Sunday, May 23, 2010

Introduction to Freedom of Information - BarCampBelfast 2010

At yesterday's BarCampBelfast unconference I was involved in two sessions. The first was shared with KeithBelfast and looked at the concept of Hyperlocal Blogs, and tried to generate a bit of enthusiasm for the idea locally.

The second session presented an introduction to Freedom of Information (FOI) - something often talked about in the media and on blogs ... and even amongst local coders. I advised that the formal process could often be avoided, gave some background to the typical timeline of a request and offered some tips about writing successful questions.

The code4pizza initiative to build a set of applications and utilities around Translink's bus and rail services had some experience of using FOI to try and get hold of the basic data (bus stop locations, electronic timetables etc) that they required. I used some of Translink's FOI response as a mini-case study within the presentation.

The Information Commissioner's Office website holds a wealth of information on the subject, and their telephone helpline can be recommended for advice.

MySociety's WhatDoTheyKnow website can used to submit new requests and explore historic ones.

Local blogger Nevin Taggart (NALIL) has used FOI to good effect exposing Ian Paisley Junior's lobbying on behalf of Seymour Sweeney around the Giant's Causeway Visitor Centre as well as possible irregularities around the Rathlin Ferry service.

Heather Brooke's book Your Right to Know - New Edition: A Citizen's Guide to the Freedom of Information Act provides good background to the FOI process and pitfalls, while The Silent State: Secrets, Surveillance and the Myth of British Democracy describes her battle to get MPs' expenses released.

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