Photo: Creative Commons – Quimbt/Flickr

Using data published by local authorities can be a time and cost effective method of producing news stories without having to send Freedom of Information requests. 

Twenty working days can be a long time to wait for a response to a FOI request and when you factor in the fact researching, writing and and collating (as well as any challenging of exemptions or public interest tests), using data which is already published can help to produce similar stories as well as finding others you wouldn’t have done with the FOI request.

Thanks to open data and transparency drive by the Government more and more information is being released that journalists can use instead of sending a FOI request. Many will think they don’t have time for using datasets and it’s true that there can be a lot fiddling around with spreadsheets but it’s possible to use data without detailed knowledge of Excel. A small amount of time each day, say five minutes, working on data can lead to having new information for stories at your finger tips.

For the examples listed below I’ll be looking at my hometown area of Northampton(shire) and showing how information can be gathered using data that is already in the public domain.

Publications 

Publications are a gold mine.

A lot of time information is already published by councils, local authorities and other public authorities, which will often mean there is no need to send a FOI request and spend time waiting for a response from the authority. On the Northamptonshire County Council website there is information relating to all the contracts the council has. The senior management team and all their salaries are listed, as well as councillors’ expenses.

But looking away from these common place documents more information can be found for local areas on central Government websites. Take the Home Office, and their list of publications a quick search for Northampton provides hundreds of hits inside documents with information relating to the area. Keeping abreast of these publications regularly can lead to information such as:

These are just from one, of 24, central government departments.

The image to the right shows the diversity of documents published by government departments on a daily basis (from an RSS feed). Included is spending details, statistics and other publications.

Council spending 

All councils have been asked to publish details of everything they spend, over £500, each month. These can be gold mines of information and can produce leads for plenty of stories relating to how much is being spent each month, or a look at the overall spending.

Taking a look at Northamptonshire County Council, it’s clear to see they update the information regularly.

After about half an hour of copying and pasting (there are more other effective ways to pull all the information into one file but now is not the time, or the place), I have pulled the information on their spending for the whole of 2012, Jan-December, into one place.

There are almost 84,000 records of the council spending more than £500 in the year. On the face of it this is probably too much information to really process but, the council have been incredibly helpful by breaking the information down.  It’s possible to see what service in the council has spent the money, (Adults and Children’s’ Services), this is further separated into the division of the service (Asylum Seekers), there’s a category for the expenditure (e.g. Services and Supplies), an invoice number, date, the amount paid, and who received the money.

By sorting these fields it’s possible to see who the largest payments were made to, how much money a single company received in a year, how much was spent on a certain sector and much more.

For example:

  • Biggest single payment: In 2012 was £7,440,037.54 to MGWSP, who “combines the strengths of May Gurney, an infrastructure services company and WSP, the design, engineering and management consultancy.”
  • Companies: If you need information on how much money a company you be investigating has received from the council it’s easy to find out. For example the controversial G4S Policing Solutions, who were responsible for the security cock-ups during the olympics were paid £99,443.32 during 2012 – by the trading standards department of the council.
  • Council departments: By searching the divisions of the council it’s possible to find information on the areas of spending, in more detail than will be displayed in the council’s budget documents. For example the construction of a link road on the A43 near Corby, shows £5,268,551.14 was paid to around 15 companies during the works. 
  • Redundancy and premature retirement compensation payments totalled £706,000 for the year. PFI payments came to almost £10,000,000 for the year. Snow damage, for highways came to £160,100. 

These quick examples have all come from looking at the document for less than half an hour.

If you look at the information for a financial year rather than calendar year this can be compared to the budget documents and spending for each area to see if the spending in each area has been met. Also, the information is from a fairly large county council, looking at areas more specific to a patch, such as a borough council who will be more involved in the day-to-day running of affairs will provide even more information.

The deeper you dig into the data the more can be found – if you would like to download the spreadsheet you can do from here.

Press Officers

Of course, a healthy relationship with press officers is always useful when using information from datasets as they will be able to clarify any information you are using and in some circumstances may be willing to provide information that you may have requested under FOI (without the hassle of using the act).

I am a journalist and author. I am a staff writer at the UK edition of WIRED magazine and in 2015 my book, Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. I created FOI Directory in 2012.