Crafting A Perfect FOI Request
One of the sessions I lead at Open Data Camp was “Open Data Horror Stories” – we talked about some of the disasters we’ve had when requesting or using Open Data.
To be clear, this isn’t going to guarantee that you’ll receive an answer – but it should ensure that the answer you get back is useful and conforms to best practices.
If you want to interact with the data, you will need it to be supplied in an open and machine readable format. Not PDF!
It makes sense to be explicit as to which format you require the data to be supplied. If, for example, you want geographic data you might want it in KML format. Be aware that most FOI officers are not specialists and will almost certainly supply data in whatever the default format is that their systems export.
The suggested wording of your request should be something like :
Please can you supply these data in an open format such as a CSV file. Section 3 of The Secretary of State’s Code of Practice (datasets) issued under Section 45 of the Freedom of Information Act gives more details on acceptable data formats http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/information-access-rights/foi/code-of-practice-datasets.pdf.
For the avoidance of doubt, please do not supply the data in PDF or Microsoft Word format.
You will often receive data which you cannot make use of due to a restrictive licence. Generally speaking, data provided from a public authority should be under the Open Government Licence. Add this line to the end of your FOI :
I assume that the data provided will be licensed under the Open Government Licence (OGL) as per the guidance from the ICO (https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1151/datasets-foi-guidance.pdf).
Ideally, all FOI data should live online. We shouldn’t need to make specific requests to access it. We also want it to be regularly updated. Try including this line in your request :
Please can you publish the data on your website as per the ICO’s model publication scheme (https://ico.org.uk/media/for-organisations/documents/1153/model-publication-scheme.pdf) and supply me with the URL. I would appreciate it if you keep the data updated, with an indication of when and what changes are made.
If you are unable to publish online, please send the me the file(s) by return.
Remember, FOI officers are human! They have a stressful and difficult job. Wrapping up your request in boilerplate legal language and being aggressive in your wording is unlikely to win you any friends.
FOI teams can reject “vexatious requests“. Be polite, respectful, and as helpful as possible. Don’t bombard a department with dozens of similar requests.
These are tips for getting better data – if you have any more, please leave a comment below!