Finding data via Freedom of Information requests

Dealing with information plays a major role in the job of the journalist. Data is what articles are based upon and the way it is collected and processed influences a lot the quality of the work delivered by the journalist as well as his reputation.

The 2000 Freedom of Information Act grants every citizen the right to access information on various topics via a FOI request. The request can be addressed to public institutions, local councils and any other type of organisation.

As Martin Turner recommends on his website, when searching for information, it is a good idea to try and contact the public institution before sending the FOI request. Spokespersons or PRs may already have the information at their disposal and provided it right away. This saves precious time which can prove vital especially when working under a deadline.

One useful method I have discovered while trying to get hold of information consists of first sending an e-mail to the targeted organisation which might store the data. The e-mail should clearly state the nature and the information the journalist is after as well as what are his purposes in using it. The e-mail should then be followed by a confirmation phone call, asking the contact person to confirm that they have received the e-mail and will look into the matter.

If this strategy fails, the only remaining option is to formulate and send an official FOI request. But doing this does not always prove to be an easy task. There are certain features which such a request should contain in order to be successful.

Every request should be formulated in a direct but at the same time polite style. From my experience with working with FOI request I learned that it is all about helping the institution representatives of the institution with finding the exact information.

Although they might have the data stored, unclear formulated request can confuse the staff and leave you with no response or rejected requests. The best way to avoid this is to pin down as exactly as possible what are you after. I tried to avoid broad topics as they can put a burden on the staff. Including a time period is always a good idea as all the data is organised around certain dates.

Journalists can also use another strategy in their permanent search for useful bits of information. As I have experienced, it is sometimes easier to find information from requests that have already been sent by other people. When trying to back up your work, existing FOI requests can be used as a source if they fit the subject of the article.

The best place to start is the website run by mySociety called This online resource provides excellent support for finding FOI requests as the information is publicly available. The search engine works great and the interface is very user-friendly.

In my view, one of the most quick and effective ways of tracking FOI requests is to set up your own searches. According to an article on, simple alerts for FOI requests can be created using Google Alert which delivers them to the provided e-mail account.




Cardiff touristic attractions record visitor flow decrease

Touristic attractions in Cardiff experienced a decrease in the number of yearly visitors in 2010, opposite to the national trend for the same year.

Visits to tourist attractions in Wales have increased year on year. Between 2009 and 2010 visits to tourist attractions in Wales raised by nearly 1% to 11.3 million.

Looking at visits between 2008 and 2010, the number rose by 5.3%, according to a report carried out by the Welsh Assembly Social Research Division on behalf of Visit Wales.

According to the same survey, paid admission attractions have increased by 2.6% while free attractions are down 2%, over the same period of time.

Looking at Cardiff, the figures show a downfall both in paid and free attraction sector.

Cardiff’s top three free touristic attractions in 2010 were the Wales Millennium Centre with 1.015.175 yearly visitors.

It was followed by St. Fagans National History Museum with 610.155 yearly visitors.

The National Museum of Wales was placed third with 358.480 yearly visitors, according to information provided by the Cardiff Council City Management Department in response to a FOI request.

According to the visualization, all three landmarks have experienced a drop in the number of visitors from 2008 to 2010.

Paid touristic spots have also recorded a loss of interest from visitors. All three top paid attractions in Cardiff have recorded a drop in the number of yearly visits.

The Cardiff Castle’s number of visits went down by 6.531 from 2008 to 215.372 in 2010, according to the visualization.

The Welsh capital’s number two paid attraction, Techniquest, had a lower yearly visit number in 2010 compared to 2008. The discovery centre had 188.518 visitors in 2008 compared to 163.995 in 2010, while Castell Coch maintained the volume of visits at around 68.500 visits for 2008 and 2010.

According to Visit Wales, a tourist attraction is the place “where it is feasible to charge admission for the sole purpose of sightseeing.

“In addition, the attraction must be a single business, under a single management and must be receiving revenue directly from the visitors.”

The media frequently reported on the rise of the “staycation”, that is the substitution of a holiday abroad for a holiday in their own country for financial reasons.

