We’re good friends with the people at Mozilla. Every Wednesday, they welcome us into their London Moz space for our weekly meet-ups. They are champions of empowering possibilities of the web through Open Source software (a world we’re part of too). And they’re all so smart and lovely. So of course we’d been looking forward to this year’s Mozilla Festival for some time.
We had a table at the “Science Fair” on Friday night, where we literally had buckets of sweets (OK, they were little plastic buckets). Tom, our director, and Dave, from our international team, talked about mySociety’s work with anyone who came close. Perhaps people were drawn in by those sweets, or the FixMyStreet demo on the monitor, or even the (new!) stickers we had to give away… but regardless of the lure, we think they all learned a little bit more about how our platforms help empower people’s civic lives: from something as simple as reporting a flickering streetlight, to holding a public authority to account, to monitoring a whole parliament. (That’s FixMyStreet, Alaveteli, and Pombola, if you were wondering).
The Mozilla Festival’s venue was, once again, London’s astonishing Ravensbourne, right next to the O2 Millenium Dome. The setting magnifies the wonder of the event. Those big round windows make it feel like being in a spaceship made of Swiss cheese. The place is so open, and so vertical, that the activity and enthusiasm doesn’t just spread out, it spreads up. There is making and teaching, learning and sharing, going on across nine floors, and it’s easy to drift up and down from one themed space to another.
We met old friends. We got to hang out some more with our Chilean brothers-in-code from Ciudadano Inteligente, and the excellent Gaba from Uruguay’s DATA, together with the good people from the OKFN. We made lots of new friends too. And all this didn’t just happen at the sessions. A lot of serendipitous encounters took place by the Alchemy coffee stations. Or on the stairs (khun Toy and khun Hui — hi!). Or in the Alphabet City party venue, afterwards.
So a big “thank you” to that Fiery Fox, and an enthusiastic high five (yes, there was an unLondonlike amount of enthusiasm on show — possibly because quite a few of the attendees were over from the USA — which it is impossible not to be caught up by) to all the people we met at the event. Dave grinned his way through a wonderful Scratch tutorial from Code Club, met a whole array of cool people, got answers to some nerdy coding questions, and learnt about the awesome Hive learning networks… and lots more things besides. That already describes a great weekend. But beyond that, we hope we might see a few new mySociety-powered sites spring up elsewhere in the world due to sparks that were sparked at mozfest last weekend.
Next week is a really exciting event for us here at mySociety International. You’ve probably heard about it; the Open Government Partnership annual meeting. This coincides with Global Transparency Week and a lot of international friends grouping in London for the first time in a while. It’s going to be good to catch up on interesting projects from other international groups. And don’t forget to come along to our drinks if you’re in town!
A few more things about OGP before I let you know what we’ve been up to over the past month.
In other news:
- Over the past few months we’ve been working on a Pombola website with PMG from South Africa. We’re getting closer to completing this and can’t wait to show you the results.
- We’re also hoping to start work really soon on an Alaveteli install for South Africa, so watch this space!
- Other Alaveteli sites are nearing completion in Ukraine, Italy and Croatia. More on those as they appear… If you have installed Alaveteli, Pombola or FixMyStreet and not had contact with our international team please do drop us a line! We love to hear from you! Along this vein we recently came across Nuvasuparati in Romania and Aduanku in Malaysia. The best kind of surprise!
- We are still offering some days of assistance to people that want help or advice setting up these sites, so do get in touch if this is you. Don’t be shy! We can discuss your ideas and your project and see where we can help.
Where to find us:
25th and 26th October – MozFest, London (Dave W)
30th Oct – 1st November – OGP Annual meeting, London (Paul, Jen)
30th October – mySociety Drinks, London (Paul, Jen, Dave W)
25th November to 30th November – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Singapore (Dave W)
27th to 30th November – World Forum for Democracy, Strasbourg (Jen)
If you want a more formal chat, send me an email before the date and I’ll arrange a meet up. Especially for Dave’s Malaysia and Singapore trips as these are arranged expressly with the idea that we will spend time with interested local groups!
