The Freedom of Information Act has helped to develop many great news stories

This isn't one of them

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Highway Code Rule 236

My FOI story was going to be based around Highway Code 236, drivers that ignore this Rule can be fined. Based on anecdotal evidence from a driving instructor, my own observations and posts on community forums I expected the number fines issued to be increasing year on year.

There was also going to be a map of hotspots showing where the driving offences occurred.

For non road users, Rule 236 states:

“You MUST NOT use front or rear fog lights unless visibility is seriously reduced (see Rule 226) as they dazzle other road users and can obscure your brake lights. You MUST switch them off when visibility improves.”

This blog is about how I sent out a round-robin Freedom of Information (FOI) request to see if there was a news story hidden within the data.

The Freedom of Information Act, 2002

 

The Freedom of Information Act (FOI) was passed by the UK Parliament in 2002 and came into force on 1 January 2005. It enshrined a “general right of access” to information held by all public bodies, subject to certain absolute exemptions and cases where disclosure was not deemed to be in the public interest.

 

It applies to over 100,000 public authorities including government departments, schools and hospitals.

 

Tony Blair, whose government passed the Act, has questioned the impact that FOI has had on decision-making in government, suggesting it has “hugely constrained” ministers’ confidence in being able to have frank discussions with advisers. He has even admitted in his autobiography that introducing the act was one of his biggest regrets of his time in power.

 

My FOI requests were to police forces in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The Scottish Parliament passed its FOI legislation in 2000, which also came into force on 1 January 2005.

“You idiot. You naïve, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

Tony Blair on the FOI Act

How to make a FOI Request

This exercise is based on the information in the book ‘Freedom of Information’ by Matt Burgess (2015).

For a request to be valid under the Freedom of Information Act, the following criteria must be met:

  • The request must be made in writing
  • Must contain the name of the applicant
  • It can be made by email or letter
  • It must contain a return address (this can be an email address)
  • It must clearly describe the information being sought
  • It must be legible.

I sent the following email to 44 police forces in two batches between 30/1/17 and 31/1/17 (technically it was three batches as Devon and Cornwall Police was missed and wasn’t contacted until 13/3/17):

Although this blog highlights the errors in my FOI, I did do at least one thing right. All the emails were recorded in a spreadsheet. I recorded the data the email was sent, the date of acknowledgement and the date of the final response.

Without this I would not have been able to keep track of all the requests.

The letter

Dear Sir or Madam,

 

Under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, please provide me with of the fixed penalty notices handed out by officers to drivers misusing their fog lights (highway code rule 236; Law RVLR regs 25 & 27) for the years 2000 to 2015 inclusive.

 

I would like this data in spreadsheet format (CSV or XLS) broken down by year, and including the following fields or fields which are similar to them.

 

Date (DD/MM/YYYY)
Location (longitude and latitude)
Time of issue
Driver’s sex
Driver’s age

 

I understand that under the Act I am entitled to a response within 20 working days of your receipt of this request. Some parts of the request may be easier to answer than others. Should this be the case, I request that you release information as soon as possible.

 

If my request is denied in whole or in part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act.

 

I will also expect you to release all non-exempt material. I reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to charge excessive fees.

 

I would prefer to receive the information electronically.

 

If you require any clarification, I expect you to contact me under your section 16 duty to provide advice and assistance if you find any aspect of this FOI request problematic.

 

Please acknowledge receipt of this request, and I look forward to receiving the information in the near future.

 

Yours faithfully,

 

John Guinn
My home address

What could possibly go wrong?

I thought that the letter was clear and straightforward. However, there was an issue or two.

I didn’t know how fixed penalties for driving offenses were recorded. I based my request on the details given for crimes on the Police Data website.

In this downloadable database the longitude and latitude are given. I felt that these coordinates would be useful in generating my hot spot map.

After a few responses from the police forces I found that apart from Leicestershire Police these coordinates are not used. Most forces used the street name, others used the divisional area as the location. The UK wide hot spot map was not going to happen.

