Investigating the World Cup: tips on making FOIA requests to create a data-driven news story

Image by Ambernectar 13

Beatriz Farrugia used Brazil’s freedom of information laws to investigate the country’s hosting of the World Cup. In a special guest post for OJB, the Brazilian journalist and former MA Data Journalism student passes on some of her tips for using FOIA.

I am from Brazil, a country well-known for football and FIFA World Cup titles — and the host of the World Cup in 2014. Being a sceptical journalist, in 2019 I tried to discover the real impacts of that 2014 World Cup on the 213 million residents of Brazil: tracking the 121 infrastructure projects that the Brazilian government carried out for the competition and which were considered the “major social legacy” of the tournament.  

In 2018 the Brazilian government had taken the website and official database on the 2014 FIFA World Cup infrastructure projects offline — so I had to make Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests to get data.

The investigation took 3 months and more than 230 FOIA requests to 33 different public bodies in Brazil. On August 23, my story was published.

Here is everything that I have learned from making those hundreds of FOIA requests:

1. Plan the requests

Before sending a request, it is essential to think about the kind of information or data that you need.

Write down your questions and try to identify the public body responsible for each piece of them.

Beatriz listed the bodies responsible for the information she needed

You should send your FOIA request to the body responsible for that specific information. Sometimes, a story can involve two or more public bodies. 

During my investigation, I realised that the 121 infrastructure projects I wanted to investigate involved different 33 public bodies.

Some of these projects, such as a project to build a new road in a city, were managed only by a council authority – which allowed me to send only a FOIA request including all my questions.

But other infrastructure projects, like the construction of an airport, involved national authorities and different ministries (Secretary of Transport, Exchequer, Infrastructure, etc.).

Consequently, I had to identify which department had the information that I needed: status of the project, costs and public investments,  and social implications of each project.

If I had sent all these questions to just one department, it was likely that I would not have received the proper answer.

2. Time management

Decide when to make the FOIA requests considering the deadline that governmental bodies must follow. This depends on the legislation of the country: for example, the Brazilian law considers 20 working days as the deadline for FOIA officers to answer the requests.

It is recommended to plan the requests inside the research timetable and expect delays in the responses.

As my deadline was 23 August, I sent my FOIA requests at least 30 working days before then. Consequently, I had 10 days to compile, analyse and write my story based on data that I received from the  FOIA requests. 

3. Organising the requests

Example of my master file: I have created a file for each public body or authority involved in the 121 infrastructure projects. 

It is strongly recommended to create a master file to keep a record of the request number (public bodies typically assign a number for correspondence), the date when the request was made, the information requested, and the name of the FOI officer responsible for the assignment.

It makes it easier to manage the requests and track their progress.

As I made more than 230 FOI requests, this master file was essential to check the status of each petition. Some were answered earlier than others, and a few responses were incomplete.

Using the table, I could manage these situations, identifying which pieces of information were missing.

4. Writing the request

Be clear, specific, and direct. Ask only one piece of information in each request: it increases the chance of the request being understood and correctly replied to.

Avoid ambiguity or mixing themes in the same request.

5. Testing the request

Before sending a lot of FOIA requests simultaneously, it is recommended to make only one or two requests to check if they will be answered properly.

I started by sending only two requests to two different public bodies. As my petitions were answered correctly, I then sent the other requests following the same format.

Most FOIA requests followed the structure below:

 Dear FOIA officer,

I would like to ask for the following information related to the (name of the infrastructure project) infrastructure project carried out for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil: 

a)    The status of the infrastructure project (delivered, under construction, or shelved);

b)    If delivered, the date of inauguration;

c)    The total cost of the project;

d)    The total amount received from the bank loan. 

When two or more ministries are involved in the same infrastructure project, I broke down the four questions into two separate FOIA requests.

I sent the items A and B to one department responsible for the public money, and the items C and D to another department responsible for the project management.

6. Specify the format you want the information in

A CSV on Beatriz’s GitHub repo for the project

Depending on the country, the FOIA law sometimes allows the requestor to specify the preferable format to receive the data, such as CSV or XLSX.

Pay attention to this detail to avoid receiving dozens of PDFs or JPEGs, which will not allow you to extract the data you want to.

As I was conscious that my FOIA requests asked for numbers (costs of each infrastructure project) and texts (status of each infrastructure project, such as “delivered”, “undelivered” or “shelved”), I asked to receive the data in XLSX or .txt. It made it easier to compile the data in a unified file. 

Google Pinpoint will extract entities from PDFs and allow you to search them

7. Raw data and documentation

Always ask for raw data and for documentation explaining the meaning of each data and the method used to extract the information.

If you don´t do this, it is likely that you will receive only a data table, without context. Consequently, you will not be able to understand that information correctly.

It happened to me in some of the FOIA requests that I completely forgot to ask for the documentation. One of them was a FOIA request for the total cost of a new train station. As a result I got only a singular number, without extra information.

I could not understand if that number referred to the total cost of the project itself, or if it was the amount paid by the local authorities for the construction of the train station from 2011 until today, as the works are still in progress.

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