“They seem to be trying to reduce the cost, for example staying in their own country, and that seems to help the domestic market,” Elliott Frisby from Visit Britain explained for The Guardian.

Welsh Government’s approval on children smacking call triggers mixed reactions

Parents could no longer justify the use of “legal chastisement” after the Welsh assembly decided to approve the withdrawal of the defence.

The decision has stirred up mixed reactions from officials and the public. Several party leaders are pleased that a motion to outlaw hitting was forwarded. “This is a moral victory, an important step. But in the end we must get legislation against smacking,” Christine Chapman said in an article on The Guardian.

The public sphere has been divided, with everybody holding a point of view on the matter. Only 33% of the people who responded to a survey carried out by The Guardian believe that smacking should be illegal.

“I don’t smack, I don’t like it. Having a father that was, well to put it politely ‘heavy handed’ with my brothers, I won’t use it as a method of punishment. Plus I honestly don’t find it effective,” a forum user said in a post.

Dominic Westerland, 22, is a student born and bred in Cardiff. He said that he is not sure what this proposal will accomplish. “Will the kid report the parents to the Police? And arresting the parent is a little harsh. Some will continue, although it’s not right. There are other ways to discipline children,” Westerland said.

Anthony Stamati from Cardiff is a father who considers smacking an old fashioned practice. He said he was a terrible boy and his father used to smack him but he never slapped his child.

“Some parents are rough, I was brought up rough. But really hitting is bad,” the 49-year-old father said. Alternative discipline is the best option although the majority doesn’t believe that, he says: “Parents will be afraid. You’d be surprised how many kids will start reporting their parents to the Police.”

However, some adopt a more strict approach in raising their children. Another forum user says: “I have no problem with smacking. I was smacked as a child and I have also smacked my own children, not much or hard, but on occasions I have done it.”

Some are more pessimistic and see no real change if the ban is voted. “I think it’s stupid, I can see the point in banning smacking as a means to prevent abusive parents but it won’t stop what goes on behind closed doors,” another forum user said in one post.

“Smacking is becoming a less commonly used form of discipline as more parents recognize there are more effective and acceptable methods.” However, a majority of parents say that smacking should not be banned outright. In contrast, “many organizations support legislation to ban smacking,” according to the Review of Section 58 of the Children Act 2004.

Cardiff fired up by Loeb’s eight-stravaganza and Latvala’s ice-breaking win

Wales Rally GB got under way on Thursday in Llandudno, on the northern coast of Wales as the last stage of the FIA World Rally Championship. Andrew Coe, chief executive of Wales Rally GB organizer International Motor Sports, declared for the BBC News that “the drivers are tremendously excited. There are some really big names and some of the best drivers in the world.”

The highlight of this year’s WRC edition was a neck and neck battle between title-favorite Frenchman Sebastien Loeb and the Finn contender Mikko Hirvonen. The Citroen driver went into the final stage with only a slender lead ahead of Ford Abu Dhabi Team pilot. The winner of the Wales Rally GB would add 25 points to his tally which meant that things could have gone either way.

In Cardiff, rally enthusiasts took the Cardiff Castle and its surroundings by assault to see their favorites arriving at the Parc Ferme inside the castle on Friday and at St. Mary’s Street on Friday after an exhausting but thrilling run throughout Wales. The 32 nationalities represented in the rally are reflected into the spectators as they rushed to celebrate the event. Children, adults and seniors mixed together with domestic and international tourists joined the action on the streets.

A group of racing passionate ignored the cold stubborn rain and gathered on Friday evening inside the Cardiff Castle to see the battling cars returning from Northern Wales. A short buzz from a walkie-talkie and a loud voice announce the arrival of the first car. The rain washes away the mud from the carbon fiber chassis frames to reveal the scratches suffered on the rough gravel circuits.

Well equipped for the weather conditions, Dafydd Jones advises me to “look back into history” when it comes to rallying. “Always brilliant this Welsh feature of the rally,” the 53-year-old has the chance to say before two rumbling cars enter the check platform. “Tomorrow there will be a lot more things to see,” he added after the noisy cars have passed.

