Some time in the middle of last night, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com was used to send its 100,000th FOI request. It was a simple one, made to the Queen Victoria Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.
WhatDoTheyKnow was launched in February 2008, with these aims: to make it easy to file a FOI request, and to keep a public archive of the requests and (more importantly) the responses received from public bodies. The Freedom of Information Act had been in force since 2005, but we wanted to make it fully accessible to people who were not journalists, lobbyists or professional operatives – it is a law that gives us all a right, not just those experts.
At base, mySociety is about giving people power to people who don’t believe that they have any way of affecting the world around them. Giving practical access to the right enshrined in this Act was and is a meaningful way of advancing that goal.
Then, thanks to a flash of inspiration from our late colleague Chris, we saw a great opportunity to increase the value created by the existence of the Act: we built a system that published the entire exchange of messages between users and public bodies online.
We believe that because of this decision to publish all exchanges with public bodies, WhatDoTheyKnow represents a very unusual phenomenon: a third-party web site that takes an existing piece of legislation and makes it better value for money for the taxpayer. Public money was already being spent answering FOI, but by running WhatDoTheyKnow we could magnify the value generated by each request by making it public, without requiring anyone who worked in a public sector to retrain, buy a new computer system or spend any new money.
And this theory turned out to be right. For every request made on the site, around twenty people come to read materials contained on WhatDoTheyKnow. The multiplier is remarkable, and one of the things that we think is most worth celebrating about this site.
WhatDoTheyKnow’s success is only possible because of a team of fantastically dedicated volunteers. These loyal enthusiasts have helped countless users, and do a simply amazing amount of maintenance work to keep the site friendly, helpful and effective. They are astonishingly talented, principled and knowledgeable, and mySociety owes them a debt of gratitude it will never really be able to pay back.
However, to give them a bit of the credit they deserve, and to highlight some of the countless uses of WhatDoTheyknow, we asked them to pick out some notable requests from the last four years.
Helen “The use of the site by campaign groups like the Campaign for Better Transport to find out about bus subsidy cuts as part of their save our buses campaign.”
John “There was the accidental release of how tax is applied to the Royal Family – which resulted in a Daily Mail front page story.”
Alex “This request about the Warmfront boiler installation scheme has a significant number of annotations. What makes it different is that the user patiently persisted with her original FOI requests, and then has carried on by continuing to help loads more people with details of how to complain and lobby for help and general warm encouragement.”
WhatDoTheyKnow is one of mySociety’s most visited sites, with one and a half million unique visitors in 2011. Like our other projects, it was built as an open source project. Thanks to the Open Society Foundation, we are in the process of making it much easier to re-deploy around the world, under the brand name ‘Alaveteli’. As we speak, there are sites based on our code in places as far apart as New Zealand, Kosovo, Brazil, and the EU, and we’re looking forward to helping people from around the world create more grandchild sites in the years ahead.
Our 100,000 request milestone comes at an interesting time for the Freedom of Information Act. It’s currently under scrutiny by the Justice Select Committee, who are investigating whether it works effectively and in the way that it was intended.
As you might expect, at mySociety, we’re passionate about the right to information. We’ll be submitting evidence to the Justice Select Committee to show just how vital FOI is to good government and a good society. If FOI has touched your life, you might want to do the same.
So. Yesterday we officially launched FixMyTransport, a site that has been in ‘quiet beta’ for a few weeks. Not such a big event, you might think – after all, the site has been open for public use; the only difference was that we were announcing it.
I think we’ve all been gratifyingly taken aback by just how much use the site has seen in the last 24 hours. Thanks to mentions in some of the mainstream press, but equally because of a veritable outpouring of tweets and retweets, word spread quickly. We experienced a 550% rise in visitor numbers (the servers took it in their stride, we are glad to say). Over the course of the day, the number of reports on the site doubled, with more than 70 totally new campaigns being created and many more problems being sent to operators. With each report came more tweets, more blog posts and more users signing up to campaigns.
We’re seeing the idea we worked on become a reality, and that’s both exciting and full of surprises. We knew what we would use such a site for, but we had no idea which issues would most motivate our users (at the latest reckoning, it’s poor air conditioning, delays, and, above all, a lack of decent information).
