FOI Friday: 10 things we’ve learnt thanks to Freedom of Information this week

The council which was paid to grit – but then didn’t do its own roads

We start this week in the North East, with The Journal in Newcastle. It reported this week that council chiefs have provoked anger after it emerged they gritted a Porsche garage car park while leaving areas outside pensioners’ homes untreated.

Details were released after a Freedom of Information request to the council, asking for details relating to gritting after Christmas Eve, as the region was gripped by the coldest snap in years. Who knew that councils took on private jobs like this?

Breast implant lost in hospitals

I suspect that never in his/her wildest dreams did the reporter who submitted an FOI to Kings Hospital asking for a list of items handed in as lost property expect to get this result. But, according to the response published in the South London Press, a breast implant, Italian passport and a Liverpool Football Club season ticket were among items lost at the  South London hospital

Swine flu jab uptake among medical staff

The BBC in London discovered just one in three frontline medical staff had been vaccinated against swine flu, after posing a question under FOI to the strategic health authority, NHS London. NHS London insisted the vaccine take-up was “encouraging” and rising, with more than 60,000 staff having had the jab.

Hospital use by postcode

Continuing the medical theme this week, here’s a story from the Stoke Sentinel. It obtained under FOI a breakdown of the postcode areas where those attending A&E came from. The figures  showed residents from the three postcode areas nearest the North Staffordshire accident unit for half of the 90,000 patients treated there every year.

The statistics also revealed emergency teams were called upon to treat 100 people last year from the same 20 households in two streets. Presumably, this is based on the fact that 100 people were treated from one postcode. The conclusion the Sentinel draws is that people nearest the hospital use it as a GP surgery – and it’s interesting data.

When a slogan comes back to haunt you

The Times Higher Education Supplement reports on the case of Ian Benson, who for some reasons decided to find out if Plymouth University’s claim of being “the enterprising university” was accurate. He turned to FOI, and the data obtained by Mr Benson under the Freedom of Information Act suggest that of the 10,000 students who graduated from Plymouth in 2008, only two went on to start a business with the university’s support. The university is now reviewing its slogan. The fact universities appear to hold “what happened to..” data could be interesting.

Police attending school shouts

The Mercury newspaper in the West Country reports this week that 100 call outs were made by police to schools in the area last year. This is an FOI I tried with two different police forces while working with a reporter – only to be told it was impossible to get the information at the time. If you’ve had that experience, maybe it’s worth asking again, and citing this case as an example.

The drink cited in many crimes

Sticking with unusual data to be released by police, the BBC in Scotland claims to have established a link between Buckfast Tonic Wine and crime. A Freedom of Information request showed the drink was mentioned in 5,638 crime reports in Strathclyde from 2006-2009, equating to three a day on average. When I was told by Merseyside Police it couldn’t give me the number of call outs to schools, it cited the reason as being “we’d have to search the crimes database for all crimes which include the word school, so that could be streets with the name school in it, and so on.” This example from the Beeb is a case of that system of searching for a word working very well.

Different ways of cheating

The Sun this week turned its FOI attentions to the different ways students at university have been caught cheating. Work your way through the Sun-speak, and there’s a good story:

The brainless old wheeze of writing answers on body parts continued to beat hi-tech scams such as accessing the internet with mobile phone.

Presumably, this FOI can be localised to any university or college.

Empty houses

If you believe the recession stories, the cases of people becoming homeless is rising. In London alone, 353,000 people are waiting to be house on council waiting lists. The Evening Standard turned to the FOI to find out how many council houses were currently empty. The answer was 5,500 – of which 3,000 had been empty for more than three months. The fact the councils claim some of those houses aren’t suitable to be lived in does beg the question why that is the case.

Traffic wardens

Papers are always getting calls complaining about traffic wardens. Everyone has a story to tell about how they were victimised. But the Swansea Evening Post has asked its local council to find out how many times tickets issued were later found to have been issued in error. Some 4,000 was the answer

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