1. The big one million: celebrating FixMyStreet

    This month, FixMyStreet.com sent one more report off to a council. There was nothing to distinguish it from all the other reports of fly-tipping, potholes and graffiti… except that it was the one millionth to be sent since the site began.

    Back in 2007, when mySociety first launched FixMyStreet, we had a feeling it’d be useful — but we couldn’t have foreseen the take-up it’s had not only here in the UK, but across the world and in many forms. One million seems like a real milestone, so in celebration, here’s a whistle-stop tour of FixMyStreet’s life so far.

    First through the doors

    The first report ever sent to a council through FixMyStreet was this one, concerning a broken streetlight.

    It was created by a mySociety staff member during beta testing of the site, and sent off to Oxford City Council — who fixed the streetlight. Proof of concept, and we were off.

    Official launch

    Once it was clear that everything was working smoothly, FixMyStreet had its official launch that March.

    Those who know and love FixMyStreet may be surprised to hear that in this first incarnation, it was given the slightly less snappy title of Neighbourhood Fix-It.

    Some might suggest that names have never been mySociety’s strong point. Personally I think we got much better at that later.

    Early take-up

    Just a week after launch, users had already filed over 1,000 reports — a sign that there really was a need for this site.

    The reasons for its popularity? After all, all councils these days provide a fault-reporting system themselves, so why the enthusiastic take-up of a site that duplicates this functionality? We think the reasons are twofold:

    • You don’t have to worry about which council is responsible for an issue: FixMyStreet just automatically sends it off to the right one. There are lots of reasons why you may not know where to send a street report, not least the UK’s two-tiered system of local authorities.
    • We make the reporting process as simple as possible. It’s that whole ‘swans looking graceful but paddling like crazy under the waterline’ thing: we put in an awful amount of work to make sure that you don’t even notice the issues FixMyStreet has to deal with to make the user experience super-smooth. Back in 2012 we blogged about some of the thinking behind the site; for example here’s why FixMyStreet begins by asking just one simple question.

    Name change

    By June we’d realised that Neighbourhood Fix-It wasn’t the snappiest of names, and thus was born FixMyStreet as we know and love it.

    Early app-dopters

    In June 2008, Apple launched their app store.

    Our developers saw the future, it seems: by December that year, we’d launched a FixMyStreet app (NB, the links in that 2008 post don’t work any more: if you’d like current versions of the app, you’ll find them here for Apple and here for Android).

    The FixMyStreet apps have been downloaded more than 40,000 times, and we’re seeing a real growth in those who use it to make their reports: in the last year it accounted for 27% of reports. This reflects a general increase in the use of mobile (you can also use your mobile’s browser to access www.fixmystreet.com) — 55% of our visitors came via a phone or tablet in the last year.

    Open for re-use

    Like most mySociety software, the code that FixMyStreet runs on is Open Source: that means that anyone can pick it up for free, and run their own site on it.

    In March 2011, a group of coders in Norway were the very first to do this, with their version FiksGataMi (it means FixMyStreet in Norwegian. They could have gone for Nabolaget Fikser Det, which means Neighbourhood Fix-It, but, well, you know…).

    Since then, we’ve made real efforts to make the code easier for others to deploy, and ensured that the improvements we add to our own FixMyStreet are also available for all the others: just recently we rolled out version 2.1 of the codebase.

    Taking a peek to see what’s being reported around the world is one of our favourite, if non-standard, means of armchair travelling.

    For example:

    FMS around the world

    A Norwegian puddle-prone footbridge gets in the way of christenings, confirmations and school meetings; meanwhile in Spanish city Alcalá de Henares, a resident complains about the smell created by rubbish lorries while allowing us a splendid view across the rooftops; and in Malaysia, a pack of stray dogs is causing problems for one reporter.

    FixMyStreet Professional

    We’d wanted to provide a reporting system that bettered those offered by local councils: in June 2012 that goal was seemingly affirmed when some councils purchased the system to place on their own websites.