If you haven’t had a chance to see what FixMyTransport is all about yet, take a look at some of these examples:
Many of these examples see users (not just the operators, but ordinary people) who know a lot more than we do about public transport in this country weighing in with useful insights, which is fantastic.
Don’t forget you can search your local region for reports. If you find one you agree with, lending your support is as easy as clicking a single button, and then spreading the word with a tweet, a Facebook status or however you see fit.
Excuse the puns – they are hard to avoid – but we have the sense that we’re at the beginning of a very exciting journey here. And we’re sure we’re going to enjoy the ride. Thanks to everyone who’s come on board so far.
Everyone at mySociety is quite bubbling with excitement at the news that we’re today officially launching FixMyTransport.com , mySociety’s first new core charitable website since WhatDoTheyKnow launched in 2008. We’ve never before launched a site that took so much work to build, or that contained so much data.
What is it for?
FixMyTransport has two goals – one in your face, and the other more subtle.
The first goal, as the site’s name suggests, is to help people get common public transport problems resolved. We’re talking broken ticket machines, gates that should be open and stations without stair-free access. We’ll help by dramatically lowering the barrier to working out who’s responsible, and getting a problem report sent to them – a task that would have been impossible without the help of volunteers who gathered a huge number of operator email addresses for us. Consequently the service works everywhere in Great Britain, our database has over 300,000 stops and routes for train, tube, tram, bus, coach and ferry.
The second goal – the subtle one – is to see if it is possible to use the internet to coax non-activist, non-political people into their first taste of micro-activism. Whilst the site intentionally doesn’t contain any language about campaigning or democracy, we encourage and provide tools to facilitate the gathering of supporters, the emailing of local media, the posting of photos of problems, and the general application of pressure where it is needed. We also make problem reports and correspondence between operators and users public, which we have frequently seen create positive pressure when used on sister sites FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow.
Who made it?
FixMyTransport was largely built by one remarkable coder – Louise Crow, who started as a volunteer and who is now one of our longest serving core developers. She spent 18 months coding the site almost entirely by herself, wrestling with truly tortuous data problems and collaborating with Birmingham’s fantastic SuperCool design to make it look lovely (you should hire them, they’re great). She also tolerated my ‘aspirational scattergun’ school of project management with remarkable good humour. She really is the king of transport coding.
Credit must also go to mySociety core dev Dave Whiteland, who made the Facebook integration work, despite not having an account himself!
Why is it dedicated to Angie Martin?
Angie Martin was a mySociety coder for an all-too-brief period before she succumbed to cancer at a devastatingly early age. We’re dedicating this site to her in remembrance of a great, self taught perl monger who should still be here.
We’ll be posting further blog posts about the development process, the data challenges, and the overall project philosophy. In the mean time, please keep arms and legs inside the carriage – FixMyTransport is just about to depart.
We had a complaint that FixMyStreet maps weren’t displaying on someone’s computer. We hadn’t had any other complaints, and we quickly narrowed it down to the fact that the person was on the internet using a tethered T-Mobile phone.
Their decision to inline lots of the CSS also seems a bit odd – sure, on a mobile this might be quicker, but even ignoring tethering nowadays plenty of mobiles have caches too and having the CSS download once and be cached would seem better than adding weight to every page download. But I’m sure they’ve studied their decision there, and it doesn’t make any difference to the actual browsing, as opposed to the comment removal.
To turn off this feature on your mobile phone or broadband, visit accelerator.t-mobile.co.uk or accelerator.orange.co.uk on your connection and pick the relevant option – if anyone knows of similar on other networks, do leave updates in the comments.
If you’ve visited our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou.com, you’ll have noticed that on each MP’s page there is a short summary of his or her voting record on various key issues.
These issues have always been carefully chosen to give a simple but neutral top-line view of each MP’s voting activity. Judging by Twitter, they’re a fairly popular part of the site, too.
There’s way, way more tedious complexity behind producing these little summaries than you might think, and due to a lack of appropriately skilled people in our team over the last year we had let our vote analyses get a bit behind the times. If you’re really interested you can read about why authoring these things in such a scrupulously balanced way is so time consuming here.
We’re posting today to tell you that we have recruited a pair of excellent new part-time voting analysts, David and Ambreen, and they have recently produced the first of a new generation of voting summaries.
