Open data? Why the BBC had to use FOI to get data which was once published freely every week

The BBC today led several of its programmes with a news story which will be familiar to many local journalists: The delays ambulances encounter when they get to hospitals.

It’s not a new story. The problem has been identified across the country time and again for years. As far back as 2007, the Manchester Evening News reported on long delays getting people out of ambulances and into A&E.

That in itself doesn’t make today’s story by the BBC out of the ordinary – just because a problem persists doesn’t stop it being news. What struck me as odd, at first, was the fact the BBC said it had used FOI to get figures on ‘turnaround times’ from NHS Trusts around the country.

Why use FOI when the Department of Health publishes a weekly report on the number of ‘transfers’ between ambulance and A&E which took more than 15 minutes?  The Department of Health’s well-hidden but well-worth-finding Information Centre contains a weekly report on ambulance statistics. The very information the BBC wanted was, in theory, there, ready and waiting.

Or rather, it was.

A helpful note on the page reveals: “Please note that the weekly ambulance data for week ending 29th May 2011 will be the last publication. Future updates will be available via the new ambulance quality indicators on a monthly basis, the first publication being 3rd June 2011.”

Look at the quarterly report and there are, indeed, lots of stats – but nothing on handover times. Not a good sign for a government supposedly committed to transparency. Once freely-available information is now only available on request, but health secretary Andrew Lansley says the government takes the issue of ambulance delays very seriously:

“Everyone deserves to be seen quickly when they arrive at hospital, even more so when they arrive in an ambulance. That’s why we have changed the system and introduced new measures to ensure patients are seen quickly.

“These backlogs can sometimes be caused by a lack of available beds. That is why we are investing £450 million by 2013 to help people return home from hospital as quickly as possible, freeing up space for new patients.

“Hospitals need to ensure they have proper plans in place to deal with high demand and we are doing everything we can to support them in treating patients as swiftly as they can.”

Sadly, Lansley doesn’t seem to take it seriously enough to demand that the weekly data continue to be released. The quickest way to solve the problem of awkward data is, of course, not to solve the problem the data reveals but to stop the data being released in the first place.

Turnaround time reports do tend to crop up on some ambulance trust and strategic health authority board papers. I remember both the Liverpool Daily Post and the Manchester Evening News picking up on the issue in 2008 on the back of some ambulance board papers. The same level of detail never appeared in the board papers again – a coincidence I’m sure.

NHS North West, I’m sure, also takes the issue seriously – but the impregnable NHS speak they use in board papers generally makes it possible to work out whether they’re signing off a multi-million pound hospital building or discussing MRSA rates. Job done in terms of keeping the press at bay in that respect.

So what can journalists do about the squirreling away of difficult data? Keep asking for it, of course – and actually ask for more. Liverpool Daily Post and Echo health reporter Liza Williams got a lot more than just the 15 minute data when she spent a long time chasing the North West Ambulance Service for their turnaround times data. She didn’t just get the 15 minute stats, she also got the longest delay encountered by an ambulance in Merseyside – six hours – and the average wait per hospital. All in all, data which is much more interesting to the reader and, therefore, much more newsworthy.

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