1. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 5

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been opened up to the public thanks to Freedom of Information requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two, part three and part four.

    This edition features examples from New Zealand site fyi.org.nz, Hungarian site KiMiTud and UK site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Auckland residents can now visualise future development in their community

    Sometimes data released via FOI requests can be pretty incomprehensible, and frankly quite dull. That is, until someone makes a handy visualisation tool that makes the data come alive and easier to understand.

    That’s exactly what happened with this request made on the New Zealand Alaveteli fyi.org.nz. The data released was picked up by the New Zealand Herald, who have used it to make an interactive map (see screenshot below) of Auckland Council’s proposed neighbourhood development plan.

    Now Auckland residents can see at a glance how their council plans to change their local neighbourhood.

    Insights The New Zealand Herald

    A similar use of data released via FOI laws occurred a few years ago in the UK after this request on WhatDoTheyKnow. The request asked for the location of every post box in the UK. The data released has been used to create useful tools like this one (developed by our very own Matthew Somerville), which helps citizens easily locate the nearest place to post their letters:

    Find Your Nearest Postbox

    Hungarian utility provider consciously allows pollution of major river

    Another great way to help people visualise the real-life effects of the data they see in an FOI response is to video it, like investigative journalists at Atlatszo did. Their short clip graphically shows a river clogged up with four times as much sewage as the treatment plant has the capability to process.

    Sewage

    Atlatszo used KiMiTud to obtain local government audit reports of a sewage works company.

    The documents reveal that five audits have been carried out in the last few years, and serious deficiencies were found each time: harmful untreated sewage was being pumped into the nearby river Tisza.

    These findings led to the company being fined by the regulator. It is claimed that the company would rather pay these fines than spend the money updating their equipment.

    According to Atlatszo’s investigation, the company could not and did not refute that the quality of water leaving their plant is often more polluted than legally allowed, and admitted that their equipment is not up to date. Let’s hope Atlatszo’s pressure on them will make them change their practices.

    In a recent similar case in Australia, the use of FOI revealed evidence of neglect at a landfill site, with the potential for environmental harm and drinking water contamination.  

    The above examples yet again show the real diversity of information you can obtain via FOI requests, and highlight what an amazing tool FOI is for both data journalists, and investigative journalists.  

    In fact, we’re so passionate about journalists taking full advantage of FOI laws, that we’re about to launch a project that will develop a set of tools to help journalists (and others) to use FOI more easily in their work.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Header image: KOMUnews, CC

  2. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 4

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been unveiled thanks to FOI requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two and part three.

    This time, we’re featuring stories from EU-wide site AsktheEU, German site FragDenStaat (Ask the State), Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy (Access to Truth) and Australian site RightToKnow.

    Emissions test cheating: European Commission warned five years before VW scandal

    Responses to FOI requests on AsktheEU reveal that back in 2010 the Commission’s own experts told it that they suspected a car maker was cheating emissions tests. This was five years before last year’s scandal that revealed Volkswagen had cheated in emission tests by using ‘defeat devices’, which made its cars appear far less polluting than they are.

    The documents revealed on AsktheEU were shared with the Guardian, which has published this article.

    This new information contradicts the Commission’s claim that no concrete evidence on the use of defeat devices was ever brought to their attention.

    It is yet to be seen how these latest revelations will affect Commission officials involved.

    What’s 10,000 euros between friends?

    FragDenStaat is the FOI platform run by Open Knowledge Foundation Germany. It doesn’t run with Alaveteli code, but was originally inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow.

    One response received via FragDenStaat revealed that Joachim Sauer, the husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been paid 10,000 euros annually since 2011 to sit on the board of billionaire Friede Springer’s charitable Foundation. Merkel and Springer are close friends.

    This raised eyebrows in the German media (see this Spiegel article). Merkel has been criticised for her close relationship with Springer, whose company, Axel Springer AG, controls the largest share of Germany’s market for daily newspapers and runs Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper.

    This has sparked allegations of cronyism. Does Sauer’s position grant Springer unfair influence on German governmental affairs? Some would say so.

    Say it with flowers

    A response by Ukrainian State Administration to a request on Dostup do Pravdy has revealed that the President’s office has spent $1.85 million USD of taxpayers’ money on flowers since 2014.

    Flowers certainly are lovely, but with poverty rates nearly doubling in the last year, it can be argued that they really aren’t a high priority right now.

    61 agencies want Australians’ personal data

    In 2015 the Australian government passed controversial laws that vastly increased the amount of citizens’ personal phone and web data that telecommunications companies were required to hold.

