1. Why having the Right To Know matters

    Today is International Right To Know Day.

    Right to Know Day was started back in 2002 by international civil society advocates, and has since been officially adopted by UNESCO with the more formal title of ‘International Day for the Universal Access to Information’.

    To mark this day I wanted to highlight some of the reasons why having the Right to Know/access to official information is so important, and give examples to illustrate these reasons.

    So, here goes:

    The Right To Know helps fight corruption and exposes wrongdoings

    Being able to access information held by public authorities allows citizens to uncover potential mismanagement of public funds, and abuses of public policies and laws.

    Some relevant examples  of this include when police use banned restraint techniques in prisons and immigration centres, when government departments miss their own targets and when campaigning groups break electoral law by spending too much money on their campaigns.

    The Right To Know helps citizens hold their public authorities and governments to account

    Since the introduction of the FOI Act, we all have the opportunity to question the status quo and point out when things just aren’t right.

    Like when one dedicated citizen used her Right to Know to make sure schools, local education authorities and the Department for Education were taking the issue of asbestos in schools and the health and safety of teachers and pupils seriously.

    Or one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers using his Right to Know to uncover that many councils are not doing the necessary administration work in order to be able to fine taxi drivers who refuse to accept disabled passengers, and therefore implement anti-discrimination law. Holding authorities to account so they do implement this is really important, otherwise discrimination against wheelchair users may continue to get worse.

    The Right To Know helps citizens get useful information that matters to them

    Sometimes the information you need isn’t freely or easily available, so using your Right to Know to get that information into the public arena is a great idea.

    People have used their Right to Know to get information on when museums are free to visit, where you can post your letters and where you can find a toilet, to name a few examples. All useful information for them personally, but also for the rest of society as well!

    The Right To Know helps citizens find out what’s going on in their local communities

    It’s important to know what’s going on in your local area so you can get involved, raise objections, think of solutions…or just for curiosity’s sake.

    These examples show how people have used their Right to Know to discover plans for local community sports stadiums and facilities, the number of homeless people in the area, and plans for housing developments.

    The Right To Know helps citizens get things changed for the better

    There are several instances of requests leading to tangible change that make improvements to people’s lives.

    For example using the Right to Know led to the exposure of vital information which helped lead to wages going up in one of the UK’s biggest care home operators, and Transport for London changing their attitude to cyclists’ rights.

    The Right To Know helps taxpayers find out how their money is spent

    Do you ever wonder how your hard earned taxes are being spent? Using your Right to Know uncovers all sorts of interesting, and sometimes controversial, expenditure.

    For example the NHS spent £29 million on chaplains in 2009/10, in 2008/09 Birmingham City Council spent £53,000 on bottled water for its staff and Greater Manchester Police spent £379,015 on informants in 2009/10.

    Having this information open for all to see sometimes leads to changes in how public authorities spend their budgets.

    For example Birmingham City Council went on to change their water policy so they now connect water coolers directly to mains water to save money and resources. This may not have happened if it wasn’t for an active citizen using their Right to Know to reveal this information, and therefore prompt a positive change.

    There are plenty more reasons why having the Right to Know is important, but these are the highlights for me. Fundamentally, the Right to Information empowers citizens to be active members of society so they can work towards creating a more fair and just world.

    So celebrate your Right to Know, on this day and every day, as it’s an incredibly useful right to have.

    Remember, using our WhatDoTheyKnow website makes the process of asking public authorities for information really easy and you can browse what other people have already asked for and the responses they received, so why not check it out.

    Image: Scott McLeod (CC BY 2.0)

  2. Get ready for TICTeC Local in Manchester

    We’re delighted to be hosting the first TICTeC Local conference in Manchester on 6th November 2018.

    TICTeC Local is a spinoff from our global The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, which is now in its fifth successful year.

    This event will narrow the lens, focusing on where and how civic tech connects with and impacts Local Government, rather than the international focus we have with our global TICTeC events.

