In 2005, UK citizens obtained rights under the Freedom of Information Act. In a nutshell, we have the right to ask publicly-funded bodies for information, and, if they hold the information, in most cases they are obliged to provide it.
While these rights are highly beneficial to the populace, they do, of course, prove worrisome, inconvenient and irritating to some of those in public office. They were scrutinised once in 2013, by a Justice Committee at which WhatDoTheyKnow were invited to give evidence, and now there looks to be another potential attack.
On Friday, the Cabinet Office announced the establishment of a cross-party Commission on Freedom of Information, in a statement which on the one hand asserts their commitment to transparency, and on the other suggests a desire to move away from it under certain circumstances.
Pivotal to the announcement is the stated aim to ensure that “a private space is protected for frank advice” within government policy-making, which we interpret to mean that the law would be modified to ring-fence certain information, preventing its access via the FOI Act. As has already been suggested elsewhere (for example, on the BBC website), the commission’s review panel might have been pre-selected specifically to include known opponents to the Act.
The WhatDoTheyKnow team, supported by mySociety and its overseeing body UKCOD, agree with the Cabinet Office’s statement that the advances made in government transparency since the introduction of the Act are to be broadly welcomed.
However, we are also gravely concerned by the proposal for restricting the FOI Act’s reach within government. We hope that the commission will consider that, while there is a cost to Freedom of Information, there is also a huge benefit to the nation.
Freedom of Information allows citizens to access information from public bodies, the authorities that we fund ourselves. When those bodies operate in secrecy, they are hiding truth from not only the people they are supposed to serve, but the people who finance their very existence.
It’s the sign of a thriving democracy when the actions of our governing bodies are functionally transparent. FOI helps uncover and discourage corruption, and provides checks and balances to the actions of the authorities working on our behalf.
But for FOI to really work it has to be applied across all departments, in all public bodies, with as few loopholes or exceptions as possible. If Government itself is shown to be sidestepping its responsibilities in transparency, then what is to stop other authorities from taking their cue from them? As we learned at our recent Alaveteli conference, during which we heard from practitioners running FOI sites in many countries, when bodies stop responding to requests, public accountability suffers.
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we know there’s a massive public demand for information, because we process more than 5,000 FOI requests per month. The information that we then publish online is accessed on average by a further 20 readers per request. We strongly wish to be able to go on providing this service to our users, and for it to apply across all public authorities.
We await concrete proposals being made available for a full public consultation, whereupon we would be keen to participate from our unique position of running WhatDoTheyKnow, the UK’s only public freedom of information website. We will be doing all we can to defend your right to information—from every authority.
Image: Redvers (CC-BY-ND)
Private data, containing personal details of the general public, is accidentally released by public authorities at least once a fortnight, say mySociety.
The volunteer team behind WhatDoTheyKnow, mySociety’s freedom of information website, have dealt with 154 accidental data leaks made by bodies such as councils, government departments and other public authorities since 2009, and these are likely to represent only the tip of the iceberg.
On the basis of this evidence, we are again issuing an urgent call for public authorities everywhere to tighten up their procedures.
How WhatDoTheyKnow works
Under the Freedom of Information act, anyone in the UK may request information from a public body.
WhatDoTheyKnow makes the process of filing an FOI request very easy: users can do so online. The site publishes the requests and their responses, creating a public archive of information.
Public authorities operate under a code of conduct that requires personal information is removed or anonymised before data is released: for example, while a request for the number of people on a council housing waiting list may be calculated from a list including names, addresses and the reason for housing need, the information provided should not include those details.
Accidental data releases become particularly problematic when the data requested concerns the details of potentially vulnerable people.
Hidden data is not always hidden
When users request information through WhatDoTheyKnow, it’s often provided in the form of an Excel spreadsheet. But unfortunately, private data is sometimes included on those spreadsheets, usually because the staff member who provides it doesn’t understand how to anonymise it effectively.
For example, data which is in hidden tabs, or pivot tables, can be revealed by anyone who has basic spreadsheet knowledge, with just a couple of clicks.
By its very nature, data held by our public authorities can be extremely sensitive: imagine, for example, lists of people on a child protection register, lists of people who receive benefits, or as happened back in 2012, a list of all council housing applicants, including each person’s name and sexuality.
