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Truths you weren’t meant to know: Why the FOI Bill is as it is.

In case there is any doubt about why Section 17 (4) of the newly published Freedom of Information Bill was inserted, let us compare an enquiry from data journalist Gavin Sheridan with the new restrictions.

Gavin asked the Department of the Taoiseach for:

“A ‘datadump’, (ie a copy/export of) the Oracle financial management system in use by the Department covering the time period for 2010.”

He also requested that the information be given to him in a new file of a particular format, best suited for data manipulation- a CSV or XLS file.

Section 17 (4) (a) says:

the FOI body shall not be required to take any step that involves the creation of anything for the purpose of searching for, or extracting, records that did not exist at the time of the making of the FOI request

As you may have seen yesterday on BoingBoing Section 17(4)(b) says “the FOI body shall take reasonable steps to search for and extract the records to which the request relates, having due regard to the steps that would be considered reasonable if the records were held in paper format”

Or, what is reasonable shall be decided by pretending all the records in a, (for example) Oracle financial management system, were made of paper.

And, just to be sure, Section 17(4) (d) says:

“subject to this subsection, an FOI body is not required by this Act to take any steps by way of manipulation, analysis, compilation or other processing of any such records, or any data contained in records, held by the body”

In short, the government have paid Gavin and the other busy beavers at thestory.ie the compliment of crafting a law specifically to prevent them from such reporting as, for example;

All the expenditure data for the Department of the Taoiseach for 2010.

Or this story arising from a request for email records from an Exchange Server.

And, of course, most significantly, the record of every expense or allowance paid to the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas.

If the new Bill’s restrictions had been in place, none of these FOI requests would ever have been granted. And none of the facts the public discovered about Brian Cowen’s limo bills, the warehouse rented by FÁS or the monies paid to our TDs and Senators would have seen the light of day.

What the government has done is reverse-engineered one of Gavin’s database requests. They’ve created a set of reasons to refuse any similar request in the future and written them into the legislation.

However, a Bill is not law. Until it becomes an Act, this Section 4 can be removed with a simple amendment. If you think that data journalism- using the information collected with the public’s resources to inform us about the State we live in- is worthwhile why not contact your TDs and ask them to stop the State from retreating into the shadows?

3 Comments

  1. I’d like to suggest linking to http://www.whoismytd.com/, just in case people don’t know who their TDs are 🙂

  2. I wonder if it would be possible to find out what systems are used in state institutions – if only someone in Dail Eireann could ask that question. At least if it were in widely-used formats, it would be possible to convert the data into Excel format (including most commercial databases). But if they are using some proprietary or old format, then it would be much harder indeed.