    We’ll be examining what works and why, the challenges and ethical decisions involved in using civic tech and how these initiatives can be replicated by local authorities around the UK.

    We’ll hear from many local authorities and civic tech practitioners in the UK and further afield who are leading the way on using technology to improve civic participation, streamline citizen interaction with public bodies, and create efficiencies in civic budgets.

    If you work in or around the local authority or local public institution space, and have an interest in using digital tools, then do come and join us in Manchester.

    You will leave inspired by some of our showcased projects, you’ll have a better understanding of the most effective digital tools, and you’ll have met interesting people who are on a similar journey, or who might be able to help you in developing your digital capacity in the future.

    We’ll be announcing speakers and contributors over the next couple of weeks.

    For further information and booking please visit the TICTeC Local website. Tickets are available over on Eventbrite and will go fast.

  3. Join us in Paris for TICTeC 2019

    We’re delighted to announce that TICTeC 2019, our fifth conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Paris on 19 and 20 March 2019.

    Stick that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.

    TICTeC is an annual milestone in the Civic Tech world, bringing together researchers, practitioners, and all those with an interest in how technology is changing the way we engage with society.

    Primarily, the goal of TICTeC is to promote and share rigorous and meaningful research into civic technologies and digital democracy around the world. The conference facilitates discussion and networking amongst individuals and groups to find real-world solutions through sharing evidence of impact, and (importantly) evidence of what doesn’t work.

    Call for Papers now open

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop at TICTeC 2019, please submit your proposals now. You have until Friday 11th January 2019.

    Register

    For the last two years TICTeC has sold out – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on Friday 8th February 2019.

    Sponsor

    If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact gemma@mysociety.org for more information.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in March in beautiful Paris! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse all the resources from this year’s TICTeC and/or watch this video overview:

    Photo by Grillot edouard on Unsplash

  4. TICTeC 2018 in Lisbon: Conference resources now online

    Back in April, we hosted the fourth edition of our research conference The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Lisbon, Portugal.

    We were thrilled to bring together 150 leaders in the field from 29 countries to take stock of the civic technology research landscape and to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using technology for social good.

    62 speakers from 19 countries covered topics such as: responsible technology; accountability keywords; blockchain; fact-checking; service delivery; bridging the civic tech research divide; working with governments; impact measurement; open contracting; amongst many, many others. Thank you to everyone involved for sharing your experiences and research.

    If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), do check out the TICTeC website to see videos of all conference sessions, interviews with delegates, photos, and slides where available.

    As a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:

    Thank you again to Google and the MacArthur Foundation for sponsoring TICTeC. We’ll keep you all posted on next year’s event over on the research mailing list and on the TICTeC Google Group.

  5. Investigating political communication in Sub-Saharan Africa

    Our recent research interests have taken myself and mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca to four Sub-Saharan countries over the last two months, where we’ve spoken to 65 individuals from 45 fascinating organisations.

    Our aim with this research is to investigate how political information around legislatures and government is produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    This information is of course particularly important for us to know as a lot of our work is helping organisations set up digital solutions to allow citizens to connect to their representatives and monitor/ask what they’re doing, as well as trying to simplify and display complex political information.

    Through this research we want to better understand political landscapes in the countries we work in to make sure the digital solutions we provide are actually of use. We hope the research will inform us, and others, about what does and doesn’t work when creating parliamentary monitoring and Right To Information websites and other Civic Technology solutions.

    We’re aiming to publish the full research report at the end of this year, but read on to hear about the research process, who we met along the way and some interesting highlights.

    So back in March Rebecca and I headed off to Abuja in Nigeria to commence the project. With help from our friends at EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) (who we’ve worked with on ShineYourEye) and through our existing contacts with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria programme we were lucky enough to meet with 20 individuals from a variety of different organisations.