The first shows how each MP has voted on increasing the rate of VAT, and second on the recent changes to university tuition fees. We have also increased the number of votes which feed into the EU integration policy to bring it more up to date.
To see this new data, just pop along to TheyWorkForYou’s home page, stick in your postcode, and check out your own MPs’ page. Then, if you want to be made aware as soon as we’ve published the next analyses, please follow our new TheyWorkForYou Twitter account.
Lastly, I just want to say thank you to the vote analysts Ambreen and David, to senior developer Matthew and to uber-volunteer Richard Taylor for kicking this vital part of TheyWorkForYou back into top gear.
Image by European Parliament.
Last month’s pubmeet was fun, but it was rather crowded, so we’re moving venues. This month, our chosen pub is the Counting House, which is cavernous as well as rather beautiful. Please do join us for a drink, to ask questions or suggest new ideas – or just for a chat.
If you’d like to tweet about the night, or put photos on Instagram or Flickr, you can use the hashtag #mysocial to make sure that others find ‘em.
7.30, Wednesday 20th July at the Counting House
Map here. The nearest Underground stations are Monument and Bank.
Last week, FixMyStreet gained a number of new features that we hope you will find useful.
Firstly, we’ve thrown away our old maps and replaced them with new, shiny, zoomable maps. This should make it easier for people to find and report problems, especially in sparser locations. We’re using the OS StreetView layer (hosted internally) when zoomed in, reverting to Bing Maps’ Ordnance Survey layer when zoomed out, as we felt this provided the best combination for reporting problems. In urban areas, you can still see individual houses, whilst in more rural areas the map with footpaths and other such features is probably of more use. FixMyStreet tries to guess initially which map would be most appropriate based upon population density, meaning a search for Stroud looks a bit different from that for Birmingham.
OpenStreetMap fans, don’t worry – as part of our mapping technology upgrade, you can now use osm.fixmystreet.com to access your favourite mapping instead.
Secondly, we now have user accounts. We’ve rolled these out alongside our current system of email confirmation, and it’s up to you which you use when reporting a problem or leaving an update. This means that those who come to the site one time only to report a pothole can continue to do so quickly, but have the option of an account if they want. Having an account means you no longer have to confirm reports and updates by email, and you have access to a page listing all the reports you’ve made through FixMyStreet, and showing these reports on a (obviously new and shiny) summary map.
Other improvements include a much nicer All Reports section, so you can see all reports to Adur District Council on a map, paginated and with the boundary of the council marked – and individual wards of councils now each have their own pages too.
I’ll follow up this post with another, more technical, look at the maps and how they work, for anyone who’s interested
Local petitions can be highly effective, and we think that making them easier to create is in the public interest. Many councils have petitions facilities buried deep within their websites, most often, very deeply. In fact it brings to mind Douglas Adams’ quote about important council documents being “on display on the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’”.
Our most recent mini-project is an attempt to make it as easy as possible to find your local council’s e-petitioning site, if they have one. PetitionYourCouncil.com (you’ll notice we stuck to our tried and tested format for site names, there) is a way of finding every council e-petitioning website we know about.
Our original motivation for building the site was that we, along with other suppliers, have supplied online e-petitioning sites to numerous councils ourselves – it’s one of the ways in which we fund our charitable activities. Having delivered these sites, we later noticed that many of them are left under-used and in some cases, not used at all: only because people don’t know about them. We hate to think of councils spending money on a splendid resource that could be improving democratic processes for their citizens – and those citizens never knowing that they exist. In particular, we owe Dave Briggs thanks for pushing us into action with this blog post.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, PetitionYourCouncil links to every council petitions site, not just the ones we made.
The site was built by mySociety developer Edmund von der Burg using Django, jQuery, Google maps and Mapit, and like most mySociety projects, it’s open source. There’s a bit more detail on the About page. Please do try it out, and let us know what you think.
At mySociety we like transparency – it’s baked into most of our projects.
TheyWorkForYou attempts to make it easier to find out what your MP has been doing in Parliament. WhatDoTheyKnow tries to make it easier to find out what’s going on inside other public bodies. FixMyStreet and the upcoming FixMyTransport also use transparency to help get problems resolved.
