1. How 350 FOI requests will increase the chance of success for start-ups

    Gavin Chait hates walking past empty shops.

    We’re talking about shops where the only person inside is a bored cashier, waiting for customers. Gavin sees it as a sign that the business should never have been set up in that location, and, more importantly, as something that’s completely avoidable.

    With his company Whythawk, he’s on a mission to get that changed — and he’s using Freedom of Information to do so. It’s a very interesting case study that shows just how WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information platform, can be used for the social good.

    So, if you have a few minutes, sit back and watch Gavin explain what led him to make 350 FOI requests, one to each local authority in England and Wales — and what he did when many of them were turned down.

    You can read more about the whole project at Pikhaya.com.

    Thanks very much to Gavin for taking the time to talk to us.

    Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve used one of mySociety’s sites? We’d love to hear from you: just drop us a line on communications@mysociety.org.


    Image: Dan Thompson (CC)

  2. 12 new topics for TheyWorkForYou: how did your MP vote?

    Today we’ve added twelve new topics to the voting pages for every MP on TheyWorkForYou. Covering important areas such as membership of the EU, mass surveillance of data, and military action against Daesh/ISIL, these voting lines will help give an even better at-a-glance picture of what your MP stands for, and how that was reflected in Parliament.

    Check your own MP’s votes on these topics by inputting your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage:

    Where to input your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage

    and then clicking on the ‘voting record’ tab:

    Voting tab on TheyWorkForYou's MP pages

    You’ll see all your MP’s voting lines laid out in several topic areas on a single page:

    selection of voting lines on TheyWorkForYou

    From there, it’s easier to explore further by clicking ‘show votes’, which will take you to a page listing every vote taken into consideration when calculating the MP’s stance.

    For a full explanation on the methodology behind these pages — a combination of manual and automated inputs — see our previous blog post.

    How do we choose which topics to include? It’s all driven by what MPs have voted on in Parliament, and consequently how much data there is to draw from in any specific subject area (there are also a few ‘topics in waiting’: areas we know we want to cover, but where there need to be some more votes before we have sufficient data to present meaningful stances).

    New topics in full

    The new voting lines we’ve added are:

    • In Constitutional Reform
      • Reducing the voting age
    • In Home Affairs
      • Mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities
      • Merging police and fire services under Police and Crime Commissioners
    • In Transport (a new topic area)
      • High speed rail network
      • Greater public control of bus services
      • Publicly-owned railways
    • In Foreign Policy & Defence
      • UK membership of the EU
      • The right to remain for EU nationals
      • Military action against the group known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh
    • In Taxation & Employment
      • The reduction of Capital Gains Tax
    • In Housing (a new topic area)
      • Secure tenancies for life
      • Charging a market rent to high earners renting a council home

    We hope this helps you see, even more clearly, the effect your MP has had on a broad range of national and international issues.

    Don’t forget that we also offer the chance to discuss these votes (or any other issue) with your MP. Just click the ‘send a message’ button at the top of the page to go to WriteToThem.com, where you can compose a message to your representatives quickly and easily.

    Image: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

  3. Lasa’s simplifying Universal Credit, with MapIt

    The Universal Credits system is replacing many other welfare benefits… but slowly. Its roll-out won’t be complete until 2022, meaning that many are, understandably, confused about just what applies within their own local area.

    Now Lasa, in collaboration with the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG), have launched a tool to help with that problem. Just input a postcode, and it displays information about which benefits apply — and, crucially, where to go for advice in your area.

    Lasa's Universal Credit tool

    Like Lasa’s previous tools (we wrote about their SocialCareInfo tool previously), UniversalCreditInfo uses MapIt to match postcodes to services.

    It’s part of a suite of offerings, also available as widgets that can be placed onto any website. All fall within Lasa’s remit to support organisations in the delivery of social welfare law advice to the disadvantaged communities they serve.

    Lasa's tools as widgets

    We’re always glad to see MapIt used in other people’s projects, especially those that make a complex system easier to understand.