Also, the driver’s sex and age was not always recorded. To finish it off, the available data, in most cases, only went back to 2010.

What I really needed to know before I sent my requests

So the first mistake was not to fully check the available dataset, more specifically, the reference number for this fixed penalty.

The City of London Police’s response educated me on the reference numbers:

  • RL89172 – Use a vehicle on a road when the rear fog lamp(s) were used to cause dazzle/discomfort
  • RL89176 – Use a vehicle on a road when the front fog lamp(s) were used to cause dazzle/discomfort
  • RL89177 – Use a vehicle on a road when the front fog lamp(s) were used and visibility not seriously reduced/vehicle parked
  • RL89178 – Use a vehicle on a road when the rear fog lamp(s) were used and visibility not seriously reduced/vehicle parked

 

My FOI request should have used RL89176 and RL89177 instead of mentioning Rule 236 and RVLR Regs 25 & 27. I gave the various FOI officers too much to do by hoping that a description would be sufficient.

Not everything is done in the same way

Another issue was pointed out by Cumbria Police:

“Police forces in the United Kingdom are routinely required to provide statistics to government bodies and the recording criteria is set nationally. However, the systems used for recording these figures are not generic, nor are the procedures used locally in capturing the data. It should be noted that for these reasons this force’s response to your questions should not be used for comparison purposes with any other response you may receive.”

 

Management of Police Information (MOPI) Code of Practice

This Code is meant to ensure that there is broad consistency between forces in the way information is managed within the law.

However, I found that different force managed their information in different ways. I have already mentioned that Cheshire Constabulary would have to manually trawl through records to comply with my request. Other forces did not seem to have an issue with data retrieval.

For example, Sussex Police was able to provide; date, time, sex, year of birth and road name.

There wasn’t any evidence of a ‘broad consistency’ across the police forces.

Apart, that is, from how far records go back. The reason that I couldn’t get figures for the date range I requested is that records for motoring offences can only be held for six years.

Of course, there were exceptions; PSNI records went back to 2000 and The Met’s went back to 2006.

Freedom doesn’t mean free

Finding information from an organisation’s archives can take time. The FOI Act acknowledges this and allows for a fee to be charged in certain situations.

Section 13(1) – (3) are as follows:
13. — (1) A public authority may charge for the communication of any information whose communication –
(a) is not required by section 1(1) because the cost of complying with the request for information exceeds the amount which is the appropriate limit for the purposes of section 12(1) and (2), and
(b) is not otherwise required by law
such fee as may be determined by the public authority in accordance with the regulations made by the Secretary of State.
13. — (2) Regulations under this section may, in particular, provide-
(a) that any fee is not to exceed the maximum as may be specified in, or determined in accordance with the regulations, and
(b) that any fee is to be calculated in such manner as may be prescribed by the regulations.
13. — (3) Subsection (1) does not apply where provision is made by or under any enactment as to the fee that may be charged by the public authority for the disclosure of the information.

Two forces (Cheshire and Devon & Cornwall) refused to supply any of the information on cost grounds.

Cheshire Constabulary’s response

“From our preliminary assessment, we estimate that compliance with your request would exceed the appropriate costs limit under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This is currently £450.

The basis for this calculation is the cost of retrieving and locating the information to be disclosed.

To provide the details regarding FPN (Fixed Penalty Notices) would require a manual trawl through each one to establish the date, location, drivers sex and age.  There were 324 offences which is estimated to take one person in excess of 5 minutes per FPN which equates to 27 hours, this is only for date from 2010 as we do not hold any data prior to that date.  Therefore your entire request is refused.
Section 17 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requires the Cheshire Constabulary, when  refusing  to  provide  such  information  (because the information  is  exempt)  to provide you with a notice which a) states that  fact,  b)  specifies the exemption in question and c) states (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.