We think transparency is a good thing for many reasons, but one of its rarely mentioned virtues is how valuable transparency can be for the people within the organisations which are transparent.
Transparency can be useful because it means people outside an organisation can make critical, constructive suggestions about how you can improve, and it lowers the odds that people in one part of your own organisation will be ignorant of the activities of people in other parts.
To that end we commissioned Tobias Escher of the Oxford Internet Institute to conduct detailed analysis into two of our major websites – TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem.
We were not highly prescriptive in our instructions, and we certainly didn’t ask Tobias to ‘discover’ pre-determined findings. All we did was ask Tobias to find out who was coming to the sites, what they were doing, and whether or not the sites could be considered to be succeeding. We didn’t do it for a PR stunt: we did it so we could learn from our mistakes, and so that we could share those learnings with others who might benefit.
His detailed, quantitative analysis holds the sites up to mySociety’s own stated aims, for the first time. And we’ve published both documents, in full, below.
Swings and Roundabouts
It was great to discover that we have, indeed, attained some of our goals by running these sites. For example, one of the reasons we set up TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem was to make representatives accessible to people who were newcomers to the democratic process. It was therefore heartening to read that 60% of visitors to TheyWorkForYou had never previously looked up who represents them, and two in five users of WriteToThem have never before contacted one of their political representatives.
But, as you would expect with any properly neutral evaluation, it’s not all good news. Our sites aim to reach a wide range of people, but compared to the average British internet user, WriteToThem users are twice as likely to have a higher degree and a higher income. It also seems that users are disproportionately male, white, and over 35. These figures and many more are available within these highly readable papers – Tobias did a terrific job in gathering and analysing a huge amount of data, and then making it easy to understand.
These reports are rich with data, from how visitor numbers boomed during the MPs’ expenses scandal to which MPs most people sign up to receive alerts about. You can also read how a budget airline almost brought a site to its knees in 2007; what part Joanna Lumley plays in our history; and how many visits to TheyWorkForYou actually come from within Parliament itself.
TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem have inspired many people around the world to set up similar (and not so similar) sites inspired by the vision of using the Internet to lower barriers to democracy. However, until now we’ve never seen a really clear-eyed assessment of what seems to work, and what doesn’t.
If you’re at all interested in using the Internet to engage people with democratic systems, Tobias Escher’s excellent research papers will make a compelling read. Thank you Toby!
Download Tobias Escher’s research report on WriteToThem.com
or TheyWorkForYou research report by Tobias Escher
…and do come back and tell us what you found interesting.
We hope to publish two evaluation reports like this at the start of each new year from now on. Next year’s sites will probably be FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow. Do get in touch if you’d like to input!
On Wednesday this week, mySociety’s Tom and Paul were in Southampton, competing in the Geovation finals.
Geovation is an initiative coordinated by Ordnance Survey which gives out funding to projects that help “communities address their unmet needs through the application of geographic data, skills and expertise”. When we discovered that the theme this time was “How can we improve transport in Britain?” we knew we had to enter.
As many of you will know, mySociety has been working for some time on FixMyTransport, a project for reporting problems with public transport. Taking much of what we’ve learned from FixMyStreet, we are, in the trademark mySociety way, building a website that will make the process easy, whilst hiding all the complexities out of sight.
FixMyTransport is well under way, and we’re hoping to launch shortly. But with Geovation funding, we hoped to be able to roll out an accompanying mobile application.
This is incredibly important because, after all, the best time to make a transport report is immediately you experience the problem.
mySociety has, of course, always been into maps and geodata – we use them in what we hope are fun and innovative ways across many of our sites, including (obviously) Mapumental, and (less obviously) TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem. We’re also rather fond of public transport.
We also really enjoyed meeting the other contestants, particularly Cyclestreets whose project looks like it will be one to watch.
At the end of the day, we were delighted to learn that we had been awarded £27,000 to develop a simple, intuitive, cross-platform mobile application for FixMyTransport. We can’t wait to get started. We really believe it’s going to be of real benefit to public transport users across the UK (and possibly further, given the open-source nature of all our work).
If you’d like to stay up to date with FixMyTransport as we build and launch it, you might want to be one of the very first to “like” our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.