Around 120,000 Freedom of Information requests are made each year, and not only by journalists. However, a FOI request is one of the most useful tools for a data journalist. It allows you to ask any public sector organisation for recorded information on any subject. Regardless of your location, nationality or age you can make the request and they will have to answer within 20 working days. Here, I explain how to do this effectively.
Step No 1: Decide who to request the information from.
Public-funded organisations include government department, local councils, universities, some museums and even the police. See the full list here.
Step no. 2: Write the FOI request
You can contact the organisation by email or by letter but requests can also be made through social media or verbally.
Make sure to include your name, contact information and a description of the information you want. Be polite and very detailed, the more you can tell them about what you want, the better they’ll be able to help you.
It can be useful to call the organisation before you send the FOI request and speak to an FOI officer. This way you can ensure they have the information you want and they can help you shape your request in the best way.
Ask them to give you a reference number, it’s easier to communicate with them regarding your request this way.
There is a limit to the number of hours an FOI officer will spend compiling information for your request. This is translated into an expense cap of £400 (£600 for a central government request) and they are not required to answer your request if the expenses go higher than that. They might ask you to make your request more specific.
Step no. 3 The Reply
Remember that there are humans at the other end using their valuable time to compile information together so make sure you know what you’re asking for and why. Don’t waste their time on useless or already-there information.
Some sensitive information is not available to the general public. The organisation will then tell you the information is withheld. The Data Protection Act also stops you from receiving information that can be used to identify a specific person’s private records.
Here’s a basic example of what an FOI request can look like:
Dear Freedom of Information Officer,
I would like to request, under the Freedom of Information Act, records of….
By this, I specify:
I would like to receive all the records for the previous year (2013). If the amount of information exceeds the monetary limit I am allowed, please provide records for the last 6 months ( 01 July 2013 – 31 December 2013) only.
Please provide a full copy of any databases/spreadsheets from which information was extracted in response to this request. In the event that these records contain columns that hold personal information covered by data protection provisions, please simply delete the offending columns and send the rest of the data without them. I would like this data in a delimited text format as is standard for most database software. I would like to receive all correspondence and information electronically.
If this information is held by another public body, then please can you inform me of this and if possible transfer the request to that public body.
If you need any clarification on this request please email me or call me at the earliest opportunity.