Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Ordinary People

One person who has started using Freedom of Information legislation in Northern Ireland to get answers to some issues which concern him is Simon Whittaker, an IT security consultant.

As a regular public transport user, he says, "I see things which aggravate me about the way our publicly funded transport network is run". Observing the difficulties of the project in trying to digitise and publicise timetable information for Translink, which runs the province's public transport network, he formed the opinion that "Translink was quite a closed shop and wasn't really interested in sharing information which it holds". (Note: this may change with the requirements to publish datasets in the Protection of Freedom legislation)

Concerned about security of data in the company's mLink application, which allows users to buy tickets on their mobile phone, he wrote about this in his blog, since it appeared that credit / debit card data was being sent unencrypted. He felt it showed very little thought had been paid to the security of users' data. This now seems to have been resolved.

In March, he wrote to them using What Do They, asking for details of their internal and external communications relating to security issues. They refused, citing commercial interests (Section 43). I would not expect all this information to be disclosed, since it might (a) reveal commercial secrets of a software supplier, and (b) might reveal a security gap which could be exploited by criminals (this would involve a different exemption). However, knowing that they have taken the issue seriously and have made positive efforts to respond is clearly in the public interest and they really should have provided some of what he requested, with appropriate redactions. He did not pursue it at the time because of other priorities.

On 21 September, he wrote once again through What Do They Know, asking for details of the cost of providing wifi services on the Network. This time he got the information he was looking for: it showed a total setup cost of over £700,000 and annual running costs of a quarter of a million pounds, with the majority going to fitting out the train system; new trains will include wifi as standard. This was picked up within a couple of weeks by a BBC report.

A further enquiry at the beginning of November asked for details of the research which had taken place to assess the likely availability and speed of the service, and to see the Service Level Agreement which had been entered into with the contract. The first part of his question received an answer, but the latter was withheld, once again using the Section 43 exemption. He has asked them to look again at this.

I believe he has good grounds for an appeal, to the Information Commissioner if necessary, though he is hoping to avoid this. "I'm also aware that this costs public money to do and would not undertake this lightly," he told me. Section 43 allows for information to be withheld if its release would damage the commercial interests of the public authority or an outside body. But there needs to be evidence that real harm would occur; examples would be disclosure of sensitive price information or trade secrets. A service level agreement, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of thing FOI is designed for - it allows the public to know that services offer value for money by ensuring that suppliers are penalised for not keeping their commitments. I can't see how a reputable company (or public authority) could suffer commercial losses through the disclosure of such information.

Simon's case is a good example of how FOI is changing the way we do things: as an everyday service user with specialist knowledge, he is exactly the kind of person who can add value to the work of public authorities by asking pertinent questions. Translink's responses have been prompt and helpful but show a wariness of disclosing information on their commercial transactions: not only should this be public data, it ought to help their work to have the public aware and able to comment on how this relationship is managed.

It's also a good example of how the Republic has fallen behind on the use of FOI: in the south, Simon would by now have forked out €45 for the information, with much bigger costs should he have to go to the Information Commissioner for help. "It was interesting," he says, "that it took me as an individual to ask these questions as opposed to them being asked by any reporters or audit offices". With reports that the Northern Ireland Executive wants to be allowed to charge for requests, this is an important point and one Simon feels strongly about: "In my view this makes a nonsense of the FOI act by ensuring that only the wealthy, companies and journalists have access to the information which makes our country run."

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