1. An Alternative use of Pombola


    A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the Flexibility of FixMyStreet. Well, this is the second in that series. I’m aiming to give other ideas for uses of the code for Pombola, our monitoring website, which is currently used for Parliamentary monitoring platforms in a number of countries.

    I say currently because as with all our platforms it doesn’t *have* to be used for parliamentary monitoring. In Pombola you can create a database of people, speeches and organisations, along with news streams (as a blog), social media streams and scorecards. You also have a geographical element which allows you to search for relevant local information in those databases that feed Pombola, such as your local MP.

    We’re really interested in how our platforms could be used for unique uses, so if you have any other ideas don’t hesitate to get in touch!

    Here are my ideas:

    1) Monitoring progress towards climate change goals

    The background: Climate change is a politically charged topic and many of the worlds governments have pledged to meet specific goals by 2020. [1] Organisations like Greenpeace are lobbying for wider recognition and stricter goals from participants. [2] And the impact of climate change is being attributed to everything from flooding to violence [3][4]

    The concept: Create a site using the Pombola code base which has profiles of each government that has pledged to reach specific targets by 2020. The profiles would include a contact address for the department dealing with climate change, information on how often the speakers mention climate change, and information on the targets they have pledged to meet. You could scorecard each country to show how well they’ve progressed towards their goals and the best and worst would be showcased on the front page. If you had some time to do your own modifications then using a promise tracker and some infographics like a heatmap would really add to this!

    Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to create an easily understandable tool for monitoring government pledges to combat climate change worldwide. It would be a great tool for lobbyists and journalists, presenting data as both visualisation and statistics. It would also allow concerned citizens to raise their views through comments on each country profile, thus starting a public dialogue on the site (though this would need moderation).

    2) Monitoring hospital performance in the Middle East and Africa

    The background: Hospitals in the Middle East and Africa were surveyed in 2012 by an independent research group. The group found that an average of 8.2% of patients suffered adverse effects [5] of healthcare management. The WHO believed that this is a failing in training and healthcare management systems [6], which could be addressed.

    The concept: Creating a website that would keep a database of hospitals across a country. Each hospital would have a profile with a breakdown of the services they offered, the area they covered and statistics about their performance, cleanliness and staff training initiatives. A user would be able to search for their city or district and find the best closest hospital to go to for care. You would be able to scorecard the hospitals to give users a first glance view of what the care is like. This really focusses on the core functionality that Pombola gives; a database of people and organisations linked to geographical locations to make it easy for people to see useful local information at a glance.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: As well as giving people the information to make the best choices about their health care, this platform could provide important data for donors to enable them to target aid money to the most needy areas. The overall aim would be to hopefully help improve the quality of care by providing the best easily accessible data to people who can help with training.

    3) Stripped down disaster response database

    The background: Disaster response teams respond to numerous emergencies each year but sometimes the scope of the disaster can be overwhelming [7]. People are often separated and collecting information on who remains missing can be difficult, causing psychological strain. [8] Dependent on the scope and type of disaster people may be displaced for a significant amount of time.

    The concept: A stripped down version of Pombola, simply involving mapping and people databases, to allow people to submit their names and the names of their families. Each person would have a status assigned to them (either missing or found) and people would be able to submit their updates via email to the central database. You could also associate found people with the aid organisation that has taken them in, so families would know who to contact. This could also allow the aid organisations to have a profile themselves, giving people the chance to comment to see if their loved ones had been found. The idea is that it would keep both the records of who is searching for people as well as the people themselves.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: The idea behind this would be to bring psychological relief to friends and families searching for lost loved ones. It would be an electronic bulletin board of missing and found people, and even if people had no access to the internet, NGOs or civil society groups coordinating relief efforts could have, therefore would be able to provide a non-internet version of this service.

    What would you use a site like Pombola for? Ideas on a postcard to hello@mysociety.org

    Photo credit cycler: Will Vanlue  | Photo credit G20 Sticker:Toban B  |  Photo credit Chocolate spread:nchenga

    [1] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/aug/02/emissions-reduction-target-15-percent

    [2] http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/groups/cardiff/blog/hey-g8-what-about-climate

    [3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-23538771


    [5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-17359796


    [7] Page 3 http://goo.gl/khZBPn

    [8] http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/ICT_for_Disaster_Management/ICT_for_Disaster_Response

  2. Qué Sabes: Changing the face of FOI requesting in Uruguay

    Uruguayan public transport license plate

    Uruguay has one of the most successful e-government initiatives in Latin America. The president supported the development, a generous budget was made available and international cooperation was welcomed. Despite this fact, and an access to information law passed in 2008, up until 2012 there was uncertainty and resistance on the part of the government, both to responding to FOI requests and to accepting e-FOI requests.

    All of this changed with the launch of Qué Sabes, a freedom of information requesting platform using the Alaveteli code created by mySociety. For DATA, an organisation working towards more online open government in Uruguay, this allowed them to change laws on email requests. For mySociety, it’s further proof that our platform can be adapted to any jurisdiction, language, and geography by any organisation with some small technical ability.

    In the beginning…

    To DATA it was obvious that the authorities shouldn’t get away with ignoring requests made by email. Fabrizio Scrollini, one of DATA’s co-founders tells us, “In 2012 at the University of Oxford a group of activists took part in a conference on access to information hosted by British NGO mySociety.” The conference demonstrated the success of online FOI platforms in other countries, so why not Uruguay. This meeting of minds inspired Fabrizio and Gabriela Rodriguez, a software engineer for DATA, to make the leap and create their own FOI platform.

    But was mySociety’s code difficult to implement? “Over a week (with some sleep deprivation) the first prototype was ready to go and was quietly online.”

    Why Alaveteli?

    “The platform decision was based on very basic criteria about technology support and usability,” Fabrizio says. “In terms of technology the team looked for relatively clean code, Open Source software, and a community that could support long term work. By that time, Alaveteli was the only software doing the former.”

    It also helped that there was an existing Spanish Alaveteli platform up and running from another mySociety partner, TuDerechoASaber, which made translation of the website components easier.

    challenging lift sign in Hotel Palacio

    What was the most challenging?

    According to DATA, the biggest challenge was collecting data from the government, something that they were best placed to do alone. This was anything from email addresses to finding out if the information they had gathered was out of date.

    “The Uruguayan state is not a small one (albeit the country is small),” Fabrizio tells us. “And email [addresses] were not easily available. We made use of an official agenda of authorities (in closed format) to get the first emails.”

    Collaboration with other local, sometimes non-technical, NGOs was also key. “Present[ing] a united front […] solve[d] the crucial issue of making the site work.” It was also crucial in pushing the authorities to accept email freedom of information requests as a valid legal format.

    Launch and results

    Qué Sabes launched in October 2012 with significant local and international publicity, thanks to DATA’s coordination with both Latin American and European NGOs.

    Currently the site has had 228 requests sent through it. Its sister site WhatDoTheyKnow, launched by mySociety four years previously, has over 160,000 requests, which shows the possible growth for a site of this kind.

    But for DATA, the biggest result has to be influencing a change in the law. “In January 2013,” writes Fabrizio, “after 170 requests were filed online and [with] significant public pressure, [the] Uruguayan authorities conceded that online access to information requests are legal. Access to information is now a right that Uruguayans can exercise just by sending an email.”

    So what have DATA taken away from the process?

    “Setting up a website such as Qué Sabes involved a significant amount of [non-technical] time and effort.” We at mySociety, as much as we may want to, are not in a position to support these sites with grants, only technical help and practical advice. “An initial group of 5 highly motivated (DATA) volunteers went from installing the software to launching it, covering several areas such as programming, legal expertise, communication and policy issues.”

    The volunteers are essential. Fabrizio tells us, “We hope to organise them so eventually they can run the website and provide support to each other. […] Yet the crucial point has been made: the state has to answer FOI requests through email in the 21st century.”

    Image credits:
    Uruguay, Montevideo 1970s public transport plate by woody1778a CC BY-SA
    Frightening elevator sign in Hotel Palacio by Chris Hamby CC BY-NC

  3. An Italian Case Study: Fatequalcosa.it

    Despite being home to the beautiful La Fiorita festival, one man still believes the authorities could do more to fix street problems in his part of Italy. Platforms existed in Venice and across other regions of Italy, so a precedent was set.

    Thanks to local Claudio Carletti, the La Marche region will soon get its very own FixMyStreet platform, fatequalcosa.it, which translates as Do Something! Claudio has shared his experience of using the mySociety code and his plans for the site.

    The beginning

    “I heard about FixMyStreet [after] reading a book called Wikicrazia where the author talked several times about mysociety.org,” Claudio explains. After exploring the mySociety sites he came across a blog post offering free developer time to help people start their freedom of information or street problem reporting projects. “I contacted [mySociety] and told them I wanted to create fixmystreet in Italy, and asked them for help. They responded immediately.”

    Why FixMyStreet?

    Claudio explains, “I chose this platform after trying fixmystreet.com and discovering a really well done service and a user friendly site experience.” He tells us there is already an Italian site running a similar service aimed at councils: decorourbano.org. So Claudio’s plan is to target his site at the Italian youth, 14 to 18 year olds. “I think only a cultural revolution that uses concrete tools (like FixMyStreet) can really change the way you think and act, but I think [it’s] mainly young people who must have the tools to do so.” Plus, he tells us, the youth of today will be the older generation of tomorrow.


    After an initial Skype chat with mySociety’s international team Claudio felt confident enough to try a basic install of the software himself.

    “I’m not a website developer but I could do it,” Claudio explains. “My experience was using the installation through the Amazon web service. So most of the work was already done and I just ran the installation following the tutorial.”

    That’s not to say it was all plain sailing. “Most of my issues came from the Ubuntu terminal commands, which I didn’t know how to use. After the release of the 1.2 platform version most of my problems were resolved. One important improvement was the automatic email service set up and the MAPIT_ID_WHITELIST feature.”

    But the mailing list service run by mySociety to help self-installs was an invaluable tool for solving these problems. “Matthew [lead developer for FixMyStreet] always wrote back to my emails, spending a lot time helping me understand the problems,” Claudio says.


    One of the perks of the FixMyStreet code is that it’s quite simple to change basic design elements of the site, such as colours and logos, so it can look unique from other installations. Claudio tells us, “After understanding the conf/general.yml file everything went smoothly.”

    Launch plans 

    Claudio has recently begun collaborating with another user on this service, and is presenting his idea to the Projetto Kublai platform where he hopes to gain more support through their community. He’ll also be taking the project to a EU meeting in Berlin in the hopes that there might be some funding there. The launch date isn’t set but he has plans for collaboration with local schools and youth organisations. “[The youth] are more familiar with smartphones and they spend more time living in the city’s streets, because they take the bus or walk or cycle, but they don’t use cars.” And Claudio envisions these will be his superusers.

    Moving forward

    As Claudio tells the community on Projetto Kublai, “If you look at this site http://www.emptyhomes.com you understand how in reality there are no limits to the possibilities of use of the platform.” Other instances in other countries have reported any number of different types of problems. And it doesn’t just have to be email based, FixMyBarangey in the Philippines allows users to report issues using SMS.

    The bigger picture behind Claudio’s installation, he tells us, is this: “Let’s say that the platform fixmystreet is a good starting point, because it works and is easy to install and use. I’d like to have the opportunity not only to bring a problem to solve; for example organizing task forces where people will agree to go and clean up an area filled with concrete waste or to sort out a pitch in order to organize a [football] tournament. This will be the site that will give the tips (video tutorial) to fix that problem. Having said so it sounds pretty utopian idea, but I also believe that if you let people participate (and give them the means to do so) they’ll believe in it and do everything they can to achieve it.”

    An inspirational idea!

