Personalised Supplements

Personalised Supplements

Can an online quiz give good recommendations for taking supplements? Stuff today published an article about two New Zealand companies that launched recently, Vitally and Wondermins, which each use online quizzes to sell “personalised vitamins”.

Unfortunately, Stuff chose to focus on the question “What’s the point?” rather than “What’s the evidence?”. I thought it would be an interesting experiment to run through each of these quizzes to discover what supplements they would each recommend to me if I told them I had no health problems.

Both quizzes also included a bunch of questions about my current relationship to vitamins. Questions such as whether or not I already take any, how knowledgeable I am about them, were accompanied by questions about my health such as whether or not I took a long time to recover from infections.

For each health question, I gave the answer that would indicate better health. Do I often get colds or the flu? No. Do I have allergies, or sore joints? No, no. There were also diet questions, to which I attempted to give the healthiest answers based on what I thought they would be expecting.

Each quiz also asked me for a few areas of interest, though they didn’t phrase this as a health question. For example, Vitally asked “Which of these categories should we explore?” and gave me options such as “Immunity”, “Heart”, and “Inflammation”. The categories were pretty similar for both quizzes, so for both I selected immunity, bones/joints, and heart.

Vitally recommended I take four supplements for my 0 health problems and healthy lifestyle, which would cost $57 per month. Their supplements had “Find out why” tooltips with very useful information such as “Alpha-Lipoic Acid is recommended for healthy skin & inflammation and” (yes that’s the whole tooltip).

Wondermins’ loading screen after the quiz told me it was “Referencing research…”, and each of the supplements they suggested had a “View Research” link. However, these links all went to a page about Vitamin D deficiency. This didn’t do much for my peace of mind, especially since they didn’t even recommend I take Vitamin D (though Vitally did).

Wondermins recommended I take three supplements, none of which were the same as those recommended by Vitally. Their pack would cost me $68 per month.

If two quizzes for the same thing can give such different results for essentially the same answers, I don’t think that says very much about their reliability. They were both very lacklustre in terms of making evidence available to me if I wanted to make an actual informed decision about what they were suggesting I purchase.

If you’ve got money to burn and you think your urine isn’t expensive enough, then these services might interest you. Otherwise, do the sensible thing and talk to your GP if you have any heath issues.

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What we owe our pets

What we owe our pets

I recently complained about a vet promoting quackery in the Bay of Plenty Times. In response to my complaint, the editor agreed to publish a response I wrote, regarding what we owe our pets. Now that it’s been up for a little while, I’m also publishing it here on my blog.


The Bay of Plenty Times recently published an opinion piece by veterinarian Liza Schneider about avoiding and treating cat abscesses. Liza Schneider runs the Holistic Vets clinic in Tauranga, and is the president of a special interest group of New Zealand vets focused on “complementary veterinary medicine”.

At the end of her article, she said “complementary therapies like homeopathy, herbal medicine, ozonated gel, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and others can help aid healing tremendously.”

The claimed efficacy of homeopathy is in stark contrast with evidence-based practice. As the UK’s Royal Council of Veterinary Surgeons said in a statement last year, “Homeopathy exists without a recognised body of evidence for its use. Furthermore, it is not based on sound scientific principles.”

Like children, our pets rely on us to make healthcare choices for them. Just as pets cannot talk to us about their symptoms, they are unable to discuss treatment options, make an informed decision of their own, or consent to treatment. These important decisions are left to their carer, and their vet is the carer’s guide to making this decision.

When we welcome a pet into our homes, we take on a responsibility to care for them. When their health becomes an issue, they have no choice but to rely on us to make the best decision in their stead. We must be their advocate.

If we choose poorly, their health may suffer. In my view treatments like homeopathy, which are not supported by robust evidence, will at best cost you money and do nothing, but at worst they may delay effective treatment.

Though we are fully capable of making informed decisions about our own healthcare that might involve trying treatments that are not backed by good evidence, I strongly believe that we have a duty to our pets not to experiment on them in this way.

This responsibility also applies to veterinarians. When a vet says things that are not soundly based on scientific evidence, such as “homeopathy… can help healing tremendously”, I believe they are failing in that responsibility.