    We met and interviewed representatives from: the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), The Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), The Freedom for Life Initiative, BudgIT, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Right To Know Nigeria (R2K), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and Connected Development (CODE).

    mySociety researchers outside Nigerian House of Representatives

    A particular highlight was meeting one of the members of the Nigerian House of Representatives at the National Assembly building, which for us politics nerds was very exciting (see said nerds here to the left)!

    From Abuja off we went to Kampala, Uganda. This time our friends at The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) generously helped us set up interviews with NGOs and media organisations. We work with AFIC on FOI request site AskYourGov (which uses our Alaveteli software).

    We interviewed representatives from: Parliament Watch, Galaxy FM, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), New Vision and HiveCoLab.

    One of the most interesting highlights was the discovery of the prevalence of WhatsApp Twitter Facebook (also known as WTF), or Snapchat WhatsApp Instagram Facebook Twitter (SWIFT) data bundles. These only allow users access to these social media channels, and don’t allow web browsing. These data bundles can be purchased for as little as £1 per month, and this is primarily the way that normal citizens experience the internet. Obviously this is highly relevant when we think about our partners’ sites, which might not be accessible to as wide an audience as intended.

    A quick selfie during the fireside chat we did at HiveCoLab, Kampala.

    After a brief interlude which included organising and hosting our annual research conference TICTeC (phew!), we were back on the road again. This time to Nairobi.

    We were lucky enough to have very interesting conversations with representatives from the following organisations: Kictanet, iHub, Sovereign Oversight, World Wide Web Foundation, Africa’s Voice Foundation, International Budget Partnership (IBP), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Mzalendo Trust, Katiba Institute, Local Development Research Institute (LDRI), The Elephant and The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA).

    A particular highlight was speaking to one of the lawyers who wrote Kenya’s 2010 constitution (again, hugely exciting for politics geeks!). And who knew that the maximum number of participants in a WhatsApp group is 256? Not us, but everyone we spoke to did! WhatsApp is a huge vector of information in Kenya, including news content and political discussions.

    A researcher’s life: waiting in cafés for the next interviewees 🙂

    Our final destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Our amazing partners at Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) very generously arranged a great mixture of interviews for us and even took us on a tour of the South African parliament.

    During our time in Cape Town we interviewed: a parliamentary researcher, journalists from The Daily Maverick, the Goedgedacht Forum, My Vote Counts, PMG, Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), OpenUp, Black Sash, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Dullah Omar Institute and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC).

    A few of the most interesting things we discovered: mobile data is super expensive in South Africa; the proportional party list system to select representatives makes it difficult to hold politicians to account; and Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not used anywhere near as much as they are in the rest of the African countries we’ve looked at.

    The V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

    We are incredibly grateful to all of the above organisations for helping us with this field work, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and helping us with arrangements.

    So now we’re back at our desks the real work putting the report together begins. If you have any recommendations of who else Rebecca and I should talk to as part of this research then please do get in touch.

    We look forward to sharing our full research findings in our report at the end of the year!

    Header image: Flying over Mount Kilimanjaro (author’s own photo)

  6. Introducing the TICTeC 2018 keynote speakers

    We’re really looking forward to heading out to Lisbon in April, for our fourth Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) — and you will be too, once you hear who our keynote speakers are!

    Drumroll please… as we introduce:

    Martha Lane Fox

    Martha is the founder and executive chair of Doteveryone, a think tank fighting for a fairer internet. She co-founded Europe’s largest travel and leisure website, lastminute.com, with Brent Hoberman in 1998; they took it public in 2000 and sold it in 2005. In 2007 she founded her own charitable foundation Antigens and also serves as a Patron of AbilityNet, Reprieve, Camfed and Just for Kids Law.

    Martha was appointed as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords in March 2013, and was appointed Chancellor of the Open University in March 2014. In 2015 she joined the board of the Creative Industries Federation, the Scale up institute and the Open Data Institute, and became a member of the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy in 2017.

    She is a non-executive director at the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and in April 2016 was appointed as a non executive director of Twitter. She also co-founded and chairs LuckyVoice, the chain that’s revolutionising the karaoke industry in the UK.