    Apparently advice workers are already expressing their gratitude for the fact that they can have this information at their fingertips — so hats off to Lasa.


    Image: Russell Davies (CC)

  4. The small symbol that tells you all is well

    When you send a Freedom of Information request, a clock starts ticking. Here in the UK, public authorities have 20 working days in which to respond — but of course they can only do so if they’ve received the request.

    And, while email is generally reliable, we’re all familiar with the occasional mishaps it can bring: mailboxes that are full, accounts that have been closed down, or messages being returned because they look too much like spam.

    As Liz’s post yesterday mentioned, our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli now includes a new feature which verifies that your message actually has been delivered.

    Sign here please

    Email works a bit like signed-for physical mail. When a letter is delivered to a recipient they either sign to say they’ve received the letter, or the mail company records that there was no-one available to accept the delivery. This lets the mail company keep the sender up to date with where their letter is. Mail servers do the same — the recipient server sends a confirmation that a particular email has been received, or an error code is reported by your mail server if there’s a problem delivering the email.

    Like physical mail, we can only verify that the message has been accepted at the destination address. It’s then under the recipient’s control to get it to the right person at that address, a bit like a receptionist receiving a letter for an employee 10 floors above. We think that if an authority’s mail server confirms that one of our emails has been delivered, it’s their responsibility to ensure it reaches the correct people to be able to answer your FOI request.

    Proof of receipt

    Look at the header of any request on WhatDoTheyKnow, and within 24 hours, in most cases you’ll now see a small green ‘delivered’ confirmation:

    Example of the green 'verified' tick on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

    Most users can click on this to see further confirmation:

    Your request has been delivered - example from whatDoTheyKnow

    But if you’re the owner of the request, when you click on the green ‘delivered’ link, you’ll see information from the mail logs as the message passed through our server. If there’s ever a query about whether or not a message was delivered, you can hand these on to the authority to help them analyse any issues.

    Exmple of a user's view of the mailpath on WhatDoTheyKnow

    On the rare occasions that something goes wrong, here’s what users will see instead:

    What requesters see when something goes wrong on WhatDoTheyKnow

    – and if it’s your own request, again, you’ll have access to the mail logs.

    Small but mighty

    This feature might look small, but there’s a lot of thinking behind it — just check the length of the trail on Github, our ticketing system. Anyone will be able to understand the amount of discussion and problem-solving that went into the addition of this small green tick, while the more technically-minded may also find it interesting to see the coding solutions as they unfolded.

    This small green tick also gives users something rather powerful: proof that their request was received by the authority’s mail server at a specific time, should that be disputed.

    The suggestion for this feature came initially from one of the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers. It took some time to implement, but we’re pleased to say that it has now been made available for all Alaveteli sites in release 0.25.0.0.


    Image: Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (CC)

  5. Keeping up with fast-moving politics

    That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.

    And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.

    Quick reactions

    This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.

    In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.

    Information is key

    Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):

    brexit stance

    Check your MP now.

    Increased numbers

    Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.

    And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.

    Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:

    TWFY post referendum

    And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:

    WriteToThem post referendum

    Manual changes

    Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.

    Oh, and about that data:

     

    Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.

    That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.

    FireShot Screen Capture #738 - 'Emily Thornberry MP, Islington South and Finsbury - TheyWorkForYou' - www_theyworkforyou_com_mp_11656_emily_thornberry

     

    Thinking social

    We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.

    So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:

    crabb

    At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:

    bojo

    Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:

    Gove speeches

    See all the archived speeches here.
    (Oh – and don’t forget to let us know if you have great ideas for using SayIt)

    What’s next?

    We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.

    And after that? Well, who knows…. let’s just keep an eye on the news.

    Image: Megan Trace (CC)

    Save

  6. Videos from TICTeC 2016

    Videos from TICTeC — our Impacts of Civic Technologies Conference — are now available for viewing.

    So, whether you were there and you want to experience it all over again, or you just want to see what you missed out on, settle down and enjoy accounts from some of the most interesting civic tech projects around the world right now.