The New Zealand Veterinary Association has a policy on the use of “complementary and alternative treatments” that requires, among other things, that vets must say if a treatment they are advocating is not supported by evidence:

“Clients must be made aware of the likely effectiveness of a given treatment according to recognised peer-reviewed veterinary medical publications, notwithstanding the individual beliefs of the veterinarian. They must also be told the degree to which tests, treatments or remedies have been evaluated and the degree of certainty and predictability that exists about their efficacy and safety.”

I sincerely hope that your vet fulfils this responsibility in their practice.

New rules for pharmacists

New rules for pharmacists

The Pharmacy Council has (finally) published their new Code of Ethics 2018.

I’ve written several times on the ongoing saga of the Pharmacy Council’s Code of Ethics. In late 2014 we put together a complaint at the Society for Science Based Healthcare arguing that their Code of Ethics 2011 had been violated by an Auckland pharmacy, in which a salesperson had recommended and sold a homeopathic product to someone who didn’t realise they were buying quackery.

Following this complaint, the Pharmacy Council decided they would not enforce the rule in their Code of Ethics at the time that prohibited pharmacies from purchasing or supplying any health product that was not backed by “credible evidence of efficacy”.

This led to two protracted consultation processes, first about that specific part of the code and then about rewriting the code entirely. I worked on the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s submissions during each consultation period, and we met with the Pharmacy Council twice to discuss the topic.

The consultation processes also saw well-voiced support for strong patient protection rules coming from the New Zealand Medical Council and the Pharmaceutical Society (who represent professional pharmacists). Whereas the Pharmacy Guild (who represent pharmacy owners) was in favour of the more relaxed rules that had been suggested. For more detail on this, you can read my submissions roundup from 2015.

The Code of Ethics 2018 will come into force on the 12th of March 2018. It’s principle-driven, and accompanied by a number of guidelines that go into more detail on what’s expected of pharmacists in various areas. One of these guidelines is the Pharmacy Council Complementary and Alternative Medicines – Statement and Protocol for Pharmacists.

Unlike the Code of Ethics 2011, the new rules don’t prohibit pharmacists from selling quackery. While this is unfortunate, it’s seemed clear from the outset that the Pharmacy Council had no intention to keep this rule given they aren’t prepared to enforce it. Instead, there has been an increased focus on ensuring patients are given the opportunity to make an informed choice.

I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about the change. Though ideally pharmacists shouldn’t be lending their credibility to ineffective health products, if pharmacists must be allowed to sell quackery then I think the next best approach to regulation is to protect patients’ rights to make an informed decision.

On the face of it, I think the new rules seem good. But enforcement has been a concern in the past and parts of the previous code were widely disregarded. Come the 12th of March, I plan to have a look for pharmacists who aren’t complying with the new rules and lodge complaints to see how they are treated, and if the behaviour is corrected. Unfortunately, there are a few pharmacies in New Zealand that have a history of promoting quackery, including by selling ineffective health products online, which seems like a good place to start.

I’d recommend you read the rules for yourself if you’re interested, but here’s my summary of what I think are the most important new patient protection rules regarding informed consent:

[Principle 1H: A pharmacist] Before recommending, supplying or promoting a medicine, complementary and/or alternative medicine or other healthcare product or service, considers available evidence, and only supplies a product when satisfied that it is appropriate, and the person understands how to use it correctly and safely.

[Principle 4C: A pharmacist] Provides accurate, truthful, relevant, and independent information in an appropriate form that is not misleading to patients, the public and/or other healthcare professionals.

[Principle 4H: A pharmacist] Ensures that when providing any medicine, complementary and alternative medicine, or other healthcare product or service, that the health and wellbeing of the patient or consumer is the primary consideration, and that the benefit of use outweighs the risk.

[Principle 4I: A pharmacist] Does not engage in advertising, promotion or supply of goods or services that could include misleading or unsubstantiated claims, and/ or undermine public trust in the profession.

[Principle 6A: A pharmacist] Maintains contemporary knowledge of evidence-based practice.

Where it makes sense, all of these principles are effectively extended to non-pharmacist salespeople who work in pharmacies via Principle 5G:

[A pharmacist] Is responsible for actions of staff under their supervision.