    Professor Jonathan Fox

    Jonathan is a Professor at the American University’s School of International Service, focusing on the relationship between citizen participation, transparency and accountability, from both scholarly and practitioner perspectives.

    He has carried out extensive research in rural Mexico, and with Latino immigrant organisations in the US, conducting dialogue with a wide range of public interest groups, grassroots organisations, development agencies, private foundations and government policymakers. Jonathan’s current project? He’s launching a new “action-research incubator” at SIS: the Accountability Research Center.

    Here at mySociety, Johnathan’s research work has always been an inspiration. If you’re not familiar with his work we can recommend a short reading list:

    And if you’d like to read more about Jonathan and his work, you can visit his blog.

    Fancy speaking at TICTeC? There’s still time to apply

    Our Call for Papers is open until 2nd February, so do submit a proposal if you’d like to join Martha and Jonathan on the bill.

    We’re looking for session proposals that focus on the specific impacts of Civic Technologies, rather than showcase new tools that are as yet untested.

    We will prioritise proposals that can demonstrate data or evidence of how Civic Technology has been impactful in some way. We encourage presentations that examine negative results as well as research evidencing positive outcomes!

    So if you have research to share, then do submit your proposal here.

    Join us

    If your work touches on Civic Technology and open government, and you need a fast-track to understanding what works and what doesn’t, you’ll want to join us in Lisbon. Previous attendees attest that time spent with others in the sector has been every bit as useful as the conference itself — we make sure there’s plenty of time in the evenings for socialising. Roll that in with the lovely location, and you have a package that’s both professionally rewarding, and a lot of fun too. Register to attend here.

    Early bird tickets are available until 9th March, which provide a 50% discount on regularly priced tickets.

    Past TICTeCs have sold out, so do make sure you book in early!

  7. Introducing OPRAmachine: tackling political corruption in New Jersey

    The latest installation of our Alaveteli software, OPRAmachine, is an interesting new use of the platform. Rather than covering a whole country, as most of the other Alaveteli installations around the world do, it services just a single US state.

    OPRAmachine, which launched in October, allows citizens to request information from state and local governmental agencies in New Jersey, under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

    We asked Gavin Rozzi, the local journalist who has built and runs OPRAmachine, about the site and its impacts so far:

    Why did you decide to set up OPRAmachine?

    I developed an interest in New Jersey’s Freedom of Information law in the course of my work as an independent journalist. I created OPRAmachine because there is a void in our state for a statewide Freedom of Information portal.

    Historically, New Jersey has gained a reputation as a state with excessive spending on state and local government, along with an enduring “culture” of political corruption, as defined by The New York Times.

    I have found that in all too many cases, a lack of transparency and compliance with OPRA disclosure requirements has gone hand in hand with instances of government mismanagement and corruption at the state and local level, some of which have been publicised over the years.

    While working in my capacity as an independent journalist, I began making extensive use of the OPRA law in order to study the activities of local governments in New Jersey. I became very familiar with the process and the how the law is effective at bringing about vitally needed transparency through the right it gives citizens to obtain public records.

    (more…)

  8. Join us in Lisbon for TICTeC 2018

    It’s official: TICTeC 2018, our fourth conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Lisbon, Portugal, on 18 and 19 April 2018.

    Stick that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.

    TICTeC is known for its unique focus on the impacts of Civic Technologies: it’s a safe place to examine what works, what doesn’t, and how best to measure that. And the culture of TICTeC — where funders mix with practitioners, activists converse with researchers, small NGOs get as much attention as the big players — tends to create new sparks: partnerships, ideas, synergies and friendships.

    Call for Papers now open

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop, please submit your proposals now. You have until 2nd February 2018.

    Register

    For the last two years TICTeC has sold out – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a 50% discount, so it’s well worth registering before they run out!

    Sponsor

    If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact gemma@mysociety.org for more information.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in April! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse highlights from TICTeC 2017 and from our recent special TICTeC event in Taipei.