The appropriate limit is defined in the Data Protection and Freedom of Information (Fees and Appropriate Limit) Regulations 2004, which is covered by statutory Instrument Number 3244 of 2004.

Furthermore, Section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows a public authority to refuse to respond to a request for information where the cost of compliance would exceed the appropriate limit as defined by the above mentioned regulations.

Unfortunately I am unable to offer you any alternative to provide you with any meaningful statistics.”
Cost of research can mean that public authorities do not have to answer a FOI request.

27 hours is a long time to spend on a FOI request such as mine, I didn’t appeal.

Scotland

Police Scotland also mentioned the cost, but the force did supply the numbers all vehicle lighting offences per year on a divisional basis. The force’s spokesperson said:

“I am unable to provide you with the information you have requested, as it would prove too costly to do so within the context of the fee regulations. As you may be aware the current cost threshold is £600 and I estimate that it would cost well in excess of this amount to process your request.

“As such, and in terms of Section 16(4) of the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 where Section 12(1) of the Act (Excessive Cost of Compliance) has been applied, this represents a refusal notice for the information sought.”

Looking at the figures that Police Scotland did provide, it is possible that the table has errors. The figures for Forth Valley Division are so much higher than for other areas in Scotland.

The Area Press Office said that Forth Valley does not have a specific drive to look out for fog light misuse and suggests that the figures could be an error. I would have to go back to Police Scotland’s FOI Department if I wanted the figures clarified.

Due to Forth Valley’s figures I had to use a Logarithmic Scale to produce a comparison line chart.

CSV, or not CSV, that is the question

I asked for the data to be supplied in spreadsheet format, either .csv or .xls. This was for no other reason than it would make it easier for me to manipulate the data.

Of the forces who sent the information, all were in the form of a spreadsheet. BUT, not all were in a format that I could easily paste into Excel.

Some came in PDF, one was pasted into an email,  and one was pasted into a word document. Perhaps I should have asked for a file that can be opened by Excel or Google Sheets. Thames Valley’s PDF was too small to easily read and could not be converted to an Excel file. Hampshire’s was password protected, so couldn’t be converted either.

Not only that, some of the data was just the number of fixed penalties over the year.

Also, the data couldn’t always be taken as read. For example, Hampshire Police provided a summary for each year, but the maths was wrong. Also Nottinghamshire’s spreadsheet was not in date order and the date information was in a format that could not be ordered automatically. Each entry had to be manually put into year order.

The data formats actually sent are below:

Mapping the locations

I did finally put a map together, however, if I was to do it again I would do it in a different way. This one took hours.

The map below is made up of locations from 2011 to 2015. The first mistake with this map was that I decided to cover too many years. I wanted to show as much as possible, but with all the spelling mistakes and missing information I had hundreds of corrections/deletes to make.

I chose My Maps as Fusion would not map the data. While putting this together I learnt a lot about Google My Maps. I discovered that the limit for data entries per layer is 2000. It wasn’t until I had added over 3,500 that I noticed. I did think that the error count was stable for a lot of entries.

The errors shown by My Maps was also a problem. I was overwhelmed with listed errors and icons in the wrong country (USA, Denmark, India, Australia, New Zealand..) that I had to chunk it down to 200-300 entries at a time.

I’d clear all the problems for that chunk of data and then My Maps would decide to suddenly reject a location that until then hadn’t been a problem.

An automatic method of cleaning the data would have been really useful, but I couldn’t find one.

The map below shows fixed penalties recorded in England. The following forces are not shown:

  • Hampshire
  • Lincolnshire
  • Merseyside
  • North Yorkshire
  • Surrey
  • Thames Valley

If I was to map this again

I have already mentioned that I would not map such a wide range of dates, but there are other things I would change next time.

Icons

All the icons are the same. I mixed up forces when I put the spreadsheets together. Next time I would use different colours to represent the different forces. This would mean doing some manually, as while trying to add more definition to the map I discovered that there is a maximum of 10 layers per map.