Looking at the associated guideline on “complementary and alternative medicines”, the requirements in parts 14 and 15 seem like they will be particularly important for protecting patients from quackery in pharmacies:

14. When supplying products or information about treatments/products/services that have no current evidence of proven efficacy pharmacists are expected to:

a. ensure that patients are informed about the degree to which treatments or products have been evaluated, and

b. the degree of certainty and predictability that exists about their efficacy and safety

15. Pharmacists must advise patients when scientific support for treatment is lacking.

Part 18 of the guidelines also includes the following requirements:

e. provide sufficient information regarding the CM/NHP [Complementary Medicine/Natural Health Product] to allow patients to make informed choices

f. not misrepresent information or opinion. Patients must be made aware of the likely effectiveness of a given therapy according to recognised peer-reviewed medical publications, in spite of your personal beliefs

g. provide the patient with a timeframe for accessing conventional medicine if their condition is unresolved or there is no improvement

Time will tell if these rules really do enhance patient protection in the pharmacy industry, which has a long-standing problem with promoting quackery on the side.

From the 12th of March onwards, if you see behaviour that you think is non-compliant with the code feel free to let me know about it. I can be contacted via email at mark@honestuniverse.com.

OIA accessibility follow-up

OIA accessibility follow-up

What will be done about the Official Information Act’s accessibility problem?

Late last year, I published an open letter on the accessibility of the Official Information Act. I gave examples of inaccessible responses to requests under the OIA, and suggested a solution. I sent this letter to the Ombudsman, and later also forwarded it to Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government) Clare Curran and to Minister for Disability Issues Carmel Sepuloni.

I’ve now heard back from the latter two, and want to share their responses so others interested in this topic can read what’s being done to address it.

I’d also lodged an OIA request with the Ministry of Defence last year, as their Briefing to Incoming Minister document was released as a text-based PDF with watermarks and redaction. I’d asked them what software they used to produce this, and the associated costs, so I’d be able to give a specific recommendation to agencies who send me inaccessible responses in the future.

I’ve received a response to this request as well. As with the responses from Clare Curran and Carmel Sepuloni, you can find the text and PDF link to this response below.

Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, all three responses were received in the form of image-based PDFs of documents that had been printed, signed, and then scanned. This is the primary accessibility issue I’d raised in my letter regarding OIA responses, as this format cannot be easily converted to text and is inaccessible to people who rely on screen readers. A couple of the responses also contained links that I’ve had to type out by hand instead, due to this inaccessible format. I’ve made the original PDFs available, and also converted them to text (by hand, so please assume any mistakes are mine), which you can find below:


Response from Clare Curran, Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government). Original PDF

Dear Mark Hanna

OIA Accessibility

Thank you for your email on 30 November 2017, regarding the accessibility of information released to requesters under the Official Information Act 1982 (OIA). I note your concerns about the format some agencies choose to provide information in, which can render that information unsearchable by the recipient.

As you are aware, section 16(2) of the Official Information Act provides that information can be made available in a way preferred by the requester, unless there is good reason identified by the agency not to do this. In the first instance it is for the requester to ask the agency to make information, and in particular data sets available in a searchable format. If the agency refuses then this can be the subject of a complaint to the Ombudsman.

The State Services Commissioner has been delegated the functions under section 46 of the OIA by the Ministry of Justice. This function includes providing advice and guidance to agencies to act in accordance with the OIA. SSC has established an official information work programme which includes developing guidance for agencies. I think that the issues you have raised are worthy of further consideration.

I have asked the State Services Commission to consider whether accessibility of information should be part of the official information work programme that the Commission is undertaking.

Yours sincerely

Hon Clare Curran
Associate Minister of State Services (Open Government)


Response from Carmel Sepuloni, Minister for Disability Issues. Original PDF

Dear Mr Hanna

Thank you for your email dated 30 November 2017, regarding accessibility issues with Official Information Act (OIA) practices and across government more generally. The Government is committed to being open and transparent and we expect the same of the public service.

I have been advised that the Official and Parliamentary Information team within the Ministry of Social Development will soon utilise more sophisticated redaction software. This software will enable the Ministry of Social Development to send and publish OIA responses and documents that are text searchable and text recognisable for those requesters who use reading software.

Providing OIA responses in accessible formats should be standard practice as part of an open and transparent government. To this end, the Ministry of Social Development is leading a work programme to increase the accessibility of information and communications across government agencies. This will involve providing clear and practical advice to support government agencies to meet accessibility requirements for all their communications with the public. Participating Chief Executives have signed up to an Accessibility Statement to commit to this. You can find more information about this here: www.odi.govt.nz/nz-disability-strategy/outcome-5-accessibility/

Thank you for writing. I hope this information is helpful.

