Researching in an unstable environment
It’s been nearly two years since the InfoLib Liberia project with iLab Liberia started. In that time the project has faced many hurdles, some predicted, and some completely unforeseen.
The iLab team have seen their country devastated by Ebola, only 11 years after the end of their second civil war, bringing tragedy and instability along with it. As you can probably imagine, the impact of curfews, fear and death in communities has made it difficult for people to continue with their daily lives. The social impact of such a disease is wide-reaching. Distrust, marginalisation and exclusion can be directed at those who show symptoms, or even who suffered and survived.
These are challenges that our local partners have had to contend with every day, both when holding training sessions and more crucially when researching the impact of the project on people’s lives.
However, by far the largest hurdle for this particular project has been a mixture of low internet penetration and lack of government will to release information. The team on the ground have been working tirelessly to create an ecosystem of requesting and training Public Information Officers (PIOs) to reply – even providing them with tablets to scan documents without needing electricity, let alone a computer. But if those officers have no access to the information that has been requested, their jobs become virtually impossible.
The project is now drawing to a close and we’re undertaking our final research survey. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what we’ve learnt about the impact of our joint Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
When designing the project we decided that impact could best be measured in terms of whether or not the project increased confidence in government transparency.
We carried out surveys in January 2016 and April 2016, to provide a baseline picture and then an assessment of impact at midline. The final survey is being conducted in August 2016 just as the project ends.
The first survey – the baseline – was carried out mainly in the rural areas. iLab Liberia teamed up with LFIC to survey 152 participants who had been involved in the FOI workshops that LFIC had held in the counties.
We had to attempt the second survey twice, as it turned out to be more challenging than we’d expected. We needed the participants from the first questionnaire to answer the same questions we’d asked them initially, in order to measure change — but it proved hard to locate all of them.
There were many factors which caused this, but the main one was economic drivers, forcing people to move to where the opportunities are. It’s a problem many researchers must run into working in the field.
Carter, the project lead at iLab Liberia told us:
“There are several reasons why this happens […]. People migrate a lot between markets, farms. Several persons who participated in the baseline could not be reached as they [had] travelled to other cities/counties. [Or] the job that allowed them to reside in that city/county is no longer available so they might have left seeking after another job.”
Our second attempt was more successful. We managed to contact a large percentage of the original participants in the survey: 112 of the 152.
We’ve found out some interesting things from doing this research. We saw that 74% of people who use the internet daily say it’s their main source of information, though it is still only a small percentage of the population who have access to the internet.
So the next biggest source of information? Radio! 85% of people with with no access to the internet give radio as their main source of information. Thinking of the migration of workers between cities and counties – you suddenly appreciate why Radio is such an important medium for getting hold of information. Thankfully, as you’ll remember from our original blog post, we’re covering both of these media in the InfoLib project.
In the months since we began studying the impact of this project we also learned that fear of making a request has dropped by 5% in the individuals surveyed . The amount of people who reported that they didn’t know how to ask for information dropped from 24% to 21%. This is pretty great news to us as it shows that our training and our encouragement is working – albeit slowly.
Finally we saw the percentage of people who believe government would be more transparent if citizens could see the information they hold rise by 3% to 93% of the surveyed respondents. Even if this figure hadn’t risen, this demonstrates a clear existing demand from the citizens of Liberia for the Government to release more information about its activities which is great news overall!
No project is without its challenges, and as you’ve seen above one of the big ones is ensuring that the same people respond from survey to survey. Not being able to pin down precisely the same set of people means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that we have a true measure in the difference in attitude.
As a result of the economic and social drivers mentioned above, the workforce in Liberia is very transient. This makes disseminating information through radio and internet mediums even more important. This research has shown that these are the primary sources of news and official information for the majority of Liberians, and continuing to improve knowledge about, and access to, information via these sources will empower the population further.
Finally, it can be challenging to demonstrate impact in projects like these, simply because research is not the main focus for our local partners. We partner with local groups because they are passionate, capable, and able to engage and mobilise citizens around a certain issue. We cannot expect small grassroots groups to have the resources or experience to conduct academic surveying, sampling or interviewing that could detect and definitively isolate the short term impact of a small project. This piece of research has provided some encouraging interim results, but most of all, it has provided valuable lessons to us at mySociety in trying to conduct this kind of impact research remotely and in partnership.
While we wait for the outcome of the final survey we can feel cautiously hopeful that this project has caused a small change in the way access to information operates in Liberia. infoLib will continue to run after the project officially ends, and mySociety will continue to support the work that iLab does in this area . However it may take longer than we had expected or hoped, to see the governmental shift towards releasing information.
