The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from 2005 gives the right to anyone, without restriction of age or nationality, to access recorded data by public sector organisations such as police forces, courts, local councils, educational and health organisations.
In data journalism, it is a popular practice to request information under the FOIA as it is often providing insights into difficult social issues or simply, really good human interest stories. In this article you’ll find out an easy way to file an FOI request that’s more likely to get answered promptly and with the details you mostly need.
You can directly email the media office of the public organisation you intend to request information from. In the example I’m using here, I’ve emailed the Devon & Somerset Fire and Rescue Service asking them to provide me with their incident data for the last 2 years.
I used this example which was set in my MA class and the idea is to be as specific as possible about the information you want to get. You need to ask the information to be broke down in all the variables that could apply to the type of data. In this case fire incidents can be broke down by year, location, outcome, risk category, month, day and event time. From this data, a data-savvy journalist can create insightful stories around fire incidents in the particular area by visualising curious findings or including human interest stories such as what’s the most common type of fire occuring in residential buildings or if there is a noticable pattern of when incidents occur.
However, it is really imporant to research the jargon used in a practice as it plays a huge role into getting the right information. While I got detailed information on fire indicidents in the Devon and Somerset area, I didn’t do a great job filing a FOI request to the WM police as I wasn’t aware of the exact jargon I should have used at the time.
Anyway, if your FOI request doesn’t get a response to your email with an acknowledgement and notice that the data will be sent within 20 working days, there are websites that can file a request for you publicly. This way it is harder for the public bodies to avoid accountability and respond in a helpful way.
The website What Do They Know is great in doing so and it’s really easy to use. They have a list of 19,2017 government bodies and public authorities, so it even saves you time from looking for their contact details. You just start typing the name of the organisation you want to send a request to. When a response has been received, the site will send it to you and share it publicly online for anyone to download or view. It’s good to browse the previous requests made in case your questions are already answered or if you just like to know what other people care to find out about.