1. Help keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, with your time or expertise

    In our previous post, we identified WhatDoTheyKnow’s current need for sources of funding.

    But WhatDoTheyKnow also needs more volunteers to join the team. Since the site’s launch, it’s always depended on a highly-motivated, active group of administrators who work to keep it running.

    At mySociety, we’re very grateful for the work the volunteers do; for their part, they tell us that they find the work rewarding and interesting — but we’re always aware that we can’t, and shouldn’t, demand too much from them. The more volunteers we can recruit, of course, the less the workload will be for everyone.

    We’ve identified three general areas in which volunteer help would be very welcome, and if you think you’d fit in to any of these, we’d love to hear from you.

    General volunteers

    Are you:

    • interested in FOI and transparency
    • happy to work remotely but as part of a team, communicating mainly via email
    • able to dedicate a minimum of a few hours per week to helping run the site

    Each of our volunteer administrators give their time freely and are the only reason we can run the service day to day at all.

    Being a volunteer is both rewarding but also challenging, as each juggles their day jobs and home lives. So the more volunteers we have, the more we can spread the workload between them.

    If you have a specific interest in FOI or transparency, or indeed you’d just like to help support a well used civic tech service then we’d love to hear from you. There is always a diverse range of jobs and tasks needing to be done, even if you can only help a couple of hours a week. We all work from home and communicate via email and other online tools.

    If you can help us a volunteer the first thing to do is to write to the team introducing yourself and letting us know about your relevant skills, experience and interests.

    Legal support

    Are you:

    • a law student or professional who can offer expertise in the day-to-day running of the site; or
    • a legal firm or chambers who could offer legal advice on an ad hoc, pro bono basis

    Volunteers with legal backgrounds We take our legal and moral responsibilities in running WhatDoTheyKnow very seriously and we always welcome volunteers with experience of legal matters. Some of the legal aspects of running the site are handled routinely on a day to day basis by the admin team.

    They may, for example, remove correspondence which could give rise to claims of defamation, or where personal data is disclosed by an authority mistakenly and they consider continued publication to be unwarranted.

    The legal challenges thrown up by operating our service are varied and interesting. Joining us could be an opportunity for someone to get some hands on experience of modern media law, or for a more experienced individual, to provide some occasional advice and guidance on more challenging matters.

    We often find ourselves balancing claims that material published on our site could aid criminals or terrorists, or could cause harm in other ways, and we do our best to weigh, and balance, such claims against the public interest in making the material available.

    As material published on our website may have been used to support news articles, academic research, questions from elected representatives, and actions by campaign groups or individuals it’s important we don’t remove correspondence lightly and that we’re in a position to stand up, where necessary, to powerful people and institutions.

    Legal firms that can offer advice As from time to time there are cases which are more complicated, we would like to build a relationship with a legal firm or chambers that can advise us on an ad hoc basis on defamation, privacy (misuse of private information) and data protection.

    The ability to advise on copyright law and harassment law would also be an advantage. And we also on very rare occasions may need help as to how to respond to the threat of litigation.

    Could you offer help in this area? Please do get in touch to discuss getting involved.

    Administrative support

    Are you:

    • a committed, organised, empathetic person who could volunteer a few hours (working from home) a week

    In our previous post we mentioned that we’d ideally secure funding for an administrator who could handle our user support mail and deal with routine but potentially complex and time-sensitive tasks such as GDPR-based requests.

    While we seek funding for this role, would you be willing to fill it on a voluntary basis? Please get in touch.

    Lots to help with

    So in summary, what we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running is money, volunteer help, and legal support. If you can help with any of these, or have some ideas of leads we might be able to follow, please do get in touch. It also helps to share this post with your networks!


    Alternatively, you can help out with a donation large or small — every little helps.
    Donate now

    Image: CC0 Public Domain

  2. Ensuring WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next half a million requests

    If you appreciate our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, then you’d probably like to know that it’ll be around for the foreseeable future.

    That will only be a certainty if we can secure new volunteers across a broad range of areas; or new sources of funding for the site — or ideally, both! WhatDoTheyKnow is a free service, run on a charitable basis by a currently very thinly-stretched team of volunteers.

    We’ve identified four areas in which we need help:

    • Funding
    • Legal support
    • Admin support
    • Additional volunteers

    In this post we’ll be looking at the first of those; and in our next post we’ll talk more about various volunteer roles and ways of helping the site to operate. If you think you might be able to assist in any of these categories, please do read on.

    Some background

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a Freedom of Information service used by millions of people each year, from journalists and campaigners to ordinary people trying to navigate bureaucracy.

    We recently celebrated the 500,000th request made via WhatDoTheyKnow, and also the site’s tenth anniversary. Each month, it’s visited by over half a million people and over 2,500 requests are made via the site. It’s a success story — an example of civic tech that runs at scale, has lasted, and has had an impact to match.

    One of the ways that mySociety has always tried to make change in the world is by building things on the web that show how the world could be better. In the case of WhatDoTheyKnow, we asked ‘What would it be like if everyone felt able to ask questions of those with power, and get answers?’.

    Our position as a small digital charity allows us to be bold in the things we build, to act as critical friends to institutions of power, and to design for the citizen. In practical terms, it also allows us to ask forgiveness, not permission — without that freedom, many of our sites and ideas would never have seen the light of day. That we have had success with WhatDoTheyKnow is wonderful, but leads us to ask a new question: how can we, again as a small digital charity, ensure its future?

    It’s always been a necessary engineering principle for us as software developers, trying to build sites that have impact, to require as little ongoing intervention as possible. However, technology isn’t and shouldn’t be everything — a site that runs on the scale of WhatDoTheyKnow can’t run without different kinds of support. In running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve learned that digital institutions, like other institutions, are shaped by people. The people who originally designed them, for certain, but also those who pick up the torch, who continue to make the day-to-day decisions that keep the institution relevant, humane, responsive and responsible. It’s this support that distinguishes brilliant technical ideas that flame out from those that grow and become so embedded in our culture that they start to fundamentally change the way the world works.

    A vital part of that support for WhatDoTheyKnow comes from a handful of volunteers who run the service day to day. These volunteers handle everything from simple user support to advising on complex points of law and policy.

    Now the success of the site means that they need help on the front line. We’re always on the lookout for new volunteers — but there are also other things we need to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next ten years and another half a million requests.

    We need funding for admin

    It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we recruit a part-time assistant, responding to our users’ queries via email. This person would help our amazing team of volunteers support people in all walks of life as they go through the process of requesting information from public authorities.

    They’d help to deal with the diverse day to day user enquiries, make sure we meet important deadlines in handling time-sensitive issues like GDPR-based requests, and share feedback to improve our user and volunteer experience over time. The cost of a paid part-time support role would be at least £15k per year.

    We don’t currently have any funding for this increasingly essential role, nor indeed any direct funding for WhatDoTheyKnow itself.

    We need funding for development

    Although WhatDoTheyKnow hasn’t changed fundamentally over the years, there are always ways in which we could improve it — a recent example is our work to start developing features for journalists and other professional users.

    The site does also require a certain amount of ongoing development work in order to keep it running at the scale it does. That includes making sure it gets the latest security updates, and dealing with new problems that arise as it grows, such as the fact that the more popular it becomes, the more rewarding a target it becomes for spammers.

    Work to maintain Alaveteli, the code that runs WhatDoTheyKnow, also supports the community of Freedom of Information campaigners, journalists and citizens around the world that use Alaveteli-based services to exercise their right to know in 26 countries.

    We don’t currently have any financial support for developers to support and maintain WhatDoTheyKnow and it’s important we find at least project funding of £30,000 to £40,000 a year, if not general unrestricted financial support from new funders.