Costa Rica will soon be holding elections, voting in mayors and local representatives for each canton — the equivalent of county level. Traditionally these elections have a low turnout — around 20% of the population — and very few people know who the candidates are.
Indeed, voters tend not to be very informed about the differences in role between councillors, representatives and mayors. As a result, many simply vote for family members, friends or people they know who are standing, rather than the issues the parties are campaigning about.
Technology to the rescue
Can technology help? You may remember YourNextMP, the crowdsourcing software which gathered details of every single candidate in the UK, prior to our own General Election last year.
That’s now been made available, as YourNextRepresentative, for international usage. Costa Rican version TusRepresentantesLocales launched a couple of weeks ago as a joint initiative between Accesa and mySociety.
Canton elections are a relatively recent institution in Costa Rica; the first Mayor was elected in 1998 and the February 2016 election will be the first time that all three positions go to ballot on the same day!
Accesa’s goal is to share knowledge about these elections to improve the turnout and have a more informed voter population.
As you may remember from YourNextMP, the data is mainly gathered via crowdsourcing — asking the general public to add verified information from news stories, political parties’ websites, etc. YourNextRepresentative works the same way.
Accesa will work with students from the Political Sciences school, community youth groups and in harder to reach cantons, such as the ones bordering Nicaragua, local government members.
Accesa also want provide something for the candidates that no one else provides: candidates are looking for more coverage of their work around the election — especially the representative candidates because there is generally more focus on the mayoral ones. TusRepresentantesLocales will give them a platform.
Manfred Vargas from Accesa says:
“One of the main challenges that Costa Rican democracy currently faces has to do with how to strengthen public interest in local elections and local governments.
The abstention rates in past local elections have been incredibly high and most citizens don’t even know who their mayors or councillors are. This year, for the first time, elections for all local positions will be consolidated in one single electoral process that will take place on February 7th, and there’s been a big push to make sure that citizens realise that their municipalities really do matter and their vote counts.
This site is our contribution to this effort and we believe strongly in it because it accomplishes two very important goals: it lets citizens know who their candidates are, and, by virtue of being a collective effort, it encourages citizen engagement and participation in the electoral process”.
We wish them luck for the elections and can’t wait to see the outcome!
On January 8th Liberia launched their new Freedom of Information platform, infoLib, based on our Alaveteli software — not just by pressing a button to put the site live, but with a public event that reached many sectors of society.
The launch was a great success: it was attended by representatives from groups including university students, government ministries and NGOs, each of which will be able to use the site for their own needs.
The Liberian Government and many of the country’s NGOs are excited about infoLib’s ability to monitor when requests come in and to ensure that they are replied to on time.
Attendees expressed happiness with the platform and excitement about what it means for Liberia. Many have said they’re more optimistic that requests will be answered, now that there is a clear, transparent way to scrutinise the government.
The event featured a Q&A session about compliance and functionality: the many questions from the audience were answered by the newly trained Public Information Officers as well as the team from iLab.
So what’s next?
Focus is on driving usage; iLab will be accompanying the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition on their nationwide tour talking about FOI.
In our last post, we talked about how the site is attempting to reach the country’s offline population as well as those who have internet access. On tour, the team will take requests from users, either on paper or directly onto the site if there’s an internet connection.
Growing usage of the site will be a slow process. While there’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s all very new and people want to see proof that it works — so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the coming months.
In addition to this, iLab are going to be running FOI surgeries on community radio stations in the counties and Monrovia. People will have the opportunity to phone in and make an FOI request, and the answers to previous FOI requests will be shared.
Finally we’ll be working on training up the last PIOs and building their skills to give them the best chance to answer requests promptly, online, and with the relevant information.
Everything’s going to plan so far, and there are many aspects of this launch that people launching Alaveteli sites in the future can learn from. Thanks for sharing your progress, iLab, and best of luck as you go into the next phase of your journey.
Are you thinking of setting up a site using one of these codebases?
If so, you should know that you can apply for our help with development, hosting, and support. Hurry, though: the cut-off date for the next round of applications is 31 January.
Due to our own limited resources, we can’t offer help to every potential project — but if you can show that your planned project will be useful, viable, and resourced for the long term, you’ll stand a very good chance.
Start by reading more about what partnership with mySociety means, and then, if that sounds right for you, you can fill in the application form here.
Next time you sit down at your computer to find out some information, remember that things aren’t quite so simple everywhere.
A new Freedom of Information website launches in Liberia today, hoping for success despite the fact that many in the country have little or no access to the internet. If the idea of running an email-based requesting system under such circumstances sounds slightly ambitious, read on to see just how iLab Liberia will make it work, in collaboration with the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition, and funded by the Making All Voices Count project.