September 28th is International Right to Know Day. 11 years ago a number of international Freedom of Information organisations and activists came together in Bulgaria and created the FOI Advocates Network. This network works to promote peoples’ right to access to information and open and transparent governance, and as a focus for the campaign on Right to Information, September 28th was named International Right to Know day.
Humans are a fairly sociable species, large numbers of us interact and share information on social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram on a daily basis. Before the advent of the internet we shared information through SMS, phone calls and before that, through letters and face-to-face conversations. We share ideas through books, lessons and discussions. Access to information is important because it facilitates this freedom of expression and sharing.
Information is important. It allows us to make good decisions based on what we know or have found out. If that access to information is blocked, decisions people make will be faulty because they simply cannot know all the facts. For example, if you didn’t have access to information on how the current government was implementing their promises, how could you make a good decision on whether to vote for them come the next election?
Access to information is also important for educating people and helping them improve their own lives. TuDerechoASaber.es is a great example of a group of people creating a platform with the aim to make information accessible to the general public. Though there is no Right To Information law in Spain, it hasn’t stopped David Cabo curating a successful site. The beauty of which is that there is a record of every time the government refuses to reply. The hope is that this will eventually spur a change in the law, while educating people about their rights and helping them improve their knowledge.
Finally, without information being shared, would there have been revolution in the Arab world? When people have access to information about the situation in other countries, they are more likely to stand up and do something. Be that standing up to help people somewhere else, or standing up to change something where they are.
There will be a number of events happening around the world to celebrate International Right to Know Day. The Philippines are having a social media and in person event called #LightUp4FOI, lighting candles in front of their House of Representatives in Manila “to symbolise (their) desire to have a government where information is illuminated and made accessible to all citizens”. The hope is that this will help push through an FOI bill in the Philippines. In Ukraine, a local NGO are screening a documentary about the road to the 2011 Access to Information Law called Open Access. In Liberia the FOI Network has organised a parade through the streets of Fishtown City followed by a radio talk show then a CSO vs Government Officials football match. You can find information about these events, and more, on this google map.
If you are inspired to create something to give citizens in your area access to information, then our Alaveteli platform is one way to do it. Please contact us for more information!
Whatever you are doing, Happy Right to Know day!
Images under creative commons licence | Fireworks by Joshua Sosrosaputo | Lanterns by Svtherland | Tuderechoasaber screenshot by TuDerechoASaber
Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.
All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.
In the beginning…
To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.
But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”
“The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”
It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.
What was the most challenging?
According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.
“The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”
Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front [...] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.
Launch and results
Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.
Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.
But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”
So what have DATA taken away from the process?
“Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”
The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. [...] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”
Uruguay, Montevideo 1970s public transport plate by woody1778a CC BY-SA
Frightening elevator sign in Hotel Palacio by Chris Hamby CC BY-NC
This month, our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow passed a significant milestone: 50,000 registered users.
That doesn’t mean that 50,000 people have used the site to send a request for information – many have signed up simply to receive email alerts*, or to add annotations to existing requests. They’re all part of the WhatDoTheyKnow community, as are the 500,000 monthly visitors who browse the site.
And incidentally, we should give thanks to the bedrock of that community – the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers, who work on the site’s admin, as well as giving advice and support to users. Alex, John, Richard, Ganesh, Alistair and Helen have given up many, many hours of their own time to make sure that WhatDoTheyKnow runs smoothly.
By coincidence, I’ve recently been reading through our archived blog posts, so WhatDoTheyKnow’s history is fresh in my mind.
The project came about as a result of a mySociety call for proposals – we asked you what we should build next, and the idea of an ‘FOI archive’ came out tops.
By December 2006, we had received funding to make it possible, and we were asking for example requests to help us see how the tool needed to work.
In February 2008, WhatDoTheyKnow launched. It’s worth mentioning that the concept of FOI requests being made in public was a very new one, and not one that was met by universal delight from public authorities.