    Funding to date

    We should acknowledge the funding which has allowed us to run thus far, and for which we are of course very grateful. A grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust originally got WhatDoTheyKnow off the ground; Google’s Digital News Initiative supported the development of Alaveteli Professional, and unrestricted support from a number of funders ensured that mySociety has been able to continue paying their developers to work on the project. It’s perhaps worth noting that this support has, to date, always sustained development rather than administration.

    We do have a revenue stream through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our FOI service for professionals such as journalists, but as yet this is very modest. As the service develops, we hope that this may one day become part of the framework that helps sustain WhatDoTheyKnow, but we’re some way from that at this point in time.

    Sourcing funding

    Can you help identify a fund or donor who might be willing to cover the costs we’ve identified above for the next year or two? Please get in touch.

    Or perhaps we can be more imaginative. One model we’ve seen used to good effect by other sites run on our FOI platform Alaveteli has inspired us to conceive of a similar (but not identical) set-up for WhatDoTheyKnow. This would involve sponsorship from one or more reputable media organisations who could make use of WhatDoTheyKnow for their own journalistic investigations, while also gaining the benefit of recognition across the site.

    Of course, that’s just one idea — there must be many other possible models for supporting the site and we’d love to hear any ideas you have in the comments below.

    Now you might like to read our second post, in which we’ll be talking about ways you might be able to help with time, rather than money.


    You can help out, with a donation large or small — every little helps.
    Donate now

    Image: CC0 Public Domain

  3. mySociety to affiliate with Code for All

    mySociety has been a leading light in the Civic Tech movement since 2003, helping to shape and define the sector and building services used by over ten million people each year in over 40 countries worldwide.

    During this time Civic Tech has grown and matured; delivering plenty of impact, but also hitting numerous stumbling blocks along the way. In mySociety’s fifteenth year we’re taking stock of the best way to achieve our long term goals and ambitions.

    So today at the Code for All summit, Heroes of Tech in Bucharest, we announced our intention to become an affiliate member of the Code for All network.

    mySociety and Code for All both recognise the power of working in partnership, of being honest and self-critical about the effects of our work, of working openly and transparently and seeking the best outcomes for citizens in their dealings with governments and the public sector.

    Code for All is probably best known for Code for America, which set out the blueprint for a civic tech group working closely with government. Now that Code for All is growing beyond these early roots to become more than a collection of individual ‘Code For’ organisations it is broadening its own perspective to include more groups outside of government, we feel that this is a good time for mySociety to deepen our collaboration within this growing movement.

    Every success we’ve had has come from working well with our partners. Each of our services internationally is run by a local partner with mySociety providing development help and support and the benefit of our service development and research experience.

    In recent months through our Democratic Commons project we’ve worked with numerous Code for All partners, including CodeForPakistan, OpenUp, CodeForJapan, ePanstwo, G0v and others. Those of you who have attended our TICTeC conferences will know that they attract many members of the Code for All network as participants each year.

    What mySociety can bring to the network is a unique international aspect, a commitment to collaborate and combine our efforts on cooperative democratic projects, a willingness to more widely share our research and evidence building experience and a desire to improve the positive impact of our work.

    We would benefit from more of our work being seen as truly collaborative, and are no strangers to the challenges of seeking grant and project funding and the importance of working together to achieve this.

    With all the challenges facing democracy — governments struggling under austerity; fake news and dark money distorting the truth; a slow burn environmental catastrophe playing out around us; hard won rights and the norms of a fair and just society under threat — now more than ever feels like an important time to be working more closely together.

    So we’re excited by the opportunities that this timely partnership will deliver and keen to see where this takes us.

  4. Keep It In The Community: a snapshot of ACVs across England

    Keep It In The Community LogoOver the past few months we’ve been periodically updating you on the progress of our website for mapping Assets of Community across England. Now, we’ve officially launched.

    Keep it in the Community, or KIITC for short (pronounced ‘kitsy’), currently shows a snapshot of over 5,000 England-wide registered ACVs. We hope that researchers of all sorts will use it as a resource.