    The government also restricted the number of agencies who could freely access this data, but allowed rejected agencies to re-apply for access. An FOI request on RightToKnow revealed that over 60 have done just that. This discovery was reported by most major news organisations in Australia, including the Guardian.

    You can read the full story, as told by RightToKnow, here.

    The above examples show the diversity of information that is revealed thanks to Freedom of Information around the world, and the types of information that get picked up by mainstream media organisations.

    So next time you have a question about a public body that you can’t find the answer to publicly already, why not consider using an Alaveteli site to ask – and that way, the response you get will then be publicly available for others to see too. You may even unearth the latest political scandal too.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Image: IceNineJon, (CC).

  3. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 3

    This is Part three in a blog post series highlighting information that has been disclosed thanks to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here are part one and part two.

    In this edition, we’re highlighting stories from Australian site RightToKnow, European Union-wide AsktheEU and Rwandan site Sobanukirwa.

    Australian police use banned restraint technique on asylum seekers

    Detention Logs is a project that publishes data, documents and investigations that reveal information on conditions and events inside Australia’s immigration detention network.

    As part of the project, Detention Logs used Alaveteli site RightToKnow to ask the Australian Department of Immigration to disclose incident reports from detention facilities.

    One such incident report revealed that the Department of Immigration approved the use of a controversial body lock technique on an asylum seeker.

    The incident report describes the restraint as follows:

    “The seat belt was fastened. The client and the escort staff were the first passengers to board the plane. As the client continued screaming and resisting, DIAC staff issued instruction to the escort staff to ‘lock the client down’ by pushing her chest towards her knees. However, the client still continued screaming loudly and attracting attention of the cabin crew.”

    According to New Matilda and Detention Logs, the account of the restraint strongly resembles the “seated double embrace” technique banned by police in Victoria and New South Wales in Australia, and some government agencies in the United Kingdom.

    The United Kingdom Ministry of Justice banned this technique in juvenile detention facilities, following the death of 15-year-old Gareth Myatt in 2004.

    Why the EU’s taking its time on restricting harmful chemicals

    Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals that are present in everyday products – from plastics and cosmetics to pesticides. Because of their ability to interact with the hormonal (endocrine) systems of living organisms, they are suspected of having serious health and environmental impacts.

    The European Union is supposed to regulate EDCs, in order to protect citizens from harmful effects. Both the EU’s 2009 pesticide regulation and the European chemicals package (REACH) demand that the EU take action on these chemicals.

    However, several years later, the European Commission is still no closer to taking concrete action.

    FOI requests made on AsktheEU have led to the disclosure of correspondence between the European Commission and various stakeholders regarding proposed EU legislation on the restriction of EDCs.

    The documents have helped journalist Stéphane Horel and research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) to piece together why the process has stalled, and what has been said behind closed Commission doors.

    To communicate their findings, they produced a book and documentary, which explains how corporations, and even actors within the Commission, are stalling the process of this key public health and environment legislation.

    Now Rwandans can find out when their parliament is in session

    The Rwandan parliament now publish the Chamber of Deputies’ schedule of debates/activities for each day on the homepage of their official website (under ‘Today in Parliament’).

    This follows an FOI request on Rwandan Alaveteli site Sobanukirwa, which urges the parliament to do just that. The Sobanukirwa team don’t know for sure if their request influenced parliament’s decision to publish this information, but we are pretty sure it had an impact.

    The Australian and EU examples above show the power of making a lot of FOI requests, across authorities, and then grouping them together to create/support a project or investigation about a wider issue of public concern.

    The Rwandan example shows that perhaps, just perhaps, a single request can cause a big impact.

    So, what do you want to investigate? What have you always wanted to know? Start your own investigation to unearth truths that may just surprise you, and use an Alaveteli site to help you.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Image: Jenny Lee Silver, (CC).

  4. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 2

    This is Part Two in a blog post series to highlight interesting and impactful requests that have been made through the 25 websites running our Alaveteli FOI software across the world. You can see Part One here.

    This time, we’re highlighting four interesting stories, from Hungary’s Alaveteli site KiMitTud and the pan-European site AsktheEU.

    The European Commission really doesn’t want us to know about their correspondence with tobacco lobbyists

    Last year, the research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) sent a request for documents relating to all correspondence/meetings between DG Trade officials and tobacco lobbyists from January 2014 to March 2015 on AsktheEU.org.

    Following this, the European Commission ‘released’ very heavily redacted documents concerning their contacts with the tobacco industry on EU trade negotiations, including the ongoing EU-Japan and EU-US trade talks (TTIP).

    In all four documents (correspondence with and minutes of meetings with tobacco lobbyists) virtually all the content is blacked out, including the names of all tobacco lobbyists and Commission officials involved. Only around 5% of the text is visible.