    What is TICTeC?

    Here’s mySociety CEO Mark Cridge explaining what TICTeC is, and why we run it:

    And if that’s left you hungry for more, make sure you visit our YouTube channel to watch the other TICTeC videos.

    You might also enjoy the slides, photos and other media that have all been collected together on the TICTeC 2016 page.

  7. They’re back, and they’re bad: WriteToThem responsiveness stats

    If you’ve used WriteToThem, you’ll know that two weeks after you submit a message to your MP, we send a follow-up questionnaire to check whether you received a response.

    Each year, we collate that data to see how MPs are doing at responding to constituents’ mails*, and we publish the results. (This year, we waited a bit longer than usual so that we could cover a full year since the general election.)

    They’re now live, so you can go and check exactly how your own MP did — just enter your postcode.

    Some interesting stats

    • Because we’ve been running these figures since 2005 (with a gap between 2008-13), we can make some comparisons. We’re disappointed to see that the responsiveness rate of MPs has been steadily declining. In 2005, 63% of respondents indicated that they’d had a reply; this year, that’s down to 50%.
    • Before we analysed the data, we thought that new MPs, elected in 2015, would perhaps perform better than the jaded incumbents. Not so: on average ‘old’ MPs responded to 53.07% of constituents’ messages, while the newly-elected managed only 46.10%. One new MP, Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil, came in at 635 out of the 642 MPs eligible for inclusion.
    • Receiving more mail doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll perform poorly. Notable in this respect is Gerald Kaufman, who managed a 79% responsiveness rate despite having the second largest postbag.
    • And being in the public eye doesn’t necessarily impact an MP’s responsiveness: Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn performed poorly, but have done so in prior years, too. Equally, we suppose it follows that a poor responsiveness level doesn’t necessarily impact on electoral success.
    • We were curious to know whether there’s a gender divide when it comes to responsiveness. There is, but it’s very slight: on average male MPs responded to 52% of correspondence; female MPs to 50%.
    • And another thing we’ve been asked about, sometimes by MPs themselves. There is no significant relationship between parliamentary constituency size and responsiveness. In other words, having more people in a constituency does not automatically mean that the MP is a poor responder.

    Anyway, enough of this — go and check how your MP did, and then tell everyone else to do the same.

    *This needs a caveat. Our data only covers messages sent via WriteToThem, and, furthermore, only those messages where users completed the questionnaire. You can see the full methodology on the rankings page.

  8. We think we can do better

    We held our second TICTeC conference in Barcelona at the end of May. The feedback has been generally very positive, and there are many aspects that we were very pleased with: the quality and diversity of the speakers, the smooth running of the event, the opening up of debates that will continue to resonate in the civic tech world.

    But, nothing’s ever perfect, and on reflection there are some aspects, some large, most small, which we can improve for our next big event.

    These are conversations that often happen behind the scenes, but we thought it might be useful for anyone else planning a big event or conference, if we share some of the things that didn’t work so well, and our plans for making things better next time.

    Please do feel free to join in the discussion in the comments below, whether you were there or not.

    Timing

    It was obvious from the number of hands up, and disappointed faces, that we hadn’t allowed enough time for questions or discussion about the presentations. We’d allocated twenty minutes’ speaking time to each speaker, intending that slot to include questions and discussion. But most speakers filled, or almost filled, their time with their presentation.

    Next year we propose formally splitting the slot into 10 minutes of presentation time and 10 minutes of discussion time for each speaker. Oh, and although we were sitting in the front row waving ‘five minutes left’ cards in the speakers’ faces, we appreciate that there are improvements to be made here, too. We’ll use countdown clocks to make it very easy for the speakers to see how much time there is left.

    Better balance

    mySociety cares so much about gender balance that we even built an app around it. And yet we could have done better when it came to the gender balance of the panels.

    Speakers were chosen on the quality of their submission, and while we don’t believe we have any internal biases we’d be interested to see what happened if we introduced an entirely name- and gender-blind selection process.