    Image credits:
    Romantica 2010 by Jukka Heinonen, Artisaniaflorae CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

  4. Co-brands, code additions and pull requests

    More and more people are starting to build websites to help people become more powerful in their civic and democratic lives. Some of these are on codebases that mySociety has created which is so great. There are some things which we would love to happen when you take our code and re-use it.

    We want people using our code to keep it as up to date as they can, so that they gain the benefits of any changes made to the code by us or by other users. There are a few reasons for this:

    • You can co-brand the site without breaking anything.

    Dave, one of our developers, explains how you do this. “So suppose, instead of calling it FixMyStreet you want to call it FixMyBorchester with a Borchester logo. Obviously this is a very real requirement, because people want to rebrand. One very feasible (but wrong! As you’ll see…) way of doing this is downloading the FixMyStreet code, finding the bit that paints the FixMyStreet logo and replacing it with the words <h1>FixMyBorchester</h1> and an image. This would work as far as the FixMyBorchester branding would appear on the site.

    But if you then saved and committed your change to git and passed it back to us as a push request, we would reject it. This is for the obvious reason that if we didn’t, next time we deployed FixMyStreet in the UK it would have your logo on it.

    However, say we suddenly discover there is a bug with FixMyStreet. For (a bizarre) example, if someone put the number 0 in instead of a postcode and the site returns a huge picture of a kitten. We love kittens, but that’s not what the site is trying to do. So, we make some fixes to the code that rejects zeros, commit it, update the repo, and it’s now there on the master branch. We write to everyone saying “really everyone, update to the latest (most up-to-date) place on the master branch” And you think, “yeah OK!” and you download the latest version.

    If you just download it and copy it into place, you’re going to lose your FixMyBorchester changes, because there’s a more recent version of that file from us that hasn’t got them. If you did a “git pull” (which roughly means, “git! get me the latest version of master branch”) then git will refuse because there’s a conflict on that file.

    So, instead of inserting your FixMyBorchester stuff over ours, which can’t work, you make a new directory in the right place called ‘FixMyBorchester‘, put your stuff in there and switch the FixMyStreet config — which knows this is something people want to do — to use that cobrand. Any templates FixMyStreet finds in there will now be used instead of ours. You can now safely update the codebase from our repo from time to time and FixMyStreet and git will never damage your templates, because they are in a place it doesn’t mess with.”

    • You can add new features

    Dave continues. “Say when someone uses FixMyBorchester it’s essential that you have their twitter handle, because every time a problem is updated, FixMyBorchester direct-tweets them a kitten for fun. Right now there is no capacity to store a twitter handle for a user in FixMyStreet.

    You simply add a column to the users table in your database and add some code for accepting that twitter handle when you register, and sending the kittens etc. That’s new code that isn’t in FixMyStreet at all. Sooner or later you’ll need to put at least one line into the main FixMyStreet program code to make this happen. As soon as you do that you have the same problem we had before, only this time it’s in code not in an HTML template.

    What we would encourage you to do is put all your new code in a branch that we can look at, and maybe set it to run only if there’s a config setting that says USE_TWITTER=true. That way any implementation that doesn’t want to use twitter, which is — at this point — every other FixMyStreet installation in the world — won’t be affected by it. You send that to us as a pull request and a developer checks it’s not breaking anything, and is up to scratch in quality, and has good test coverage. Then we’ll accept it.

    Even though currently nobody else in the world wants your twitter feature, it’s not breaking anything and it’s now in the repo so you can automatically update from our master when we change bits of our files, and the installation/overwrite/git-pull will work. Plus anyone that does decide they want this feature will now be able to enable it and use it.

    And all of this helps everyone using the code; you have a secure website that can be patched and updated each time we release something, other people have access to features you’ve built and vice versa. And overall, the project becomes more feature rich.

    Please do make changes and push them back to the main codebase!

    Image credit: US Coast Guard CC BY-NC-ND

  5. Pombola, a new name for Mzalendo

    We’ve got some exciting news at mySociety.

    As you know we’ve been helping with the Kenyan Mzalendo website for a while now. And, we’ve been lucky enough to gather interest in Mzalendo‘s codebase from a number of other countries.  These range from Ghana to South Africa, and even as far afield as Paraguay. It’s amazing and humbling for us, but we’ve recently realised one thing: Mzalendo has a wealth of history in Kenya, and an amazingly complex political association. It’s also the name of the website there. So we needed a new name that would allow the code to be changed without the change being associated with the original Kenyan Mzalendo.

    Enter Pombola. This is the new name for the codebase which powers TheyWorkForYou, Mzalendo, Odekro, ShineYourEye, work-in-progress Kuvakazim and other parliamentary monitoring websites across Africa and the world.

    You may ask, “Why Pombola? What does it mean?”

    Well, it is a pretty easy word to remember.  And no one else is using it (possibly because we created it!). The word is a mix of the initials PMO (Parliamentary Monitoring Organisation) and Tombola.

    A Tombola?” I hear you cry in surprise. Well, in a Tombola, you are making a choice with no information at all – just selecting a ticket and hoping that you get lucky.  A Pombola site aims to be the opposite – you’ll get as much information as possible about your elected representatives, so that when you make a choice in future, you’ll have all the facts.

    If you’re interested in using the code you’ll find the repository here on github, along with some documentation.

    If you’re not technical but still want to use this then please contact me and we can discuss what we can do!

    And remember, this may monitor parliaments now, but you could use it for anything (*)

    (*) Disclaimer: please only use for good.

    [1] Girl with Balloons from Courtney
    [2] Air map from OpenFlights.org
  6. A different use of Crowdsourcing

    A few days ago, one of our international contacts, Matthew Landauer from the OpenAustralia Foundation, posted to the Alaveteli mailing list about a recent experiment in crowdsourcing FOI requests. It’s pretty interesting stuff, so I asked if we could share more widely.

    Matthew tells us: “It’s a project called DetentionLogs and it’s a collaboration between a small group of freelance journalists, Guardian Australia, New Matilda, The Global Mail and OpenAustralia Foundation.

    The journalists have done some FOI [requesting] to get a summarised list of around 7000 “incidents” that have happened in detention centres. Then, if members of the public are interested in finding out more they can help out by doing a further FOI request for detailed information about the incident via RightToKnow, OpenAustralia’s FOI site which uses Alaveteli.

    But what’s the history? According to the Guardian, over the past few years there’s been a sharp rise in the number of specific incidents in Australia’s two largest immigration detention centres. Elections are coming up soon (though still not confirmed) and the topic of immigration is one of the fiercest political debates around the elections. The co-founders of DetentionLogs came across a large PDF document on the Immigration Department’s disclosure log, with a summary of the incidents – and the project sprang from there.

    The idea is that people can view the visual database, see incidents and click on them to adopt them or flag them. Adopting an incident takes you to the RightToKnow website where you can submit a pre-drafted FOI request to get more details. You also have the option to edit it, but the page opens with all the incident data that is needed to match the request with the incident you clicked on. Flagging an incident makes it appear brighter on the visualisation, drawing other people’s attention to it. Global Mail asked two requesters to share their reasons for participating here. It’s interesting reading, but also quite shocking.

    So far there have been around 125 FOI requests made through this site. But it’s not all been plain sailing…

    Matthew writes this of his challenges: “This is what I’ve learned from the experience so far:

    • The government department in question (department of immigration) is clearly concerned by the crowdsourcing, so much so that each of these requests is being handled personally by the director of FOI policy for the department and they’re doing whatever they can to shut things down, including in this case, a misinterpretation of the FOI legislation. Kat Szuminska and I wrote an opinion piece on this for the Global Mail.
    • The relationship between the multiple websites involved in DetentionLogs confuses people a bit. People might start on the global mail “behind the wire” site and then get directed at RightToKnow to make the FOI request. So, we’ve had a couple of cases where people gave their email addresses to RightToKnow, we message them and then they thought that the DetentionLogs project had given us their email address without permission.
    • There is no way currently in Alaveteli to contact a group of people. What I ended up doing is taking an email that the DetentionLogs people wrote, exporting a list of email addresses by hand from the database and emailing them personally on behalf of the DetentionLogs people. This was hardly ideal, it confused people. I think I would much prefer that people who make a request in one of these FOI crowdsourcing campaigns could optionally sign up to a mailing list or a public forum where they could discuss strategy and such things.

    This crowdsourcing experiment is still a work in progress, and it will be interesting to see how it turns out. It’s great to see how the Alaveteli software can be adapted to fit a specific campaign and hopefully that can inspire others to use it in a similar way. Mail Us to see how.

    [1] Crowd by Michael Dornbierer

    [2] Fountain pen from William Arthur fine stationary

    [3] Experiment from Peter Megyri

  7. The Flexibility of FixMyStreet

    A lot of people come to mySociety to reuse our code having seen the UK websites, which is great! Then you can see what we’re trying to do in the UK and how you could replicate it abroad. But what I wonder, and what lead me to write this blog post, is are we reining in your imagination for what these platforms could be used for?

    9 times out of 10, when someone contacts me about FixMyStreet, it’s for street reporting problems. Naturally, it’s in the name of the platform!  But we do get the occasional request to use it differently, which is something we’re really keen to explore. Here are some things I think it could be used for, that aren’t street related:


    1) Antiretroviral Drug shortages in clinics in Africa.

    The background: 34% of the world’s HIV positive population currently live in Southern or Eastern Africa [1]. These people need antiretroviral drugs to survive, some of which could be supplied by the Government’s medical stores, some of which could be supplied by charities, but it is often reported that there are shortages of drugs at some clinics [2][3]

    The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which health clinic staff can use to report the status of their stock to the relevant supplier. The site would instantly send an email to the clinic supplier when the staff member dropped a pin on their clinic on a map in the site. There could be different alert categories such as “stock running low”, “stock critically low” and “Out of stock”

    Impact it would hope to achieve: The aim would be to enable clinics to report on the status of their stock far enough in advance that the supplier could order and deliver stock before they hit the Critically low or Out of Stock status. This would mean that people would always be supplied with ARVs if they need them. Another point would be that patients could check the map to see if the clinic in their area has stock of the ARVs they need, and potentially choose another clinic if there is a shortage.


    2) Contributing data on endangered wildlife

    The background: It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that some species of wildlife are under threat. Wildlife conservation charities, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), annually monitor population levels for endangered species [4] to ensure they have accurate data on population growth or decline and the lifestyles and habitats of the wildlife they are aiming to preserve.

    The concept: A mobile responsive FixMyStreet site which allows people to report sightings of endangered animals to wildlife conservation charities. The site would be tailored for area (eg the endangered animals native to certain countries) or could simply be per species (eg mammals, avians etc). The public would then be able to take a picture of the animal, attach it to the report and leave a short message, like “2 adult bitterns accompanied by young seen at 10:41am). The report will give the charities the location the animal was spotted in and they will be able to add this to their research data.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: Hopefully this idea would contribute valuable data to the research of Wildlife Conservation charities. Another hope is that it would make people more interested in the wildlife in their surrounding area, thus more involved in conserving it and its habitat.


    3) Reporting polluted Waterways

    The background: You may have seen the reports from China earlier this year about the dead pigs found in the Huangpu River [5]. It’s not just a Chinese phenomenon: around the world rivers, canals and lakes are becoming more and more polluted. [6] In fact the statistics coming from the UN are quite shocking[7]. This not only has a harmful effect on wildlife in the river, but could lead to longer term issues with clean drinking water, especially in countries where cleaning polluted water is an expensive option.

    The concept: This is very similar to the classic FixMyStreet. A website would be set up where a person could submit a photo and report of a polluted waterway by dropping a pin on a map at the position of the river. This report would then get sent to the local council or persons responsible for caring for the waterway.

    Impact it would hope to achieve: Similarly to FixMyStreet in the UK, this would help to get citizens more actively involved in their local area and government. The idea would also be that the council would hopefully start dedicating more resources to clear rivers and waterways. Or local residents could form a group to remove litter themselves. In the case of chemical or oil spills this would obviously not be advised. However if chemical waste or oil spillages were noticed to be originating from specific buildings then the council would have the opportunity to bring this up with the residents or companies in these buildings.


    So those are some of my ideas! What are yours?

    We’re actively looking to support non-street uses of FixMyStreet so please do get in contact  on hello@mysociety.org with your ideas and we’ll work together to see how we can achieve them!

    Oh, and, don’t worry if you still want a classic FixMyStreet, we’ll help you with that too!










    [8] Orangutan by Matthew Kang

    [9] Primary colours by Vineet Radhakrishnan

  8. ABRELATAM: the Latin American open data Unconference

    The open data movement has been gathering momentum over the past few years, as citizens demand more accountability from the businesses, institutions and governments that form a part of their lives.

    Last week, our international team was invited to take part in the first ever AbreLatAm (by the way: a clever word play on the Spanish word “abrelatas” which means can opener!). AbreLatAm is an unconference organised by our friends at DATA (Uruguay) and Ciudadano Inteligente (Chile).

    The idea was to bring representatives from different sectors of Latin American civil society together to share experiences, strategies, challenges and hopes for Open Data. People came from all over, including Europe and the USA, to participate, creating an amazingly inclusive atmosphere.

    Being an unconference, there was no set agenda. Instead, we started our time by writing provocative statements around open data, which people then had to defend or deny. Once the ice had been broken by passionate discussions about the merits of various ideas, we worked together to decide what we most wanted to learn from each other.

    For me, the most important part was seeing the projects other people work on to strengthen transparency, citizen participation, and civil liberties in their own countries. It’s a humbling experience to realise that some things we take for granted are the subject of intense campaigning in other countries.

    Each day we had a series of workshops around different topics. I facilitated one, trying to learn what people want from open source technology to make it more globally usable.

    It’s funny, open source has such great aspirations, then you speak to people and realise that your creation has been tweaked so much for the local context that it’s almost easier for someone to write their own version. This is something we’ve really taken on board, and we’re working really hard to avoid this with all of our software.

    I attended other workshops, learning about the challenges of building relationships with non-technical organisations – a key problem for most non-technical NGOs it seems. Most don’t have the money to pay for commercial web development.

    Hopefully, AbreLatAm will have allowed some of these people to forge useful tech partnerships so they can develop their ideas together.

    It was also extremely interesting to hear other people’s social, cultural and political experiences in relation to technology. One of the presentations that sticks most in my mind came from Laura Zommer of Chequeado.com. Her site verifies whether a politician’s statements are true, false, exaggerated or deceptive.

    Her presentation was a very funny video using those statements as a song sung around Buenos Aires. I particularly liked the fact that the public stopped to listen, and sometimes gave money to the artist. I would like to think that this kind of satirical response to politicians will help people analyse and question what their elected leaders tell them.

    Most of all though, the enthusiasm, energy and hope of all the participants left me with a feeling that we are slowly effecting change, in all of our countries, and if we work together we could do this throughout the whole world.

  9. Great Partnerships and the advantages of Face to Face meetings

    Over the past 6 months mySociety has been working in partnership with Fundación Ciudadano Inteligente to write collaborative…well let’s call them components for now, as there will be more information on these projects coming soon both from our Chilean friends and ourselves. This initiative is called POPLUS and we’re really really excited about what it means.

    Most of this collaboration so far has happened via Skype or Google Hangouts, which due to the distance between our two countries probably won’t surprise you. However as mySociety were invited to attend the first AbreLatAm unconference in Uruguay on June 24th and 25th we decided that spending some time meeting FCI face to face would be invaluable for moving our joint projects forward. And we were right.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think the advent of video conference methods like Skype and Hangouts have changed the way we can collaborate and I’m grateful. Sometimes though, it’s good to be able to sit down in a room and really understand through all that is and isn’t said, which ideas have inspired the team and which need to perhaps be shelved for another time. Marcel Augsburger, one of FCI’s developers, said it best when he said “I just want to go and work on all of this now!” at nearly 7pm on a Friday night.