The Liberia Freedom of Information Request Platform – InfoLib – is the latest site to use our Alaveteli software. Like all Alaveteli sites, it will send requests for information to public authorities by email, while publishing both the requests and the responses online. In time, responses build into a public archive of information.
Online services, offline
So how do you run a site like this in a country with low internet penetration? With a little ingenuity and a knowledge of which effective networks already exist, it seems.
The project will make use of an existing network of regional offices and training centres, set up by the Carter Centre and LFIC. In these hubs, staff have been trained up to submit and receive requests on behalf of citizens, and citizens have attended workshops on how FOI can benefit them. There’s no need for users to have access to a computer, or an understanding of how to use a website — there will be staff who can do it on their behalf.
And they’ve also spent time training the Public Information Officers, or PIOs, on the use of technology to make responding to requests easier. iLab are also providing a similar service within Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where they already run successful computer and ICT training programmes for interested citizens.
We’ve seen this offline-to-online approach with other projects. At the AlaveteliCon conference we heard from people running Alaveteli sites in Rwanda and Uganda, also areas with low internet access, and we’ve experimented in the past with a similar system to allow people to make FixMyStreet reports via SMS texts to a central office.
In Liberia, almost everyone has access to a radio. Community radio stations are a part of daily life, and the main source of news for many.
iLab Liberia will be putting out regular radio segments, explaining what FOI is and how you can use your rights under Liberian law to access information. They’ll also highlight the most interesting information that’s been released through the site. This approach should see FOI become an increasingly familiar topic, a right that everyone understands and knows that they have access to.
We wish InfoLib the best of luck — and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how these initiatives work out.
About 6 weeks ago we arrived back from Monrovia, having just undertaken our first design exercise out there. Paul wrote about our experience in this blog as a broad overview. After further long distance design calls we wanted to delve a little more deeply into the process we’re following and what we’re learning about it.
To begin with, I should mention is that this is the first project where mySociety International will be leading on the implementation of a project using Design Thinking (the South African was a trial using a cut-down version of the approach and furthermore the implementation is being carried out solely by a local team).
Another important point for us is that the Design Thinking approach encompasses far more than just thinking about software development. The aim of the process is to develop an understanding what is required to ensure that the users’ need is addressed. Some of the solution might be technical, but much is likely to be about the processes and people that are required to ensure that needs are met.
For example, in the case of the Liberian FOI project where the internet penetration is low and the day to day obstacles people need to overcome are significantly more difficult than in the global north, a large proportion of the project time and resources will be dedicated to delivering offline services.
These provision of these services will tend to take a shape that fits into citizens’ current experiences. An example might be setting up an SMS short-code that allows people to contact a support team to call them back, in order to draft an FOI request on their behalf. They will then physically deliver hard copies of those FOI requests to the relevant ministries in Monrovia. This type of solution could be particularly beneficial for people who live outside the capital and do not have the time or resources to travel there to submit requests directly themselves.
There are two critical differences between the Design Thinking approach and other projects we have run with groups in the past. The first is that, with non-design centred partnerships, most groups start the process with a firm sense of the “type” of thing that they want from the outset – for example an instance of our Pombola platform that is used to power Mzalendo.com.
This is totally understandable, and in many cases what the funders of these projects are looking for, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the users will get the most impactful solution.
Where we have sufficient funding to undertake this process available we intend for all of our new international projects to be starting with no expectations about the ultimate product – the outcome might even be that we don’t end up producing any software at all, because the best solution might consist of a desk, a phone and some radio advertising.
The second difference is that we have usually relied upon the local implementing partner to provide the insight and define the specification.
For our Design Thinking based projects we’ll have a closer relationship with the local partner and together we’ll identify potential end user groups we can talk to about their needs.
After doing a first round of in-depth interviews, the team then synthesise the information – essentially sharing what we’ve learnt with the rest of the group to pick out the most important points. The next stage is empathy mapping, where we figure out what people have said, thought, felt and done. This is a key stage in helping to identify the needs of the users.
It might seem simpler to ask them what they need, and often we did say something like “What would make this process easier for you?”. Yet actually analysing what they’re saying about the process and at what points they seemed frustrated or blocked – that tells us a lot more about points where we could change and hopefully improve the process than a straight up “What do you need?” question.
This is the stage we’re in at the moment with the Liberian project, though we have done some brief forays into Ideation – coming up with ideas for how to address the needs, and we are now starting to thinking about prototyping these ideas.
