back to article Developer accuses TfL of 'fudging FOI requests'

Transport for London (TfL) is allegedly blocking attempts by the public to use Freedom of Information laws to obtain information from it, according to campaign group Big Brother Watch. At issue is whether TfL has the right to impose terms and conditions on FOI requesters, limiting their use of any information to purposes …

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Silver badge

No problem

So access the data, copy to a CD and leave it on a tube train, bus, whatever.

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Go

OR...

Access the data, state your purpose on the registration form as "personal use only", and then publish it as far and as widely as possible, making sure to ensure that the data could easily be interpreted to TfL's detriment.

They will not be able to successfully sue under contract Law simply because any unlawful clause in a Contract is either struck unilaterally from the contract if possible, or voids the contract entirely if it's not. This clause forcing "not for detriment" is not lawfully enforceable... the very point of the Act is that the data is PUBLIC DOMAIN and it is TfL's OBLIGATION to provide public access to it. By providing the data they imply that they accept that the data is covered by the FOI Act and is therefore public domain. They know all this and are just chancing their arm.

They cannot sue for defamation AT ALL because they themselves supplied the data.

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Silver badge

Chicken and Egg

I wonder whether the result of all of this would be had the data been available (albeit unknown to the developer) before he'd asked for it? At that point he could have been given an immediate response that the data was already available (with restrictions).

I can see an interesting precedent in the making here - I doubt if the courts will generally allow us to ask for data merely to get around restrictions if the data is otherwise available, but if it is not available and an FOI request goes in, then it is reasonable that the authority cannot then make it available only with restrictions.

This would have the effect that if public authorities want to have any control over their data, they have to make it readily available, because if an FOI request is received for it first, then they'd have to provide it free of restrictions.

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Parallel lines

Not s muchchicken and egg as parallel lines of development, and touching on issues that will have significant future implicatons for lgal developments in this area.

Organisations have, since the beginning of FOI, attempted to get round it by using copyright as a means to restrict the use of material post-publication. Most infamously, the long-running dispute between parliament and requesters – but also various university cases that have been reported in El Reg.

Personally, I think this is wrong-headed: but it springs from two quite separate motivations. On the one hand, it is just an obstruction tactic. On t’other, I suspect some bodies genuinely believe they are doing their job when they do this, and protecting ip that they have a duty to protect.

This case merely takes the argument one step further on. The data that Mr Short wants does have a commercial value: but there is also no earthly reason why that should stop it being publically available. My sense, from talking to TfL, is that they regarded this as morally, ethically wrong: those who support open access and the various common release projects out on the web will obviously take a diametrically opposed view.

Personally, I see no issue with someone attempting to profit from publically available data. A couple of years back, I modelled up the outlook for people to be drawn into the government’s vetting scheme. I used publically available stats on the Labour market and, I gather, almost certainly re-invented an approach and method used by KPMG on behalf of the Home Office.

I stuck the whole result into excel underneath a VBA shell and made it available to anyone who asked. The whole probably took me about a day’s work and cost zilch.

I bet KPMG charged a load more! But their argument would be that they deserved some payment for the work required to build the model.

The only irritation with this process is that the HO kept saying that KPMG had “modelled the outlook” – which was nonsense. They’d worked out an outlook, based on feeding one set of parameters into their model – and then they had chosen not to reveal to the public what would happen with different parameters. Anyone using my model could have played endless what-if games by changing parameters…so in principle, mine was better value for the public.

Jane

xx

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Silver badge
FAIL

copyright claims on FOI

The ICO confirmed to me a long time ago that such claims are bunk.

They also wanted to know _which_ organisations are making copyright claims on releases in order to remind them that it's not lawful to do so.

Given their recent eagerness to whap organisations trying to game the FOI system, it's worth filing a complain about this kind of thing, but the single largest category of FOI breach is still failure to respond or even acknowledge requests in the first place.

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Is it not he who fudges the issue?

Why does he need to use FOI to get development data in the first place?

I did not study the FOI Act itself but on the face of this request is not in line with the spirit of the Act, which was to open the Govt to public scrutiny.

This situation here looks more like market research and the data should really be subject to conditions. In any commercial situation (e.g. you want to analyse the historic oil prices) you would go to a survey company and buy the data, with restrictions on use, copyrights etc.

Clearly, TfL is not a commercial organisaion but the nature of the data requested is. It is only fair that the data is released in a controlled manner. Again, I don't know where the letter of the Act and the exemption it contains cover such data or situations but, instinctively, I feel that this data should be distributed through a different channel/mechanism than the FOI requests.

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WTF?

Fairness?

> It is only fair that the data is released in a controlled manner.

