1. June Monthnotes from the Climate Programme

    It’s the end of June already and we’re now over half way through the year, the solstice has passed and the days are starting to get shorter! Since the start of April the Climate team have been in a whirl of prototyping weeks which has made time feel like it’s speeding past at a high rate.

    So what have we done this month?

    Trialing Github projects

    Being an open source technical organisation, mySociety does a lot of its development work in GitHub, but on the Climate team we were using a mixture of Trello, spreadsheets and documents to track our priorities and progress. Having everything spread across so many places was causing the team confusion when it came to updating on progress and figuring out which tasks were the next most important.

    So, at the start of June we switched to trialling GitHub’s Projects feature. This seems to answer a lot of our needs right now – everything is in one place, we can use status labels to track the progress on the project and add custom ones which relate to project milestones. It has the bonus effect that we’re not doubling up work by having the same tickets in GitHub and Trello. We’re only two sprints in so far, so still early days but we’re hopeful this might be a simpler way of working.

    Prototyping weeks

    There’s only been one prototyping week in June: A fair transition. This was a tough week as it was such a broad subject and it was difficult to work out what exactly would be most useful for us to work on. This is what we came up with.

    We’ve also been planning for Week 5 – Energy efficiency for rental homes which takes place from 5 -11 July. There’s still time to apply if you’re interested in joining us on this one!

    Communications

    It’s been a busy month for Communications – we’ve put together a pitch for MG OMD, the global marketing agency that will be volunteering their time for us through the Weston Communicating Climate training programme that Myf, our Communications Manager, has been following. It gives us the opportunity to have a big agency input into our plans and maybe give us ideas for new ways of reaching people.

    Myf has also been working on some case studies – one from Sustain and one from Green Finance Institute. They’ll really help to highlight why the climate action plan data we have is so important to making positive change on reducing local climate emissions.

    Data

    Alex has been working hard on our data ecosystem and we now have the local authority data up in a better format. You can find it here: https://mysociety.github.io/uk_local_authority_names_and_codes/

    Events planning

    Finally we’ve been working on events. We have our first Prototyping Show and Tell on Friday 1 July from 2pm – 3:30pm BST: do drop us a line to be added to the event if you want to come along and hear all about how prototyping works and what we’ve found.

    We’ve also started looking at our September event, Innovations in Climate Change, which will be held on September 21 2022 on Zoom. We’re super excited about this and our aim is to bring together local councils, international actors and technology people to share their tech based climate change projects and hopefully inspire some new work to reduce local climate emissions. If any of that sounds like you, sign up to present or keep your eyes peeled for an Eventbrite page to register your attendance.

     

    Image: Natosha Benning

  2. Innovations in climate tech: global inspiration for local climate action

    Call for speakers

    Are you using digital technology or data to tackle the climate emergency at a local level?

    If so, the world needs to know! Come and help spark inspiration by showcasing your project in front of an international audience on September 21, via Zoom.

    At mySociety, we’ve been making our own services, bringing our expertise of data and civic tech together to create online tools that empower citizens and councils to act on climate. We’re focusing on climate action at the local government level, because we believe this is the area where effective change can most easily be made — see more on our Climate page.

    Now we want to share what we’ve made, and hear about your work too. In the spirit of open data and collaboration, we want to help create ideas, inspiration and even partnerships that will amplify the effect of all our work in this area.

    What we’re looking for

    • Are you working on an emissions reduction project with a local council, using digital technology?
    • Perhaps you’re a data journalist, bringing change by writing stories that interrogate the data around climate change.
    • Or you might be working for a campaigning organisation that uses tech like crowdsourcing or location-based digital services to accelerate climate action.

    If your ideas are new, innovative or outside the box, so much the better!

    Speakers will have a ten minute slot to present their work, followed by a Q&A from an audience made up of civic tech practitioners, council staff and others working around climate.