    It was good to be able to work out niggly issues and share experiences with different systems. And to learn. Felipe Alvarez introduced us to FCI’s incredible website Vota Inteligente which is a great tool for comparing candidates for elections. We discussed micro-activism and why we think it works, we also discussed how to test if something does have any impact (we should have more to share on research soon!) and we discussed our hopes for attracting other people who would be interested in being a part of a larger community of developers, activists and civil society organisations who work together to create amazing things.

    For the moment if you want to work with mySociety on any of the sites that we create internationally (Alaveteli, FixMyStreet and Mzalendo) please email hello@mysociety.org and ask for Jen (That’s me!).

    I’ll bring you some more information soon on POPLUS and how to get involved with that!

  10. OGP Africa Regional Meeting

    The International team recently had an opportunity to meet with Mzalendo founders in Kenya. As you likely know, Mzalendo is the Kenyan Parliamentary Monitoring site similar to TheyWorkForYou which mySociety has helped re-build since June 2011 with support from the Omidyar Network.

    Being in Nairobi gave us the opportunity to meet with some of the organisations who provide information that helps power Mzalendo.com. These included the National Taxpayers Association , whose detailed research into the usage of Constituency Development Funds (CDF) has been invaluable in enabling us to create scorecards on the site. The scorecards are used to rate MPs based on a number of criterion including (pre-elections) how they had overseen the spending of CDF funds in their constituency, their accessibility to their constituents and contributions to debate in Parliament as presented in the Hansard. We also met with the UN/DESA representative behind the www.bungeni.org initiative that has been working with several African parliaments interested in using ICT to open them up to the public.

    We also attended the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Africa regional meeting in Mombasa. This two day conference brought CSOs and government officials from 13 African countries (plus a few from other parts of the world) together to discuss how open government works in Africa and to share experiences and recommendations. For mySociety the conference was a chance to meet CSOs and government officials from other countries in Africa to see how they are working towards openness in different ways.

    Paul, (pictured gesturing wildly) our Head of International projects,
    spoke briefly on the 2nd day on various topics such as making proceedings of parliaments and legislatures available in usable formats (a big theme for us across all the parliamentary monitoring sites we have helped create) and voting records. On the subject of voting, we managed to spark some debate, as the previous evening Kenyan MPs had voted to raise their salaries. This makes them the highest paid government officials in the world comparative to the average national salary.

    It was good to finally put names to faces for some people we’ve been working with remotely, like Selima (pictured above in the pink top) from marsoum41.org, the Alaveteli inspired platform based in Tunisia. Selima raised some really interesting points about how important, and difficult, it is to keep momentum going after post-revolution elections.

    We also met Gilbert Sendugwa from the Africa Freedom of Information Centre to talk about the potential of using Alaveteli platforms further across Africa. We should be discussing a pilot in one or two countries (yet to be decided!) which will begin in August 2013. That’s pretty exciting for us! About eight African countries have Freedom of Information (FOI) laws but their current implementation is weak by international standards.

    Finally I wanted to share a story from Robert Hunja that really brought home to me the importance of local knowledge and consultation in any project, be it government- or CSO-run. (It’s paraphrased as my scribing isn’t fast enough to keep up with talking)

    “Outside my father’s house runs a badly maintained road, but the local council didn’t have enough money to pave all of it, so they paved only sections. When I asked my father if he, or any other local residents had been consulted, he told me he was surprised he hadn’t been. He said if they had been consulted, and told money was limited, they wouldn’t have recommended paving only sections, but concentrating on a specific area of the road that had been the cause of many accidents.” Now the dangerous part of the road remains unrepaired, and the paved sections will cause problems as the disintegrate over time.

    Overall the conference allowed an exchange of ideas which will hopefully
    lead toward greater collaboration between governments and CSOs in Africa.

    Also, though we may not have seen lions or giraffes, some local monkeys did express an interest in joining the conference, if only during lunch time!