Freedom of Information

TIPS

Top tips and tricks for going global with FOI

We don’t live in an isolated world anymore. Crime, money and politics cross borders every day and so reporters need tools and skills to track those stories into other territories.

Transparency legislation like Freedom of Information requests, Access to Environmental Requests and Re-use of Public Sector Directives are powerful weapons in the arsenal of a canny reporter.

And here at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, we have some tips and tricks to help you launch a global FOI project and take your reporting to the next level.

What is Freedom of Information (FOI)?

FOI or Freedom of Information is an umbrella term for a range of transparency or open data laws in dozens of countries around the globe. FOI laws grant citizens the right to submit requests for data or questions to government bodies, public organizations and some companies who have public contracts.

The laws vary from country to country but generally the requests are free to make and there is usually a time period in which the designated FOI officer has to respond to your submission.

It can be an uphill battle getting your request granted (there are exemption rules that allow governments to keep some information secret), but there is a system of recourse in most countries, like an information commissioner that will review your denied request, to see if the decision was unjust and not in the public interest.

Devil is in the detail

Like any investigation, planning and focusing on the detail is vital when going global with your FOIs.

You need to think about what time periods you’re looking for and if different countries categorize their data in calendar year or financial year. For instance, in the United States the calendar year and financial year cover the same time period, but the United Kingdom financial year starts on April 1.

When we submit multiple FOI requests to several countries looking for comparable data, we have to take into account which language to file the requests in, if there are any particular quirks or requirements in a specific country’s FOI law and what do we need to request in order to get comparable formats and data?

Remember to always request the raw data. We’re in the business of open data, not open summary statistics.

Spreadsheets are brilliant at helping you to keep track of hundreds of requests and when responses are due back. You can set up reminders for yourself to start chasing those FOI officers. Friendly but persistent is a magical combination.

Writing detailed data requests

Remember to always request the raw data. We’re in the business of open data, not open summary statistics. You may have a mammoth cleaning job ahead of you but you’ll see what’s really going on.

A snapshot from the user guide or data dictionary of the U.K.’s National Pupil Database.
Data dictionary UK NPD

Always request a data dictionary, too, or a breakdown of the schema so you know exactly what each heading means; how everything is counted; and over what time period.

Always ask how the data is collected, stored and if it’s cleaned. It’s crucial to understand this process, as many government databases are compilations of thousands of smaller datasets merged together which may have some classification bias or are collecting different types of information.

Be creative with data sources

It’s worth considering who has the data you’re looking for: is it always a government body or is it possible another authority like a university has a copy, or even better is the data already public through an open data portal?

Some public organizations and government departments publish lists of FOI requests they have received and whether they granted or denied them. These are called FOI logs and they’re often a treasure trove of previously released data. It’s worthwhile seeking them out then checking to see if the data you want has already been requested and published by someone else. FOI logs will also give you an idea of what type of requests are successful and which are not, which is invaluable when dealing with a government body in a country you have little knowledge or experience of.

Here are just a few FOI logs you should look at:

Find a friend

Some countries stipulate that only resident citizens can submit requests, in situations like these it is best to find a trustworthy FOI buddy to file for you. You can ask a friend through one of the mailing lists like the GIJN Listserv.

Alternatively, you can find a workaround. Data journalist Winny de Jong has successfully obtained data on immigration in the Netherlands by sending an FOI request to the Norwegian government. While governments don’t like to share information with reporters, they tend to be more open when it comes to sharing data with other governments.

It’s not always about a data dump of spreadsheets; other documents, like memos, correspondence, emails, reports and minutes of meetings can provide vital insight into how an agency is treating information.  Collecting it can help you to bulletproof your story.

European directives

The re-use of public sector information in Europe is a powerful directive which applies to every member state. It’s intended to open up public sector data for commercial use, but you can use it to request entire datasets from government departments. FOI officers may not be familiar with the directive so you may need to point out which parts of the directive apply to them and fight your case.

The Access to Environmental Information Directive was adopted by the European Union in 2003 and can be used to request data on a range of issues through the prism of the environment. By being creative, you can make an AIE request for housing, pollution, emissions, transport and population data just to start.

Resources

There are plenty of resources out there to assist reporters embarking on global FOIs:

  • GIJN have a great help center and list FOI laws by country
  • Muckrock is a great tool for filing FOIA requests within the U.S.
  • What do they know, allows you to send public requests in the United Kingdom and to see what other people have requested and been granted
  • AsktheEU.org lets citizens submit transparency requests to EU bodies
  • Right to Know is an organization in the Republic of Ireland that pushes for greater transparency in Ireland the European Union.