Of course, this method doesn’t mean we’ll completely stop using software solutions, or looking at A/B testing and Analytics as measures of the success of website. However we will also be looking at other measures of success or failure based on the product we’re building and the change we’re trying to achieve.
In the case of the Liberia FOI project, many of the users are likely to have no direct contact with the software themselves so we’ll need to design a monitoring system that measures the effect the changes have on their experience of making FOI requests.
One thing we’ve learnt is that a Design Thinking approach doesn’t only affect the first iteration of a solution. This may seem obvious, but from our brief work with this process we’ve seen that uses/users can be hard to predict at the outset – though in the case of the latter group we worked hard to spread the net widely in order to find potential users in Liberia.
So we’re interested to see, when we get to that point, what the prototype testing brings back and what new changes, improvements and tweaks need to be made.
More about our experiences with this process will be shared the lifetime of the project, as we learn, change and iterate ourselves.
On our second monthly Alaveteli hangout, Henare Degan from the OpenAustralia Foundation led the discussion. The Australian team running Right To Know had some great experience to share from the Detention Logs group’s use of their site, and we can only thank them for volunteering to chair our chat.
This month we had groups running sites in Hungary, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Australia and the UK on the call. This allowed us to gather interesting perspectives on different site promotion techniques – from sites that have recently started and sites that have been running for a while.
Did you know, for example, that internet TV was so popular in Ukraine during the Winter Uprising that the promotional video for the Ukrainian Alaveteli instance was watched by over 20,000 people?
That’s the kind of thing we love learning from people running FOI sites in different countries. We’re lucky to be a part of a community where people are willing to talk candidly about their experiences. Especially when some might be as tricky as the ones Hungary are facing, with a series of increasingly obstructive laws being put into place.
We saw that Australia and Hungary have something in common: a number of requests come from journalists or activists, as opposed to in Ukraine where people make requests through the site because they’re simply glad to have a place to ask the authorities for help.
The Czech team told us that they’re pleased with the level of government responsiveness to questions through their site, which has recently topped the 2,500 request mark.
We heard about different methods groups are using to promote their sites; from promoting specific requests on Facebook in the Czech Republic, to linking up with journalists and FOI activists to seed the Right To Know site with requests before launch, to the Ukraine media coverage, both using internet TV and short film documentaries.
And a fun idea from a Czech NGO that the Informace pro všechny team are working with: an Open/Not Open competition with Awards for the most open government departments or public bodies. As they mentioned, there aren’t many awards in the public sector and recognition of public bodies’ efforts may encourage further public bodies to open up.
Finally we spoke about sharing the outcomes of some research work that mySociety is doing around Alaveteli and FOI. We also decided that sharing statistics on rates of requests and other such quantitative data might help the community, so we’ll look at the data mySociety is collecting and try and figure out the best way to share that.
The hackpad is here if you want to see our notes from the meeting!
We’ll have our next call in September, and will hopefully be putting information out on the two mailing lists about how to attend and what topics we might cover.
June 23rd saw the soft launch of an innovative new tool that uses a Poplus Component as an integral part. It’s called Nouabook.ma and allows constituents in Morocco to contact their elected representatives, either through the website or while logged in to Facebook.
Nouabook is built on top of the WriteIt Poplus Component developed by Ciudadano Inteligente and connects into Facebook, one of the most used websites in Morocco. The group behind the site are SimSim-Participation Citoyenne and developer Tarik Nesh-Nash.
This is an exciting time for the whole Poplus network. The community has been going from strength to strength since the conference in April, and this tool, the first built by an external group using a Poplus Component, is a real sign that it is beginning to spread its wings.
And of course, because all Poplus Components are open-source, Nouabook is available for any other group to use! An exciting prospect as social media is such an important tool for communication in today’s society.
How did this project come about?
To decide the right approach, SimSim and Tarik conducted surveys of citizens throughout Morocco to find out how many had ever contacted their representatives. The results showed that of 80 respondents, 81% had never written to their representative. Yet 73% said that if it was easier to get in touch, they would be more likely to contact their representative, on issues ranging from public transport to security at Moroccan universities.
Couple this thirst for communication with the fact that Facebook is one of the most popular websites in Morocco , and the idea for Nouabook.ma was born.
Nouabook.ma (meaning “Your Deputies” in Moroccan Arabic, but also a reference to the well known Facebook) allows users to find their representative, read a profile on them including their roles and responsibilities, and see their activity in Parliament. Most crucially, it also allows users to publicly put questions directly to their representatives, who can respond equally publicly on the site. A user can submit a question either by filling in a short form, or uploading a short video. Other users can vote on their questions, meaning the representative can quickly see which questions are most important for their constituents and prioritise their answers. For those who have authorised it, the question is posted automatically to their Facebook page. By enabling users to easily share questions and responses on their own timeline, this helps to spread information beyond the boundaries of the original Nouabook.ma site.