    Sounds good? Sign up here before August 5 and we’ll get back to you by August 26 to let you know if you’ve been selected.

    Image: CJ Dayrit

  3. Your chance to test out Projects, our newest tool for FOI

    Are you investigating, researching or gathering large quantities of data through Freedom of Information requests? Perhaps you’re a journalist, academic or NGO. We’re looking people based in the UK who’d like to try out our new ‘Projects’ feature for WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    Projects allows you to crowdsource the extraction of data from multiple (or batch) FOI requests made to multiple authorities. You can set up a project with a brief description of what it is and what you are hoping to achieve, and some tasks that volunteers can complete to help you with this aim (like categorising responses, or answering questions about the data released).

    Once that’s done, you can set it up to invite volunteers, who can help you to extract all the information you need from the released responses.

    You’ll be able to download your volunteers’ input as a spreadsheet, meaning analysis of the data is much quicker and easier — so you can get on with the task of forming conclusions and writing up your findings.

    What we’ll need from you

    Projects is still in its nascent stage, so we need feedback from our testers. This will help us improve the service and tailor it to users’ needs, based on real life use cases.

    Right now, we handle the setup and importing of the requests you want to work on manually (that is, our developers have to do it) — but we’re working on improving this aspect, and your feedback will be crucial in shaping the direction our development takes. We’re also looking for general comments, once you’ve used the service, on what’s useful and what’s missing; what you tried to do but couldn’t, and what made things easier for you.

    If this sounds interesting, please get in touch at pro_team@whatdotheyknow.com. We look forward to hearing from you!

    Image: Jessica Lee

  4. Want to run an Alaveteli site? The time is now

    We have the opportunity to help one organisation in Europe set up and run their own Freedom of Information website. Could you be that organisation?

    The background

    Thanks to ongoing funding from Adessium, we’ve been working with a number of partners right across Europe to set up new Alaveteli websites, and upgrade existing ones with the Pro functionality. The ultimate aim is to increase the quality, quantity and simplicity of European and cross-border Freedom of Information based investigations.

    So far we’ve helped organisations in France and Netherlands to launch their own sites, and we’ve added Pro to AskTheEU, Belgium, Sweden and Czechia.

    Now we have space to provide technical help and support for one more organisation who would like to launch their own brand new Alaveteli site.

    What would that involve?

    Running an Alaveteli website is no light undertaking, we’ll be the first to admit it. While we can help you with all the technicalities of getting the site up and launched, there is an ongoing commitment for the recipient organisation, who will need to factor in significant time to administer it, moderate content and help users.

    On the plus side, we have masses of experience that will get you set off on the right footing; we’ll do most of the technical stuff for you; and there’s a global community of other people running Alaveteli sites who are always quick to offer friendly advice when you need it.

    OK, sounds good – can we apply?

    There’s just one important detail: we’re looking for organisations in European countries or jurisdictions where there isn’t already an existing Alaveteli site. Take a quick look at our deployments page to see whether your country is already on the list.

    That’s the main requirement — but there are also a few details that the ideal organisation would fulfil.

    • So that you understand the service you’d be offering to citizens, you’d already have transparency or freedom of information as a remit or strand of your work
    • You might include some people with at least some basic technical or coding skills amongst your workforce;
    • You’ll have a source of income (or plans for how to secure one) that will allow you to keep running the site after we’ve got you all set up.

    We’re looking to start work in April, with a probable build phase that would take us to December 2021. All work is conducted remotely, and we’d have regular check-ins with you via video call to keep you updated.

    We’d then give you all the support you needed in the first few months after your site’s launch, then from March 2022, you’d be all set to take the training wheels off — although, as we say, we and the rest of the Alaveteli community would be around to offer help and advice on an ongoing basis.

    Right, that’s everything — so it only remains to say that if you’re still interested, please get in touch to have an initial chat. Or, if you know any organisations that might be a good fit for this opportunity, please send them the link to this post.