On Saturday evening, everybody knew that Sebastien Loeb is the WRC champion eight times in a row, setting a hard-to-break record of the motorsport world. The radiator-damaged Ford Focus RS put a dent into Hirvonen’s WRC title bid which meant that Loeb was the new champion.

Drama continued in the competition as Loeb’s Citroen DS3 WRC went on the wrong side of the road, suffering irreparable damage. Jari-Matti Latvala benefitted from this and gained a comfortable lead ahead of Loeb which eventually propelled him towards winning the Wales Rally GB, ending a long draught.

Under the clear evening sky, St. Mary Street is filling-up with enthusiastic spectators impatiently waiting for the cars to arrive. Citroen racing flags are being waved everywhere while little boys dressed in pilot costume replicas drag their fathers closer to the place where drivers will steer their cars into.

Rod Halliday is one of the fathers which brought their sons to the Rallyfest. “The show? Yeah, a good one,” he says. “There are a couple a shows on for the kids, he had a great time. I am going to see the cars tonight with my 9-year-old son,” the self-employed father from Pontypridd says while looking at his son.

A loud engine roar triggers the euphoria. Cars start arriving one by one and the street fills with loud rounds of applause, cheers and flashing lights. Drivers are revving their 300 horsepower car engines to the delight of the crowd, cranking up the atmosphere with exhaust gases. After a few words to the spectators, the pilots make the gearboxes click and the cars are off to the Cardiff Castle.

Meth Mal travelled from London to join the Rallyfest. “I’m only here for the day but I love it” is the only thing the 36 year-old has to say before rushing closer to the cars and start a frenzy of photo shooting.

Hayden Paddon is the driver who travelled the most to join the Wales Rally GB. He comes from New Zealand and managed to finish 13th. Looking tired but happy, he said: “The car performed OK, sunny weather is quite different for Wales and the roads were looking polished but I enjoyed the new stages.”

Both on the gravel and tarmac roads and on the city streets in Cardiff the action can be best described by “Whizzo” Williams’ words on the stage: “There are no breaks, everything is go go go!” While speaking about the future of motorsports, the veteran driver highlighted the importance of apprenticing as a way of passing on knowledge and experience to youngsters. With talent being appropriately nurtured, it won’t take long before that little boy dressed in a pilot costume will go on and lift a trophy; this time after running behind the wheel in the world’s most challenging and complex rally competition.

Personal branding brings great value and benefits to a journalist

The concept of journalism branding has developed with the explosion of social networks on the internet and with the audience’s shift towards the online medium. Journalists must now know themselves better in order to deliver and promote their brand.

I must admit this is new territory for me. Being in my fourth week of studying Journalism as a postgraduate student means I am still a rookie. But after researching into the matter, the idea of branding my own journalism seems vital today.

When creating a brand around yourself, you have the chance of using your skills to improve not only your own value but also the value of the organizations you work for. According to Kurt Greenbaum “journalism isn’t a one-way street anymore (if it ever was). Build a network and be consistent with your  content and your identity. That’s a brand.”

In my view, the key word is “identity”. According to Jennifer Gaie Hellum, it’s impossible knowing your brand without knowing yourself. Many aspects have to be taken into account and the list is quite complex. Your personality types, aptitudes, talents, skills or knowledge and life experience and interest can shape the brand.

An efficient and strong brand should be based on good quality journalism. The ability of coming up with good writing should be the foundation of the brand. In a blog post from The Buttry Diary, Steve Buttry says that branding is the opposite of generic and journalists need to understand that. Branding is useless unless backed-up with solid writing.

Once you know who you are and what you got it’s time to focus on a niche. This is important as it links your work to how it can be applied in the industry. Journalism covers an immense range of areas and subjects. The best thing to do is finding and understanding what is better suited for one’s brand. “You have to be the best first. It can be a narrow niche but you have to dominate the category” says Joe Grimm. Once the niche is owned it’s only a matter of staying on top. In an article on Jobs Page, Grimm says that authenticity, value, consistency and sharing are essential ingredients. Mix them and the result is a brand.

Social networks play a massive role in delivering and promoting a brand. Mediums such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn should be exploited to their full potential. These social networks target a wide audience and are ideal for brand development.