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Information maestro (June 2011)

Journalists should FoI and Cross-reference. Miriam Cotton interviews Gavin Sheridan of TheStory.ie

Miriam Cotton (MC): What did you do before you started The Story?
Gavin Sheridan (GS): In 2002 I started Gavinsblog.com. That’s in semi-retirement though it is still up there. I was just 21 then and at the time there were only about a dozen blogs in Ireland. The Iraq war was imminent, 9/11 had happened and the blog was a place where you could start writing about whatever you wanted.
MC: When and how did the idea for TheStory.ie come to you?
GS: I started to become involved in local government stuff after I graduated in 2008 from UCC. My New Year resolution in January 2009 was to build an Irish version of ‘TheyWorkForYou.com’ which was a British parliamentary transparency website.
After I graduated I started working on this in my spare time. I found out that a man called John Handlaar was already trying to build something similar in Ireland. By April 2009 we had the first version of KildareStreet.com which is the Irish version of ‘They Work For You’.
From my involvement in all of this I had become very interested in open government. I went to some conferences in London in summer 2009 and again I met some very interesting people. Heather Brooke did the original Freedon of Information request (FOI) for MP’s expenses. This was all very interesting to me – there was no FOI culture in Ireland. A few people had done some FOIs – Damien Mulley had done some on broadband and the Department of Communications. Journalists were using them but relatively infrequently.
I realised that the culture that existed in the UK where citizens were putting in FOIs about, for example, why a building down the road had been sold for one pound, just didn’t exist here.
So the first thinking I did when I got back to Ireland was to look at what FOIs were being done and the most interesting one I found was Ken Foxe’s one about John O’Donoghue. I FOI’d his FOI – not because I wanted to steal his story but because I wanted to see the receipts. It was a really good story that was going into The Sunday Tribune every weekend. But it wasn’t being talked about in the dailies or on the radio.
The Department of Culture, Sport and Tourism sent them to me and I put them on-line through my scanner and started publishing the details of each trip. That gave the story an extra push. TheStory.ie hadn’t started at this stage so I put them on my own blog [GavinsBlog]. I also went to the Politics.ie website and gave them the details.
I had met Mark Coughlan (Co-founder of TheStory.ie) at a Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis earlier that year and we’d been talking a good bit about this concept. We started ‘The Story’ in August 2009, just when the story about the expenses of John O’Donoghue, Ceann Comhairle, was taking off. Instead of submitting FOIs for individual things, we thought why not FOI for everything!
What is fundamental to getting everything under an FOI is to submit requests for databases. If the government has gone to the trouble of more efficiently holding information then we can write more efficient FOIs to more efficiently get that efficiently-held information! The process of exporting a database is quite easy and a large amount of information can be got. We were thinking that if they’ve got an expenses database, we don’t just want to know about John O’Donoghue we want to know everything – within reason. How do one set of expenses relate to others? We were about transparency and advocacy – transparency first, journalism second.
Most journalists would not know how to control a big spreadsheet of data and that was something we had to teach ourselves. A friend of mine who was working on the BBC’s Panorama taught me a lot of basic computer-assisted reporting like what you do with a spreadsheet once you get it, how you analyse it and graphically represent it. We learned about all the tools that are freely available for mapping information – the basics of Excel and Google Fusion Table. Cleaning spreadsheets is very important for instance.
We then set out a policy whereby we began to look for precedent. We decided that if we were refused a database we wouldn’t just say ‘well, that’s that then’. We decided to appeal any decision which we believed was worth the €225 to appeal it – things that would have the effect of broadening the scope of the FOI Act as much as we could.
Ken Foxe’s FOIs were an example of how documents are important because within them was information relating to the database that was used to record the information. We saw that they were using a thing called Oracle. The whole exercise took three months. There was an initial request testing to see how they would reply, then a second request asking for the entire database. That was refused under three FOI Act exemptions so we appealed that and finally we appealed to the Information Commissioner in January 2010. We eventually got the database. It named the civil servants, how much they claimed and more or less what it was for, but with some redactions applied because you have to work around S.10 of the FOI Act which is to do with volume. If you’re asking for a lot of information they can argue that it’s too voluminous.
There is a certain amount of bartering. I was being as reasonable as possible and it was possible to have some negotiation. The day after we had reached an agreement with the Information Commissioner and with the Department of Arts, Sports & Tourism and we had published it, we went to other departments saying there was no reason why these other requests should be refused. Ultimately the databases that we have now published account for nearly half a billion euro worth of expenses over the last number of years.
MC: This has been the bulk of the work you have done so far?
GS: We have done other things too. We’ve been serially FOI-ing FÁS. Simultaneously we were FOI-ing all expenses claims for all TDs and Senators since 1988. At the same time we’d be scanning in a lot of incidental information which our original FOI may have led us to – the Taoiseach’s diaries for example. They’re not available online. You’re not going to get a story out of a ministerial diary. But it’s an important record of what our ministers do on our behalf on a day-to-day basis
Yesterday I scanned and published a record of helicopter flights by Ministers between 2005 and 2009. I had information about a helicopter – the hours and routes it flew. What I didn’t know what the reason for the flights was. The Department of Transport didn’t have a record of that but Bertie Ahern’s diary did. All I had to do was go into these diaries which are now online on the website. So I’ve been able to relate one set of information to another in another searchable database which gives the bigger picture and makes the diary information much more useful
MC: What obstacles have you encountered – have you experienced any interference or resistance from politicians or others?
GS: No. 99% of the time I’m dealing with FOI Officers in departments. They’re usually quite friendly and helpful. A problem sometimes arises when you’re looking for information in a particular format. I might ask for something on a spreadsheet and I’ll get it in PDF.
I take the position that there is no conspiracy out there – nobody is out to get me. I suppose there is an inbuilt defensiveness about releasing information. Sometimes that’s to do with not embarrassing the Department. Sometimes it’s an Officer who’s afraid of getting into trouble.
MC: How frequently are journalists using FOI to scrutinise this sort of information? Clearly nobody else is doing what you are doing.
GS: There are certain journalists who use FOI as a way to get stories, which is fine. Often journalists don’t have the time, they’re under-resourced. There’s also very little in terms of education about the FOI Act.
MC: And investigative journalism isn’t something editors are making a priority of.
GS: Ken Foxe of The Sunday Tribune was spending thousands on FOIs over 2 years and investigating documents – that’s investigative journalism.
MC: You must have quite an archive by now.
GS: There are two technologies that we use to store documents as opposed to data. The first one called SCRIBD.com which is a document hosting service. We put about 260 documents on SCRBD which is free – some of them things like the Tracy Faye Report. I actually found that on the Fine Gael website. I converted it into a proper digital copy. We also put up the Ansbacher Report, the Bracken Report and other tribunal reports from the 1990s. The SCRIBD documents have been viewed over 100,000 times. That’s significant interest. I put up Brian Lenihan’s diary and it was viewed 2,500 times.
MC: Are you breaking even financially?
GS: We are OK for now. We get donations from the public. The big investment is obviously time. I can scan documents while watching television!
MC: How are you doing with NAMA?
GS: Brian Lenihan specified that NAMA would not be covered by the FOI Act. My case is that it’s covered by Environmental Information Regulations though nobody uses them. Emily O’ Reilly’s office has complained that journalists don’t avail of this possibility. It covers all public bodies, not just public authorities. It’s free.