You need volunteers to make your website work

A successful Alaveteli website is nothing without its volunteers.  These are people who care so much about transparency and the right to know that they are motivated to help run a busy website.  There’s some detail on the wiki, but in short, volunteers do things like:

  • Provide user support to people who need help using the website
  • Provide advice on FOI laws when users encounter difficult authorities or situations
  • Act on takedown or redaction requests in response to legally or ethically reasonable requests from users or authorities
  • Investigate and report on bugs in the software

WhatDoTheyKnow has an amazing volunteer pool of around six or seven people, of whom about three are active at any one time (it varies depending on their other commitments).  They are dedicated, committed, knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and the website quite simply wouldn’t function without them.

So, how did WhatDoTheyKnow recruit this team of experts?  I spoke with the original author of WhatDoTheyKnow, Francis Irving, to find out.

At mySociety, we had a pool of people on our mailing lists who had been waiting for years for something to get involved in.  We found a way early on of letting people contribute really easily, and this became a route to finding volunteers who were really good:

For the launch of the site, Tom [Steinberg, Director of mySociety] was insistent that we had to add every single local council to the database.  So he made a Google Spreadsheet listing the name of each one, and send out an email to our mailing list with the request “please find an email address for each of these authorities”.  Within a week, we had all 460 addresses that we wanted, and people had started making new tabs in the spreadsheet for adding Police Authorities, Housing Associations and more.

When it got to the point where we had people saying things like “here’s a list of all the sewage treatment works in the UK”, we started replying “do you want to join our team as a volunteer?” and giving them admin access to the system.

Crucial to building up a strong admin team was setting up a single email address for all internal discussion (e.g. about legal points) and user support emails.  Eventually people hate this as it introduces so much noise to their inboxes, but it serves two important functions: it moulds a group identity for making reasonably uniform responses; and it shows you’re committed as a volunteer if you’re prepared to deal with the traffic.

Equally important is rewarding the volunteer team by making their lives easier.  I spent several months relentlessly improving the administrative interface, so that each time they had a tiresome problem, I did what I could to make it easier to solve next time.

Our volunteers have a particular set of skills: they think about the whole community of users, rather than exclusively their own opinions about FOI.  They are technical but aren’t necessarily programmers: lots of their work is about the law, and analysing law is quite a geeky skill.

It’s very easy to get caught up in how the current FOI law works, rather than how it should work.  Quite important to our success was the attitude that “the law should be be like this” and then pretend that it was already like that.  A good example of this is that we sometimes add bodies to our database that aren’t actually subject to FOI, but we think they should be.  Another example is that we ignore concerns about copyright law where we think it gets in the way of the right to information: we’re prepared to have a battle to assert the right to know and to reuse information.

As a result, our volunteers are also campaigners.  When we help users, we often end up doing so by doing media work, publicising stories about, for example, public bodies releasing data in strange or restricted formats.  It’s more of a campaigning site than we expected, but it’s campaigning-by-doing: not just about responding to consultations.  It’s much more fun than normal campaigning!