    For 2016, there were no all-male panels, but overall the gender-split of speakers was 60% male to 40% female (incidentally, the same gender split as made up the delegates as a whole).

    Also, there was a strong European and US bias among our speakers, with only 8 out of 62 coming from outside North America or Europe. So we could be criticised for giving a voice to those who already speak quite loudly enough in the civic tech world.

    We’ll definitely aim for more equal balances next year.

    Cloakroom

    No-one likes lugging their heavy bags around, and this especially becomes an issue on the final day of an international conference, when people may have checked out of their hotel and have their luggage with them, too.

    Yet in our chosen venue, there was nowhere for people to put coats and bags. This is a pretty simple fix — we’ll make sure that there’s a secure cloakroom next year.

    Coffffeee

    Coffee was only available during breaks, and wasn’t self-service.

    Conferences run on coffee (and tea) — we know that — but it was whisked away at the end of the breaks and people had to wait to be served when it was there. Next year there will be limitless, self-serve coffee available the whole time. Because it’s important.

    Somewhere to network

    There was no real networking/seating area. Other than in the auditoria, there wasn’t a space where people could sit and catch up between sessions. That’s partly because Barcelona didn’t pony up the stunning sunny weather we thought we could rely on, so no-one felt inclined to linger in the outdoor space, but still. Something to allow for next time.

    Time to mingle

    There wasn’t enough time for networking/breaks. We crammed an awful lot into the one and half days, but it meant for a pretty packed programme. Next year we’ll run the event for two full days and allow more break/networking time.

    Handy maps

    The venue map should have been printed on the main programme, rather than being a separate insert in the bag. That was confusing and yet another piece of paper for people to wrangle.

    All hands on deck

    We needed more mySociety people on hand. We ran the whole event (including note-taking and session chairing) with a team of seven. With more people, we could have ensured that, for example, the reception desk was always manned. Raising the numbers would also make things a little less stressful for our team.

    The usual wifi issue

    The wifi wasn’t great. This is a perennial issue, we know. It’s hard to know how a venue is going to perform when there are 140 people with multiple devices each trying to get online.

    Next year we’ll try and contact those who ran previous events at the shortlisted venues to find out how things were for them.

    Something we all got right

    At the last moment, we decided to introduce a Code of Conduct, setting down in black and white what kind of behaviour was not acceptable at the conference, and providing an anonymous route via which to report any contraventions.

    We’re glad to say that this wasn’t used — we hope we’re right in surmising that this is because it wasn’t needed — but more than one delegate thanked us for putting it in place, and it’s something we’ll be replicating and refining for future events.

  9. Inform yourself before the referendum

    If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.

    On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.

    We believe in an informed vote.

    That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.

    Check the facts

    Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.

    They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.

    Ask some questions

    Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.

    But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.

    You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to ask for information from UK authorities, and AskTheEU for EU bodies — AskTheEU is a site run on our Alaveteli Freedom of Information software.

    Know where to vote

    Democracy Club are the stalwart crew of volunteers who crowdsourced details of all candidates before the UK general election and again before the recent local elections.

    Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.

    Image: Eisenrah (CC)

     

  10. Does your council break the law?

    That’s the question that a WhatDoTheyKnow user recently asked on Reddit, after asking local authorities in the UK how they pay care and support workers on sleep-in shifts.

    Many care worker positions require regular overnight shifts. Depending on the job, you might be there ‘just in case’, with an expectation that you’ll generally get a night of uninterrupted sleep; or you might be there specifically so that you can respond to regular calls for help from clients.

    Either way, you’ve been contracted to be away from your home, ready for work if needed. That’s why the law states that the national minimum wage should apply to sleep-in shifts — but as this user discovered through a systematic series of Freedom of Information requests, many councils fail to meet this standard.

    It’s always good to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used to uncover this kind of important data. You can read more, check how your own council fares, and see the conversation unfold via some interesting users’ comments on Reddit, or see the original requests on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    Image: Fiona Kwan (CC)