    We officially launched FixMyStreet for Councils, with Bromley and Barnet being the very first local authorities to implement it. Since then, we’ve been in a continual process of improvement, driven by input and collaboration with many councils around the country. Several more have become clients, too. We’ll have more news on the latest developments soon (and meanwhile, if you are from a council, you can learn more here).

    Diverse uses

    One of the nicest things about a codebase like FixMyStreet is that it can be deployed in many — sometimes surprising — ways. If you’ve followed our blog over the years, you’ll have seen the Channel 4 collaboration Empty Homes Spotter; the bicycle incident-reporting platform Collideoscope; and a project fighting corruption in Malaysia.

    Bringing out the poetry in potholes

    There’s something about FixMyStreet that inspires some users to exercise their powers of descriptive prose: we celebrated many of them in this 2014 post.

    Then there are the reports which attract comments from other users. Lots of them, year in, year out. This one about seagulls in Brighton, for example, has become a one-stop forum for people all around the country to come together in their mutual despair of and/or love for our coastal avian friends.

    Ever more reports

    stats page fms

    You can track the progress as we head towards the next million reports on our new stats page; where you might also be interested to see which councils are currently responding to issues most quickly, and what categories of problem are most-reported at any given time.

    As you can see, at the moment the site is handling around 4,000 reports a week: but you can expect that to rise when the weather gets colder — we always get a lot more pothole reports in the winter.

    And, are you wondering just what that millionth report was about? Nothing is ever simple: because some reports are made and then subsequently deleted at the user’s request, or because they contravene FixMyStreet’s house rules, we can’t just identify report number 1000000 as the millionth. Those deleted reports retain their original numbers, even though they’re not live.

    But doing a quick bit of calculation, we suspect that the rightful millionth report might be this utterly unremarkable one in Knowsley. Long live the unsensational reports that simply get things fixed.


    Image: Alison Benbow (CC by/2.0)

  2. The Welsh Government and Aston Martin: the timeline of a delayed response

    In February 2016, Tom Gallard made a simple request to the Welsh Government through our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com. He wanted to know the exact sum paid to Aston Martin in a much-publicised deal which would bring its luxury car-making facilities to St Athan.

    15 months later, in June 2017, he received the answer.

    Now clearly, this is not an example of an efficient and prompt release of information on request — so let’s look at exactly what happened.

    Tom’s request was not complex, but it appeared to ask for something that the Welsh Government were reluctant to disclose, and as a result, it encountered several obstacles.

    February 24, 2016: request made

    Tom made his one-line request: “Please provide details of the financial support agreed with Aston Martin to create 750 jobs at St Athan.”

    Was there anything in particular that spurred you to make this request?

    “I read a lot of the news reports around the deal to bring Aston Martin to Wales, and I got more and more frustrated as it became clear that no-one was disclosing how much this would cost. I didn’t feel I could judge whether it was a good use of money or not, without knowing how much was being spent”.

    March 23, 2016: reminder sent

    Under the FOI Act, authorities are supposed to respond to request for information promptly, and at most within 20 working days. WhatDoTheyKnow sends its users a reminder when this date has passed, so you can chase your request if needs be.

    According to this official timeline, Tom’s response was due by March 24 at the latest, but in their acknowledgement, the Welsh Government had said that they would reply by March 14, so his reminder wasn’t necessarily premature.

    March 24, 2016: refusal received

    The Welsh Government did reply within the time-limit, albeit on the last possible day.

    Their response confirmed that they did have the information Tom had requested, but stated that it was exempt from disclosure under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to commercial interests. Use of this clause requires the authority to show that the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in releasing it.

    Same day: review requested

    When you receive a refusal in response to your FOI request, you might think that there’s nothing more you can do — but, as WhatDoTheyKnow’s automated advice explains to users in this situation, you have the right to request an internal review.

    Tom did just that, quoting ICO guidance on commercial interests, noting that the Welsh Government had previously published information on grant funding given to other companies, and particularly, pointing out an apparent misreading of the meaning of ‘public interest’ on behalf of the Welsh Government: “The public interest here means the public good, not what is of interest to the public”.

    “What frustrated me was a refusal in the Welsh Government’s response to engage with the specific case. I had seen them produce a lot of very similarly worded replies to a range of FOI requests. I spent a lot of time reading previous judgements by the Information Commissioner, and felt I had a strong case.”

    Why do you think the Welsh Government might have been so reluctant to release this figure? As you mention, figures for similar deals had been released in the past.

    “A lot of people have found this reluctance odd. It has also been suggested to me, by a couple of well-placed sources, that the figure they have now released is just one part of the support the Welsh Government has agreed to provide to Aston Martin.”

    April 26, 2016: review reminder, response, referral to the ICO

    Tom knew his rights and as he mentioned in this follow-up — two days after he should have received a response — “ICO guidance suggests that if the 20 day limit is to be breached, I should have received an email telling me this, and the reasons for the delay”.

    Whether because of this reminder or not, he received his response that same day. The Welsh Government’s own internal review concluded that they had been within their rights to withhold the information under Section 43 of the FOI Act.

    Again, this is a point at which many requesters might give up, and again it’s one where WhatDoTheyKnow can inform you of your options. If you believe that an authority is withholding information which it should have released, and you have been through the internal review process, you can refer the case to the ICO.

    As this part of the process happened outside WhatDoTheyKnow, Tom helpfully left an annotation on his request page.

    December 6, 2016: amendments from the Welsh Government

    While the case was with the ICO, the Welsh Government sent a further response to indicate that they were changing their reason for exemption: they were now relying on two different sections of the FOI Act: 29(1)(b), the economy, and 36(2)(c), the effective conduct of public affairs, details of which you can see in this response.

    Tom left an annotation to say he’d alerted the ICO to the change in defence, along with some counter-arguments.

    May 31, 2017 ICO ruling

    ICO decisions do not generally come quickly, but it can certainly be worth lodging your complaint with them.

    In this case, they found that the information was incorrectly withheld and ordered that the information be released.

    June 2, 2017, information received

    Two days later, the sum was finally disclosed, and can be seen here.

    – Now that you have the information you requested, will you be using it any way, or are you simply content that it’s now in the public domain?

    “I’m happy it’s out there now. But I’m definitely considering whether I can squeeze out some more details about how else the Welsh Government is supporting Aston Martin.”

    And of course, that path is also open to anyone else who’s interested in this deal. There’s lots more that could be requested through FOI, from what the exact wording of the contract is, to how the outcomes will be monitored, or how the money is to be paid (the ICO decision notes that no payments had been made as of April 2017; if they are made in the future, they might be pro-actively published on the Welsh Government site — or, if not, someone might need to make another FOI request in order to obtain them).

    If you do make a related request, please do mention it in an annotation on Tom’s request so that others can easily find it.

    This was a long story

    As you might expect, at mySociety we are strongly in favour of the citizen’s right to information under the FOI Act.

    Naturally, we prefer it when information is released without a hitch. But those aren’t always the best stories: we hope that by highlighting examples like this, where WhatDoTheyKnow users have shown tenacity and determination, we can show that if you have a valid request, it’s worth sticking to your guns.


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    Image: Adam Court (CC by/2.0)

  3. TICTeC 2017 in Florence: videos and slides

    How can we counter Fake News — and should we even try? Do big corporations have a moral duty to share their data for the betterment of the world? Why do petitions created by women get more signatures than those created by men?

    These are just a few of the questions posed — and answered — at TICTeC 2017.

    If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), you’ll be glad to know that you can now access videos of the key presentations, as well as interviews where delegates share their insights and specialist expertise. Where available, we’ve also shared speakers’ slides.

    You can see the whole lot on the TICTeC website, and as a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:

    And don’t forget: you can join us for a special extra TICTeC conference in September this year. We’ll be hosting TICTeC@Taipei as part of Asia’s first Civic Tech Fest, an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology. More details and how to register can be found at civictechfest.org.

  4. Grenfell Tower: how mySociety can help

    Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.

    As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.

    Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’

    Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.

    We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.

    But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.

    If you want to help campaign

    The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.

    Gather information

    At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.

    In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:

    If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.

    Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:

    Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.

    Lobby for change

    Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.

    If you want quick answers

    Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.

    If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:

    But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.

    WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.

    What we will be doing

    We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.

    Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.

    Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.

     


    *Unless covered by an exemption.

    Image: Chiral Jon (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  5. Increasing political engagement with Facebook

    Millions of people reached for their phone on June 9, and checked Facebook for the result of the UK General Election.

    Now, you may or may not be one of those people yourself, but there’s no disputing that many of us turn to social media as our primary source for big news. Through the night, Facebook was a place where we could express feelings about the results as they came in, share news stories and ask questions: it gives us a rounded view of an event like an election, quite unlike any you’ll receive from traditional media.

    And the morning after, those logging in to Facebook may have seen something like this — an invitation to follow your newly-elected or re-elected MP and other elected representatives, from local councillors to MEPs:

    Facebook notification

    Facebook notification

    representatives shown on Facebook

    Representatives shown on Facebook

     

    We’re glad to say that mySociety has been working alongside Facebook to help make this happen.

    Reaching people where they are

    mySociety has a mission to make democracy more accessible for everyone, and via our websites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, we serve and inform more than 400,000 UK citizens per month.

    That figure has, as we’d expect, spiked in the last few weeks as people rush to check their MPs’ track records, all the better to cast an informed vote; but all the same, we’re well aware that 400,000 users is only a small proportion of the country’s electorate.

    What’s more, our research has consistently shown that our services don’t adequately reach the people that need them most: our typical user is male, reasonably affluent, well-educated, older and white — I mean, we’re glad to be there for everyone, but generally speaking this is a demographic that can inform itself quite readily without any extra help.

    That’s not a problem Facebook has, though, with their 32 million UK users. 75% of them log in on a daily basis, and almost half are under the age of 30*.

    That’s why we were so keen to join forces with the Facebook Civic Engagement team, to help this large online audience see who their representatives are today.

    Facebook for engagement

    You may not have been aware that Facebook has a dedicated political engagement team — unless you came to TICTeC this year, of course, in which case you’d have seen a walkthrough of the extensive research that’s gone into their election offerings globally — but if you use Facebook at all, and if you’re in a country that has recently had an election, you’ve probably seen some of their work.

    Over the last few weeks in the UK, people on Facebook were alerted to each stage of the electoral process. They were invited to check who their candidates were and what they stood for; offered a reminder to vote and provided information on where and how to do so; and finally, encouraged to share the fact that they had voted, tapping into the proven peer encouragement effect.

    facebook voter graphics

    Facebook voter graphics

    mySociety behind the scenes

    Thanks to our experience running TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, plus the support we receive from Commercial Evaluations and their Locator Online service and our involvement with Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, we have access to accurate and up-to-date data on candidates and representatives at every level, from local councillors up to MEPs, and including MPs — all linked to the relevant constituencies.

    In all, this totaled around 23,000 people. What we needed to discover was how many of them were on Facebook — and could we accurately link our records to their Facebook pages?

    Working together with Facebook, we built an admin tool that displayed likely pages to our team, on the basis of names, locations and the really giveaway information, such as ‘Councillor’, ‘MP’ or the constituency name in the page title. Some representatives didn’t have individual pages, but ran a party page; those counted too (and of course, a fair proportion of representatives have no Facebook presence at all).

