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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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”