Freedom of information and unusable data

Disclosure of data is all very well, but only if it is intelligible and reliable.

It seemed a simple enough request: grassroots campaigners asking a major national charity for information on any cuts to services in their area. The charity in question – Rethink Mental Illness, which runs around 400 services and support groups across the country – thought it sounded pretty straightforward, too, and its policy team swung into action to compile a nationwide picture. They contacted every local authority in England, making a Freedom of Information request for details of any changes to mental health spending in 2011/12, compared to 2010/11 .

Then things started to get a little complicated. Anyone who’s ever submitted a blanket FOI request to a group of respondents, whether local authorities, NHS trusts or police forces, probably won’t be surprised to hear that more than half of the councils - 53 per cent - didn’t provide the information requested. Some were able to refer the enquirers to online "budget books" containing the figures, others said that DCLG’s annual publication of the data it receives from all councils on their spending allocation would provide the answer. (Public bodies can legitimately refuse FOI requests if the information requested is scheduled for future publication. In this case, the DCLG release was three months away.)
So the charity recorded the responses they had received, extracted the data they were pointed towards, and waited for the DCLG publication of council spending breakdowns. When this came, they checked the data they’d been given by local authorities against that held centrally – and things moved from merely complicated to downright contradictory.
In only 14 out of 151 instances did the local authority FOI response produce figures that tallied with the DCLG figure. By contrast, more than double that number, 30, produced figures diverging by more than 10 per cent. Comparing spending in 2010/11 with that planned for 2011/12, Cheshire West and Chester's FOI response said it was increasing mental health spending by +25.7 per cent, when DCLG figures showed a cut of -14.3 per cent; Knowsley’s balance sheet says it is cutting by -1.5 per cent, whereas DCLG stats say they are increasing spending by +29.3 per cent; Croydon’s figures suggest a whopping increase of +62.9 per cent, but the DCLG puts that at a rather more modest +7.4 per cent.
Rethink queried those councils with the most divergent figures. Some offered explanations that are reasonable, but probably opaque to a layperson. Cheshire West and Chester, for example, said that their own figures were the "direct budget" for mental health services, whereas the DCLG revenue accounts give costs on a "statutory accounting basis". Others pointed to the inclusion or exclusion of services for the over-65s as a reason for discrepancies. Still others confessed to simple errors – while several more treated the request for clarification as a new FOI and are yet to respond.
But end result is that, more than a year on, experts within a major national charity are still completely in the dark about the spending changes they set out to map. "And if we, as a national charity with research and policy teams, can't get hold of the numbers," says Rethink Mental Illness’s CEO Paul Jenkins, "what chance do ordinary people have?"
Those who work with FOI requests day in, day out, are unsurprised by the charity’s lack of success. Iain Overton is director of the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, which frequently deploys Freedom of Information requests in its research.
"I have had FOIs rejected on spurious grounds, where a neighbouring PCT or council has happily handed over the data," says Overton. "I have seen government organisations do their utmost not to answer a simple question, such as 'How much does your chief executive earn?'
"And I have had FOI responses come through that contain a story, the facts of which are not challenged by the press officer when asked.  But when the story comes out, the same press officer goes to their local paper and says that facts are wrong."
This government has enthusiastically embraced the theory of open government, and is perceived by many as a global leader on these issues. Last month the United Kingdom became co-chair of the Open Government Partnership for a year-long term; and rights groups have applauded British efforts to improve transparency in countries receiving international aid.
But meaningful open government isn’t simply about the disclosure of data. It’s about whether that data is usable, reliable, and - surely it's not too much to ask? - intelligible. Rethink’s experience suggests that greater transparency needs to begin at home.

Read Rethink's report, Lost in Localism, here.

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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood