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.
 

Lizzie Porter
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Where the Yazidis fled next

Two years ago this month, Islamic State slaughtered thousands of Yazidis in northern Iraq. What happened to those who made it to Europe?

In the foothills of Mount Olympus, the location of the Petra refugee camp in Greece should make it a haven. Surrounded by pine trees, with the snow-topped summit of the gods’ mythological home in the distance, the quiet refuge houses groups of women sitting peacefully in the shade. Families cook vegetable pasties in hot oil and children dance in circles on sun-parched grass.

In reality, it is not, of course, an idyll. The tented site – on the grounds of a former psychiatric hospital – is home to 1,300 of the 4,000 Yazidis currently in Greece. They fled the Islamic State advance on their homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014, when the terror group slaughtered 5,000 of their kin in an internationally recognised genocide.

But while these members of the religious minority escaped the immediate danger of IS, they found fear and poverty in their flight.

They are among 50,000 people trapped on Greek soil after European countries shut their borders in March. Housed in camps with poor water, electricity and food supplies, there is disquiet between ethnic and religious groups, including the Yazidis.

The ethno-religious group, who numbered 600,000 in Iraq before the arrival of IS, follow a non-Abrahamic faith and worship Melek Tawwus, a fallen angel. Because their traditions are derived from multiple religions, some followers of other faiths consider them heretical and worthy of punishment.


Katsikas camp. All photos: Lizzie Porter

The poor health and sanitation conditions for Petra’s residents – half of whom are under 18 – are obvious. Cream canvas tents, searingly hot under the Mediterranean sun, are packed tightly, guy ropes tangled together. Some families have cooking equipment, and fires are lit in narrow alleyways.

“The water is not clean and the children are sick”, one Yazidi woman from Sinjar in northern Iraq tells me at the camp, in fluent English. “One day two long snakes came into the tent. The children have bites and the toilets here are very bad.”

According to the UNHCR, three daily meals are provided, including hot food, and authorities collect waste. But it also admits that there are just 30 toilets, 20 showers and 60 water taps for the whole camp. There are no separate washing facilities for women. The colonel managing Petra would not let me inspect the washing facilities.

Petra’s residents are solely Yazidi: they say they fear persecution and violence in camps housing people of mixed ethnicities and religions. The UNHCR admitted to me that there have been “tensions” between Yazidis and other refugee groups.


Yazidi babies.

Naji Haji, a 27-year-old resident also from Sinjar, said the authorities treated them well, but that friends in another camp north of Thessaloniki had been beaten by other refugees because of their faith.

“Yazidi people in other camps want to come to Petra,” he said. 

Several hundred other Yazidis initially gathered in Katsikas camp, near the Albanian border.

Falah, a 30-year-old Yazidi barber from Sinjar, is among them, along with his two children, wife and parents.

When IS invaded his village last summer, they kidnapped his mother’s father, four cousins and two of his brothers: “They came with guns and knives. I saw them kill people.”


A Syrian Kurd and his daughter.

The community fled to Mount Sinjar, where they stayed for ten days with little food or water, before escaping to Iraqi Kurdistan, then to Turkey and onto Greece.

“The Yazidi people on Mount Sinjar died from no food or water or hope. I brought my children here because I wanted to live,” he adds.

A fortnight ago, Yazidi activist Nadia Murad and a former ICC prosecutor visited Petra camp as part of a campaign to bring criminal charges on Islamic State. In June the UN recognised the August 2014 massacre as a genocide, echoing a declaration by US Secretary of State John Kerry in March.

But Haji, whose brother was killed in a car bomb in 2007, said he felt afraid even in Europe.

“We feel little hope in Europe. We managed to escape Daesh”, he says, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “But now they are in France, Germany, and all states.”


Yazidi family.

While the UNHCR says it visits Petra daily to monitor the situation, The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children of Iraq (CYCI), is doing its best to support the Yazidi minority.

The NGO’s country co-ordinator, Julide Glanz, is mindful of the danger of exacerbating tensions between ethno-religious groups.

“When we speak of Muslims [who discriminate against Yazidis] we are referring to the brainless fanatics who drag the name of Islam into the dirt,” she says. “Muslims had to flee too and on their journey the Yazidis took them in and accepted them as one of their own.”

She insists Yazidi-only camps are the best way of minimising violence. On the Petra model, for example, Greek authorities moved Yazidis at Katsikas to their own camp nearby in July. “The fear is big and there is little protection,” Glanz says.

A lack of interpreters of Kermanji – the dialect of Kurdish spoken by Yazidis – is a problem, according to Greek authorities. A spokesperson tells me that there is a lack of interpreters in all refugee languages, including Arabic, Farsi and Pashto, “let alone a rare dialect like Kermanji. We are trying to manage the situation by using English-speaking refugees of the same ethnic group.”


Tent at Katsikas camp.

What of the future? Falah feels increasingly desperate. “Here there is no money, no tea, no food, nothing. Before, people had money, but we paid €10,000 (£8,600) to the people smuggler to get us to Greece.”

Elsewhere, there is some hope. Abu Roudyan, a 27-year-old Yazidi originally from Bahzani in northern Iraq, lived in Petra camp with his wife and young children for over three months. They have now managed to get to Germany, while Roudyan waits in Athens.

“Iraq is at war and women are kidnapped and children are killed,” he says. “The important thing for the future of my family is safety in Germany.”

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.