Ngā mihi

Hon Carmel Sepuloni
Minister for Disability Issues


Response from Ministry of Defence. Original PDF

Dear Mr Hanna

RESPONSE TO YOUR OFFICIAL INFORMATION REQUEST

Thank you for your email of 7 December 2017 regarding the software used to create the redacted and watermarked 2017 Briefing to the Incoming Minister of Defence, published on the Beehive website.

The Ministry of Defence recognises that publishing a document online as a text-searchable PDF file makes is easier to access. We prepare material for release in this form wherever possible, and endeavour to provide alternative formats on request for non-searchable documents, such as older files.

In order to produce searchable, redacted and watermarked files, the source documents are generally prepared using Microsoft Office software and then exported as searchable PDF files. Adobe Acrobat Professional software is then used to make redactions and add watermarks.

The Ministry has an agreement with the New Zealand Defence Force on software licensing. The Defence Force pays for an all-inclusive software bundle and is charged a flat rate. They distribute the licenses for Adobe Acrobat Professional as needed by staff. Please refer to the Adobe Acrobat website for costs: https://acrobat.adobe.com/nz/en/acrobat/pricing.html. The cost to agencies will be affected by volume. Assuming multiple licenses are purchased, the Adobe website indicated pricing of A$22.99 per seat per month (about NZ$25 at present exchange rates) or A$275.86 per year (about NZ$300).

Under section 28(3) of the Official Information Act 1982 you have the right to request the Ombudsman to investigate and review this response.

Yours sincerely

Helene Quilter
Secretary of Defence


It’s not clear yet whether or not accessibility of information will be part of the SSC’s official information work programme that Clare Curran mentioned. Though I’m hopeful that it will be, I’m not sure how likely this is to effect change.

I strongly agree with Carmel Sepuloni’s statement that “Providing OIA responses in accessible format should be standard practice as part of an open and transparent government”, and hope that she will do her best to ensure our government meets that standard. I’m cautiously optimistic, though the fact that this response itself was delivered in an inaccessible format isn’t encouraging.

For the foreseeable future, it sounds like the best course of action will be to ensure that all OIA requests specify that the response should be delivered in an accessible, searchable format. I have included this recommendation in the OIA Guide that I published last year.

If I receive inaccessible PDF responses in the future, I now intend to direct the agency to the Ministry of Defence’s response regarding the software they use.

Can you trust Band-Aids?

Can you trust Band-Aids?

Band-Aid is a household name, but can you trust the way they’re promoted?

For years Johnson & Johnson, the manufacturers of Band-Aid adhesive bandages, have been making a simple claim about them. If you put a Band-Aid on a cut, it will heal faster than it would have if left uncovered.

Specifically, they say it will heal twice as fast:

Band-Aid packaging, front and back.

Johnson & Johnson is a large, well-known medical company. As well as Band-Aids, they make many other health and health adjacent products such as shampoo for babies, cold medicines, and mouthwash. For better or for worse, this means many of us are willing to accept their claims at face value.

In an ideal world, that would be fine. They don’t have a reputation for being misleading, like the reputation Reckitt Benckiser has earned for its misleading claims about Nurofen. They’re also not selling products that are clearly dodgy, like homeopathy or a quantum magnetic health analyser.

If all of us took the time to look into every health claim we encountered, we’d have no time left to eat or sleep. So, in cases like this, we often feel satisfied that if such a big company were making a dodgy claim someone would have caught it and called them out.

Well, that’s exactly what happened in this case. In early 2017, Dr Ken Harvey contacted Johnson & Johnson to ask them to provide the evidence for the “heals cuts twice as fast” claim they were making. In response, Johnson & Johnson did not send him the evidence. Instead, they opted to remove the claims.

“I gently asked them where was the evidence, it’s a fairly strong claim,” Dr Harvey told Fairfax. “And they hummed and hawed and eventually decided, I got a lovely letter from them, saying there was evidence – but they are removing the claims.”

Band-Aid promotions to be ripped off the shelf after complaints about healing claims | The Age

I was alerted to this by a member of the Australian patient advocacy group Friends of Science in Medicine*, which has similar aims to the New Zealand Society for Science Based Healthcare that I chair.