Our latest warning is triggered by an incident earlier this month, in which Northamptonshire County Council accidentally published data on over 1,400 children, including their names, addresses, religion and SEN status. Thanks to the exceptionally fast work of both the requester and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers, it was removed within just a few hours of publication, and the incident has been reported to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Concerned residents should contact the ICO or the council itself.
Advice for FOI officers
Back in June 2013, we set out the advice that we think every FOI officer should know. That advice still stands:
- Don’t release Excel pivot tables created from spreadsheets containing personal information, as the source data is likely to be still present in the Excel file.
- Ensure those within an organisation who are responsible for anonymising data for release have the technical competence to fulfil their roles.
- Check the file sizes. If a file is a lot bigger than it ought to be, it could be that there are thousands of rows of data still present in it that you don’t want to release.
- Consider preparing information in a plain text format, eg. CSV, so you can review the contents of the file before release.
Part of a larger picture
Not every FOI request is made through WhatDoTheyKnow—many people will send their requests directly to the public authority. Moreover, we can only react to the breaches that we are aware of: there are, in all probability, far more which remain undiscovered.
But because of WhatDoTheyKnow’s policy of making information accessible to all, by publishing it on the site, it’s now possible to see what an endemic problem this kind of treatment of personal data is.
When we come across incidents like these, we act very rapidly to remove the personal information. We then inform the public authority who provided the response. We encourage them to self-report to the Information Commissioner’s Office, and where the data loss is very serious, we may make an additional report ourselves.
La Constitución De Todos allows citizens to discuss, vote on and propose changes to each article of the constitution online, using code that originates from Morocco’s Legislation Lab from GovRight.
The launch comes in the context of the new Chilean president announcing that there will be a widespread public consultation on a constitution for the nation.
The two organisations might never have met, if it hadn’t been for the Poplus kick-off conference back in 2014, where the idea was first mooted, and GovRight stepped in to offer help.
The Poplus federation was founded on the idea that sharing civic code and knowledge can benefit organisations worldwide: this project is another superb example of exactly that.
From today, it’s much easier to buy transit-time maps from Mapumental. We’ve added a self-service shop which allows you to generate your own maps, instantly and easily.
The technical amongst you may like to know that the service queries the Mapumental API; for everyone else, it’s probably enough to say that your maps will just appear, as if by magic.
Mapumental maps are cheaper when you buy in bulk, so we’ve also integrated a credits system. If you know you’ll have an ongoing need for our maps, stock up on credits (also completely self-service) and you’ll soon start benefiting from some substantial discounts. We’ve included a nifty little credits calculator on the page, so you can find the price band that best suits your needs.
Check out the new interface at Mapumental now. All the benefits of a self-service checkout, none of those irritating “unexpected item in the bagging area” announcements.
Our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow has a fancy new frontage.
Coming hot on the heels of TheyWorkforYou’s new homepage, the fresh look is part of our rolling process of design improvements. Out goes the rather sober grey and burgundy colour scheme, and in comes a fetching cobalt blue paired with banana yellow.
As you might have guessed, though, there’s more to this than a new palette. Yes, in the fast-changing world of web design, fashions change and dated sites can run the risk of looking irrelevant—but we are also keen to ensure that any new design works for its keep.
Not just a pretty face
It’s important, when we invest time and resources into a redesign, that there are tangible improvements. So, like almost everything we do these days, the changes will be subjected to scrutiny from our Research team.
They’ll be checking that we’ve:
- Improved the site’s usability, making it more obvious how to browse or file FOI requests;
- Encouraged users to take the step of making an FOI request, even if the concept is a new one for them;
- Enabled people to understand what the FOI Act is, and what rights it confers.
That’s a lot to expect from a simple redesign, so let’s take a look at how we hope to achieve it.
Of course, the first thing visitors see is the title text. It may seem pretty simple, but, as anyone who writes will know, the shorter the sentence, the harder it is to get right.
Take it from us, this deceptively simple piece of copy represents quite a bit of anguished brainstorming:
It tries to distill a complex idea into something that absolutely everyone can understand, even if they’ve never heard of FOI before. Meanwhile, the subtitle highlights your legal right to information.
Alaveteli, the software this and many other FOI sites around the world are built on, has always included two figures on its sites’ homepages: the number of requests that have been made through the site, and how many public authorities it has contact details for. The image below displays WhatDoTheyKnow’s stats at the time of writing:
It’s a nice way of showing that the site is both useful and used, but there’s something else, too: when users see that other people have taken an action online, they’re more likely to take the plunge themselves. It’s the same thinking that informed our byline on WriteToThem: “Over 200,000 messages sent last year.”