    While our tool filtered the results reasonably well, it was still necessary to make a manual check of every record to ensure that we were linking to the correct representative, and not, say, someone who happened to have the same name and live in the same town. We needed to link, of course, only to ‘official’ pages; not representatives’ personal pages full of all those things we use Facebook for on a day-to-day basis. Those holiday snaps, Candy Crush results and cat memes won’t help constituents much: what we were looking for was the kind of page where constituents could message their reps, find out about surgery times, and get the latest news from their constituency.

    Now of course, until the results came in, no-one knew precisely which candidates would be MPs! So a small crack team of mySociety people worked through Thursday night to do the final matching. It was a very long night, but we hope that the result will be an awful lot more people following their representatives, and so quite effortlessly becoming more politically engaged, thanks to a platform which they already visit on a regular basis.

    *Figures based on this post.
    Image: Sarah R (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  6. WhatDoTheyKnowPro: ready for beta users

    If you’ve been watching the progress of our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists, you might be interested to know that we are now accepting applications for pre-launch access.

    Successful applicants will have an early opportunity to put the service through its paces. WhatDoTheyKnowPro will launch as a paid-for service, but as a beta tester you’ll have up to a year’s access for free, because we’re keen to see how you’ll use it — and to hear your feedback on which features are useful.

    What’s WhatDoTheyKnowPro?

    WhatDoTheyKnowPro is our first launch of Alaveteli Professional, accessed via the WhatDoTheyKnow website and specifically for UK users who utilise FOI in their work or campaigning.

    It’s the first instance of the service we plan to make available to other Freedom of Information sites running around the world on our Alaveteli platform.

    What you’ll get

    Since we last caught up with Alaveteli Professional, we’ve made really concrete progress with several of the features that, at the time of that blog post, were just entries on our long to-do list.

    Here’s what users will access:

    • The ability to keep requests private until your story has been published
    • A powerful private dashboard that helps you track and manage your FOI projects
    • A super-smart to-do list that makes it easier to follow the progress of your requests
    • Action alerts that nudge you when it’s time to take the next step in a request

     

    screenshot-requests-78dd427b981787204f3ddfe4eda11cb1939e93263d29398d309b48f14cdb1be2  screenshot-dashboard-34a9936fd33b54729b033c322bc1bc360116ae85b2d4fec5182dd22f58283745
     

    Batch benefits

    And very soon, we’ll also be carefully rolling out the batch request features, which will allow you to:

    • Make one request to multiple authorities
    • Manage large volumes of responses and easily keep track of the status of each request
    • Get regular updates as the responses come in, without overwhelming your inbox

     
    screenshot-batch-list-7f71f614b844db3686cc6731d7725aec10e244dc327f88b5c87c02382b6f6d71 screenshot-batch-selection-d59dda9d21302f321502c8033a254a27e6cb3f2579c4ac16c5f8006eed2a43ac

     

    We’re excited about the batch feature in particular, and we know that many of our prospective users are, too. At the same time, we’ve heard some concerns that it might encourage a scattergun approach that wastes authorities’ time.

    Our planned development will ensure that people use this feature responsibly, and, consequently, get the best returns from it. This will include a prompt to send a smaller batch initially, so that the remainder of the requests can be refined based on the quality of information that is returned — there’s nothing worse that asking every council in the country for information and then realising that you’ve worded your question in a way that means you can’t use the resulting data!

    At the moment, batch requests can’t be made on WhatDoTheyKnow without help from the site administrators. We’re aware that many journalists and activists already make many batch requests outside WhatDoTheyKnow for this very reason. We’d like more of these requests to be released in public (we estimate that around 15% of UK FOI requests are made via our site): so by including this capability in WhatDoTheyKnowPro, we hope we’ll not only be steering people to use those powers sensibly, but that much more information will also end up in the public domain — maximising its usefulness.

    Apply for free access

    If that all sounds exciting, then apply here. We’d love to hear how you plan to use WhatDoTheyKnowPro.

  7. Go forth and make GIFs

    This week, we heard from a user whose MP’s agent had threatened to take him to court if he shared an image, showing TheyWorkForYou data, on social media. Here’s what we think of that.

    Available to all

    Prior to an election, you’ll see all sorts of messaging trying to turn you towards, or against, specific candidates — some from political parties, some from independent campaigning groups, and some just from individuals who feel strongly.

    At mySociety, we’re non-partisan: we strive for neutrality in our websites and services, and they are available to everyone, no matter which part of the political spectrum you are on. We won’t tell you how to vote; we will, however, present the facts and give you the tools that allow you to make up your own mind.

    When we looked into the image our user had wanted to share, we found that there are many similar images, generated from a single source, using TheyWorkForYou voting data to highlight the voting records of Conservative MPs in marginal seats. Here’s what they look like:

    tory voting lines

     

    And for political balance, here’s an image with a similar intent, highlighting a Labour MP’s voting record (but not from this election, sorry: we have been unable to find anything more up to date, but feel free to send us any you’ve seen and we’ll add them to this post):

    Andy_Bvotingrecord

    Share facts

    We have no problem with our data being shared in this way, so long as the wording is unchanged, and the source is credited (as clearly it hasn’t been in our latter example). Adding the source benefits everyone, because while top-line statements like these are, of necessity, brief in a shareable image, they are backed up on TheyWorkForYou with links to the actual votes that substantiate them.

    As we say, this data is available to anyone, and TheyWorkForYou covers every MP, so there’s no unfair political advantage being gained here. The votes are statements of fact; and indeed there may well be people looking at a list like that and finding that, actually, they quite agree with everything on the list, in which case the image would be having the opposite effect from that intended.

    If you read our blog post from yesterday, you’ll know that we’ve recently introduced Facebook and Twitter share buttons to make it super-easy to share any MP’s votes. So, in short: share our stuff. That’s part of what it’s for.

    Reliable data

    And yet, the user we mentioned had been told by someone working on behalf of the MP’s campaign that he would be ‘taken to court’ if he shared such an image, as it was ‘based on unreliable data’.

    All of our voting analyses are based on the official data put out by Parliament, and we do our utmost to ensure that they are fair: while much of TheyWorkForYou’s content is published out via automated processes, we recognise that voting data is too subtle and sensitive to manage in any way other than manually. That’s why all our voting information is painstakingly compiled by hand, in a process we’ve described previously in this post.

    MPs do occasionally contact us to question the wording of certain voting topics, and we are always happy to explain how we arrived at them, and improve them if we agree that the votes have been misrepresented.

    We would be quite happy to hear directly from the MP in question and to discuss any information which they perceive as inaccurate: we note that their voting page has been in place on TheyWorkForYou since August 2015 (it has been viewed by over 5,500 people, 67 of them from within the Houses of Parliament) and in that time we have not been contacted with any query.


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    Image: Al King (CC by/2.0)

  8. Making votes easier to find and share

    In order to make debates and votes a bit easier to find, understand and share, we’ve recently introduced some new features on TheyWorkForYou.

    What am I looking for?

    Our users frequently write to us to say that they can’t find a specific vote on TheyWorkForYou — and that’s often because descriptions of votes in the media, or in conversation, don’t reflect the way they are referred to in Parliament.

    The official record, for example, will not bring you a vote titled ‘Snooper’s Charter’, ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘Brexit’: you’ll have to know enough to search for the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’, ‘Social Tenants Deemed to Have Excess Bedrooms’, or ‘Exiting the European Union’.

    So we’ve put in place a few different ways to find the content that matters to you.

    Recent votes

    99% of the time when people ask us where to find a particular vote, it’s something that happened in the last few days, or at most, weeks.

