After a short pause of less than two and a half years I have been stung into action again by a news story that touches on my own area of expertise. The People’s Democratic Republic has gone even more international than it has been in the past and is now coming to you from Stockholm, where it is helping a major Nordic bank keep on the right side of the EU’s banking regulators.
So what has piqued my annoyance gene? And despite the picture above, it's not a rant about the iniquity of speed cameras...
The A75 has. In case you are not familiar with it, the A75 is the main road between Dumfries and Stranraer (really now between Dumfries and the Cairnryan ferry ports) so it carries a large amount of freight traffic between Scotland or northern England, and Northern Ireland. It is mostly a single carriageway road with occasional stretches of dual carriageway or climbing lanes. It is not a particularly good road and often has long queues of cars and vans stuck behind lorries. I travel it regularly.
The BBC news website today carries a story (link) about an FOIA request that has been turned down. The request for was information regarding the number of incidents recorded involving lorries travelling at over 40 mph on the A75 between Dumfrieas and Stranraer in a period between February 2015 and January 2016.
Police Scotland have been told by the Scottish Information Commissioner that they do not have to fulfill the request because it would cost too much. Police Scotland have apparently estimated the cost of complying at nearly £2,000 and, since this was over the normal limit of £600, they have been let off.
I think that this means that either a) Police Scotland are not keeping adequate records of penalties issues; or b) the Information Commissioner for Scotland does not know her job ; or c) someone is getting paid £1M a day for a wee bit of database work.
I could do that, and it would take me less than a minute. Gie’s a job…
If we assume that Police Scotland is maintaining a reliable database of traffic penalties – a reasonable assumption, I am sure you will agree – then it should a very simple matter to extract the relevant information. The way to extract information from a database is to write what we in the trade call a query, which will give us a summarised list of qualifying data, although here all we are looking for is just a single number.
Almost certainly the query will involve a technical language called SQL. In the present case it would look for a list of case numbers involving lorries recorded as travelling at over 40mph between 1st February 2015 and 31st January 2016.
Although I don’t know any details of whatever database that Police Scotland may use, the query to count the number of qualifying cases would look something very like this:
where vehicle = ‘HGV’
and offence = 'speeding'
and road = ‘A75’
where ‘2015-02-01’ <= date_of_detection < ‘2016-02-01’
Six lines of code: ten seconds to write and a couple of minutes to run. Job done, here’s your answer Ms King and Mr Wybrew. What else would you like to know?
That query took me less than 15 seconds to devise and write. I can safely predict that it won’t run correctly, but only because I don’t know the database structure: it may take up to five minutes or more to get it right.
Let’s assume the worst case, that it will actually take a whole five minutes to develop and run. From this we can calculate the cost of the staff necessary to carry out the task. Police Scotland estimated a cost of nearly £2,000 to fulfill it. This would mean £24,000 an hour, or £192,000 per 8-hour day. Really? Even my present employer isn’t paying me as much as that for doing some rather more complicated tasks here, a thousand miles from home. If the coppers were to give me a wee call, I’d do it for half that rate...
I think we can reasonably discount the strict financial argument. Therefore we are left with a few possible choices as to why the information will not be provided:
- Police Scotland do not have the information
- Police Scotland do have the information but do not want to disclose it for some reason
- Police Scotland just can’t be arsed, and have gulled the Scottish Information Commissioner
- Nobody knows how many people are being stopped for speeding in Scotland
None of these reasons redounds to the benefit of Police Scotland. The third one not to the benefit of the Scottish Information Commissioner, either.
I can’t think of any other reason. If you can, please drop me a note in the comments below and I’ll discuss it.
In case you are inclined to think that this FOIA request was just a frivolous request from a couple of trouble-making activists, have a look at this (link), also from today’s BBC website.
A second request regarding the force's policy on enforcing speed violation policy was also denied because it would "harm the prevention and detection of crime". I may come back to this one.