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 Whatdotheyknow.com. 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 journalism.co.uk, simple alerts for FOI requests can be created using Google Alert which delivers them to the provided e-mail account.

 

 

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