    So now, you’ll see a new ‘Recent Votes‘ tab in the main TheyWorkForYou menu, which leads to a page listing the last 30 votes:

    twfy menu bar

    TheyWorkForYou menu bar

    If you’ve entered your postcode on the homepage (or your browser cookies remember you from previous visits), you’ll also see your own MP’s stance under each vote, like this:

    recent votes

    There’s one important point about this page: it only contains those votes for which we currently have policy lines — that is to say, the votes we include on MPs’ pages. That’s because they are the ones for which we already have a plain English description. Fortunately, these are almost always the ones that people are most interested in.

    If you want to find a vote that isn’t on this page, you can always look on Public Whip, which is where the raw voting data that feeds TheyWorkForYou comes from.

    Individual votes

    If you click through from any of those listings, you’ll get a page dedicated to that particular vote.

    Here you’ll see something that we know is important to many of our users, set out nice and clearly: the ‘division’, ie which MPs voted for and against, who was absent and who abstained.

    Again, if you’ve entered your postcode on the site, you’ll also see how your own MP voted, in the top section of the page:

    twfy vote page

    TheyWorkForYou individual vote page

     

    But even better, if what you’re most interested in is your own MP’s position in a specific vote, you’ll get this version of the page when you click through from their voting record — as clear as we can make it:

    FireShot Screen Capture #1107 - 'House of Lords Reform Bill — Second Reading_ Recent Votes - TheyWorkForYou' - www_theyworkforyou_com_divisions_pw-201

    MP individual vote page on TheyWorkForYou

    Topics pages

    So that’s all fine and dandy for people who think in terms of MPs and votes. But for a long time, we’ve wanted to explore ways to make parliamentary content more welcoming for complete political newbies.

    We’ve been meeting with groups of young people around the UK to find out more about how they access politics, and one finding is that they think in terms of issues. Politics comes through the lens of topics like ‘the NHS’, ‘the environment’ or ‘Brexit’.

    For that reason, we’ve created topic pages like this one, which gather together a lot of relevant and immediate content, showing how your MP voted, how all relevant votes went, debates and a chance to sign up for email alerts:

    TheyWorkForYou topic page

    TheyWorkForYou topic page

    We’ll be adding more of these as time goes on.

    Easier to share

    The final feature we’ve introduced was a direct result of observing the way that you, our users, share our content on Facebook and Twitter.

    We started collecting examples of where people had made a screenshot of voter records in order to make a political point, and we soon saw that this was a very common thing to do, especially at key points like the current run-up to the General Election, or a party leadership campaign.

    To save you the bother of making and saving a screenshot, we’ve now added these share buttons at the foot of each section of votes on MPs’ pages:

    TheyWorkForYou share buttons

    TheyWorkForYou share buttons

    That’s it for now, but this is all part of a rolling program of improvements, so do feel free to feed back with any related features you’d like to see.


    Image: A Currell (CC by-nc/2.0)

  9. Civic Tech Cities: researching US government inhouse technologies

    Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.

    Civic Tech: whose job is it?

    Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?

    We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.

    But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.

    We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.

    A vital new area for research

    When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.

    Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.

    If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.

    It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?

    Civic Tech Cities

    Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.

    Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.

    The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.

    It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.

    Better tools make better policy

    Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.

    The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.

    Two-way learning

    Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.

    You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.

    Image: Jindong H

  10. Right To Know: the long path to Rights of Way data

    OpenStreetMap is a project that creates and maintains maps all over the world, putting them out as open data that anyone can use.

    While many additions are made by on-the-ground volunteer contributors, the input of other data sources allows OpenStreetMap to make leaps and bounds in its coverage, as you might imagine. But using such data is only possible if it can be reused within the terms of OSM’s share-alike open data licence, the ODbL.

    And that’s where we pick up the story of Robert Whittaker, who used WhatDoTheyKnow in the hope of augmenting the OpenStreetMap offerings for Cambridgeshire, UK.

    Rights of way

    Robert saw a chance to add better data on public footpaths, bridleways, and byways in the county to OpenStreetMap. He explains the background:

    “Councils have a legal duty to maintain an official list and physical map of rights of way, but most councils — including Cambridgeshire — also maintain an unofficial digital map as well. It was the underlying data behind the digital map that I was after.”