At the Society for Science Based Healthcare, we decided we wanted to make sure that the same change would be reflected over here. So, in April 2017, I wrote to Johnson & Johnson:

Kia ora,

I saw the other day that Johnson & Johnson will be removing promotional material in Australia saying Band-Aids are “clinically proven to heal wounds faster”. http://www.theage.com.au/national/health/bandaid-promotions-to-be-ripped-off-the-shelf-after-complaints-about-healing-claims-20170413-gvk985.html

Similar promotional material for Band-Aids exists in New Zealand. Does Johnson & Johnson also plan to remove these? For example, these online ads for various Band-Aid products all say they can make cuts heal twice as fast as if they were uncovered, and it looks like the same claim is made on the packaging too:

If Johnson & Johnson does not plan to remove these ads, will they be willing to publish the evidence alluded to in the statement provided to Australian media?

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna
Chair, Society for Science Based Healthcare

A couple of weeks later – after their Director of Regulatory Affairs for Australia, New Zealand, and Japan had returned from leave – I received this response:

Dear Mr Hanna,

Re: Band-Aid® Brand Adhesive Bandages

I refer to your correspondence in relation to our Band-Aid® Brand Adhesive Bandages.

I can confirm that the product sold in New Zealand is the same as the product sold in Australia. Any changes that we make to our promotional and packaging material for Australia will, therefore, be reflected in the New Zealand market.

Thank you for your enquiry.

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Harris B.Sc(Hons) PhD
Director, Regulatory Affairs

Great, the claim on the packaging would be removed! A win for consumers, all done and dusted I guess. Except… all those examples I sent to them were text on a supplier’s website. Would their suppliers all be told of the change they should make to the way Band-Aids could be promoted? I asked:

Thanks Andrew, it’s good to have confirmation on this. I assume, then, that Johnson & Johnson will be contacting all of its New Zealand retailers to ensure they update their marketing materials for these products?

Sincerely,

Mark Hanna
Chair, Society for Science Based Healthcare

This time, I never heard back. Obviously I can’t say for sure, but in my opinion it’s likely that Johnson & Johnson never responded to that question because they had nothing else to tell me that wouldn’t make them look bad.

I don’t think they ever had any plans to contact their suppliers about removing this claim from promotional material that Johnson & Johnson didn’t have direct control over. I also don’t think they’ve contacted their suppliers about this in the months since they agreed to change their packaging.

In fact, if you check those example links I sent to them in April, you might find the “Heals cuts twice as fast” claim is still there. At the time of writing, that claim was still present at all three links.

But it’s not just their suppliers that are the problem. In early June, a couple of months after Johnson & Johnson agreed to stop claiming that Band-Aids can heal cuts twice as fast, Society for Science Based Healthcare member Daniel Ryan noticed that the claim was still made on over a dozen pages on the Band-Aid New Zealand website. He laid a complaint about this with the Advertising Standards Authority.

Unsurprisingly, his complaint was settled in July when Johnson & Johnson voluntarily removed the claims:

The Chair [of the Advertising Standards Complaints Board] acknoweldged the Advertiser’s response to the complaint confirming it had made changes to the website voluntarily and without admission, removing packaging images containing statements which were of concern.

ASA Complaint 17/185

Though Johnson & Johnson are clearly happy to be seen doing the right thing – removing claims that they are unwilling or unable to substantiate – it seems to me that they have also been very willing to ignore many places where these claims continue to be made, and to delay their removal through inaction.

It reminds me of Reckitt Benckiser’s behaviour in the case of the misleading claims they made about Nurofen specific pain products. Even though they were eventually forced to remove the claims (accompanied by a paltry fine, in their case), they still made a healthy profit in the meantime.

Perhaps more importantly, during the intervening time in which the claims remained, they were only further cemented as part of public knoweldge. So even though they’re no longer used, they’ll probably still come to mind when people are deciding whether or not to buy them:

“Band-Aids heal cuts twice as fast? Yeah, I’m sure I heard that somewhere.”

This is often what supposedly reputable health companies rely on. Even if they’re forced to remove misleading claims, people will still remember the old claims.

And if no one complains, nothing happens.

* I’m also a member of Friends of Science in Medicine (though not particularly active, since I focus my efforts on New Zealand issues), and Dr Ken Harvey is on their executive.

OIA Accessibility

OIA Accessibility

The Official Information Act has an accessibility problem.