Just six months later, the ability to add annotations was added. Since then, we’ve created Alaveteli, our software that lets anyone in the world run their own Right To Know site, anywhere in the world.
Hmm, now what would the number be if we counted the registered users of all the Alaveteli sites around the world…? In any case, we’re really glad to see WhatDoTheyKnow continuing to be used by so many. Thank you for being part of it.
*There are a several ways you can track information on WhatDoTheyKnow:
- Receive an alert whenever someone requests information from a specific body. Locate the public authority on this page, then click the green button marked ‘Follow’. Subscribe to your local council, for example, and you’ll really be up to date with the major issues in your own community.
- Receive an alert whenever a specific word or phrase is mentioned in an FOI request. Search for any phrase, and you’ll also see that green button, inviting you to ‘track this search’. This is useful for campaigners who want to know when certain topics come up, or anyone with a specific interest.
- Follow a request. If you see a request that is of interest to you, again, just find the green ‘follow’ button. Once you’ve subscribed, we’ll email you every time there’s some activity on the request, whether it’s a response from the public authority or a comment from another user.
Last week we saw what it’s like running an Alaveteli site in New Zealand, which has had an established Freedom of Information law for 30 years.
Meanwhile, there’s a very different picture in Spain, where, together with Access Info Europe, David Cabo of Civio set up Tuderechoasaber.es.
As you may recall from our blog post back in April 2012, Tu Derecho A Saber [Your Right To Know] was launched into a high-octane political environment, to a country where Freedom of Information had been repeatedly promised but not delivered.
At that time, the Spanish government was just about to open a public consultation. 16 months later, what has been the result, and what place has Tu Derecho A Saber found in the Spanish culture? David explains.
“It’s still a very intense political environment around here. The Freedom of Information draft has slowly dragged through Congress, and was approved last week. Now it needs to go to the Senate and come back.
“Once approved, there will be a one-year implementation period, so we expect the law to be effective by the end of 2014.
“We’ve been lobbying to improve the law, which does not meet international standards and has a number of critical flaws. Meanwhile there is a huge mistrust among citizens about politicians and public bodies, mostly because of the growing number of corruption scandals being investigated by journalists and judges, some of them involving the main political parties.”
With legislation that’s still lacking, the site faces a challenge. Take a look at the homepage right now, and you’ll see a link to the site’s 2012 report [in Spanish].
Of the 567 valid requests for information received during 2012, only 13% received a valid response. Administrative silence [is] the greatest obstacle to the right of access to information in Spain.
So, given this environment, what is the biggest difficulty for Cabo?
“The site is running fine, no technical issue at all.
“Our main challenge is trying to keep users motivated in the face of public bodies that clearly don’t care.
“Most people still don’t know much about access to information. The ones that do come and ask questions get easily frustrated about the lack of response (they’re just met with silence, normally), so right now I’d say our users are those citizens who are particularly motivated and conscious.
“Sometimes the administration says that emails are not a valid channel for access to information requests, and asks our users to go via their own web forms. Sometimes we do that (or ask the user to do it himself), and the results are the same: silence, or sometimes an automated acknowledgement that doesn’t go anywhere.
“Opacity is certainly not limited to our website, you get the same by phone or letter.”
You may ask, “Why run a Freedom of Information website in such an unwelcoming environment?”.
We look at it this way: by publishing every request for information – answered or unaswered – Alaveteli creates a transparent and verifiable archive. If requests continue to go unanswered, the evidence grows – and, perhaps, so will the impetus for social change.
mySociety recommends setting up websites that reflect society as it should be, not websites that respond to how the law is today. We never reject a project because there’s no Right To Information in the target jursidiction. Indeed, you might see these projects as the most worthwhile of all.
Under such circumstances, one of the most important things Cabo can do is to foster awareness, of the act and of his website. With the topic being so high-profile in the news, there is also the opportunity for press coverage.