The site is currently in Beta and a small group of very engaged hand-picked representatives have signed up for the site. Of these, there are 4 or 5 who are already getting very involved answering questions, which is a huge success for the site. Once the pilot phase is over, the hope is to extend the platform to cover the whole Moroccan Parliament, so keep your eyes peeled for news come the next Parliamentary session in October.
So far the site is only in French, but if you read French and want to give some feedback there’s a short form here which will help the team with their next stage of development. The site will soon be in Arabic as well.
Tablet Picture by ebayink courtesy of Flickr and the creative commons license.
On Wednesday we had our first community virtual hangout for Alaveteli. The idea of a drop-in virtual meeting was inspired by meeting community members in person over the last few months.
Louise visited AskTheEU in Madrid and mySociety’s International Team spent time with community members from Australia, Spain, Canada and many other countries at Transparency Camp. Henare’s session with David Cabo and Michael Morisy from MuckRock on FOIA at Transparency Camp provided an inspirational opportunity to talk more with the people running Alaveteli sites.
We wanted to have a regular time where we could share experiences of running FOI sites in general and installing the Alaveteli software in particular. Though everyone that joined was running an Alaveteli install, we’d love for people interested in running a site or who already run a site using different software to join future hangouts! Your experiences could shed light on issues that people might be having, and vice versa.
It was great to learn from groups in Romania, Canada, Norway, Australia and New Zealand. We had representatives from three new or fairly new installs as well as sites like Right To Know and FYI.Nz which have been running for a couple of years, each with their own stories of success and pinch points where things have been more difficult.
What did we learn?
First off, we have a great, open community that’s happy to discuss problems, suggest solutions and speak about what it’s like to run an FOI site in their countries. So thank you for that!
Despite differences in laws across the world, people do face similar issues in driving awareness of FOI and FOIA sites. People share ideas for positioning FOI sites came up such as using them to investigate specific issues that are current and getting a lot of press. For example the issue of detention logs in Australia (which you can see more of here and here) helped Right To Know raise more awareness of both the FOI law and the site. According to Henare:
“The news buzz made people realise they had FOI rights, which isn’t general knowledge in Australia. They started thinking “oh, I could put in a request about X””
The next hangout will be in around a month and we’re going to set an agenda to talk about different ways to increase usage and awareness of FOI sites, what has worked, and what hasn’t. All details will be posted on the google group, please join if you want to attend!
We also got some great feedback on places where we can support people launching and running an Alaveteli install – by making it easier to make a complete set of translations for a particular release of the software, and by making the process of upgrading to a new version easier in general. All this input is really useful to us, especially as we’re currently updating the documentation on Alaveteli.org to make it easier to get started.
Finally we touched on the alaveteli-users google group as a place where people can share their issues, stories and successes, and get input from other FOI practitioners. It’s useful for tapping into the expertise of teams in other timezones! This seemed like a pretty decent plan when it was mentioned, do let us know what you think!
Last week mySociety turned 10! And to start this blog we want to say a huge THANK YOU to everyone who sent photos, tweets and emails with birthday messages.
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With no further ado here are a selection of your lovely smiling faces. (There were a few of you so please check out all the pictures are on Flickr !!)
The team from KuvakaZim 🙂
The e-democracy.org team!
Hindol from WhyPoll
Daniel and Fabrizio from DATAuy
And all the rest of you. We appreciate your messages so very much.
As the last round up of the year, over the past month we’ve seen the launch of KuvakaZim, we’ve almost completed a Pombola site for South Africa and Alaveteli for Uganda (Launch is due for both of these sites in January). There are also versions of Alaveteli being worked on in Italy, Macedonia, Croatia and Bulgaria which are working towards launch in the first half of next year, so it’s been pretty busy.
As a side note Uganda have entered the AskYourGov site into the Making All Voices Count global innovation competition if you’re interested in taking a look and voting!
In FixMyStreet news, the team from DATAuy are also working with the local government in Montevideo on a FixMyStreet for Uruguay. We’re really excited to see this working because they’re also looking at mobilising the local offline communities. It will be a really interesting experiment and I can’t wait to see the site up and running.
Finally I wanted to say Feliz Navidad, Joyeux Noel, Frohliche Weihnachten, Sretan Bozic, Buon Natale and
أتمنى لكم عيد ميلاد مجيد
Regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I hope you get to spend some time with the people you love this holiday season! Happy Holidays!