    A nationwide picture

    Since the introduction of  the Localism Act, community groups up and down England have been taking advantage of the opportunities it affords to nominate places and spaces as Assets of Community Value.

    And while the Act also requires local authorities to maintain and publish a register of such Assets, one thing has been missing: the ability to see a picture of how these rights are being used across the country as a whole.

    Do some regions contain substantially more ACVs than the norm? Are more applications rejected in some places than others? And just how many Assets of Community Value have been identified to date?

    We believe this sort of inquiry is essential if we’re to understand the efficacy of the Act and whether it’s achieving what it was designed to do, and now KIITC makes that possible.

    Scaled back ambitions

    As you may recall from our previous posts, our original ambition was not only to gather together and publish all the existing data from the ACV records of England’s many councils, but also to invite community groups to submit new applications to their local authorities, directly through the website. From long experience in similar projects, however, we knew that there would be challenges, and indeed this turned out to be the case.

    While all councils are legally required to display this data, they’re not given any guidance as to the format in which it should be displayed, and the huge variety of different formats, together with the frequency with which the location of the files in which they are published change, make an automated approach almost impossible, especially within a resource- and time-constrained project.

    These factors make it hard to sustain what is really the only practicable approach for a project with limited funding — the automated ‘scraping’ of websites. Scraping sends a small script out onto the web to regularly check whether new data has been added to a location; in this case, each council’s ACV register. A piece of code can retrieve the data and put it into the right format to be republished on your own site: it’s how we published Parliamentary debates each day on TheyWorkForYou.com for many years, for example.

    But this is really only a practical option when everyone is publishing in one of a few standardised formats.

    What would be a solution? Well, in an ideal world every authority would be putting their records out as lovely, consistent data.  But we understand that this is rather an unrealistic expectation.

    A data snapshot

    Faced with these difficulties, we met with Power to Change, who originally funded the work. We were in agreement that, sad though it was to set aside the other features of the project, there was still great value in collecting a snapshot of all ACV data across England.

    So, ambitions of scrapers accordingly readjusted, we manually entered all the relevant councils’ registered ACVs and uploaded them to the site. Please note that some data may not be 100% accurate; it all depends on what we were able to collect at the time.

    The most comical result of this is that assets where we don’t have a precise postcode for location may appear to be floating in the middle of the ocean… but these are the minority. And it’s worth remembering that the dataset as a whole is the best available right now.

    Of course, the data will quickly become out of date, but we believe that this unprecedented collection will have many uses, nonetheless.

    For the moment, we won’t be updating the site with future data, unless further funding becomes available for us to do so. We’ve also put plans for community group submissions on the back burner for now, aware that if we are to provide this service, we need to better what is already out there on the councils’ own websites.

    The future

    When time allows, we’d like to explore ways to encourage citizens to help keep the site up to date, allowing them to update data that has already been imported, and consider how they might suggest new ACVs to their relevant council via the website.

    As part of that vision we’ll need to reach out to councils to demonstrate how we have visualised the data, and work with them to participate.

    Open data projects such as these rely on identifying useful and practical ways for public sector organisations to more easily release data in a common and consistent format so that others can make best use of the information — a task that has much wider implications for all sorts of niche datasets such as this.

    If you’d like to find out more please get in touch with us at hello@keepitinthecommunity.org: we’d be keen to hear from you if you’d like to help us trial managing your own data on the service.

    Thanks again to Plunkett Foundation, Power To Change and MHCLG for their support in making this happen.

  5. Introducing Keep It In The Community

    You might remember that we shared a post in November announcing the start of a new project, funded by Power To Change, to help communities protect Assets of Community Value.

    So we’re pleased to announce the (quiet) beta launch of our latest little site, Keep It In The Community, which we hope will become an England-wide register of Assets of Community Value (ACVs).

