Line to take - LTT78 - Information held in electronic databases

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  • FOI/EIR: FOI, EIR
  • Section/Regulation: s1, s11, s12, reg 5
  • Issue: Information held in electronic databases
  • Source: Information Tribunal; Policy Team
  • Details: Johnson / MoJ (13 July 2007); Home Office (15 August 2008); European Ombudsman Ruling
  • Related Lines to Take: LTT77
  • Related Documents: 1693/2005/PB, EA/2006/0085 (Johnson), EA/2008/0027 (Home Office)
  • Contact: SW/HD
  • Date: 02/02/2009
  • Policy Reference: LTT78
  • © Copyright Information Commissioner's Office, re-used with permission
  • Original source linked from here: LTT


Line to take

If information can be retrieved either through the query tools within the software or a query language, the information will be held as the query operation should be regarded as retrieval or extraction rather than the creation of new information. Although, s12 arguments may be relevant.

Information which has literally not been input into an electronic database cannot be retrieved and as such is not held. Although, the information may be held in manual files (see LTT77).

Further Information

Please see LTT77 for the main line on information held in electronic and manual files.

Public authorities often receive requests for lists of information. In many cases this will not be information which the public authority holds in list form. Instead, the constituent data parts will be held in a database.

Example, fictional, requests of this kind are:

  • The names of judges who had more than 10% of their judgements overturned on appeal in 2006;
  • The number of times an ambulance has been sent via a 999 call to given postcodes; or
  • The postcodes of all drivers who have been convicted of speeding offences on the M6, M56 and M62.

A common response to such requests is that the information is simply not held because the public authority is not in possession of a physical list, as requested. A number of public authorities have further claimed that responding to such a request would involve the creation of new information. The Commissioner does not accept this position.

Databases

Databases hold information in one or more tables (usually many). An orders database, for example, may contain tables of customers, orders, stocks and invoices. Tables contain records which consist of multiple fields, e.g., the customer table may hold the customer number, name, address and telephone number. Key fields in each table are used to establish links to records in other tables — the customer number (primary key) in the customer table would link to the customer number (secondary key) in the orders table.

Query tools within the software use these linked fields to extract data from databases into reports. Even where particular requested information is not available through standard reports, query languages (such as SQL) can usually be used to combine data from multiple tables and/or databases.

Requests for calculations

Public authorities also receive requests which require calculations to be performed on information/data held in databases. Often these types of request will involve extraction of specific records and calculations on certain fields or temporary working data.

Thus in a fictional example of a request for ‘the names of judges who had more than 10% of their judgments overturned on appeal in 2006’, compliance with the request would be likely to involve retrieving the judgements and appeal outcomes of each judge, totalling these by judge to calculate the relevant percentage, before finally extracting those where this percentage was greater than 10%.

Although requests for calculations may involve more complex queries than requests for lists, in all cases, if the information can be retrieved either through the query tools within the software or a query language, the information will be held as the query operation itself should be regarded as extraction or retrieval.

Information not recorded on the database

In the case of Johnson v the ICO and MoJ, the Tribunal considered whether information requested by the complainant was held within a database. The complainant had requested:

  • “The number of claims allocated to individual Queen’s Bench Masters for the years 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004.
  • The number of ‘strike outs’ of claims by individual Queen’s Bench Masters for the years 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004.”

In relation to the second element of the request, the Tribunal found that the requested information was not held in the database. Its primary reason for this finding was that “....the in formation as to the number of claims struck out by each Master cannot be obtained from the database because this information is not routinely input into the system. It is not possible to ‘get out’ from the system information that has never been ‘put in’ “ (para 29).

The Commissioner obviously accepts in principle the proposition that information which is not entered onto the database in the first place is not held, although see LTT77 for details on whether the information is held in manual files.