I'm not sure why you think the issue of "fairness" comes into it.

TfL is not a company, they are public servants. They are paid employees of the public at large. If you have an employee working for you and they refused to disclose information related to their employment to you their employer without you having to sign something or pay them some money, I think you would have something to say about it.

The central issue is this "us" and "them" mentality that has grown up over the years between the public and administration of local government. They are not some separate commercial organisation that can do whatever they wish, and comparing them to companies is wholly unhelpful. This situation has no doubt been exacerbated by the ideas of running local government finances along the same lines as commercial companies bringing it with it the kinds of corporate mentality. Good financial management is always a good thing but bringing other corporate practices into local government is not.

This is just the kind of wrong-headed thinking that the FOI was designed to try to break: the idea that local and central government must, by default, have some secrecy attached to it, whereas the truth of it is that there are only a number of very small instances where confidentiality is really necessary and should be justified on a case-by-case basis.

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Silver badge

Fairness.

Firstly, you are not their employer. Just because you pay tax it does not make you some kind of shareholder of the Government, so don't deceive yourself.

Secondly, even shareholders of commercial enterprises, while they may be entitled to some information (usually a narrowly defined list of documentation prepared for shareholder meetings) cannot arbitrarily demand any and all kind of information from the business they have a share in. They will have to go through proper procedures - with the Shareholder Meeting or through the BOD if they control any directors. In any case, unless you are a controlling shareholder the company may refuse to provide you the information and/or charge for it and may impose non-compete restrictions etc.

Finally, FOI was designed as an instrument to make govt officials and organisations accountable. Primarily it was meant to make it easier to catch civil servants spending public funds on personal lifestyle and to check where the speed cameras were.

Here the guy wants to have *operational* data for his own commercial purposes - why the hell should you and I pay our taxes to finance him getting that data for free through a government accountability channel? He should ask nicely and, I'd say, pay a fee, at least to cover the admin costs of collating the information for him.

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Grenade

Classic

"The reason this information is provided on the website is to provide value for money to London taxpayers and passengers. Saving information onto hard discs and sending securely through the post for one person is less cost efficient than making the same data available on the web for a large number of people."

Basically a top piece of political double-talk that if you read through it reads 'Information covered by FoI is not covered by FoI if we make the effort to provide it in an efficient manner ".

Now perhaps there's an argument to be made that if you design an API for data, you have the right to put restrictions on the use of the API whether the data behind it is FoI covered or not, but if you do it looks like the FoI would *demand* that you provide unfettered access to the raw data behind it as was requested in this case.

At that point there's a choice as to whether to simply give unrestricted access to the API or to proide the "raw" as requested in another manner, but surely the argument cannot be made that you can enforce conditions just because the access to the data already exists? If you could that would invalidate the act wouldn't it? "Freedom of information" means unfettered access.

If you *could* restrict on the basis of prior access you could simply argue "well our policy for information requests is to give a VPN access into the database in return for £10,000 for a 1 year support contract for the VPN and a binding contract to sell your camel to antarctica. Anyone is entitled to do so"...... "What? You don't want to pay £10,000? You don't have a camel? Then I'm sorry you can't have access, after all it was already existing and publically available before you asked."

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FAIL

What utter twaddle

The issue isn't how efficiently the data is accessed.

The issue is the restrictions placed upon it's use and they damn well know it.

They're just playing funny buggers and trying to game the system.

Time for the ICO to issue another public spanking, me thinks.

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FAIL

TfL have done this for years

In the mid 90's when companies wanted to put fibre cables through the underground entirely at their own cost and even paying a wayleave to Tfl (LuL as it was at the time), refused permission unless they had full control of who and what was being communicated over the fibre.

TV stations they did not like were to be rejected, encrypted data between embassies was rejected as they wouldn't know what it was and just about everything was subject to their approval.

Barking mad control freaks the lot of them - with ideas well above their station.

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Wombling free...

Well above their station? We talking undeground or overground, here?

:)

jane

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"The reason this information is provided...

...is to provide value for money to London taxpayers...

TfL appears to forget that about half its income is derived from dipping into the pockets of all taxpayers (not just those in London).

Perhaps the spokesperson could have said "...to provide value for money for taxpayers, including those who pay for TfL but can't use it, because it provides services only in the south east".

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Anonymous Coward

Network Rail?

Try an FOI request on NR....

A private Not-For-Profit company paid for by us.

http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?sectioncode=1&storycode=46517&c=1

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WTF?

Did he get the data or not.....?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/mindthegap/2011/01/boris_bikes_the_truth_behind_t.html

"The data was released to Adrian Short who writes apps for the scheme."

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And?