    Improving legislation

    The Localism Act 2011 was introduced with a great hope. Its provision for giving groups the right to bid on buildings or land that contribute to community life would allow the protection these assets, potentially taking them into direct community control should they come up for sale.

    Sadly, as currently implemented, the law hasn’t yet delivered on that promise.

    In Scotland, the legislation comes with an actual right to buy, but in England, that’s not the case, and with developers finding ways around the legislation more often than not, often the best the Act can bring about is the delay of an inevitable change of control. For the moment we’re not expecting the legislation to be given any more teeth.

    With Keep It In The Community we intend to at least help support a greater takeup of registration by local communities.

    Keep It In The Community Logo

    In yet another project built on the flexible FixMyStreet Platform, Keep It In The Community has three main roles:

    1. We’re gathering together existing asset listings from the 300+ English councils who hold them, to provide a single synchronised and complete record of all listed and nominated ACVs.

    2. We’re providing a straightforward route for established community groups to nominate new ACVs in their community.

    3. We’ll allow community members to provide more details, photographs, and useful anecdotes about each registered asset, beyond that required by the legal listing process.

    Plans for the summer

    So far we have data from around 20 local authorities on the live service, with another 50 or so due to be added over the next few weeks. The remaining councils will be added over the summer. All the data is drawn directly from each local authority and as new assets are nominated or their status changes we’ll update their status on Keep It In The Community.

    Keep It In The Community Screen Shot

    Whilst we complete final testing we’re restricting the ability of community groups to nominate assets, but hope to fully switch that on shortly, once more of the existing assets are displayed on the site.

    The initial process for connecting each council listing is fairly low tech, relying on the scraping of a commonly formatted spreadsheet hosted on each council website.

    So for the moment. there will still be a fair amount of manual tweaking to keep things in sync. This is one of those important elements that will be fine to manage when the service is starting out, but may start to creak further down the line if it becomes well used – a classic ‘known known’ issue we’ll need to keep on top of.

    Over the summer we’ll be working with a representative set of community groups to extend the features of Keep It In The Community to improve how to submit assets for nomination, and how best to celebrate the listed assets by adding all sorts of local detail and background.

    Have a look and let us know what you think so far.

    In addition to the initial grant from Power To Change, this project has been implemented with the support of the Plunkett Foundation and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

    Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

  6. Recycling Collideoscope

    In 2014, along with Integrated Transport Planning (ITP), we created Collideoscope — a service based on our FixMyStreet Platform to map collisions and near misses between motor vehicles and cyclists.

    Through a mix of imported Department of Transport Data and user submitted reports, the service highlighted potential dangerous hotspots before cyclists were killed or seriously injured.

    Since the launch of Collideoscope, cycling has seen even more of an increase in popularity, and we suspect that there have been numerous new initiatives and campaigns developed to highlight and tackle the dangers faced by cyclists through insufficient provision of safe cycling infrastructure and dangerous driving.

    So a recent approach from the Merseyside Road Safety Partnership (MRSP) was of great interest: they wanted to explore how we might revisit this task and determine if Collideoscope still has a role to play — or whether some other approach might be more beneficial.

    Over the next three months, with the help of funding from MRSP, we plan to carry out a fresh discovery exercise to identify up to date user needs around collision prevention, and also determine how well served these issues are already by other similar initiatives around the country.

    In addition to speaking to cyclists, campaign groups and safety experts, we’ll also be working with MRSP and in particular the Cycling Safety team within Merseyside Police to better understand how submission of reports can actually contribute to the development of actionable policy.

    We’d also like to better understand the process of evidence submission, especially video evidence, in cases of near misses and collisions, and improve how that might lead to appropriate enforcement action.

    For the moment we’re approaching all of this with a very open mind. We’re not going to assume that Collideoscope as it currently exists is necessarily the correct approach, and even if it does have a role to play we suspect it may need to be substantially altered to cater to any newly identified user needs.