    Alaveteli sites launched or upgraded in 2020

    Banner image: Gia Oris

  5. ARG! What have we done

    That’s ARG as in ‘Anti-Racism Group’ — not exactly a backronym, but we definitely didn’t object to having this internal mySociety committee named after a cry of exasperation and frustration. The subject matter certainly warrants it.

    Like many other organisations, we were inspired to make changes in response to the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for action this summer, sparked by the death of George Floyd. In mid-July we stated mySociety’s commitment to anti-racism and formed a working group, open to all employees to attend.

    In many respects this has operated in the same way as our less snappily-titled Climate Action Group: fortnightly meetings in which members discuss and prioritise issues, educating ourselves and formulating policy to share with the organisation as a whole.

    There’s plenty to tackle, from staff culture to HR and employment practices, the demographics who use our services and the research that still needs to be done. In all of these the question is the same: how can we do better to support other lives and experiences, especially Black experiences?

    It’s a long journey and we’re not pretending that an hour a month is going to bring down systemic racism. But in the spirit that small actions add up to make a difference over time, here’s what we’ve done thus far:

    • We’ve added a ‘Supporting diversity’ section to the Culture page of our website. People visit this page when they’re thinking about applying for a job here, so this small change could punch above its weight in the area of recruitment.
    • Since we’ve had job vacancies recently, we’ve been able to put in practice plans to place job adverts strategically so that a wider diversity of candidates will see them.
    • All line managers will have taken ACAS training on Equality and Diversity by the end of the year.
    • New methods in our product development, like ‘consequence scanning‘, should help us to foresee any biases or unforeseen results of service features before we launch them.
    • We’ve created a staff ‘anti racism and diversity’ reading list, purchased digital copies that any staff member can access, and suggested which books people might like to begin with.
    • We ran a workshop on power and privilege at our last team meeting.
    • We have plans to amend the terms and conditions on WriteToThem and other mySociety services to better prevent their use for hate speech and other abuse.
    • We’ve researched best practice in terms of style and vocabulary, and added them to our inhouse style guide.

    Over the next few months, we’ll be kicking off a research programme to dig more deeply into the question: what types of services are useful to marginalised groups? This will inform us in future development, and we’ll also be able to share the findings so that others can learn from them too.

    This may be the trigger for an annual piece of research in which we examine who’s using our services, what for, and the impact they’re having.

    We also want to understand how we can best provide support to groups who want to use our services to campaign around race, racism and structural inequalities in the UK.

    That’s how far we’ve come in the first three months. To some extent, we’re feeling our way, as we’re not experts in this field.

    This work involves many difficult conversations, but they are the conversations that need to be had, and we know that they will slowly result in a better organisation for everyone. We appreciate that, for some, this work is coming late and seems like little. And to you we want to say, we’re trying to do better, and we will keep on trying.

    Image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

  6. Moving on up: a tool for tower blocks

    You may remember our post back in September, on the research we were carrying out into how a digital tool might help residents of tower blocks.

    At that stage, with invaluable input from residents, lawyers, health and safety professionals and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, we’d just finished the discovery phase and published a report on our research and prototyping.

    We’ve now had the great news that the Legal Education Foundation are funding us to build a beta version of the tool we’d prototyped. It’ll be a simple way for residents of tower blocks to get the information they need to fix a range of problems in their accommodation, from structural and maintenance issues to legal ones.

    As we start development, we’ll again be working with Tower Blocks UK, tireless champions of tower block residents and very much experts in this field.

    We’ll make sure to keep updating as we progress. The hope is to formally launch the new tool in September next year — so watch this space for further news.

    Image: Nirmal Rajendharkumar

  7. Empowering residents of tower blocks

    An estimated 100,000 people in the UK live in tower blocks. If you’re one of them, mySociety’s current project will be of particular interest — and please read on to the end of the post, where you’ll find out how you might get involved.

    mySociety has been working with the campaign group Tower Blocks UK to explore how residents across the country could have more input into the management of their buildings.