    As CEO points out, the Commission’s secrecy around its relations with tobacco industry lobbyists and its international trade negotiations causes great concern and highlights the lack of transparency within the Commission.

    To read the full story, see this article on CEO’s website.

    (more…)

  5. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 1

    There are now Freedom of Information websites running on our Alaveteli software in 25 jurisdictions worldwide, which between them have processed more than 330,000 FOI requests.

    But what sort of information is being revealed through these sites? And what impact has this information had? In our new series of posts, we’ll be giving you a roundup of some of the most interesting and impactful requests made on Alaveteli sites from across the world.

    To kick off, here are the stories of two interesting requests; one from Australia’s Alaveteli site RightToKnow and one from Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy: (more…)

  6. A new look for AsktheEU.org

    Back last year, we told you about WhatDoTheyKnow’s fancy new redesign, as part of our rolling process of design improvements.

    WhatDoTheyKnow is powered by Alaveteli, the freedom of information software that also underlies 25 other FOI request platforms around the world. A great benefit of this global usage is that when we make improvements to one site, we can make them available for everyone else, too.

    So, using what we developed and learned from the WhatDoTheyKnow redesign, we added the updated look and feel to the latest version of Alaveteli.

    Now any Alaveteli install that upgrades to the latest version can also have a fancy new look!
    And that’s what AsktheEU.org has done. And doesn’t it look great?

    AsktheEU.org is an Alaveteli instance, run by Access Info Europe, which allows citizens to request information from the European Union. So if you need to escalate your request to an EU body and your country’s part of the EU, you should give AsktheEU.org a go.

    Mobile responsive

    A major improvement is that the site is now mobile responsive – so viewing it using a handheld device is ‘a total breath of fresh air’ (to use the words of mySociety designer Zarino!).The site was originally built with the assumption that most users would be on their desktop machines — which was true when it first launched, but certainly isn’t any more. Mobile users make up about 50% of the traffic these days, so this will make it much easier for them.

    These changes also mean that users with visual impairments (or simply those who prefer bigger text on their web pages) can zoom in using their browser’s zoom controls, and use the new site perfectly comfortably, with no degradation in experience.

    Lighter, faster pages

    The new site is now much quicker to load, which should help those on poor connections or mobile devices.The designers achieved this by cutting down the number of files in the pages’ styling.

    Space to breathe

    The new request pages are now also more modern looking, with increased white space and improved contrast and type hierarchy, which should make them easier to quickly scan and find what you’re looking for.

    The base font size has also been increased, making text, especially on the Help and About pages, much easier to read. And links now have underlines, to better distinguish them for users with trouble seeing changes in colour.

    Well done to the Access Info and mySociety teams for making these improvements!

    We’re hoping that, all together, they will make the site more accessible and therefore attract more visitors, so we’ll be keeping an eye on the impact of the new design and will report back.

    There’s a secret message here for anyone running an Alaveteli site: if you’d like your site to benefit from all the improvements above, upgrade to Alaveteli 0.23. There are also loads of other benefits to upgrading, which you can check out here.

    Please do get in touch if you’d like our support to upgrade, we’re here to help!

  7. The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference 2016: Call for Papers Now Open

    barca 2

    mySociety is delighted to announce that TICTeC2016 – or to give it its proper name, The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference 2016 – will be taking place in Barcelona on 27 and 28 April 2016.

    Returning for a second year, TICTeC is the world’s only conference dedicated to exploring the impact that civic technology and digital democracy are having upon citizens, decision makers and governments around the globe.

    The primary goal of the conference is to promote and share rigorous and meaningful research into online technologies and digital democracy around the world. So, if you have completed research on this theme and would like to present your work, then please do submit an abstract / proposal.

    We also welcome proposals for individuals to lead workshops or give presentations relating to the conference theme.

    More information on submission deadlines and registration for TICTeC2016 can be found here.

    Hope to see you in Barcelona!

    Image: MorBCN (CC)

  8. Contract Advert: We’re looking for a US Civic Technologies Researcher

    Are you passionate about using digital tools to empower citizens and improve governments? Do you have significant research experience in civic technology or a related field? If so, why not apply for mySociety’s new US Civic Technologies Research contract?

    mySociety have received a generous gift from Microsoft to explore civic tech usage at the sub-national level within the USA. We are therefore looking for a partner (individual(s) or organisation) in the USA to lead on this research for us.

    We are offering a contract for approx 200 days work and a clear research remit. You’d need to be based in, and able to travel within the USA.

    Interested? For further details and to apply, click here.

