Spreadsheet with pen
Credit: By Jorge Franganillo on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
A new court of appeal ruling could make it easier for journalists to request data under the UK Freedom of Information Act in a specific file format.

The decision relates to a 2010 FoI request to Buckinghamshire County Council for information about the 11+ school entry exam to be supplied "in Excel format".

When the council complied with the FoI request a month later, it supplied the applicant, Nick Innes, with 184 pages of data in PDF format instead.

Although he had all the information for which he had asked, it could not be manipulated or processedLord Justice Underhill
Appeal court judge Lord Justice Underhill said in last week's ruling: "The result of course was that, although he had all the information for which he had asked, it could not be manipulated or processed in any of the ways permitted by the standard Excel software (e.g. generating graphs or tables or performing statistical analyses)."

Section 11 of the UK Freedom of Information Act states that an applicant can express a preference for the "form" in which the data is delivered - paper or electronic - and that the authority receiving the request should "so far as reasonably practicable give effect to that preference".

Innes said the word "form" was very general and could apply to a specific software format. He added that no unreasonable burden was placed on public authorities, since they can always refuse if it is not reasonably practicable to comply with such a request.

However the information commissioner ruled in the council's favour in 2011, arguing that "although an applicant can ask for an electronic copy they are not entitled to specify down to the next level, the specific software format". This was upheld at a first appeal hearing last year.

In the latest appeal court ruling, Lord Justice Underhill said: "I have not found this point at all easy. The essential starting point is of course the language of the statute. 

"It is true that a software format such as Excel is more than simply a means of presenting information: it enables the recipient of the information, if he or she himself has the appropriate software and licence, to do things with it.

"I can see that it might possibly involve some extra or wasted work for the council, if it had already begun to prepare the information in one form, to have to put it into another; but that does not seem to me to be a basis on which the request could be refused."

Lord Justice Longmore added: "To my mind the words of section 11(1) of the 2000 Act are not intended to give the person requesting information only a choice between being provided with the information in permanent form or being provided with the information in another (non-permanent) form.

"That would be a restriction on the requester's ability to say what was or was not acceptable which would be surprising to find a statute intended to open up channels of information in bureaucracies which had hitherto been closed.

"The protection afforded to the public authority is that it is only required to give effect to that preference 'so far as reasonably practicable'."

The full text of the appeal court ruling can be found here.

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