    Whilst this exploratory part of the project is going to be centred on Merseyside, we’re keen to hear from groups across the country and if you’d like to be consulted or participate in the research we would be keen to hear from you.

    In the meantime, ride safe and we’ll update with progress reports over the next few weeks.

    Photo by Roman Koester on Unsplash

  7. Zero tolerance for bullying and abusive behaviour in the Civic Tech community

    Like many others we were shocked to read the allegations of attempted rape, and physical and verbal abuse leveled at Clay Johnson, a former senior staff member at Sunlight Foundation – our fellow Civic Tech organisation in the USA.

    Our thoughts are with the women affected and the staff of Sunlight and the other organisations involved.

    It was brought to my attention that Johnson attended a mySociety meeting in 2008 and retreat in 2011; so I’ll take this opportunity now to condemn the behaviour described – it has no place in our community.

    No field or sector is immune from the potential for abuse – just because we happen to be in the business of ‘tech for good’, that doesn’t mean as a sector we’re automatically any more or less likely to allow abuse to take place.

    Whilst these higher profile and serious revelations are the ones that make the headlines, there can often exist a spectrum of abuse, bullying, and inexcusable behaviour that is tolerated, apologised for, or just plain accepted as part of the culture.

    It’s the job of all of us in positions of responsibility in all organisations to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying or discriminatory behaviour which is the soil that allows these abuses to flourish.

    We extend our support to the new team at Sunlight, and we are committed helping identify and call out — and ultimately stamp out — elements of the wider culture that allowed this to take place.

     

    Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

  8. Where there’s muck there’s brass

    We created FixMyStreet Pro to help councils and city governments better manage inbound street reports and issues from their residents.

    In the past few months we’ve rolled out the FixMyStreet Pro service to new customers including Bath & North East Somerset, Buckinghamshire and Rutland councils; each of whom are taking the opportunity to get rid of legacy software, simplify their operations and make use of a much simpler and intuitive way for their residents and staff to make and manage reports.

    We’re now looking for input from councils to help us guide the next phase of our service development on FixMyStreet Pro.

    Having spoken to dozens of councils we think we can help them save more money by extending FixMyStreet Pro to other areas like waste and environment services and we would like to explore how much development work that might entail.

    Not just for streets

    As FixMyStreet’s name would suggest our focus so far has been on handling issues related to highways like potholes, lighting and gullies (drains to me and you), but FixMyStreet Pro already handles reports for a whole range of issues beyond streets.

    Typically council users of FixMyStreet Pro have around 13 to 15 different self-selected categories that they accept reports on – each of which can be directed to different teams or departments. Tree reports can be sent directly to the parks department, graffiti or abandoned cars can be passed along to the just the right team in street cleansing.

    These ‘front end reports’ all have one thing in common: all we need to make the report is a location and description, plus a contact for the reporter, which could be as simple as an email address or phone number.

    But once you get deeper into the glamorous world of bins and waste services for individual residents the situation gets a little more complicated.

    Missed bin collections, requests for recycling bags, bulky waste collection – these all require the resident to be identified, the particular property to be checked with the UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number), and in some cases payments levied and collected.

    FixMyStreet Pro doesn’t currently offer these additional waste services, although it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see how we could add these adjacent features to the service, not least because we already do a lot of the pieces across our other commercial services.

    Fortunately there has already been a lot of work done to define common standards, such as the Local Waste Service Standards Project from 2016 and more recent work by individual councils to apply some of this work – we also have a lot of our own research and experience to draw upon with numerous specific feature requests from our current local authority clients.

    Let’s talk

    To make this happen we’d like to recruit at least two or three friendly councils available for interviews and possibly a workshop or two, to help us determine specific requirements and test out some of our early prototypes and hypotheses. From here we’d aim to develop these features into fully working aspects of FixMyStreet Pro over the summer.

    If this is of interest to you, if you’re already grappling with this in your own council, or you’d just like to find out more, please get in touch with enquiries@fixmystreet.com and we can have a chat.