How it works
The homepage now includes a simple graphic to show the path you can expect to take if you go ahead and file an FOI request on the site:
Breaking the process down into just three steps makes it look manageable, and there’s a link deeper into our help pages for people who want to understand the FOI Act better.
For those who prefer to browse
Some content remains the same. We’ve still included links to the latest successful requests—albeit lower down the page, so as not to distract from the page’s main message, that you can make a request. These show, more graphically than any piece of copy could, that you can get results:
They’re also a great way into the site for people who just want to browse: they are a random assortment of requests that have recently been marked as successful, and can often throw up some surprising and interesting subject matter.
Sharing the benefits
Provided that we discover that the design has been effective in the areas mentioned above, we hope to roll it out as an option on the wider Alaveteli codebase, so it can be implemented by anyone running an Alaveteli site.
Meanwhile, the open source code can be accessed on Github by anyone who would like to use it.
FixMyStreet for Councils delivers cost savings—and that’s a fact.
Oxfordshire County Council installed FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system in March 2013. Like every council, they were keen to see reductions in their expenditure, and were hopeful that FixMyStreet would help them in their aim to shift problem-reporting online.
We’re delighted to hear that, two years on, those benefits are tangible. Not only can they demonstrate a cut in call handling times, but they can also put a figure on just how much they have saved.
Tim White, Oxfordshire’s Service Improvement Lead in the Customer Service centre, says:
FixMyStreet has reduced the average handling time of our calls from nearly four minutes to around two minutes.
Robert Hill, Oxfordshire’s Web Services Manager, puts a figure on the savings, reckoning that the reduced time logging faults equates to £16,047.60 a year in staff costs.
But that’s just a small proportion of the reductions they could be looking at. Oxfordshire chose not to opt for full back-end integration at the time of install, but it is something they are now considering:
“By moving to an end to end system provided by FixMyStreet we would be able to remove additional cost by eliminating the need to inspect reports that meet certain criteria and passing them straight through for repair.”
mySociety’s agile approach has worked well for Oxfordshire. Tim White continued:
“Working with My Society has been a refreshing experience.
“They are very open to making changes to the way that the product works in order to improve both the customer experience and the experience for council employees.
“Using an agile approach to development means that we are able to get changes made quickly and incrementally, making the council more responsive to the demands of our residents.”
If you’d like to see a drop in your own call-handling times, and the associated cost benefits, take a look at FixMyStreet for Councils.
WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information website, through which you can send an FOI request to UK publicly-funded bodies. It is used in many different ways, by many different users.
Here’s a recent blog post by Doug Paulley which we think is worth highlighting. It uses a series of FOI requests across every council with social services responsibilities in England, Wales and Scotland, and every health and social care trust in Northern Ireland, to get to the truth of a simple question: whether or not a particular disability organisation, Leonard Cheshire, was honest when stating that they wanted to pay their carers a living wage.
We wanted to draw your attention to it because, as well as being a good read, it really highlights the innovative uses that can be made of the rights we enjoy under the FOI Act. It also shows that you don’t have to be a journalist to dig into a story like this. Perhaps it gives you ideas for something you’d like to investigate?
FixMyStreet for Councils is great for citizens, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s also great for councils.
Here are six ways in which FixMyStreet for Councils can help you save money and meet internal targets.
1. Proven cost savings
FixMyStreet for Councils’ highly usable interface has been proven to deliver channel shift, with shorter call times and resulting cost savings on staff FTE.
Read our recent figures from Oxfordshire County Council, or take a look at our case studies from Barnet Borough Council and the city of Zurich to see just what benefits these authorities saw with their FixMyStreet for Councils installations.
2. We take the risks
In these times of budgetary cuts, it helps to know there won’t be any unforeseen costs in maintenance or hosting. We manage all of that, and as it’s all included as standard, that counts as real added value.
Worried about the loss of data? No need: because FixMyStreet is all ‘in the cloud’, there’s no risk of it ever going missing.
3. Sustainable contracts
We know you’re looking for partners you can rely on. With twelve years in the business, we’re a solid, reliable organisation that can offer long-term contracts with no worries about sustainability.
4. Meet your Social Values Act quota
As a not-for-profit charity, mySociety ticks all the right boxes when it comes to your Social Values Act quota. Every penny we make goes towards our charitable projects, empowering people and giving better access to democracy.
mySociety also employs volunteers and runs various forms of outreach in the civic technology area, aided by profits from our commercial services—your money does good.