  9. Bristol: We’re coming back to see you

    7858490506_6a9b40bb1a_kAs last year’s meet-up in Bristol was so fun, we thought; why not have another?

    So, after a bit of encouragement from some of our Bristol-based friends,  we’ll be back on 23rd July to host another meet-up at the Royal Navy Volunteer pub.

    Our meet-ups are open to everyone. Come along if you’re interested in hearing more about inspiring tech projects in Bristol and beyond, and if you fancy having a drink with the following guest speakers:-

    Paul Wilson and Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Bristol Is Open:

    Paul and Dimitra will speak about Bristol Is Open and its mission of creating an open programmable city region that gives citizens more ways to participate-in and contribute-to the way their city works. Find out more about the project here: http://www.bristolisopen.com/

    Mike Dunn, Sift Digital: 

    Mike is a UX consultant with Sift Digital in Bristol. The Bristol Pound is an local alternative currency designed to benefit independent businesses. They’re trying to get us to completely rethink where our money goes. Mike will talk about how he put together a lightweight programme of user research and digital strategy work to suit their (very) limited budget, and why digital people should use their powers to do good.

    Ben Fowkes, Delib: 

    Ben leads the consultancy team at digital democracy company, Delib, where he helps governments tackle tricky initiatives that require input from citizens. Ben will be giving a talk about his recent trip around the US which saw him visit large swathes of government, universities and hallowed ground like Civic Hall in New York, to attempt to answer the question – ‘What is Civic Tech?’. He’ll explore the differences and indeed, the similarities, between the respective countries and look at larger trends and opportunities from the other side of the pond.

    Our very own Ben Nickolls:

    Ben heads up the mySociety Services team. He’ll talk about some of the innovative digital projects we’ve been working on recently to help local government and other institutions better serve the public.

    They’ll be some other speakers too; which we’ll add to the meet-up’s Lanyrd page in due course.

    So, we hope to see you there!

    When: Thursday 23rd July 2015, drop in any time between 7pm and 10pm
    Where: The Royal Navy Volunteer pub function room, 17-18 King St, Harbourside, Bristol , BS1 4EF
    How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page: http://lanyrd.com/2015/mysociety-friends-meet-up/, so we know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.

    NB: Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.

    Photo by Derek Σωκράτης Finch (CC)

  10. Channel Shift Conference: We’ll be there, will you?

    The mySociety Services team will be attending this year’s Channel Shift Conference on 17th June in London. We’d love to see you there, and we’d be happy to talk about your needs.

    Local authorities using FixMyStreet for Councils have reported a shift of up to 300% from phone to online reporting. Why? Because when online reporting systems are this easy, phone contact plummets.

    So we know how important channel shift is for councils, and we can help you achieve it. With central government calling on local councils to lead the way in cost-cutting via digital technologies, we know there’s great pressure to deliver services on an ever-lower budget.

    The solution doesn’t have to be a lengthy and costly tie-in with a big provider, however. FixMyStreet For Councils shows how small independents can provide everything your clients need, with no long-running, over-priced framework agreements.

    Come and have a chat and we’ll show you how other councils have implemented our services. We can answer all your questions about back-end integration, mobile apps and how we can tailor FixMyStreet to your needs.

    We look forward to joining attendees from Central and Local Government, Housing, Police and the Private Sector, to discuss channel shift best practices. The conference will focus on overcoming key barriers, such as: culture change, integrating front-end to back-end systems, effective business process mapping, and demonstrating and promoting channel shift success.

    Many of our services are tried and tested catalysts for shifting citizen contact online. We’ll be demonstrating the channel shift success we’ve had with our council clients, and showing how you can replicate that success with your own implementation.

    Here is some more information about the conference:

    Speakers include:

    • Chair: James Rolfe, Director of Finance, Resources and Customer Services, Enfield Council
    • Keynote: Danny McLaughlin, Digital Service Manager, Department for Work and Pensions
    • Steve Halliday, Chief Information Officer, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council and Past President, Socitm
    • Julie Robinson, Director of Resources, Watford Community Housing Trust
    • Boris Worrall, Executive Director Futures, Orbit Group – Futures
    • Ian Simons, Group Head of Social Media, RSA Insurance
    • Natalie Proffitt, Head of Digital Media Services, Leicestershire Police
    • Barry May, Head of Customer Services, London Borough of Camden

    Website: http://www.capitaconferences.co.uk/public-sector-conferences/detail/article/channel-shift-conference-1.html?code=MYSOC

    Brochure: http://www.capitaconferences.co.uk/pdfgen.html?filename=ChannelShiftJun15.pdf&code=MYSOC

    Email: naomi.wood@capita.co.uk / 020 7202 0571