“Some journalists do understand how critical it is for their profession and for our democracy to have a good access to information law. Thanks to them we get the chance to explain in the media the many flaws of the proposed law, and compare the Spanish situation with that of countries around us, sometimes even on prime-time TV.
“In one of my FOI requests, I asked for the Congress budget in detail, but my request was denied repeatedly.
“The information only became public when it was leaked to journalists; we then managed to get a copy of the leaked data, and published it in full, which got some media coverage. This is an all too common example of how public bodies work in Spain: even basic information like a detailed budget is hidden from citizens”.
Social media gives them a platform too:
“We keep a blog that highlights good requests. It also covers bad examples, and you’ll see a lot of legal talk about the FOI draft.”
Run a Freedom of Information website
As we’ve seen above, every jurisdiction is different, and the legal situation can make an enormous difference to what type of challenges you’ll face when running a Freedom of Information website.
But at least you won’t have to worry about the software. Alaveteli has been designed to work anywhere, whatever laws are – or are not – in place. We also have plenty of experience and can help you every step of the way.
If you’re interested in finding out more, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We love to hear that someone has taken our code and is launching a new website. But it is even better to see that site become fully established.
How can you tell when a site has reached that milestone? Hard to say – but we reckon that processing over 1,000 Freedom of Information requests is a pretty good sign that an Alaveteli install has succeeded.
Ki Mit Tud in Hungary passed that mark back in April; in Spain, Tu Derecho A Saber has also dealt with just over 1,000 requests. And in New Zealand, FYI.org.nz is also celebrating the big thou, under the care of Rowan Crawford.
We made Alaveteli to be used in any jurisdiction, no matter what Freedom of Information laws are in place, and no matter what the prevailing culture – and we are always fascinated to know how the resulting sites are impacting their respective communities. When it comes to New Zealand, some aspects are familiar; some are distinct to the region.
Rowan was kind enough to tell us a little about how it’s been, watching those first thousand FOI requests roll through FYI.org.nz.
How is it running the site? Do you have a volunteer team helping you, like we do with WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK?
“It’s just me at the moment — it hasn’t been a high burden at all. Generally things “just work”.
“As the Admin, I do get unusual questions directed at me sometimes, that strain my knowledge of the law. Fortunately I have several lawyer contacts on Twitter I can run to for help!”
Is there anything we should know about the background to FOI in NZ?
“The Official Information Act came in to force almost exactly thirty years ago, on 1 July 1983. It is used extensively, though just how much is hard to say.
“The only body which reports OIA statistics is the Ombudsman, which only reports the numbers of complaints – about 1200 in 2012. I know journalists use it routinely.”
How has NZ reacted to having its own Right To Know site?
“The response from people using it has been very, very positive. The press haven’t covered it that much, but bloggers have. One measure of success is that it has its own section in the Ombudsman’s FAQ.
Can you recall any particularly noteable requests that have gone through the site?
“I have an affection for a couple of successful ones from the police: they replied to one request with their interrogation manual, and to another with information on how much they paid informants.”
How are you finding Alaveteli?
“Installing it has improved hugely since the first time I tried. The current method of theming works pretty well, too.
“There are several things on my road map: integrating documentcloud instead of the current HTML conversion, using S3 for resources, and a mobile version.”
What kind of user numbers are you seeing?
“There are just under 500 users registered in the system, and we’re getting 5,000 unique visitors a month. It’s growing month by month by about 15% at the moment — who knows how long that will keep up!”
Run a Freedom of Information website
Rowan makes it look pretty easy!
We won’t pretend that you can run a Freedom of Information site with no effort at all, but we have made it as simple as we possibly can. We have the code, we have the documentation, and most important of all, we have a community waiting to give you support and advice.
If you’re interested in finding out more, drop us a line at email@example.com.
A few days ago, one of our international contacts, Matthew Landauer from the OpenAustralia Foundation, posted to the Alaveteli mailing list about a recent experiment in crowdsourcing FOI requests. It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I asked if we could share more widely.