  9. A successful first year – how Transparencia launched with a splash

    A year ago, we helped Belgian group Anticor launch the Alaveteli site for Belgium, Transparencia.be, and so far it’s been an incredible success. Since launch, the site’s had almost 60,000 visitors and over 375,000 page views— that’s unusually high for an FOI site in its infancy — and they’ve even brought about a change in local FOI law. So how exactly have Anticor achieved so much in such a short time?

    We chatted to Claude, a key member of the Transparencia team, to learn more, and the first thing we discovered was that the stellar visitor numbers were actually news to him. That might give us a clue as to one factor in their success: they’ve been far too busy to check their site analytics!

    Fortunately we keep track of traffic on all our partners’ sites (where we have permission to do so), and we were glad to be able to pass on the good news. That done, we were keen to ask what exactly brought so many people to the site — and to see what tips other Alaveteli sites might be able to pick up so that they can enjoy the same level of success. (more…)

  10. Join the GLOW: run a Wikidata workshop in your country

    Global Legislative Openness Week (GLOW) celebrates open, participatory legislative processes across the globe.

    Back in 2015 we marked GLOW by setting up a challenge: could we get politician data for 200 countries up on EveryPolitician within the week, with the help of the global community? The answer was a resounding yes, and the challenge was a massive success. We ended up with data for 201 countries in the end, thanks to help from awesome people from all over the world.

    This year, we’re running another challenge: to get as many Wikidata workshops focusing on political data to happen during GLOW as possible.

    Fancy helping with this challenge? Read on…

    Why?

    This is all part of our Wikidata/EveryPolitician project.

    The project aims to improve political data in Wikidata, so that it can be used more easily for projects, research or investigations that hold politicians to account. Examples of where good political data is vital include in parliament-tracking websites (like in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ukraine) and in cross-border journalistic investigations (like the Panama Papers).

    Providing this data in consistent and structured formats across countries means the people running these accountability projects spend less of their time gathering the data and more on actually using and interpreting it, to keep tabs on those in power. This project is all part of our mission to contribute to the Democratic Commons.

    One of the best ways to improve and use political data on Wikidata is to get people together in person to work on their country’s data. So, that’s the aim with this latest GLOW challenge, and we’d love for as many groups around the world to host Wikidata workshops as possible!

    The aim of these Wikidata workshops is to:

    • Improve political information in Wikidata so that developers, researchers and journalists (or anyone!) can use the data in their investigations and accountability projects.
    • Use and query existing political data in Wikidata to see what interesting questions can be answered when data is available in consistent and structured formats.

    Workshop attendees will go away with:

    • Increased knowledge of how Wikidata works and how to contribute to it
    • A better understanding of why good political data is so vital and how it can be used
    • New connections to the global community of people who care about accountability issues
    • A warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that they’ve helped with the global accountability movement 😉 (We hope so anyway!)

    Not sure what such an event might look like? Read up on our recent Wikifying Westminster workshop: it really showed us how much can be done when a few people get together in a room.

    Funding and support available

    Thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re able to offer some support to individuals/groups who are interested in running Wikidata workshops like these during GLOW. This will differ on a case by case basis but includes:

    • A small amount of funding to help cover event costs
    • A review of your country’s existing political information in Wikidata and some pointers about possible next steps
    • Ideas for how you and your attendees can:
      a) Use the data for interesting research and projects, and
      b) Improve the data for future research queries/projects
    • In-person support during your event – if you’d like one of our EveryPolicitian/Wikidata team to come to your event to present and participate, we can do this (if our budget allows!)
    • Access to a dedicated Slack channel which connects you with other groups around the world who are also running events during GLOW.

    Workshops can take place at any time within GLOW week, which is from 20th-30th November 2017 (yes, that is a long week!).

    Get involved!

    So, if you’d like to be part of this global challenge to improve and use political information in Wikidata, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please do get in touch: gemma@mysociety.org