    Back in June 2017, when the news of the Grenfell disaster broke, we expressed our desire to help. This partnership with Tower Blocks UK provides a tangible way for us to do just that, empowering tower block residents to understand their rights, and leverage those rights to increase the safety of their own homes.

    Since Grenfell, fire has, understandably, been at the top of the nation’s consciousness. It’s not the only risk in tower blocks, however: by their nature, they’re subject to a range of distinct safety and maintenance issues which, if not identified and dealt with properly and at an early stage, can be at best a nuisance and at worst, life-threatening.

    We were approached by Tower Blocks UK to provide a digital tool that would help address these issues. Beyond that, we didn’t want to make any assumptions about what was needed, so we began with a completely blank canvas.

    Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. We had a few ideas about what sort of service we might build. A kind of ‘FixMyStreet for buildings’ was was talked about, but we know that it’s never a great idea to simply start creating the service you assume will be useful, without speaking to the people who would actually be using the finished thing.

    So, we agreed our aim in fairly loose terms: to research and develop a pilot service that demonstrates the potential for tower block residents in a few select areas to have a greater say over the safety and maintenance of their blocks. 

    If judged successful, the service could be scaled up and made available for residents in tower blocks all across the UK.

    Where we are now

    At the time of writing, we’ve completed the discovery phase. We’ve asked residents how they currently report and track safety issues in their buildings; and with the additional help of sector experts, we’ve examined how legal pathways and housing provider case management processes affect the outcomes.

    We wrote this stage up in a report which you can read here, identifying four key areas where we feel we have the opportunity to make a difference to how safe and happy residents feel in their homes.

    Once we’d gathered and processed this knowledge, we were able to start building some simple digital prototypes and test our theories with residents in user design workshops. Here we’re thankful to Phil Murphy and Stuart Hodkinson, the London Tenants Federation, and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, for helping us reach a selection of tenants with different background and experiences.

    Resident feedback at these sessions has helped us uncover real needs in this space, including the desire to make maintenance reports that have real impact, the value of tried and tested “next steps” during the complaints process, and a need amongst tenant organisers to see the bigger picture across multiple blocks in their area.

    TBUK workshop with mySociety's Martin

    mySociety’s Designer, Martin, with some residents. Image: London Tenants’ Federation

    Our prototypes so far have included: a tool that helps tenants report problems in their flat by giving prompts and generating a letter of complaint based on best legal practice; a personal case log to aid with follow-up complaints and potential escalations to the housing ombudsman or the courts; and a reporting dashboard for tenant organisers to spot patterns and help their fellow residents make effective reports.

    Over the next few weeks, we’re hoping to test the prototypes further, including through a simple, online survey.

    If you’re a resident of a tower block in the UK and can spare us ten minutes to use a website and answer some questions about your experience, we’d be more than grateful. Get in touch with Jen or Zarino on fixmyblock@mysociety.org.

    Top image: Jimmy Chang

  8. Alaveteli Pro: a chance to increase transparency across Europe

    WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, mySociety’s subscription service offering extra tools for journalists and other professional users of FOI, has been running in the UK for just about two years.

    During that time we’ve launched, worked closely with users to refine the service, and — happily — watched it play a vital part in the making of several important data-driven news stories, on topics as diverse as Brexit campaign funding and the results of austerity cuts on councils. Journalists, in particular, have appreciated tools such as the ability to send and manage bulk requests to multiple authorities; and the embargo tool that keeps requests and responses hidden until the story has been published.

    Now, thanks to support from Adessium Foundation, we are able to bring the same benefits to countries across Europe, and — we hope — some additional synergies that will be borne of organisations working across boundaries. The same functionality that extends WhatDoTheyKnow into the Pro version will be available to FOI sites run on the Alaveteli platform, under the name Alaveteli Pro.

    The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.