Borders

Showing the boundaries for all the police forces in England would have added to the map. Especially if a dark colour was used to highlight the forces that couldn’t or wouldn’t supply the data.

I did find polygons for the borders, but they were for individual forces and as mentioned above, the isn’t enough layers to be able to add all the forces.

Research shows that it may be possible to merge the KML boundary files in a text editor. Lack of time (this blog is for an assignment) prevented me from experimenting this time.

Timeline

If I had mapped individual years I could have put a timeline video together showing the changes in fixed penalties recorded on a yearly basis. It would have made an interesting alternative to a bar or a line chart.

How long?

Under the Act, the contacted police forces should have responded within 20 working days. This a long time when the story needs to be published, so delays do not help.

As mentioned above, Staffordshire Police has still to provide the data (as of 28/4/17 the delay has reached 64 working days). The quickest response time was three working days, which was South Yorkshire Police. The longest response took 51 working days (City of London Police).

“Hello, I’m a journalist, why have you just broken the law?”

A news story should be balanced, otherwise it is just an opinion piece. To have balance I would have to ask drivers why they are committing a moving traffic violation.

People don’t like to be told that they are doing something wrong, especially in front of friends and family. Even more so when they are accused of breaking the law.

I walk up to strangers to ask them questions at work, and that can be hard enough even without calling them a criminal. I didn’t feel that comfortable in approaching drivers, so that was out.

Timing

When I started this investigation it was still winter and the nights were long. After receiving data from everyone (apart from Staffordshire) it was Spring and the nights are getting shorter.

Shorter nights means less cars with their lights on. This story would be better suited to publication when the evening rush hour is in darkness. Road users would be more interested in finding out how to avoid a fine.

So the investigation also fails at being relevant.

Copyright issues

The police forces sent me the data, but could I actually publish it?

Much of the information held by public authorities will attract intellectual property (IP) rights. The two forms of IP rights most relevant to FOI requests are copyright and database rights.

This may be why many FOI responses come with a disclaimer stating that the information cannot be reused as it would infringe on copyright laws.

In his book, ‘Freedom of Information’, Matt Burgess said:

“..it is very unlikely that an authority would take action against its [the data] publication in a story.

“In most cases the information that will be provide by the public authority will be facts.

“There is no copyright in news, facts or information.”

I have only asked for, and been provided with, facts, so copyright wouldn’t have been an issue.

What would have been an issue would have been if someone could have been identified from the information provided.

One force did state that the location of the fixed penalty is not an indication of the driver’s home address, but it is possible that it could have been.

With this in mind, any tables, charts or maps I did eventually create would have had to have kept the driver’s sex and age separate from any location.

So, what should I have done?

The assumption at the start was that the number of fixed penalty notices for the incorrect use of front fog lights would be increasing year-on-year. When the data started to come through it was obvious that this wasn’t the case.

Firstly, I should have started small, and only contacted my local force (Bedfordshire). Then I would have had a feel to if there was actually something of interest in this topic. Also, I could have adapted the FOI email to ask better questions.

If I ever do a FOI round-robin on motor offenses again I would do the following :

  • Find the correct reference number for the offence I’m interested in
  • Find out what information is recorded under that reference
  • Have a much narrower date range
  • Start with just two or three requests (and not 44)
  • Time the project so that any publication would be at the right time (also to allow for follow up requests)
  • List the file formats that I don’t want to receive the data in as well as the ones I would accept
  • Show the column headings with examples of the expected information
  • Look at how to safely find out why the offences occur

 

What can I do?

I have data, some of it has been ‘cleaned’, the rest is still pretty random. I have already mentioned that this blog is for an assignment. If I had more time I would play with the data to find out:

  • If the number of offences increases when the clocks go back
  • The ages of female offenders
  • The ages of male offenders
  • If the driver ages remain proportionate year-on-year
  • The worse day, time and place to be driving with your fog lights on

I will add links to these investigations after my assignment has been marked. These will be posted after July 2017.