    Not just for OpenStreetMap, though — the project’s reuse policy means that once they’ve put the data in place, it’s available for others, too.

    “Having this data — and the right to re-use it — will allow people to create their own maps of the Rights of Way and mix the data with information from other sources. This would then allow, for example, routing software to plan walks using Public Rights of Way and other roads.

    “Cambridgeshire was one of the few councils, until recently, that was not making the data freely available.”

    The right to ask

    So, how do you go about obtaining something like this? If you’re familiar with Freedom of Information or its close neighbour EIR (Environmental Information Regulations), they provide an obvious route, as these pieces of legislation provide us all with the right to request data from public authorities. Robert was very familiar:

    “I’ve made quite a few FOI and EIR requests over the years, mostly through the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow.com. A lot have been for data that will be useful to OpenStreetMap mappers, but I’ve also made requests to gain information about the workings of public authorities, either to inform campaigns, increase transparency, or expose poor decision-making.

    “I think the first FOI request I sent personally was in 2006 to my university to ask for the specification and testing details for an out-sourced student-facing web-app that had a particularly poor user interface. It was to inform a campaign by the Student Union to get improvements made.”

    With this experience in his background, EIR and FOI were the natural routes for Robert in obtaining this data. He made three requests: first, asking for the GIS data, then, to request permission for its reuse; and finally for the related written descriptions.

    The right to refuse

    Unfortunately, the requests did not go as smoothly as he might have hoped. That first request was back in August 2014, and if you read through the stream of responses and annotations, you’ll see that Robert experienced almost the full set of obstacles that can get in the way of an FOI response — from the council simply not responding in time, to their responding with only parts of the data he had asked for, and citing rules which didn’t apply to the situation in hand.

    He also went through the internal review process and eventually took the council to the ICO, citing the Re-use of Public Sector Information regulations to help his case.

    It’s a good thing that Robert is both well-informed and tenacious, as surely these hurdles would have proved discouraging, if not completely off-putting, to many requesters.

    Much of his argument pivoted around a specific exemption — a clause which allows an authority not to provide data under certain circumstances, in this case, the enticingly named EIR 6(1)(b).

    “EIR 6(1)(b) allows public bodies to refuse to provide information in a specific form or format, if it’s already publicly available and easily accessible in another form.

    “The council argued that because they had an online map available on their website, the information about the rights of way was already available and so 6(1)(b) meant they could refuse to release the underlying data.

    “I successfully argued that the map was only a summary or approximation of the underlying data I’d requested. That data contained the actual coordinates of the points and the lines joining them to make up the routes. I think one of the key arguments was that given the data you could generate the map, but given the map you could not recreate the full underlying dataset, you could only obtain an approximation to it.”

    The (almost) right outcome

    Robert was ultimately successful in his first two requests, two and a half years after making that initial request. The third is still being contested.

    “It’s been frustrating, but eventually worthwhile. I’m annoyed at how long it has taken to get to the end, and also annoyed at the public money that the Council has wasted in prevaricating and trying to withhold the information.

    “I think the ICO probably needs more resources to be be able to investigate cases more promptly. I also think it should take a stricter line with public authorities that frustrate requesters or the ICO’s investigations. The ICO already has some additional powers that would help here, but they seem reluctant to use them, even though doing so could speed things up significantly.”

    But even while we await the outcome of the final request, Robert’s patience has already begun to pay off:

    “I’ve already loaded the data into my comparison tool to help mappers improve OSM. Also, thanks to Barry Cornelius, the Cambridgeshire data is now available from his site in a number of different standard formats, for anyone else who wants to use or view it.”


    We run WhatDoTheyKnow so it’s easy for anyone to make an FOI or EIR request — and your contributions help us carry on doing so.
    Donate now

    Image: Uncle Bucko (CC by-nc/2.0)