I wrote recently about asking the government for information, having just published a guide to using the OIA. The OIA is a powerful tool, but it can be limited by how government agencies choose to follow it. One particular limitation that comes up again and again is accessibility.

There is a hashtag on Twitter that’s often used by journalists and activists, myself included, to talk about issues with the Official Information Act: #fixtheOIA

Today Nikki Macdonald, senior feature writer at the Dominion Post, started a discussion about a widespread and rather infuriating practice for responding to requests for official information:

In response to a recent request she made under the OIA, she received a PDF of a scanned document that included a large amount of tabular data.

The issue she mentions is one I have seen many times. It is common practice to take a document that will be released under the OIA, print it, then scan it back into a PDF, then send that PDF instead of the original document.

Printing and scanning documents allows for them to be signed, which is typically done with OIA response letters (though not with documents released alongside them). PDFs cannot be altered by the recipients, so the information is kept intact as it was released.

Also, perhaps most importantly, because these PDFs come from scanned documents they don’t contain any text. Instead, they just contain images of text. This means there is absolutely no way the recipient will be able to view information that has been withheld from released documents.

But releasing documents as images of text has a huge drawback too: accessibility

Most obviously, this will affect requestors who are blind or have impaired vision. If you rely on a screen reader to read these documents, it won’t be able to read a PDF that’s full of images. It’s a pain in the ass for those of us who are fully sighted as well.

There is software that can be used to convert images of text back into text, but it doesn’t always work perfectly, and often these image-based PDFs will include tables of data that are only really useful once converted into a spreadsheet. And, frankly, knowledge of how to use specialised software shouldn’t be a requirement for using the OIA to get usable information.

This isn’t the only accessibility issue with the OIA. Government agencies have also been known to do things like refuse to release documents online for unclear “security reasons“, instead telling the requestor that they must pay to have it posted to them.

Recently, Sam Warburton has been documenting a particularly trying OIA response on Twitter. First, he was sent documents that were locked by a password, which prevented him from copying text out of them:

He then made a second OIA request asking for all correspondence regarding the first request, so he could get to the bottom of how this bizarre twist had come about. The response was, well, not very accessible. He was sent 249 pages of printed documents, with the excuse being that it was “too big” to send digitally:

I think we should be able to expect better. Far better, in fact. And I’ve written the following open letter to the Ombudsman in the hope that this aspect of using the OIA can be improved:


Tēnā koe,

There has been a discussion on the “#fixtheOIA” hashtag on Twitter started by Nikki Macdonald today about the common practice of agencies sending responses to requests for official information in PDF format, where the contents of the PDF must be either transcribed by hand or converted using specialised software before they are useful.

I’ve observed this practice across several agencies, including those I have most commonly made requests to: New Zealand Police, the Department of Corrections, and ACC. It seems as though the response is written up, then it is printed out and the physical copy is signed before being scanned, and finally the scanned copy is sent to the requestor as a PDF. This means that, effectively, the response is delivered in the format of an image of text.

This has obvious accessibility issues for requestors who are blind or have impaired vision, but is also detrimental to sighted requestors.

For example, I recently received such a response from the Department of Corrections which included some long URLs. It is not possible to copy text from these responses without specialised software that many requestors will be unlikely to know much about (OCR – Optical Character Recognition – software can be used convert images of text into actual text). In this case, I had to type the URLs out by hand. Though there were only three of them in this instance, a lengthier response could easily have made this a significant barrier to accessing the released information.

A very long and difficult to type URL.

In the case raised by Nikki Macdonald, I understand she received a PDF response that, unexpectedly, also included large amounts of data. However, because the release was effectively an image of this data rather than a more usable format such as a spreadsheet, it will require a conversion process (either by hand or via OCR software) before it can be used.

I received a similar response in 2015, when I requested documents from the Ministry of Health but did not specify a preferred format. One of the documents I had requested was a large spreadsheet, but it was released to me as a PDF. Though this particular PDF was at least text-based, I still had to use specialised software to convert it to a usable format. I have made the PDF I was sent available online: compliance-of-comp-meds-manufacturers-2-oct-2007.pdf

While this issue can be pre-empted by requesting that the information should be released in a specific accessible format, such as an XSLX or CSV spreadsheet for data, this is not always realistic when it’s unclear whether or not the response is likely to include this type of information.

