Hi there! Tom Cardoso. As you may recall, my colleague Robyn Doolittle and I are the reporters behind Secret Canada, The Globe and Mail’s investigation into Canada’s broken freedom of information systems.
Our adept audience editors politely suggested that my last dispatch was a tad long, so I’m making an effort to keep it shorter this time around. Sorry, Rebecca and Sam! (Note to self: Already at 60 words…)
We’ve got a bunch of new stuff for you this time around. New additions to the Secret Canada database, and new blog posts! A behind-the-scenes look at our latest round of FOIs! A mailbag!
Let’s get into it.
We’ve got new stuff!
When we were nearing the launch of the Secret Canada website, we knew a bunch of public institutions weren’t going to make the cut – either because we’d yet to receive their data or because their files required more manual cleaning. We told ourselves we’d add these new institutions as quickly as we could.
Over the past month, we’ve made three such additions. We now have completed freedom of information request data for three hospital and health care organizations: the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and SickKids hospitals, both in Toronto, and B.C.’s Provincial Health Services Authority.
We’ve also published several new stories to our FOI news blog, including pieces from our colleagues Alexandra Posadzki and Molly Hayes. Alex wrote about her efforts to get the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to cough up statistics on phone number fraud. Molly, meanwhile, recounted her years-long struggle (emphasis on “struggle”) with the Toronto Police Service to obtain data on 911 call wait times.
Finally, Robyn made an appearance on CTV’s The Social – sporting a Secret Canada purple suit! – to talk about the project.
Whenever Robyn and I work on an investigation, we know it’s not enough to just report on the problems with a system – we must present solutions, too.
Our readers have also made it clear they want to hear about solutions. We’ve received many e-mails and other bits of feedback asking that we point to the places that are doing FOI well. Here are two “solutions stories” we ran in July:
- In one piece, Robyn, Mahima Singh and I explored the FOI systems of Mexico, Sweden, Norway and Britain.
- In another, we profiled the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which now has the country’s strongest FOI law.
You can read the rest of our Secret Canada coverage by visiting The Globe’s landing page for the project.
From the reporter’s notebook
In our previous newsletter, I mentioned we were gearing up to file a new round of requests. By the time you receive this newsletter, we will have – hopefully! – filed upwards of 400 FOI requests. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the process.
First, we had to figure out which institutions we’d be filing requests to. The basic version of this is easy enough: We’re filing to all the same public institutions as last year. We also decided to expand the database’s scope, so we’ve filed requests to dozens of public institutions we weren’t previously tracking. We learned last year that provincial ministry names and responsibilities change frequently – so we had to go back and rebuild our list of ministries from scratch.
Once we had that list ready, we tightened up our request letter. (This year’s is three pages long.) We broke our office printer twice trying to get it to print off the 600-plus pages of letters we needed for mail-outs.
Wary that FOI offices would come back to us with a slew of similar questions, we also spent some time writing a guide for FOI offices on how to respond to our Secret Canada requests.
We’re filing requests through a combination of physical letters, e-mails and online portals, and using a massive Google Docs spreadsheet to track it all. As I write this, Robyn still has 51 FOIs to file, and I have 161 (someone, please send help), mostly because I ran out of cheques and had to wait for the bank to send me more. (Ah, Canadian FOI…)
From the manila envelope
In our previous newsletter, I asked a question: Have you ever tried to access public records, either through an FOI or otherwise? What did you ask for, and how did that go?
Here’s James McKinney, who once filed an FOI asking for geographical data files from an Ontario city:
My most ridiculous case had to do with requesting Whitby’s ward boundaries as a GIS file. This had to go to mediation. I was successful, as the mediator explained that “we don’t know what he’s going to do with the files” is not an exemption under the act.
I hope everyone’s enjoying these final weeks of summer. Robyn and I are both taking some much-overdue time off this month, and will be back at it in September. See you soon.
P.S. 800-ish words. Not bad!