    We’ll be focusing on three areas in order to achieve this aim:

    • We’ll give selected existing Alaveteli sites in Europe the technical help they need to upgrade to the Pro version;
    • We’ll be helping organisations in three new European jurisdictions to launch brand new Alaveteli sites, making access to information easier for citizens in these countries. The first site will be launched by VVOJ from the Netherlands.
    • We’ll encourage cross-border collaborations between journalists and organisations using the sites (both the existing ones and the new ones) to investigate stories that span more than one EU country.

    So watch this space: we’ll be sure to keep you posted as the work progresses. The planned start date is next month, and the project is set to run for three years.

    We’re looking forward to sharing stories resulting from this initiative once they start rolling out, and supporting the incredible work that journalists do in putting them together.

    Image: Emiliano Vittoriosi

  9. Introducing TuNa Bakonzi

    The Democratic Republic of Congo: low internet penetration, and low awareness about Freedom of Information. In short, not the most obvious place for an FOI site on our Alaveteli platform.

    And yet, here’s tunabakonzi.org, brand new last month.

    Tuna Bakonzi is an FOI site for the Democratic Republic of Congo

    Henri Christin from Collectif24 is TuNa Bakonzi’s founder, and we were keen to talk to him about his reasons for launching a site when the prevailing conditions are apparently so adverse.

    How did you find out about the Alaveteli platform?

    “I discovered Alaveteli through AFIC, the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. When Collectif24 organised the National Symposium on Access to Information in Kinshasa, there was a presentation on askyourgov.ug [an FOI site for Uganda, also run on Alaveteli]; that’s what gave us the idea to do the same for the DRC. And that prompted me to get in touch with mySociety!”

    Why does DRC need such a site?

    “In DRC, everything is centralised on the capital city, Kinshasa. The country is very large, and while there’s been good efforts towards political decentralisation, there hasn’t been the same in terms of administration. So TuNa Bakonzi should help with that.

    “It’ll facilitate the demand for easy information in a country where access to basic social services, access to authorities’ offices, is just not guaranteed to everyone.

    “This service will promote accountability and give citizens control in the fight against corruption. In a country where there are no public policies on internet governance and journalists are regularly exposed to false information, it will also allow requests for information directly from the source.

    “Finally, it’s a barometer for transparency. It will show whether a public institution is transparent, by way of the answers it gives — or does not give — to citizens’ requests.”

    There’s not yet an FOI Act in DRC — can the site still have a purpose?

    “Although there is not yet an Access to Information law, Collectif24 has published a collection of international, regional and national instruments on the right of Access to Information in the DRC.

    “With regard to these instruments and the DRC’s Constitution, which guarantee the right of Access to Information for every person, the public administration is, in principle, supposed to give information to citizens.

    “In addition, the Government of the Republic is committed to the principles of governance and transparency. As a result, we’ll be adding the public institutions of local, provincial and central governments to the site, as well as private institutions that have a public function. The site can also support the implementation of the law, once it’s actually been passed.”

    Are you using the site to campaign for a change in the law?

    “There’s a precedent when “the facts precede the law”. Through this site, we want to promote access to information in practice, and through this we’ll advocate for the vote to be passed in law.

    What is awareness of FOI like in the DRC?

    “Collectif24 has been working on the question of FOI in DRC since 2009. Previously there was a general perception that FOI really only applied to journalists; but thanks to our work we believe that DRC citizens now know that it’s a fundamental human right.

    “It’s also worth noting that we’re the only organisation in DRC that works in this area, but we have no funding to develop awareness programs covering the whole country. We also need to publicise the site, but it’s a technical and financial challenge for us.”

    How was the launch?

    “We officially launched in partnership with the Catholic National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO). Representatives of civil society organisations, parliamentarians, journalists, students and members of the public administration were invited to CENCO’s Saint Sylvestre Hall.