Matthew tells us: “It’s a project called DetentionLogs and it’s a collaboration between a small group of freelance journalists, Guardian Australia, New Matilda, The Global Mail and OpenAustralia Foundation.
The journalists have done some FOI [requesting] to get a summarised list of around 7000 “incidents” that have happened in detention centres. Then, if members of the public are interested in finding out more they can help out by doing a further FOI request for detailed information about the incident via RightToKnow, OpenAustralia’s FOI site which uses Alaveteli.”
But what’s the history? According to the Guardian, over the past few years there’s been a sharp rise in the number of specific incidents in Australia’s two largest immigration detention centres. Elections are coming up soon (though still not confirmed) and the topic of immigration is one of the fiercest political debates around the elections. The co-founders of DetentionLogs came across a large PDF document on the Immigration Department’s disclosure log, with a summary of the incidents – and the project sprang from there.
The idea is that people can view the visual database, see incidents and click on them to adopt them or flag them. Adopting an incident takes you to the RightToKnow website where you can submit a pre-drafted FOI request to get more details. You also have the option to edit it, but the page opens with all the incident data that is needed to match the request with the incident you clicked on. Flagging an incident makes it appear brighter on the visualisation, drawing other people’s attention to it. Global Mail asked two requesters to share their reasons for participating here. It’s interesting reading, but also quite shocking.
So far there have been around 125 FOI requests made through this site. But it’s not all been plain sailing…
Matthew writes this of his challenges: “This is what I’ve learned from the experience so far:
- The government department in question (department of immigration) is clearly concerned by the crowdsourcing, so much so that each of these requests is being handled personally by the director of FOI policy for the department and they’re doing whatever they can to shut things down, including in this case, a misinterpretation of the FOI legislation. Kat Szuminska and I wrote an opinion piece on this for the Global Mail.
- The relationship between the multiple websites involved in DetentionLogs confuses people a bit. People might start on the global mail “behind the wire” site and then get directed at RightToKnow to make the FOI request. So, we’ve had a couple of cases where people gave their email addresses to RightToKnow, we message them and then they thought that the DetentionLogs project had given us their email address without permission.
- There is no way currently in Alaveteli to contact a group of people. What I ended up doing is taking an email that the DetentionLogs people wrote, exporting a list of email addresses by hand from the database and emailing them personally on behalf of the DetentionLogs people. This was hardly ideal, it confused people. I think I would much prefer that people who make a request in one of these FOI crowdsourcing campaigns could optionally sign up to a mailing list or a public forum where they could discuss strategy and such things.”
This crowdsourcing experiment is still a work in progress, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. It’s great to see how the Alaveteli software can be adapted to fit a specific campaign and hopefully that can inspire others to use it in a similar way. Mail Us to see how.
Today, we are using the phrase “Alaveteli upgrade” rather a lot – and not just because it’s such a great tongue-twister. It’s also a notable milestone for our open-source community.
Alaveteli is the software that underlies WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information website. The code can also be deployed by people in other countries who wish to set up a similar site. If you’re a ‘front-end user’, someone who just uses WhatDoTheyKnow to file or read FOI requests, this upgrade will go unnoticed… assuming all goes well at our end, that is. But if you’re a developer who’d like to use the platform in your own country, it makes several things easier for you.
Alaveteli will now be using the Rails 3 series – the series we were previously relying on, 2, has become obsolete. One benefit is that we’re fully supported by the core Rails team for security patches. But, more significant to our aim of sharing our software with organisations around the world, it makes Alaveteli easier to use and easier to contribute to. It’s more straightforward to install, dependencies are up-to-date, code is clearer, and there’s good test coverage – all things that will really help developers get their sites up and running without a problem.
Rails cognoscenti will be aware that series 4.0 is imminent – and that we’ve only upgraded to 3.1 when 3.2 is available. We will be upgrading further in due course – it seemed sensible to progress in smaller steps. But meanwhile, we’re happy with this upgrade! The bulk of the work was done by Henare Degan and Matthew Landauer of the Open Australia Foundation, as volunteers – and we are immensely grateful to them. Thanks, guys.