    In the meantime you can always find out more about what FixMyStreet Pro can do on one of our regular Friday Webinars.

    Image: Smabs Sputzer CC BY 2.0

  9. Making better FOI requests in Hackney

    We’re in the process of conducting a discovery and prototyping exercise to understand how Hackney Council currently respond to FOI requests — and also Subject Access Requests (SAR) — ahead of the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), coming into force in May 2018.

    The aim is to explore how we can help members of the public find the information they are looking for when attempting to submit an FOI or SAR request and subsequently, when a request is complete, making it easier to publish the non-personal responses to requests through a searchable public disclosure log.

    Information should be free

    When someone makes a Freedom of Information request to a public body, we like to think that the information provided, often at a not insignificant cost, should be available freely to everyone, in public.

    That’s the basis of our Alaveteli software which runs in at least 28 countries, and WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK which has grown to become a vast database approaching half a million FOI requests and responses over the last 10 years, from almost 19,000 public bodies.

    From our own research we know that at least 15% of all FOI requests made in the UK pass through WhatDoTheyKnow, and that rises to over 30% of all requests to some central government departments. That still leaves somewhere over 70% of all requests that feasibly could be made available to the public.

    What usually happens instead is that these individual requests remain hidden away in private mailboxes and probably won’t ever see the light of day.

    Our FOI strategy

    In response to this we’re on a mission to expand the share of FOI requests that are catalogued and released in public through WhatDoTheyKnow. This requires us to have an understanding of the nature and source of these other requests.

    Broadly speaking around one third of these remaining requests are made by commercial businesses seeking contractual information from councils, NHS trusts and the like. About a fifth are from journalists researching for stories, another slice come from students or academics, and the remainder from individuals who are often making just a single request.

    Our overall strategy is pretty simple: expand the scope of WhatDoTheyKnow where we can to capture more requests directly, and create new services to cater to specific user needs.

    This thinking is what led to our service for journalists and campaigners, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. (So far we’ve been reluctant to directly cater to FOI requests made by commercial businesses, although on balance it would be better if these requests did eventually make it into the public domain.)

    Working with Hackney

    Through WhatDoTheyKnow we’ve been pretty firmly focused on helping citizens make good FOI requests. Some readers may remember our previous forays into this area, with WhatDoTheyKnow for Councils (since retired). We found issues with that: specifically, the assumption of immediate publication in particular placed us in position as both poacher and gamekeeper, creating a conflict of interest we weren’t comfortable with.

    However when we consider the full lifecycle of creating a response to an FOI request we still believe that we can use our experience of FOI to help public bodies support better drafting of initial requests and aid the management of responding to these requests.

    Which brings us back to our new collaboration with Hackney.

    More specifically, we are working with Hackney to explore how we can:

    • help users better submit clear and valid requests
    • integrate this request form with other sources of information (including with a disclosure log) to try and help users find what they need more quickly and conveniently
    • integrate with case management services so that queries are answered quickly and information published openly wherever possible
    • use information from previous requests to speed the allocation of a particular request to a specific council service
    • support compliance with current legislation, and pre-empt forthcoming changes (GDPR).

    We’re just at the beginning of this process but we’ll be blogging and sharing more updates over the next couple of months. We will also be speaking to other public sector bodies, councils in particular, about how they manage the process of responding to FOI requests, the challenges they face, and the opportunities this offers them to proactively release more publicly available data.

    Hackney are a great partner to work with. As you might be already aware they have been very active in adopting user-centred, agile methods to develop new services, they are comfortable and vocal talking about their work in public (check out the HackIT blog here) and they are especially focused on bringing their staff along with them as they evolve their approach.

    We’ve got a lot to learn from them, and hopefully they can benefit from some of our experience representing the needs of citizens.

    Get involved

    If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail — or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work — then please get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

    Update: See part 2 of this blog post here.

