Do They Know What 2: The Revenge

Last week, I blogged my reservations about What Do They Know. Although I received none of the abuse from the wilder contingent of the site’s users that I was hoping for, various volunteers and friends of the site commented in a friendly, more-in-sorrow-than-anger kind of way. One of them (the Director of My Society, Tom Steinberg), threw down a classic gauntlet of ‘haven’t you got anything positive to say?’ Moreover, even I’m not paranoid or arrogant enough to interpret @FoiMonkey’s Herculean post about WDTK’s successes on the Confirm or Deny blog as a riposte to mine, but it probably serves as that nonetheless (she still missed a trick by not calling it ‘What has WDTK ever done for us?’).


Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with criticism that isn’t wholly constructive. There’s a phrase that encapsulates a society where everyone looks on the bright side and doesn’t have a bad word to say about anyone or anything: it’s ‘North Korea’. Sometimes you need one person to say that a thing is flawed or useless, and then another person can come along and suggest how to improve it. So part of me wanted to react by making lip farts at the screen and finding someone else in the information world to have a pop at. I’m really constructive when I’m working (ask around), but though I hoped it would be a spin-off from my training work, this blog has rapidly degenerated into an outlet for the side of my character that thinks everything is rubbish.

However, given that I would prefer What Do They Know to succeed than fail, it seems churlish to ignore an apparently sincere request for my feedback. Moreover, given that my chief reservation about the site is probably that its volunteers are not ruthless enough with some of its users, that the site’s attitude is a bit too Boy Scout / Girl Guide for FOI’s good, perhaps what they really need is advice from someone who doesn’t have the rose-tinted spectacles on. And that’s usually where I come in.

So, WDTKers, here are my suggestions for How To Make ‘What Do They Know’ Even More Great!

1) Get a volunteer who thinks that Red Pen / Red Hair / Killing Scotsmen requests are childish and vexatious. Users who make such requests are a gift for the haters and if you don’t see that, you need someone who does. FOI officers do an incredibly hard job, and you don’t help them by giving twerps a bigger stage than they could earn by themselves. The enemies of FOI need crass, easy to digest fodder to keep going. You’re publishing it for them.

2) Disable the comments function for everyone except My Society / WDTK volunteers. The most extreme applicants use the comment function to extend their rants and score points with no real value for anyone else. In my experience, helpful and dispassionate comments usually come from WDTK volunteers (and apparent fans of this blog), Alex Skene and Ganesh Sittampalam. A clampdown on comments would suck a lot of heat out of the specialist applicants. And before someone comes along with some whiny new age stuff about the internet being a space for free expression, I say phooey (NB: I say something a lot stronger than phooey, but I’m not typing it). You’re talking about the internet in general, not this website in particular. If WDTK was a free-flowing environment for free expression, every axe-grinding obsessive with an unjustifiable grudge would be given free rein. The site owners have decided to moderate, and I suggest that the comments – ancillary to the main function and not essential – don’t add enough to the site to justify the rants.

3) Look dispassionately at every user who has made more than 50 requests on the site. If this is more than a handful of users, up it to 100, but the point stands. You’ll find many legitimate applicants who simply have a wide range of interests. However, others who use the site to pursue vendettas or cause pointless trouble mark themselves out by volume, and 50+ is a good indicator of someone who might need to wind it in a little. The site has already recognised the need to put a daily cap on volume, so having a volume threshold to trigger some further attention isn’t unreasonable.

4) Remove every organisation that is not covered by FOI or EIR. You’ve disabled Network Rail even though everyone with a nodding acquaintance with FOI knows that they should be covered. On the other hand, the Church of Scotland has no place on an FOI site. I’m one of these militant secularists Baroness Warsi is so scared of, and I still think they should be left alone, whatever well-meaning circulars they may have issued.

4a) If you don’t like that idea, show them all how it’s done by voluntarily opting My Society into FOI.

4b) And if you’re determined to use the site to agitate for wider FOI coverage, put Network Rail and other similar candidates back on. Otherwise, an unkind person might suggest that you’ve bottled it for some reason.

5) Remove users who have obviously fake names automatically as soon as they come to your attention. No ifs, buts or exceptions. You know what the ICO advice is. If WDTK or its volunteers want to offer a service of making requests on behalf of others, that’s nobody’s business but yours. Anyone who wants to use a pseudonym on WDTK (or anywhere else) is perfectly at liberty to use a sensible avatar. A daft, look-at-me name is chosen solely to goad the organisation. Why do you support this?

6) Hide the profiles of the users you have suspended. You’ve chosen to modify the behaviour of excessive users by showing them that they will be cut off if they don’t use your site responsibly. Just as powerful would be the message that their efforts will be invisible if they transgress.

7) Give a visible yellow card to users who have been the subject of complaints. Allow us to see who’s been complained about, so if they’re misbehaving, users have the opportunity to keep an eye on them.

I genuinely hope that some of these suggestions might help. However, if anyone would like to use the comments to pour bile and vitriol on my thoughts, please feel free.

Comments

  1. Thanks for the suggestions (and here, have another sticker for your collection). I'm not going to bother agreeing or disagreeing, but there are a couple of places where I think your premises are wobbly:2) As I recall, we mostly recruited Ganesh on the basis that he'd made lots of useful annotations, so you may have cause and effect the wrong way around here. Also, it's worth bearing in mind that the annotation system is an important way of allowing users to describe things that don't fit in the rigid structure of the site, like complaints to ICO and communications (phone calls etc) outside the site.5) I think the ICO advice you're referring to here is on what names public authorities should accept on requests under FOIA. WhatDoTheyKnow also handles requests under EIR, which doesn't require names on requests, so I think if we were to require plausible names it would have to be for other reasons (one of which you suggested later).

  2. Network Rail is as you know not subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 due to the fact law makers chose not to include it. A tribunal has ruled that Network Rail does not carry out the functions of a public administration and therefore was not subject to EIR. Had law makers ensured that Network Rail was covered by either or both of these two information access regimes it would certainly meet the criteria for inclusion on WhatDoTheyKnow. I suggest you consider writing to your MP and explaining why you disagree with the law as it stands. It is possible that Network Rail could be added to the site under the site’s current policies which are published on the Foiwiki.

    (this reply contains my personal views only)

  3. I’m sure we agree that Network Rail clearly has a public role, and the Tribunal has itself said that the Government should take steps to include it in FOI. However, my point is that What Do They Know includes a huge range of effectively private bodies who are not even close to being covered by lawmakers – the Church of Scotland is an obvious example – and yet they’re all on there. The deliberate removal of Network Rail (which was there originally) looks a bit spineless given all of the other non-FOI, non-EIR bodies that WDTK’s owners have chosen to include.

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