Claire Miller says routine publishing of data normally gained by FoI requests would 'probably save councils a lot of time' as well as helping journalistsCopyright: By Alex Gorzen (originally posted to Flickr as DSC09910) [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
But as Jonathan Carr-West, a director at the Local Government Information Unit, recently pointed out in Journalism.co.uk's podcast about the impact of FoI, requests very rarely uncover malpractice and scandal on the level of the MPs expenses story.
For many journalists and members of the public, the real value of FoI comes not with the scoop, but with the culture of openness and transparency it promotes.
Richard Taylor, a volunteer for WhatDoTheyKnow, a website run by mySociety enabling people to make and browse FoI requests, said: "Freedom of Information law has empowered people, it's given people the right to have information held by public bodies released.Through FoI we've moved from people calling for greater transparency, to empowering people, allowing them to obtain information they are seekingRichard Taylor
"Through FoI we've moved from people calling for greater transparency, to empowering people, allowing them to obtain information they are seeking."
For staff at the Liverpool Post and Echo, FoI now has a constant presence in the newsroom. City editor David Bartlett said: "We tend to have a few going in the background but you don’t always get a story.
"I struggle to put a number on it but there’s always FoIs going from various reporters." But he emphasised it was all about what the journalists did with the information.
It is not just journalists who submit newsworthy FoI requests. One of Bartlett's FoI-based stories, recently featured on David Higgerson's FoI Friday, centred around Liverpool council paying for luxury cars for two council officials. A reader had tipped Bartlett off about his FoI request, which resulted in the story appearing in the Liverpool Echo.
Claire Miller, a data journalist at Media Wales, also knows how useful the data gathered from FOI can be. "We do tend to use them to get stories," she said. "But the information we get is potentially useful to other people beyond the story itself."
Take for example, Miller's story about empty homes in Wales, which was one of her two stories nominated in the first Data Journalism awards. WalesOnline made the data driving the story available on a map easily accessed by its readers on their datastore. "This way, if someone sees a lot of empty homes in their area, they can ask [their local representative] why that is," said Miller.The information we get is potentially useful to other people beyond the story itselfClaire Miller
There is no doubt this information is useful, but this kind of story has the clear potential for repeat requests in the future to generate follow-up stories on any changes in the situation.
"I think there’s a lot of scope for re-doing FoIs like that every year or two years, but it would be nice if the information was released regularly," Miller said.
For lecturer in telematics at the Open University Tony Hirst, there is a gap between FoI and open data which needs to be filled. Hirst has recently begun experimenting with information available about different types of requests on website WhatDoTheyKnow to gauge what kind of information people seem to be most interested in.
He said that "seeing that data helps you work out exactly what to look for". Hirst has already compiled a list of successful FoI requests to universities from WhatDoTheyKnow and hopes to do a similar project with the UK's councils.
As Hirst points out, once one public authority has released a set of data, it is easier for journalists to get it once more. He said: "Someone has had to ask: 'can we release this data?', so a lot of the legwork has been done, so they know it’s fine for this data to be released."
In this case, where trends have been indicated in the kind of research Hirst is conducting, there is a clear argument to be made for such data to be routinely released, bridging the gap between FoI and open data. Taylor stated this was also the hope of the team at WhatDoTheyKnow, saying: "We are very keen to see the need for FoI requests reduced by more automated, routine, proactive publication of information by public bodies."
For journalists, there is no doubt the routine publishing of data normally gained by repeat FoI requests would be invaluable.
"It would probably save councils a lot of time because they wouldn’t get the same questions over and over again," Miller added.
But Hirst's research could prove to be valuable to journalists too. Recognising what their audience want to know inevitably helps drive potential stories, even if the related authorities are not routinely releasing the information.
However, for journalists, the core skill still continues to be being able to use information in an innovative and thought-provoking way that is useful to their readers.
Earlier this year we published a guide to submitting a Freedom of Information request.
Journalism.co.uk is also running a course on Freedom of Information with Paul Francis, political editor at the KM Group, on 15 June 2012. For more information and tickets please click here.