    Image: Simon Blackley CC BY-ND 2.0

  10. Further thoughts on TheyWorkForYou and parental leave

    Last week TheyWorkForYou received criticism from some MPs following requests from Emma Reynolds MP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave. Our initial response was not sufficient and we’re sorry.

    You can see our more nuanced follow up response on Twitter here:

    In summary we’ve committed to doing two things:

    1. We’ll speak to Parliament to see if a feed of absences could be made available to update the relevant section of TheyWorkForYou.com
    2. In the meantime we have made some changes so we can manually append a note on long-term absences due to paternal leave or ill-health on request from MPs offices

    TheyWorkForYou.com allows citizens to understand how their MPs are voting on issues on their behalf. We’re able to do this because we take the official record of what’s been discussed in Parliament, Hansard, and we represent it in a more ordered form that gathers together all of the votes from a particular issue together in one place.

    We can only work with what is provided via the official feeds from Parliament – we don’t actively try to gather additional data; we do however manually categorise each vote to allow them to be grouped together, but everything else is automated.

    So whilst we are reliant on what we’re able to source from the official Parliament feed, there is an extent to which we are re-presenting the original data in a more transparent way. Arguably that will change how people see it. As such we want to ensure that we properly represent as true a picture as possible.

    MPs, like anyone else, often have to spend time away from their jobs for extended periods, either on parental leave, or due to illness. As this is not reflected in voting records from Parliament and thus not displayed on TheyWorkForYou it can paint an inaccurate picture of an individual MP’s commitment – this is an issue that we have been aware of for a couple of years.

    This is particularly relevant in the case of women who take time off after having a child; the current practice in Parliament is that there is no provision for parental leave or ability for MPs to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf, and that’s the issue that MPs were debating on Thursday when Emma Reynolds made her observation about TheyWorkForYou.

    It’s a situation we agree is unfair and in need of urgent reform. We completely support any initiatives to stamp out practices that disproportionately discriminate against women in Parliament.

    The list of things that Parliament needs to address in order to improve its working conditions is long and and deep-seated, that’s not something that mySociety can fix – the only people who can do that are MPs and staff in Parliament themselves and we’ll continue to support these changes where we can.

    We know that records of attendance aren’t kept for MPs and we blogged about it previously. We also know that this should in principle be possible as they do publish absences of leave for Lords.

    So what we have at least done in the meantime is put in place a workaround for TheyWorkforYou.

    If we can get the aforementioned list of absences from an official Parliament feed then we’ll look to include that alongside relevant sections of voting records on TheyWorkForYou. This would be our preferred solution.

    If, as we suspect, this just is not available or may be some time in coming, then for the moment we will manually append a note to an MPs voting record on request from their office.

    This will at least allow us take care of the most clear cut cases.

    However as a solution this is far from ideal as it will mean that we are entirely reliant on being notified when an MP is away and when they return, which leaves a lot of opportunity for inaccurate record keeping.

    With the best will in the world, we all know that human error can creep in to manual systems — of course we’d never suggest that an MP would lie about taking a leave of absence, that’d be ridiculous; but it would be easy for those about to go on maternity leave to forget to engage in a piece of admin that isn’t even required by Parliament. TheyWorkForYou is familiar to a lesser or greater extent by different MPs and they regard it as significant to a greater or lesser degree. This being so, we’d never be entirely confident that we were presenting a completely consistent and accurate record.

    It puts us in a position where we are inadvertently going to be held responsible for keeping track of each MP’s attendance without the means of actually carrying out this role to an acceptable standard. It also raises the issue of where we draw the line – there are many reasons an MP may not be able to attend Parliament other than long-term illness or parental leave; having received such requests over the years from MPs, we can be sure this is going to come up again and again, so we suspect that this won’t be the end of the discussion.

    That being said we agree that applying a short term patch to support the cause of parental leave in Parliament is a price worth paying and we’ll deal with the follow ups as best we can in the meantime.

    Image: Andrew Bowden CC BY-SA 2.0