5. Accessible—for all your residents
FixMyStreet has a WCAG 2.0 accessibility level AA, opening it up to the blind, partially-sighted and any other users who rely on screen readers.
6. Open and transparent
If your council has an overall remit towards transparency and accountability, FixMyStreet offers a great step forward. Publishing all reports online, it provides a platform for you to show exactly what’s being fixed and what the persistent issues might be in each area.
FixMyStreet also provides a continually-updating source of data which can be invaluable in analysing common problems, report hotspots, response times and seasonal cycles.
Get in touch
if you’d like to know more about any of these points, or have further questions then please do drop us a line. We’ll be happy to talk.
This is a public service announcement for any organisations that have been making use of Google Ad Grants to run Adwords for free.
We’re the grateful recipient of a Google Ad Grant ourselves, which is why you might see our ads appearing on some Google searches. We find that Google Ads are a great channel to bring our sites to the attention of people who might not already know about them, but who are searching for phrases like “Who is my MP?”, “How did my MP vote?”, or “How can I report a pothole?”. Every year they bring us thousands of new visitors.
The single-domain rule
A couple of years ago, the rules around Google Ad Grants changed, stipulating that recipients must only link to a single domain, and that that should be the domain of the grantee organisation. For us, with our multiple sites, that meant making some changes. Our ads currently point at a series of landing pages here on the mySociety.org site, each of which acts as a springboard to one of our other domains.
This is permitted behaviour and in many cases it resulted in a pretty good user experience, allowing us to focus on exactly what the user was searching for, and deliver them there.
For example, if someone searches for ‘report a pothole’ and clicks on our ad, they’ll land on this page.
Inputting their postcode takes them directly to the second page of FixMyStreet, with no extra clicks than if they had gone through the homepage, plus there’s the opportunity for us to talk a bit about what the site does and why it exists at all.
Linking to additional domains
However, we recently discovered that Google Ad Grants’ rules have been relaxed a little (at least, they have here in the UK. As terms and conditions vary from territory to territory, you should check your own region’s Google Ad Grants terms and conditions). Here’s what they look like in the UK:
In certain cases, you may be able to promote multiple domains in a Google Ad Grants account after your original Grants application has been approved.
To request adding new domains to your account, fill out the Additional Website Domain Request form. Your request should be reviewed within 5 business days.
Reasons you can request an exception
You can request an exception to the website policy if you have other websites that:
- Promote ongoing projects with similar content owned by your organization
- Contain the same information as your main domain but for a different language
- Replace your original website because you’ve changed your domain since applying for Ad Grants
We applied and within just a couple of hours, we were authorised to link directly to our own websites.
This is brilliant for us because it means we can really maximise the value we get from the grant. We can now point searchers directly to deep content such as MPs’ voting records on TheyWorkForYou, and specific public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. We’ll probably also keep our landing pages, at least for the time being, because we think they are a good user path for the relevant search terms.
So, if this is a ruling that was causing you headaches, it is worth revisiting the terms and conditions and seeing whether you are now eligible to do the same. Let us know how you get on!
The Poplus community is spread all over the world—but that doesn’t stop us getting together whenever we can.
Poplus is a worldwide federation of people and organisations with an interest in civic tech. This Friday, we will be holding a virtual Show and Tell, hearing from two very different projects:
- Andrew Mandelbaum from SimSim in Morocco will be speaking about Nouabook. This is an application which enables anyone to contact their politicians in public, through Facebook. It uses the Poplus Component WriteIt.
- Matthew Landauer from OpenAustralia Foundation will be speaking about Cuttlefish, one of the latest pieces of software to be certified as a Poplus Component.
As well as hearing all about these projects, there’ll be a chance to catch up and have a chat about all things Poplus/civic tech. Everyone is welcome.
We’ll be using an online platform called QiqoChat to host this call: sign up here.
You can create a free account using Facebook/Google/LinkedIn/Meetup/Twitter or a regular email address. Instructions for connecting by phone or computer microphone are available when you sign in and click “Participate”.
This Friday, 12 June. Times are as follows:
• 5 AM – US Pacific
• 7 AM – US Eastern
• 8 AM – Chile/Argentina
• 12 PM – UK
• 7 PM – Taiwan and Malaysia
• 9 PM – Sydney
• 11 PM- New Zealand