The Harrow computers may not be quite this damaged. Photo: Flickr/youngthousands

Among the scores of data released by the Freedom of Information Act across the country everyday it’s possible to forget about the people behind the information. And, I’m not talking about the Information Commissioners. 

Behind every set of figures produced by an authority there is an impact on someone, whether it’s the councillor who is going to have to defend information uncovered about his expenses or the person who is included in the revelatory number of those who may be made redundant.

Getting the figures are often the purpose for many of those who submit Freedom of Information requests and it is easy to forget they are not just numbers on a piece of paper. It’s possible that Freedom of Information can make a difference to a community and help to improve the lives of people living in an area.

Looking at the London Borough of Harrow, a FOI request recently exposed half of the borough’s public computers, so mostly computers in libraries, were out of order.

The article says:

“The worst of Harrow’s 11 libraries to try and use a computer is at Gayton Library in St John’s Road, where just four of the 19 machines are working.

The numbers may not be huge and although the situation is unacceptable many would disregard the importance of this simple FOI request. Looking beyond the statistics you get to see the people behind the story, the ones who are influenced by this and the issues then becomes more important.

“The revelation is the latest in a series of IT problems at the authority, with its planning, email and parking fine payment systems all failing during the last month – despite the council asking those without home Internet access to use the borough’s libraries after shutting down the telephone service to pay fines in August.”

Further on the newspaper talks to students who are unable to complete their coursework without the computers in the library working and a pensioner said she wasn’t able to pay her bill as the machines were out of order.

Without the FOI request and subsequent media coverage the voices of these people may have gone unheard and the problem may have got worse before it improved. But the FOI produced a result.

The day after the article was published the council said they were going to fix all of the computers. 

A seemingly small problem solved by a simple FOI request and the lives of many improved.

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare since ever since.