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Getting access to data

Image courtesy of S Falkow and released under Creative CommonsJournalists have a right to certain types of data. Some will already be available while some will need to be requested.

The following tips from the Data Journalism Handbook are designed to make your requests for data more effective.

Before you make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request you should check to see if the data you are looking for is already available - or has already been requested by others.

Image courtesy of S Falkow and released under Creative Commons

If you've looked around and still can't get hold of the data you need, then you may wish to file a formal request. 

Plan ahead to save time

Think about submitting a formal access request whenever you set out to look for information. It's better not to wait until you have exhausted all other possibilities.

You will save time by submitting a request at the beginning of your research and carrying out other investigations in parallel.

Be prepared for delay: sometimes public bodies take a while to process requests, so it is better to expect this.

Check the rules about fees

Before you start submitting a request, check the rules about fees for either submitting requests or receiving information. That way, if a public official suddenly asks you for money, you will know what your rights are.

You can ask for electronic documents to avoid copying and posting costs, mention in your request that you would prefer the information in electronic format.

That way you will avoid paying a fee, unless of course the information is not available electronically, although these days its usually possible to scan documents which are not already digitalised and then to send them as an attachment by e-mail.

Know your rights

Find out what your rights are before you begin, so you know where you stand and what the public authorities are and are not obliged to do.

For example, most freedom of information laws provide a time limit for authorities to reply to you. Globally, the range in most laws is from a few days to one month.

You make sure that you know what this is before you set out, and make a note of when you submit your request.

Governments are not obliged to process data for you, but should give you all the data they have, and if it is data that they should have according to perform their legal competencies, they should certainly produce it for you.

Say that you know your rights

Usually the law does not require that you mention the access to information law or freedom of information act, but this is recommended because it shows you know your legal rights and is likely to encourage correct processing of the requests according to the law.

We note that for requests to the EU its important to mention that its an access to documents request and its best to make a specific mention of Regulation 1049/2001.

Keep it simple

In all countries, it is better to start with a simple request for information and then to add more questions once you get the initial information. That way you dont run the risk of the public institution applying an extension because it is a complex request.

Keep it focused

A request for information only held by one part of a public authority will probably be answered more quickly than one which requires a search across the entire authority.

A request which involves the authority in consulting third parties (e.g., a private company which supplied the information, another government which is affected by it) can take particularly long. Be persistent.

Think inside the filing cabinet

Try to find out what data is collated. For example, if you get a blank copy of the form the police fill out after traffic accidents, you can then see what information they do or do not record about car crashes.

Be specific

Before you submit your request, think: is it in any way ambiguous? This is especially important if you are planning to compare data from different public authorities.

For example, if you ask for figures forthe past three years, some authorities will send you information for the past three calendar years and others for the past three financial years, which you wont be able to directly compare.

If you decide to hide the your real request in a more general one, then you should make your request broad enough so that it captures the information you want but not so broad as to be unclear or discourage a response. Specific and clear requests tend to get faster and better answers.

Submit multiple requests

If you are unsure where to submit your request, there is nothing to stop you submitting the request with two, three or more bodies at the same time.

In some cases, the various bodies will give you different answers, but this can actually be helpful in giving you a fuller picture of the information available on the subject you are investigating.

Submit iInternational requests

Increasingly requests can be submitted electronically, so it doesnt matter where you live. Alternatively, if you do not live in the country where you want to submit the request, you can sometimes send the request to the embassy and they should transfer it to the competent public body.

You will need to check with the relevant embassy first if they are ready to do this - sometimes the embassy staff will not have been trained in the right to information and if this seems to be the case, its safer to submit the request directly to the relevant public body.

Do a test run

If you are planning to send the same request to many public authorities start by sending an initial draft of the request to a few authorities as a pilot exercise.

This will show you whether you are using the right terminology to obtain the material you want and whether answering your questions is feasible, so that you can then revise the request if necessary before sending it to everyone.

Anticipate the exceptions

If you think that exceptions might be applied to your request, then, when preparing your questions, separate the question about the potentially sensitive information from the other information that common sense would say should not fall under an exception.

Then split your question in two and submit the two requests separately.

Ask for access to the files

If you live near where the information is held (e.g. in the capital where the documents are kept), you can also ask to inspect original documents.

This can be helpful when researching information that might be held in a large number of documents that youd like to have a look through.

Such inspection should be free of charge and should be arranged at a time that is reasonable and convenient for you.

Keep a record

Make your request in writing and save a copy or a record of it so that in the future you are able to demonstrate that your request was sent, in case you need to make an appeal against failure to answer.

This also gives you evidence of submitting the request if you are planning to do a story on it.

Make it public

Speed up answers by making it public that you submitted a request: If you write or broadcast a story that the request has been submitted, it can put pressure on the public institution to process and respond to the request.

You can update the information as and when you get a response to the request - or if the deadline passes and there is no response you can make this into a news story as well.

Doing this has the additional benefit of educating members of the public about the right of access to information and how it works in practice.

Available services

There are also several excellent services which you can use to make your request, and any subsequent responses, publicly viewable on the web, such as What Do They Know? for UK public bodies, Frag den Staat for German public bodies, and Ask the EU for EU institutions.

The Alaveteli project is helping to bring similar services to dozens of countries around the world.

screen grab of the What Do They Know site

Involve colleagues

If your colleagues are sceptical about the value of access to information requests, one of the best ways to convince them is to write a story based on information you obtained using an access to information law.

Mentioning in the final article or broadcast piece that you used the law is also recommended as a way of enforcing its value and raising public awareness of the right.

Ask for raw data

If you want to analyze, explore or manipulate data using a computer then you should explicitly ask for data in an electronic, machine-readable format.

You may wish to clarify this by specifying, for example, that you require budgetary information in a format suitable for analysis with accounting software.

You may also wish to explicitly ask for information in disaggregated or granular form. You can read more about this point in this report.

Asking about organizations exempt from FOI laws

You may wish to find out about NGOs, private companies, religious organizations and/or other organizations which are not required to release documents under FOI laws. However, it is possible to find information about them by asking public bodies which are covered by FOI laws.

For example, you could ask a government department or ministry if they have funded or dealt with a specific private company or NGO and request supporting documents.

If you need further help with making your FOI request, you can also consult the Legal Leaks toolkit for journalists

This section was written by Helen Darbishire (Access Info Europe), Djordje Padejski (Knight Journalism Fellow, Stanford University), Martin Rosenbaum (BBC), and Fabrizio Scrollini (London School of Economics and Political Science).

Data Journalism HandbookThis piece is part of the Data Journalism Handbook which is released under Creative Commons CC-BY-SA. Selected chapters of the handbook are being republished in the Media Helping Media Data Journalism section. In each case the author or authors of the piece are mentioned.


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