If you read thru the FOI correspondence, you will see that TfL originally released a sample file (containing a few hundred records) to Adrian to check compatibility. I suspect that this is what is referenced here.

In respect of the rest of the story: I spoke to Arian yesterday, who confirmed he had not got the data he wanted...and also spoke to TfL who said they hadn't given it to him, so...i rather think we are talking about a quite diffeent data set.

(Either that or Adrian and TfL have got together to stage a perfectly bizarrepublicity stunt).

jane

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FAIL

The rule is

Anyone is allowed to ask for anyt information from a public body.

The exclusions are

1 contains personal information - data protection act

2 getouts for military and spooks - no surprise there

3 is freely available already - that is without any restrictions

You cannot say no because they may do something embarrasing.

You cannot say no because you think they want it for their own commercial purposes.

You cannot say no because you are not sure if that is their real name.

You cannot say no because they are an irritating person.

If you are a public body - you have to comply.

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FAIL

Correction

You're really quite wrong on a few points here. There are more exemptions than that - correct there's one for personal data and the spooks but also quite a few others:

Information that is reasonably available - this may include a charge payable

Information intended for future publication. Information whose release would harm the economy, relations within the UK, international relations, defence, commercial interests, the development of government policy, anyone's health & safety or infringe parliamentary privilege. Also, communications with Her Maj, information on the awarding of honour, information held for the purposes of an investigation by a public authority or law enforcement, information which was provided in confidence, information covered by statutory prohibitions on disclosure, environmental information and, my personal favourite "information whose release would prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs". No scope for abuse of that last one then.

Your request can also be refused if it costs too much or is vexatious (the request, not the requester).

Plus, your request CAN be refused if you don't give your real name. There's little point in doing this if the information is going to be released but if anything is withheld and you want to appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal,as a court they can't hear the appeal without your real name.

Sorry to let facts get in the way of a good rant.

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Anonymous Coward

One thing that seems to be missed out here...

... by all these commenters

Is that this information was to create a "real-time" application. If this application is real-time, would all the commenters above in the "just hand over the data" crowd be happy for a public servant to be pretty much employed full time just to potentially service this developers FOI requests to keep his application "real time". I think this kind of request would fall outside the "fairness" provisions of the FOI law, i.e. if a public body were to spend £10K to comply with an FOI request on £100 pounds worth of information.

I forsee a future where more money is being spent servicing FOI requests than the jobs being performed.

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Not missed...

...but specifically asked. Adrian likes the idea of "some day" creating a real-time app... but i think he acknowledges this would be a wholly different ball game.

This was a one-off request for data at a point in time. End of.

Twas TfL that decided to start adding bells and whistles, including regular updates.

jane

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Anonymous Coward

Title needed

Isn't there already an exemption in the act if the cost is excessive? There's no need to rely on copyright even if they could choose to do so legitimately. The very fact that they are suggests that cost isn't an issue and they know they don't have a leg to stand on.

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Happy

Re: One thing that seems to be missed out here...

"if a public body were to spend £10K to comply with an FOI request on £100 pounds worth of information"

Are you sure? I've not read the FoI act in detail, but I know the DPA includes the facility for the recipient of the DPA request to charge a reasonable admin fee to collate and turn over the requested information. I wouldn't be suprised to find that FoI contains a similar clause. That, however, is a very different thing from trying to limit what someone does with the mandated information afterwards.

As for huge costs in what would appear at worst to be a regular data dump, as a sometime jobbing DBA I'm reasonably confident that even I could knock up a stored procedure for a database to do something like that within a few hours given the database schema and a language manual! I wouldn't charge THAT much :-)

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Real time is unusual, I have no idea if it's valid.

Freedom of information means "freedom". It's a "must do". But a "freedom of information request" usually refers to data that an authority is holding currently, I suppose, rather than to data which they may collect in the future.

Still...

You could send in an FoI request every ten minutes.

But there may also be a fee each time...

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Flame

How come Network rail are exempt?

At least TfL are publishing their data (albeit with strings attached).

Network Rail just flat out refuse.

If you're not a commercial company prepared to pay them £££, then they won't give you access to anything.

Want to find out what trains are arriving at your local station? No public APIs, nothing. Officially approved channels only!

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I doubt it...

I doubt they're exempt... I just think that nobody so far has had the money or the inclination to take them to court for the legally required response, or to report them to the Information Comissioner and pursue it.

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WTF?

Re: I doubt it...

Incredibly, they really do appear to be exempt.

This was supposed to be fixed in a recent review (which finally brought ACPO into line), but for reasons unknown, Network Rail have maintained their exemption.

More here: http://www.cfoi.org.uk/foi070111pr.html

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