Despite section 16 of the OIA laying out certain responsibilities here, this approach is also not always respected by the agency. I have received multiple datasets as image-based PDFs despite requested explicitly as XSLX or CSV spreadsheets.

Here is an example of one response where I had to transcribe data by hand. The full response contains more data, as it continues onto the next page:

A table of data.

I have also assisted other requestors in transcribing information received this way, during which I was reminded that it can be quite a painful and time-consuming process for a requestor who is neither a fast typist nor able to use specialised OCR software.

In cases where OCR software is used to convert an image-based PDF response into a text-based one, which allows responses to be searched for certain keywords, this is often hampered by “Released under the Official Information Act” watermarks that are commonly overlaid on each page of released documents. These watermarks interfere with the software’s character recognition, so that portions of the text must instead be transcribed by hand. Poor quality scans, such as misaligned pages, can also cause issues with using OCR software to convert released information into an accessible format.

OCR software can also incorrectly transcribe parts of text, so it is always necessary to compare its output with the original PDF. This can be a time-consuming process, and is inaccessible to requestors who are blind or have impaired vision.

My impression, from talking with other users of the Official Information Act, is that this is a common and frustrating experience, widely regarded by requestors as being unnecessary and obstructive.

I accept that there may be cases where it would be difficult for an agency to release a text-based document with appropriate redactions, and where the reason for each piece of information withheld is clear and the withheld information cannot be accessed. However, there are clearly many cases where information could be released in a more accessible format, and where this would happen if the requestor had known to specify such a format in their request. I would hope that it might be expected that, when information can be released in any of several different formats with similar effort, the most accessible format should be used by default.

For example, after having seen me express frustration on social media about having to transcribe length URLs by hand from an OIA response, the Department of Corrections has agreed that they will now include links in the body of the email sent as a response. Although this only affects a small part of the response, this change would make the URLs significantly more accessible by allowing them to be used directly, without having to transcribe them from the PDF attachment.

I have looked through the Official Information Act and the official information legislation guides on your website for guidance on this accessibility issue.

The closest thing I have found is the relatively recent case note regarding a request from a prisoner who was unable to access information publicly available via the internet, after their request was refused under section 18(d).

Unfortunately, I have not found anything specific to this issue of accessibility. I’d greatly appreciate any advice you might be able to give on making requests in a way that should make a more accessible response more likely.

I would also like to suggest that a guideline on this issue might significantly improve both the experience of making requests for official information and the accessibility of released information.

I think it would be reasonable to expect agencies to release information with an accessibility-first mindset. This would be consistent with standards such as the New Zealand Government Web Toolkit, which recommends the following:

“Choose formats that are both easy to use and most likely to be accessible in the future. Choose openly documented formats over closed formats, or ensure that material released in closed formats is also accompanied by an equivalent in open formats.”

Particularly as many requests are made publicly available, either by the agency, through a service such as FYI.org.nz, or by direct sharing from person to person, it is important to consider issues such as accessibility for the blind and visually impaired for every request.

It is my opinion that accessibility should be considered an important part of information being made “available”, as per the Official Information Act’s Principle of Availability.

Ngā mihi,
Mark Hanna

Asking the government for information

Asking the government for information

You have the right to ask the government for information. Because of a law called the Official Information Act (OIA), they’re obliged to give it to you unless there is a good reason not to.

You’ve likely seen the OIA mentioned in the news. Phrases like “Documents released to [news outlet] under the Official Information Act” can often be found in important news stories. It’s in indispensable tool for holding the government to account.

Some of my articles here have also been based on information that I only had access to because of the OIA. For example, my articles about ACC’s funding of acupuncture have all been based heavily on information released under the OIA.

My articles on strip searches in prisons, organ donation, and the history of the complementary medicines industry have also all used information released under OIA.

An interactive visualisation I did of police use of force data released under the OIA found a place on the Herald Insights website earlier this year, and the story accompanying it was published on the front page. Organ donation statistics I’d requested also made the front page of the Herald in April of 2016.

It’s such a great and flexible tool, so I want to make sure everyone is able to use it.

It can feel a bit daunting if you think you might need to read the legislation itself to understand what you need to do. So to help make the OIA more accessible, I’ve written a guide to its use based on my experience with it.

You can find the guide at oia.nz

OIA Guide

I hope you find it useful!