of the Freedom of Information Act and its future

February 24th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted by in Journalism, Podcast

This week’s jpod comes days after the Justice Select Committee began hearing evidence as part of its review of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Given the impact of the legislation on the everyday activities of the newsroom, we speak to Trinity Mirror’s David Higgerson and KM Group’s Paul Francis about current scrutiny of the law, the impact it has had on the news gathering process and how they would – and would not – like to see it developed in the future.

We also hear from:

  • member of the #SaveFOI campaign and FOI officer Paul Gibbons (@FOIManUK) about why he has joined the campaign to secure the future of the Act and his view on calls to introduce charges,
  • a director at the Local Government Information Unit Jonathan Carr-West about the role the FOI Act has played in building a culture of openness within public bodies,
  • and head of policy delivery at the Information Commissioner’s Office Steve Wood about the ICO’s role in adjudicating FOI complaints and proposed changes to the Act

You can hear future podcasts by signing up to the iTunes podcast feed.


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#Tip of the day from – new guide to Freedom of Information Act

February 6th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted by in Top tips for journalists

The Information Commissioner’s Office has produced a “new plain English guide to Freedom of Information”. It is aimed at helping “public authorities better understand what the Act says and how to apply it”, but may be helpful in reminding journalists of the rules also.

See the guide here.

Tipster: Rachel McAthy

If you have a tip you would like to submit to us at email us using this link– we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.

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Newspaper Society: Justice select committee calls for evidence on FOI Act

January 12th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal

The Newspaper Society issued a reminder this morning that the justice select committee has made a call for evidence on “the operation” of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – as part of its “post-legislative scrutiny” of the law.

The call for evidence was issued in December, but written evidence can still be submitted until Friday, 3 February.

The committee has asked for feedback on three areas in particular (copied below), but adds that those who submit responses are also “welcome to address additional issues”:

  • Does the Freedom of Information Act work effectively?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Freedom of Information Act?
  • Is the Freedom of Information Act operating in the way that it was intended to?

There is more information here on the select committee’s website.

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AP test claims 50% of countries with FOI laws ‘do not follow them’

November 17th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

Of the 105 countries which have laws governing the freedom of information, more than 50 per cent “do not follow them”, according to a test carried out by the Associated Press.

In a report on the findings of its test AP reveals that it sent out requests for information on “terrorism arrests and convictions … to the European Union and the 105 countries with right-to-know laws or constitutional provisions”, to find out how well they follow the rules.

According to its findings a total of just 14 gave complete responses and abided by the set time limit to do so in, while 38 “eventually answered most questions”.

The figures show 51 per cent of countries (a total of 54) approached for information by AP had not given it at the time of writing while 6 per cent “refused to disclose information, citing national security”.

Right-to-know laws seem to work better in some new democracies than older ones, the AP test showed, because their governments can adopt what has worked elsewhere.

Read the full report here.

AP is also asking its audience to send in ideas for more FOI requests they could make elsewhere.

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Petition for Hillsborough papers release exceeds 120,000 signatures

August 24th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Politics

The BBC reported yesterday that an online petition calling for cabinet papers relating to the Hillsborough disaster to be released had collected 100,000 signatures, which is the amount required for the issue to be considered for a debate in parliament.

This number has continued to rise and is currently over the 120,000 mark.

The papers in question are said to contain details of conversations involving former prime minister Margaret Thatcher about the Hillsborough disaster. The BBC originally requested that the papers be released through a freedom of information request two years ago.

Last month the information commissioner Sir Christopher Graham ruled that there was a public interest in the information being released. It also accused the authority of an “excessive delay” in responding to the original request, which was then to deny the release of the information under a series of exemptions.

The Cabinet Office has since appealed the decision, the BBC reports in this article.

Trinity Mirror Regional’s head of multimedia David Higgerson blogs here about the potential impact of the ultimate decision on the government’s claims of transparency and openness.

… it’s only by seeing the documents in full that we’ll know the current government believes in true openness – an openness where the agenda is set by the public, not by the civil servants.

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Can FOI requests be submitted on Twitter? Yes, says ICO

In its monthly newsletter, sent out yesterday (28 July), the Information Commissioners Office sought to clarify an interesting question: whether or not people can use Twitter to submit freedom of information requests. And the answer is yes.

While Twitter is not the most effective channel for submitting or responding to freedom of information requests, this does not mean that requests sent using Twitter are necessarily invalid. They can be valid requests in freedom of information terms and authorities that have Twitter accounts should plan for the possibility of receiving them.

… The ICO has also been asked whether a request in a tweet that only refers to an authority in an @mention, for example @ICOnews, is really directed to and received by that authority. The ICO’s view is that it is. Twitter allows the authority to check for @mentions of itself, and so it has in effect received that request, even though it was not sent directly to the authority like an email or letter.

According to the ICO the key requirement is the request must state the name of the applicant, which may not be shown in the Twitter name but instead in a linked profile.

But the ICO does warn that if the requester does not give their real name, it is technically not a valid freedom of information request.

Whilst the authority may still choose to respond, the requester should be made aware that the Information Commissioner will not be able to deal with any subsequent complaint.

As for an address, as this is difficult given the limited length of a tweet, authorities are reminded they can ask the requester for an email address in order to provide a full response, or publish the requested information, or a refusal notice, on its website and tweet a link to that.

The ICO does add, however, that requesters are encouraged to use this channel responsibly. “If they do not, the authority could consider using the exemptions for vexatious and repeated requests in section 14 of the Freedom of Information Act”, the newsletter entry states.

Hatip: Andy Mabbet, aka pigsonthewing

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David Higgerson: Journalists must keep pushing for open data

May 19th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Data, Editors' pick

David Higgerson, head of multimedia for Trinity Mirror Regionals, has published the address he made about data journalism at the FutureEverything conference in Manchester last week, making some interesting points.

Higgerson says that for journalists the biggest challenge is going to keep “pushing” for data to become available.

Councils have to issue details of all spending over £500 – but some councils have decided to publish all spending because it’s cheaper to do so. As journalists, we should push for that to happen everywhere.

FOI is key here. The more we ask for something under FOI because it isn’t freely available, the greater the chance its release will become routine, rather than requested. That’s the challenge for today’s data journalists: Not creating stunning visualisations, but helping to decide what is released, rather than just passively accepting what’s released.

Read his post in full here… is running a one-day digital journalism conference looking at data in the news industry next week at Thomson Reuters. news:rewired – noise to signal will take place on Friday 27 May. You can find out more information and buy tickets by following this link.

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#Tip of the day from – FOI blogs and websites

March 29th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal, Top tips for journalists

The International Forum for Responsible Media blog (Inforrm) has compiled this useful list of sites and blogs relating to Freedom of Information issues which it links to in its work. A great resource list for journalists/bloggers. Tipster: Rachel McAthy.

To submit a tip to, use this link – we will pay a fiver for the best ones published.

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