Find the Alaveteli code here – or read our guide to getting started.
Image credit: Sashi Manek (cc)
The Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC) in South Africa will be using mySociety’s Alaveteli software in their latest project – and, with a bit of match-making from mySociety, the preparation period has been rigorous.
Alaveteli is our open source Freedom of Information platform. It underlies our own UK-based WhatDoTheyKnow, and right-to-know sites around the world. Alaveteli sites make it easy for citizens to ask questions of those bodies who operate under Freedom of Information law and, significantly, they automatically publish all responses.
Before any coding or implementation began, we got ODAC together with the “Governance Collaboratory”, an initiative from the d.school in Stanford University that seeks to apply the “design thinking” approach to projects that intend to make government more open, more effective, and more accountable. We’ve observed quite a few Alaveteli installs, but while we’re always on hand to offer support and answer development queries, we’ve never prepared the ground quite like this.
Gabriella Razzano of ODAC welcomed Jeremy Weinstein and Jenny Stefanotti, both from the d.school, to Cape Town for an intensive few days of assessing how the design thinking approach could shape the project. Two staff from mySociety also went along — Paul (our Head of International Projects) and Dave (one of our developers) — because we’re keen to understand how the d.school’s approach might improve the way we go about building our new projects.
Now, at mySociety we already know a thing or two about building civic systems that engage with the public, because we have considerable experience in the field. We are expert at combining user experience and current tech to create simple, usable interfaces (see our DIY blog for some example details). We conduct usability tests, we apply A/B testing, and we think hard about what our analytics tell us. But actually much of this is reactive, iterative design: it’s being applied after the core product has already been built.
Design thinking challenges this approach by suggesting that the user on which initial designs are often based is purely imaginary. As a result, the site inevitably includes the assumptions and prejudices of its creators. This won’t necessarily lead to a bad design — especially if the creators are benign and experienced — but it must fail, by definition, to account for the unexpected things that may motivate or concern actual users. The design thinking process attempts to change this by approaching the initial problem in a prescribed way and following a process that isolates genuine, existing requirements. This includes, in design thinking terms, processing the initial interviews into empathy maps from which requirements emerge, and which themselves become features that are rapidly prototyped in isolation from other parts of the system.
This is uncomfortable for those of us used to building loose iterations from the bottom up and refining them later. It means introducing empathy and rapid, offline prototyping much earlier in the process than we’d normally expect. Certainly in the commercial world it’s common for a company to prototype against their target consumers early on. But for civic projects such as mySociety’s, it’s often much harder to identify who the users will be, for the impressive yet overwhelming reason that often we are building our platforms for everybody. This can lead to generalisations which may miss specific issues that could make a huge difference to some users.
The d.school advocates a “learning by doing” way of teaching, so the days we spent in Cape Town were a busy mix of practice as well as theory. We interviewed people who had a variety of reasons to want to make Freedom of Information requests, including an activist who’s already used South Africa’s Freedom of Information legislation to make requests regarding housing projects, the head of a rape crisis centre, and law students who may well become a nation’s most empowered activists. From these interviews we isolated specific needs, which at this stage were nearly all unconnected to any digital or web requirement. Jeremy and Jenny then led us through the process of rapid, analogue prototyping intended to address those needs.
Inevitably we could only scratch the surface in the few days we had available, but we hope ODAC will be able to apply the process to the development of their project, just as we aim to use it to benefit the work on ours.
Image credit: Procavia capensis (Rock-dwelling Hyrax or Dassie) by Arthur Chapman, released under CC BY-NC-SA on Flickr.
They tell visitors that dassies such as these live atop Table Mountain. We went up there and saw none. Similarly, Freedom of Information requests exist in South Africa under the Promotion of Access to Information Act 2000 (PAIA), but most people have never seen one — fewer than 200 PAIA requests were made nationally in 2012. This tenuous comparison allows us to illustrate the blog post with a cute picture of fuzzy mammals.