7 datasets you can write about now instead of waiting for your FOI request to come back

So you’ve had a great idea for a story, but you need more information to stand it up. So is it time for a Freedom of Information request (or several). Freedom of Information requests are a great way to get information from public bodies that isn’t available from anywhere else.

But it takes time to get a response back. And by the time the responses come back, the story might be out of date. That’s if all your responses come back, and you don’t end up with a patchy set of information.

Remember, the key bit is that the information isn’t available anywhere else. But what if you can find the same or similar data publicly available?

So, here’s a list of stories you could write now using publicly available data (rather than waiting for your FOI request to come back).

92,000 UK drivers are at imminent risk of losing their driving licence

A Freedom of Information request to DVLA by IAM RoadSmart, the UK’s largest independent road safety charity, found 92,000 drivers in the UK currently have 9, 10 or 11 points on their licence.

However, this information is published *very* regularly by the DVLA (it’s updated every few months). It’s also really detailed – there’s breakdowns by age or by postcode district (so a really good one for local stories). It also includes information about the number of people who have more than 12 points on their licence, and the number of points the people who have the highest total currently have.

The 20 North Wales streets with the most anti-social behaviour complaints

Under the powers of the Freedom of Information Act, North Wales Live asked North Wales Police which streets or residential areas had the highest number of anti-social behaviour complaints.

North Wales Live could have potentially found the same information by heading to the Police.UK data site. There you can download street-level crime data, broken down by police force. Anti-social behaviour is one of the report categories (along with burglary, bike thefts, shoplifting, and violence and sexual offences).

This data can be a bit time consuming to work with – as you’re likely have to combine individual months to get a time series, and will need to do some basic data analysis like creating pivot tables (not sure where to start? This is exactly the kind of thing the Getting Started with Data Journalism book covers).

However, it may be worth the effort as the data is more flexible than an FOI, with the potential for other stories (but make sure you sense check it – there’s probably a reason why a lot of drug crimes are discovered on the street where the police station is).

Housing homeless cost London councils £1.3 billion in seven years

Councils in London spent more than £1.3 billion on temporary accommodation for families in the last seven years. Figures obtained by Freedom of Information requests submitted to all 32 London boroughs laid bare the shocking extent of homelessness in the capital.

For England, this data is included in the outturn data of local authority revenue expenditure and financing. In the housing spreadsheet, you can find the total expenditure broken down by different types of temporary accommodation such as B&Bs and hostels.

You’ll probably need some spreadsheet skills to combine different years and to total up the different types of accommodation. However, being able to use these spreadsheets will potentially give you access to lots of different stories (they cover things like parking fines, crossing patrols and spending on education and social care.

Child cruelty rise of 25 per cent in a year ‘very worrying’

The data obtained by the charity [NSPCC] through a Freedom of Information request to police forces in England shows there were 26,307 child cruelty and neglect offences in 2021/22 – an average of 72 a day, which is a 25 per cent rise from last year.

The police recorded crime and outcomes open data tables are a really useful resource for writing stories about crime figures because they are broken down by offences. So instead of a wide category like violence against the person without injury (which is what is in the main recorded crime tables), you get a breakdown of offences like threats to kill, assault without injury, and child cruelty.

The Home Office counting rules are really helpful for identifying what different offences cover or helping you find the specific one if you’re looking for certain offences. For this story, that’s looking at child cruelty and neglect offences, which are grouped together under cruelty to children/young persons.

Oasis Academy, Sheppey, Abbey School, Faversham and Archbishop’s School in Canterbury see highest suspension rates in Kent

An academy trust which runs a Kent school with some of the highest rates of pupil suspensions in the county says the after effects of Covid are to blame. In comes following a Freedom of Information request by former Gravesend Grammar head Peter Read. It revealed some non-selective secondary schools are using fixed-term suspensions sometimes ten times the amount of others in the same district.

Statistics on school suspensions and exclusions are published each year. And those include school-level data. To find it in the most recent publications, you’ll need to under open data under the explore data and files and select the school level file. From there it’s mostly a case of filtering by local authority and sorting by rates.

The local authority level data is more detailed, offering the opportunity to explore stories looking at reasons for suspensions or the characteristics of pupils suspended.

These were the hardest schools in Sheffield to get your children into for 2022

This is a list of Sheffield’s most oversubscribed schools according to a Freedom of Information request by The Star, ranked from those with severe waiting lists relative to how many places they have to give out. Loxley Primary School is the most oversubscribed school in Sheffield at 376 per cent. They had 30 places to give away this academic year, and had 143 children apply for them.

The Department for Education publishes school level application and offer data (possibly they got bored of me FOI-ing it every year). You can find it on the secondary and primary school applications and offers statistics page – it’s in the supporting files section under Explore data and files. This publication comes out in June, after the primary and secondary offer days, and in plenty of time ahead of the following year’s application process starting.

The data contains the number of places each school had on offer and then the number of applications it received, which is broken down into first, second and third preferences. It’s pretty simple to do a ratio or percentage to compare the number of applications to the number of preferences and find out which was the the most over subscribed school.

Over 16,000 UK drivers caught using a mobile phone or device in 2022, despite new driving laws

More than 16,000 UK drivers were caught using a mobile phone or device between January and October last year. And despite stricter laws being introduced last year to deter drivers from breaking the law, UK police forces issued a staggering £3.3m in fines. That’s according to a Freedom of Information request by Confused.com, which looked at data from 31 UK police forces (which included Greater Manchester Police).

The police powers and procedures statistics cover a lot of topics – detentions under the Mental Health Act 1983, detentions in police custody, pre-charge bail, fixed penalty notices for motoring offences, breath tests, and other PACE powers. The fixed penalty notices dataset covers fines for speeding, seat belt offences, and mobile phone use.

The figures are broken down by outcomes such as fine paid or court action. The issue, however, may be that the figures are published quite slowly – they’re currently only up to 2021.

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