Open Data: an essential, not just ‘nice to have’
Would societies around the world be better able to respond to the pandemic, if more or better open data were freely available?
That was the question put to our expert panel on Tuesday, in the first in our series of online TICTeC Seminars.
Karabo Rajuili of Open Ownership, Olivier Thereaux from Open Data Institute and Fabrizio Scrollini of the Open Data Latin American Initiative (ILDA) were led in a discussion by our own Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.
We heard of the need for — and simultaneously the impossibility of — a rapidly-constructed open data standard; the benefits and dangers of releasing data about COVID to a potentially uninformed public; and the need for good ownership data to be freely available in a fast-moving procurement environment in which there may not be the tools to investigate where money is being spent.
After the speakers had laid out their positions, the floor was opened for questions, each of which ignited still more informed debate. Finally, attendees were invited to a quick (and optional!) networking session in which they could speak to other attendees more directly.
There are still two more TICTeC Seminars in this series to go, so do join us to take part in the conversation.
On 20 October, panelists will discuss why it’s taken a pandemic for more parliaments to digitise; while in November (date TBC) the topic will be the climate crisis. Find full details for both sessions here, and don’t forget you can sign up for TICTeC updates.
Also: if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.
Humanity & Inclusion is a charity working to combat the injustices faced by people with disabilities and vulnerable populations in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.
Their recent campaign, ‘Stop Bombing Civilians’, encourages supporters to protest the bombardment of innocent citizens in areas of conflict like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
As their website explains, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. Many are left injured or disabled with their lives and livelihoods completely ruined — surely all would agree that this is not a just or desired outcome of bombardment, no matter what your view on the conflicts generally.
And so we were gratified to learn that WriteToThem, our ‘contact your MP’ service, is playing a part in this campaign.
A toolkit for speaking out
Humanity & Inclusion have put together a set of actions that supporters can take, from signing a petition to taking a selfie and sharing it on social media — or writing to your MP.
“WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”
And that’s where we came in: this last action is managed through integrating WriteToThem on the charity’s campaign page (something that any campaign can do, for free).
We asked Tom Shelton from Humanity & Inclusion to explain more about how they used our service within their integrated campaign.
Up to date contacts
Tom explained that a central part of the campaign is the petition, and it is easy enough for them to run petitions by using the forms on their own website.
However, when they’re asking supporters to directly email MPs, it’s just too complex to maintain and implement the dataset of politicians’ contacts themselves.
“Yes, this data is publicly available, but like many small organisations, we have no capacity for maintaining its integrity”.
Flexible and free
So the charity looked around to see what tools were available.
“There are some impressive tools out there, but most of them are pretty expensive given our modest needs. In previous years, we have used a relatively low cost paid tool for this type of ‘email your MP’ campaign.
“We needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use.”
“However, given that this new campaign was quite targeted, we were expecting a relatively low volume of emails, so we needed something that was easy to implement on our website, and we didn’t want to make any investment in a paid tool that would involve setup costs.
“We also wanted to avoid an ongoing subscription cost as we knew that our campaign would probably be paused at various points and then re-activated later (say, during elections, parliamentary recess etc).
“In particular, we needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use, and would help them to approach MPs in a way that is appropriate and would get the best response.
“Based on this, WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”
For all levels of coding knowledge
How easy was it to add the tool to their website?
Tom says that, for anyone with basic web skills, the postcode box option is very simple to set up.
“The more complex integration is also quite straightforward, but due to time constraints, we opted to integrate the postcode finder widget.
“The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent.”
“This fitted nicely in with our website and immediately worked. The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent, as is the guidance for how best to use the tool for effective campaigns.”
Humanity & Inclusion are actually a great example of an organisation who have read the guidelines and included them into their campaigning plans: if you visit the ’email your MP’ page of their campaign, you’ll see that they encourage you to write messages in your own words, while providing inspiration for some of the points that might be included.
This is because WriteToThem blocks mass copies of identical messages, based on evidence that these tend to be regarded as a nuisance by politicians, rather than having the desired effect.
Thank you very much to Tom and Humanity & Inclusion for sharing their experience of using WriteToThem as one part of a simple but effective online campaign.
And now, if you have been convinced of their cause, we suggest that you take advantage of their campaign pages, and email your MP.
Image: ©Peter Biro/HI
Nada, 10, was injured in a bombing with her father in Mosul. As a result of her injuries her leg was amputated below the knee and she will need jaw surgery to help make eating less difficult.
Do you live in a tower block as a social tenant?
Have you ever had — or are you still having — problems with any of the following?
- Damp or mould
- Leaking pipes
- Cracks in the walls or ceilings
- Broken windows, doors, lifts, etc
- Poor repairs, or repairs that never get done
- Fire risks, such as dangerous cladding or cluttered fire escape routes
- Pests such as fleas, cockroaches, vermin or moth
- Unsafe gas or electricity
- Poor heating
- Landlords that don’t respond, or don’t fulfil their legal duties
If so, Tower Blocks UK would love to hear from you — and if the problem is ongoing, help to point you in the right direction so that you can take steps to get things resolved.
As you may recall, we recently co-launched the FixMyBlock website in partnership with Tower Blocks UK. It is designed to help tenants get problems resolved, whether that takes a letter quoting the relevant laws to your landlord, or escalating the issue to another level. It suggests a range of possible routes, from contacting your local councillor, for example, to getting together with other tenants to form a united action group.
Now, it would be great to hear tenants’ real-life experiences so they can be included on the site. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at the end of the story — you got your problem fixed — or are still trying different methods to solve the issue. Either way, we’d really like to know more.
Sharing experiences can help others who are having a similar problem. It tells them they are not alone, and may give new ideas on how to rectify the issue.
So, if you have a tower block-related problem and you’re happy to tell us all about it, please let us know on this form.
Image: Professor Paul Wenham-Clarke
Working around the climate emergency, you can’t get far before realising that you must look to yourselves. And so, our environmental policy has been added to this site — you’ll see a link in the footer of every page.
We’ve blogged previously about the work mySociety is doing within our Climate practice — the website we created for the UK’s Climate Assembly hosted an important milestone today as the final report launched; and we’re still collecting local councils’ climate plans to better allow for national analysis. Then, the third in our series of TICTeC seminars, this November, takes as its subject the climate crisis.
But of course, every organisation also has its own responsibility towards the climate. To this end, we’ve been working on the first version of our environmental policy. It’s the outward reflection of the work we’ve been conducting internally over the past few months, to examine how we can best cut mySociety’s carbon emissions.
You can see the policy here. We will keep working on it. If you’ve been doing the same work within your organisation, or have ideas for other ways for remote-working tech organisations to cut carbon, we would very much welcome your input.
Image: Bill Oxford
Today sees the launch of FixMyBlock, an online toolkit for people living in tower blocks.
Tower blocks come with their own distinct problems, from unsafe construction to risks of fire. The shocking events at Grenfell Tower have brought such issues back to the public eye, but we don’t have to go far in history to see other disasters such as the Ronan Point collapse and the Lakanal House fire.
The simple fact is that not all tower blocks are safe, and not all landlords are doing enough to address this.
Today, thousands of tenants are living in conditions that affect their health and their safety. While working on this project, we heard of people living with extreme mould and damp, with recurrent cockroach infestations, and, shockingly, with cracks in the structure of their flats that are wide enough to pass a hand through (watch this video for a visual depiction you won’t forget).
Additionally, since Grenfell, many tenants have been living in fear that their blocks, constructed with the same unsafe cladding, might suffer a similar fate.
And, though they’ve tried to ask their landlords to address their concerns, they haven’t got anywhere.
So what can we do about it?
Our project began as an investigation into how our popular street reporting software – FixMyStreet – could be repurposed to help tower block tenants report and monitor safety and maintenance problems in their buildings.
But during the discovery phase (which you can read about in our report here) we found that reporting issues wasn’t the problem most tenants were facing. And our alpha testing (documented in this report here) confirmed it – a FixMyStreet for tower blocks wouldn’t actually help. Our research showed that most tenants already knew who to report their issue to. And, unlike on FixMyStreet where public reporting can help highlight problem areas, many residents were uncomfortable with reporting their safety concerns on a public forum.
A better reporting process could wait. Instead, together with Tower Blocks UK, we wanted to solve the real underlying problem: equipping tower block tenants with the necessary understanding of their rights, their paths to escalation, and the tools they need to get their voices heard.
FixMyBlock – empowering not reporting
So, despite the name, FixMyBlock isn’t a “FixMyStreet for tower blocks” – it’s a living, evolving toolkit of legal primers, template letters, case studies, and action guides, that will help tower block tenants make progress on what are often incredibly sticky, complicated safety and maintenance issues.
FixMyBlock begins by laying out the conventional steps to getting things fixed — but when these have failed, tenants can also access information on their legal rights and the power of collective action, with case studies demonstrating what has been achieved by residents’ groups, ongoing campaigns, press coverage and other channels of engagement.
mySociety has worked with Tower Blocks UK and a number of experts in the field to create the site, which Tower Blocks UK will continue to run after handover. The work has been funded by the Legal Education Foundation.
The site launches with information for social tenants in England and Wales, and in time Tower Blocks UK will expand the content to cover all types of tenancy across all of the UK. Meanwhile, much of the content is applicable for all, so don’t hold off from using it if you have a private landlord, or live in Scotland/NI — just be aware that some of the laws mentioned might differ in your own case.
Image: Jimmy Chang
We’ve recently introduced two new ways to locate yourself, and your reports, on FixMyStreet.
From up in the air
You might have noticed a discreet little ‘aerial’ button on the bottom of FixMyStreet’s map pages recently.
This toggles the view from the usual Ordnance Survey maps to a Bing aerial satellite view:
We hope this will make it easier for people to locate their reports accurately, in those cases where it’s a bit easier to identify landmarks from above.
This isn’t an entirely new departure for FixMyStreet: as far back as 2013 the site we made for the City of Zurich had a satellite view as default — and indeed, it still does.
At the moment, this feature is available on the nationwide fixmystreet.com, and on fifteen client authorities’ sites. Why not all authorities’ implementations? It’s basically to do with whether they have their own map servers: where we host the maps, it’s obviously more straightforward for us to deliver the alternative view.
Open Location Codes
Another option to help you find just the right spot for your report comes with the introduction of Open Location Codes, also known as OLCs or Plus Codes.
Coincidentally, these also have a connection with Zurich, as they were developed in Google’s offices there. They’re basically a more convenient and quicker way of entering latitude and longitude, and can be used to identify any spot on the planet (though of course, each FixMyStreet site has its own bounds).
As their name suggests, OLCs are open source and available for anyone to use. Want to try it out? Google Maps on mobile gives you an OLC when you drop a pin: see more details here.
This function adds to the number of ways you can search for a location on FixMyStreet from the homepage search box, which include inputting a postcode, a street name, an area, a town or city, latitude and longitude, and allowing the site to auto-locate you.
So here’s hoping these developments will allow for ever more accuracy in report locations.
Image: William Hook
mySociety staff are a varied and talented bunch, and it’s always interesting to find out more about what they get up to outside working hours. While some are tangoing, singing in choirs or foraging, others are sitting on the boards of organisations, or (busman’s holiday alert) developing their own tech.
But in a new one on us, Rebecca Rumbul, our Head of Research, is now leading a £multi-billion class action-type lawsuit against Oracle and Salesforce, concerning alleged breach of GDPR regulations in their advertising technology businesses.
We are fully behind Bec in her endeavour; but did want to stress that this is something she’s taking forward as a private individual, and not part of her professional role with mySociety. The claim is very interesting, and you can find out more on her personal blog here.
While we’re talking about privacy, we should restate our commitment to GDPR and protecting the privacy of all our users. We made the decision last year to stop using tracking cookies on our sites and in our newsletters, and we regularly conduct privacy and data protection audits to ensure we are not collecting a scrap more information than we need to.
That’s all! Now best of luck to Bec and her legal team in their endeavours.
While the UK begins the process of trying to return to some kind of normality after lockdown, full access to information must also be restored.
Back in April, we put out a blog post examining the state of Freedom of Information during the covid-19 crisis, looking at the UK and more broadly across the world. State-sanctioned delays were seen almost universally.
While we understood the difficulties faced by authorities redeploying staff members to the frontline, we said then that the right to information was perhaps more vital than ever. In times of national crisis, transparency is crucial both for retaining trust in our leaders and for keeping check on their activities.
WhatDoTheyKnow users have been asking pertinent questions about the pandemic, from requests for data on the number of cases in prisons and care homes, to the basis on which decisions about the national response strategy have been made. Potential students want to know about universities’ plans for the coming year; citizens are asking about measures put in place by their councils to encourage social distancing. And meanwhile, of course, requests for non-coronavirus-related topics are equally pressing: who’s keeping an eye on Brexit, or making sure the climate crisis doesn’t slip off the agenda for example?
The state of play
We’ve been linking to that initial post from the top of WhatDoTheyKnow, so that people making requests could get some background to the delays they might be experiencing.
But since then the global situation has moved on, and so have some aspects of FOI provision. At the time of writing:
- The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is still stating that they “will not be penalising public authorities for prioritising other areas or adapting their usual approach during this extraordinary period.” Therefore, UK public authorities may still delay their requests without penalty. Read more on the ICO website.
- The Scottish Information Commissioner had previously introduced overseen a change that permitted [see below for clarification] a longer period in which authorities might respond to requests, but on 27 May a reversal came into effect and the period returned to its standard 20-day deadline. However, there is still an acknowledgement that the pandemic, and indeed their own previous relaxation of the required timescales, may have a knock on effect to requests made before that date. See full details here.
This does raise the question as to when the ICO foresees a return to business as usual. Of course, each authority will have its own experiences and challenges, with varying reasons for maintaining or removing an expectation of delayed responses. But they are guided by the regulator, and while the ICO continues to excuse lengthened response times, authorities may not hurry to do any different.
UPDATE: A representative from the Scottish Commissioner’s Office contacted us with the following clarification:
The changes in timescales under the FOI (Scotland) Act came about because the Scottish Parliament passed emergency legislation to change the timescales – they were not introduced by the Commissioner. Our position prior to the change in the law was set out in a statement we issued, and our comments, including concerns raised, on the legislation when it was introduced can be read here.
We’ve also sought to emphasise the importance of the duty to respond promptly, even during the period when the deadlines were extended, as set out in our guidance for requesting information during the pandemic. We think it’s important that requesters know their rights, and the right to a prompt response (not just one within 20/60 working days) is something that has remained consistent for FOI users throughout the pandemic.
Time to restore oversight
It’s unquestionably a time of great uncertainty for us all, with many returning to some semblance of normality while still unsure whether the much anticipated second peak is on the horizon. But given a national policy of this staged return, should the ICO not, like its Scottish counterpart, be encouraging authorities to do the same?
One compelling reason is hinted at by the Scottish Commissioner’s own caveat: that the longer the deadlines are allowed to extend, the more of a backlog will build up, causing further delays down the line.
We’d encourage authorities everywhere to re-examine any laxity they may have introduced at the start of lockdown, and to continue to do so regularly: is it still genuinely necessary now that staff may have been moved back from the covid-19 frontline?
And we’d urge them to treat the need for a timely, efficient FOI service as one of the top priorities during this uncertain period.
Image: Andrea Piacquadio
We are living in a historic age.
There are plenty of ways to see the truth of that right now. And here’s one more indicator: WriteToThem user numbers have exploded. Over the site’s lifetime (more than 15 years), we’ve never seen so many people using it to contact their representatives as we have during the last week or so.
See that big spike on the right? That represents almost 35,000 messages sent to MPs in the first twelve days of June, against a normal monthly average of around 4,000.
In total, so far this month you’ve already sent 55,000 messages to every type of representative, as the UK’s coronavirus death toll rose ever higher, and Black Lives Matter protests spread from the US to the UK.
A previous peak on 24/25 May coincided with the Dominic Cummings story. That week, 11,756 messages were sent to MPs.
Referrals have largely come through social media, as people share the easy way to contact representatives about the issues that have gripped them — but there have also been welcome links from mainstream media, including youth culture and style publications like i-D and Dazed. We hope this might indicate a welcome broadening of our userbase to include more young and diverse citizens — and if so, we hope they’ll come back in the future every time they need to make contact with those in power.
WriteToThem exists so that anyone can contact their elected representatives, and feed into the democratic process. We make it as easy as possible for you to tell your politicians what you expect of them, to share your beliefs and opinions, and to ask for their support. We are glad that so many citizens are doing just that during this increasingly momentous era.
If you’d like to know more about what WriteToThem is and how it works, see this post.
Image: James Eades
WriteToThem is a very simple website with just one purpose: it helps you to contact your elected representatives, from local councillors up to MPs, quickly and easily.
- WriteToThem is neutral and does not campaign. We don’t take a stance on any political issue and we don’t promote any particular belief or cause.
- But WriteToThem can be used by campaigns. The site’s functionality can be slotted into any website to provide an easy way for supporters to contact their representatives.
- WriteToThem only lets you write to your own representatives. The service was set up so that you can only write to the people who represent you within your constituency. This is because of a protocol that states reps must only deal with their own constituents. You can read more about this here.
- WriteToThem helps you understand which representatives to write to. WriteToThem briefly describes the job of each layer of representation on the page where you pick who to write to.
- WriteToThem doesn’t allow the mass sending of identical messages. We’ve heard directly from MPs that they are far more likely to ignore identical messages, or dismiss them as having less value. So WriteToThem blocks messages when it identifies that they are the same as several others that have been sent.
- WriteToThem detects and prevents vexatious use where possible. The WriteToThem system can automatically detect potentially irresponsible patterns of behaviour, eg one person sending a very large number of emails to a single recipient during a very short period of time.
- WriteToThem is not an official government service. It is run by mySociety, a UK charity which provides services to help you be an active citizen. Why? Because when we built it, there was no easy way to contact representatives online. And we continue to run it because it’s still providing an invaluable service to the thousands of people that use it every month.
- WriteToThem messages are (almost always) sent without human intervention. Everything is automated, and in almost every case, your message will never be seen by anyone except you and its intended recipient. In the remaining tiny number of cases, a WriteToThem moderator may access your message to see why there has been a problem with delivery.
- WriteToThem doesn’t track you with cookies. In March 2020 mySociety made the decision to remove tracking cookies from the majority of its services. That means we don’t track anything you do on the site on an individually identifiable basis.