    “After presenting the project and the importance of the site, the computer scientist who did all the site development made a presentation. Q&A was followed by a session to show how to use the site. All the participants appreciated the initiative and the service. The ceremony closed with thanks to OSISA [The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa] for the funding and to mySociety for the creation of the Alaveteli platform”.

    Who do you think will use the site?

    “Everyone can use it. Yes, we have to recognise that internet penetration and connection in the country is weak. So at first we expect users to be the groups that have more access to the Internet: we definitely expect actors in civil society, journalists, researchers, politicians, international organisations, professionals and administration staff to use it”.

    What are your hopes for the project?

    “My wishes and dreams for this innovative and unique site in the DRC are that it becomes the place of contact between the governors and the governed; that it is a tool of citizen control and accountability which contributes to the fight against corruption and improves the governance of the DRC.

    “For that to happen, we must publicise it as much as possible, but we do face security, technical and financial constraints:

    “In terms of security: Collectif24 is not yet able to protect the site in the case of cyber attack; technically, we need a permanent expert for maintenance. And then, financially: we need funding for increasing awareness, hosting, better storage space, and updating of the institutions’ details, and so it goes on!”

    How’s it going so far?

    “Right now, we’re seeing a start. People are asking the questions they want answers to.

    “But the authorities are not responding because they have not yet been sensitised to the concept of FOI.

    “Additionally, we need to increase the number of institutions available on the site — but most Congolese institutions do not have official or reliable email addresses. There’s no documentation in the DRC to provide information on institutions at all levels and their contacts.

    “So this is the next piece of work that Collectif24 intends to do: we’ll produce a directory if we can get a sponsor to fund it, and this will of course facilitate adding institutions to the site.

    “Collectif24 must work to raise awareness among the population and the administrative staff; organise training on the use of the site. We want to create online user manuals to help people understand how to use it; add public institutions on a regular basis.

    “To do all of this, it’s important to develop a program of advocacy and lobbying to the authorities to get the site recognised. We must work to make this site the official FOI service for the DRC.”

    Thanks so much to Henri for talking to us — as always it was fascinating to hear about the challenges Collectif24 are facing: some unique to the country, and some universal across all FOI sites the world over. We wish him the best of luck with this brave but clearly worthy and much needed project in the DRC.


    Image: Kinshasa street scene by Monusco Photos (CC by-sa/2.0)

  10. Calling translation superheroes!

    Can you help the international FOI community?

    mySociety helps people run Freedom of Information sites in 25 jurisdictions around the world, on our Alaveteli platform.

    These partners are usually keeping their sites going with little resource or funding, and we want to upgrade everyone to the newest version of Alaveteli so that they won’t need to manage this substantial task for themselves.

    There are improvements and new features in the updates, which is exciting for our partners and their users — but of course, with every new feature come new, small strings of text that help explain it to users, label the buttons, describe any errors that occur, etc, etc.

    And although we’re good on coding languages, sadly we can’t say the same about most of the actual spoken languages that need translation. So if you are fluent (ideally as a native speaker or equivalent) in any of the languages listed below, and you would like to do something both interesting and extremely worthwhile, we would be very grateful!

    Translation is done via a system called Transifex. Those who are able and keen to contribute to the global Freedom of Information movement should drop us a line on alaveteli@mysociety.org with an idea of your availability and commitment, and we can get you set up.

    We need translators fluent in:

    • French (France and Rwanda versions)
    • Spanish (Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua versions)
    • German (Germany)
    • Turkish
    • Nepalese
    • Kinyarwanda
    • Macedonian
    • Romanian

    If you speak languages other than these, you can find the full list of languages here and we’re sure any of our partners running sites would be grateful for the translation help — but the above languages are our priorities as these are the sites we help by hosting ourselves.

    We’re aiming to get things upgraded as soon as possible, and certainly in time for International Right To Information Day in September, so we’re looking for translators with availability over the coming three months (May, June and July 2019). If this sounds interesting and fun to you please do get in touch.

    Image: Yogi Purnama