FOI Friday: Why FOI beats open data and 9 other stories made possible this week thanks to FOI

The FOI request about theft of petrol from petrol stations is hardly a new one, but that doesn’t alter the fact it sums up why FOI trumps the principle of open data, from a journalistic perspective at least.

The St Helen’s Reporter used FOI to find out how many petrol drive-offs there had been. Answer (see below): lots.

One of the government’s current arguments against FOI is that it can be far more transparent if it just makes departments and public bodies release more data.

The argument, to some extent, has merit. Being more open with data is very welcome, but the problem comes when you only want part of the data, or a level of detail that isn’t available in the data.

The reporters at the St Helen’s Reporter wouldn’t have been able to get this data using police.uk, the crime stats which website which is a huge leap forward on what we had before (ie nothing) but still very limited in the data it shares.

The main point of FOI is to give people the right to know – even journalists, despite Chris Grayling’s obtuse outburst this week. Open data alone puts the decision on what we get to know back with the people who hold the data. FOI is the opposite. The two need to co-exist. It doesn’t take a genius to work out why the notion of open data is much more popular with those who hold the information.

So, to the petrol story:

Petrol thieves have driven off without paying for fuel almost 200 times in St Helens this year.

Figures released under Freedom of Information rules reveal that to date, there have been 184 petrol-drive off offences recorded in the borough.

This has exceeded last year’s figure of 114, with two months remaining.

St Helens North was the most targeted area, with 100, followed by the central ward, with 47 and the south district with 37.

The cost of empty government/council buildings in business rates < BBC

More than £1m has been spent on a barracks left empty since cadets returned to Libya a year ago after a series of sex attacks, figures show.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed it spent £946,659 on bills and £138,000 on repairs at Bassingbourn Barracks.

Some 300 cadets were sent to the barracks, with five later jailed for sex attacks in nearby Cambridge.

Legal highs in colleges < York Press

STUDENTS have been disciplined or expelled by York St John University for taking drugs or legal highs, The Press can reveal today.

A Freedom of Information request found the university took action against 25 to 34 students and expelled between one and four since 2010.

York St John were unable to give precise figures because of data protection obligations linked to the Freedom of Information Act, but said of those disciplined, a number between two and eight related to drugs and legal highs.

Missing patients and the cost to police < Belfast Telegraph

The task of locating patients who abscond from hospitals is costing the PSNI more than £4m a year, a senior police chief revealed yesterday.

His comments to the Belfast Telegraph follow the release of figures obtained under a Freedom of Information request from the region’s health and social care trusts on the incidence of abscondment from hospitals.

They showed that five patients absconded every day from hospital in 2014/15, with 5,500 walkouts over the last three years.

Dogs at risk of being stolen < Yorkshire Evening Post

Thieves have snatched hundreds of dogs from homes across the region, it has been revealed.

Chihuahuas, greyhounds and huskies were among the breeds targeted by thieves as West Yorkshire Police recorded a total of almost 400 thefts of pets since 2012.

New figures, revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, show that 105 dogs were reported stolen to police last year.

Air gun attacks up < Express and Star

Air pistols, ball bearing and pellet guns featured in 184 crimes reported to police in Staffordshire over the past three years – equivalent to more than one every week.

The latest figures for 2014-15 represent a 25 per cent rise on the previous year.

Almost 90 cases involved minor injuries, but four also involved ‘serious’ harm – including the blinding in one eye of Cannock police officer Jon King by a gas-powered hand gun in Rugeley last year.

The darker side of Trick or Treat < Manchester Evening News

Three youths were reported to police for hurling vile abuse at a woman after she gave them each a bag of sweets in Manchester last Halloween.

The incident was reported to Greater Manchester Police at 6.15pm on October 31 last year.

The three youths knocked on the woman’s door in north Manchester trick-or-treating.

It was one of four crimes reported to GMP involving trick-or-treating on October 31 last year, according to records supplied exclusively to the M.E.N. under Freedom of Information laws.

Animals killed by the council < Aberdeen Evening Express

MORE than 200 deer have been culled by Aberdeen City Council in recent years, the Evening Express can reveal today.

The number peaked in 2014/15 when 92 animals were killed.

The figures were shared in response to a Freedom of Information request on culling activity in the city.

As land owner, the council has a statutory legal duty to manage deer at sustainable levels.

Sex crimes against children rise < Portsmouth News

SEX offences against children have increased in the last four years, figures have revealed.

Last year there were 268 sex crimes committed against children, up from 192 in 2011.

And since 2013 there has been a slight increase in children taken into custody in Portsmouth, Havant, Fareham and Gosport for sex crimes against children.

Knife crime rising < Canterbury Times

Knife crime recorded in the Canterbury district has shot up 13 per cent in five years, figures released by Kent Police show.

Figures for recorded crimes in the whole of Kent, involving weapons such as axes, machetes, syringes or bottles, as well as knives, rose from 723 in 2010 to 937 in 2014, according to the Freedom of Information statistics.

Shockingly, the youngest person suspected of possessing a knife in Kent in the past five years was aged just three years old and the oldest was 84.

It has also been revealed that the number of males arrested for crimes involving a knife or another sharp weapon has risen from 663 in 2010 to 851 in 2014, whilst the number of females arrested has increased by ten per cent for the same period.

One comment

  1. Hi David – re your first story – really important debate.
    The way I think about it is FOI as a sharp tool that’s constantly chipping away at the bedrock of data to make it open. One failing (IMHO) from journalists so far is not always fighting to convert successful FOI requests into permanently open data. A more fundamental issue is that FOIs fit culturally in the traditional newsroom model (‘investigative’ ‘something someone doesn’t want you to know’ ‘journalist-instigated’ ‘exclusive’) whereas open data doesn’t (‘it’s there for everyone’). As a result the latter remains largely unmined. We’ve seen a couple of examples recently where newspapers have run stories on FOI requests which have unearthed data that was already open – a bit embarrassing for both media and institutions concerned…

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