1. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #4: Storytelling and reach

    Last week saw us come together for the fourth online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.

    Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.

    This time, the discussants examined the issues around getting our work out to the wider world: with resources always stretched and often complex stories to tell, how can small civic tech groups reach a more mainstream audience?

    Discussants were Daniel Carranza of DATA Uruguay, Attila Juhász from K-Monitor in Hungary, Amy Leach of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, and me, Myf Nixon on behalf of mySociety.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but if you’d prefer a higher-level view, read on.

    Problems

    A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.

    Resource and capacity Civic tech organisations tend to be quite small and focused on the creation of their services. Communications can be seen as a luxury, or something that is spread between the team as a bit of an afterthought. Even if there’s a dedicated comms person, they often can’t focus deeply on all the tasks that need doing, and bringing in a freelancer doesn’t always work if they don’t have a full understanding of your work.

    Complexity of our offerings Talking to the public about our work often means that we’re also having to explain things that are taken as a given within the civic tech world: for example, Freedom of Information; how governments work, what open source is, etc.

    Temptation to speak at a technical level It’s important to use simple language, but because we’re ‘experts’ in our field we have to make an effort to not use jargon – especially if you’ve also been involved with the development side personally. Users probably don’t care about things like how it was coded or whether it’s open source: it’s more important to talk about what it can do for them.

    Narratives aren’t always clear-cut People want stories with a nice narrative, but if you are making systemic change it can be iterative and messy, and take time.

    We are in a polarised world Some areas that civic tech operates within, eg migration or health, are divisive issues that get boiled down to clickbait/soundbites on social media.

    Projects can be longterm but enthusiasm doesn’t last As with funding, it can be easier to get attention at launch, but it’s harder to find stories and get interest once a project has been going for a while.

    We can’t always find the interesting stories We can be sure that our software is being used in some really interesting ways; but we’re not always aware of them. There’s no compulsion for users or site-runners to tell us how they’re using our sites or software.

    The range of potential audiences is really broad We might be trying to talk to ‘everyone’ – or if not, we’re trying to put messaging out to citizens (with varying amounts of knowledge), governments, funders and several other potential user groups.

    We don’t always reach every sector of society It takes focus and effort to reach a more diverse audience in terms of race, education, deprivation etc.

    It is hard to maintain a stable team Small organisations can’t pay market rates, which means that there’s a higher staff turnover, and the narrative thread can be lost as a result.

    The issues we tackle are often quite abstract It’s hard to represent concepts like ‘corruption’ or ‘transparency’ in image form.

    Possible solutions

    Simplify your language Assume basic knowledge in your audience: run it by a relative if you want to check how an ‘outsider’ will receive and understand it. Create a style guide so everyone in the organisation understands how to talk about your services simply.

    Don’t worry about technical details If concepts like ‘open source’ and ‘open data’ are vital to your work, you can always work them in at the end of your communications – but they are very rarely the main story.

    Find the story that resonates with people What will make people connect on a personal level with your software or service? Show how it solves the problems they encounter on a daily basis.

    Create communities mySociety has set up mailing lists, events like TICTeC and when funds allow, runs conferences. These are all ways of discovering the stories around how people are using our software.

    Be systematic about audiences Spend half a day thinking about where your work will have the most impact and who you’ll need it to reach. Once you know who you want to talk to, it is much easier to pinpoint where you will find them and what you will need to say.

    Build comms into your funding applications Comms is an important part of any project launch, so make sure you include a budget line that allows for it.

    Consider volunteers Can you offer jobs that will benefit people who volunteer – eg by giving them specialised experience that they can use elsewhere – and which will also give your comms a boost?

    Make sure your services all promote one another A cheap and relatively quick way to spread the word is to tell users of one service about all the others you offer.

    Pool efforts with your partner organisation/s They are likely to have different networks and audiences that you can really benefit from, especially if they are larger than you.

    Find open source images and other sources for visuals You can often find Creative Commons images. If there is budget, illustrations and animations can be very effective for abstract concepts.

    Time upgrades to coincide with new funding or partners That means that when you have something to talk about, you also have the capacity and resource to put out your comms.

    Forge relationships with journalists When you send them a press release you’re helping them out and writing the story for them. Or go even further and train up journalists in using your tools so they can generate their own stories.

    Look for stories around your tools How are people using them? How does this tie in with whatever is more widely in the news at the moment? Even a surge in users can be a story if it relates to the main news story that day.

    How the grant could help

    Media training for civic tech comms people.

    Set up a journalism prize for the best news story to come from one of our services.

    Or a civic tech fellowship for local journalists.

    Run a conference specifically for journalists to meet civic tech people.

    Or just pay for some civic tech people to attend journalism conferences and speak about the potential stories in our work.

    Set up a portal where all civic tech groups can place their stories, and let journalists know it’s available as a resource for them.

    Pool resources Look into bulk-buying Google ads or Facebook ads etc, across multiple organisations. It will be cheaper and we can also share expertise (or commission a contractor together).

    Create an image library and advice around making good photographs with your phone. This could be used by all civic tech groups everywhere.

    Or commission a generic set of visual explainers that anyone could pick up, alter and reuse.

    Create a sharing community More widely, a space like Slack or Matrix could be used to share tips, advice, images and comms opportunities.

    Make universal logos for some of our common themes There is no logo for ‘open data’ etc – we could commission one.

    Action lab

    Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

    We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to six people who are keen to use this discussion to inform the group as they pin down how the grant will be spent.

    To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.

  2. A transparency success in Belgium

    Can you bring about more transparency with a simple map?

    Apparently yes – that’s what the Alaveteli site Transparencia.be have pulled off with their interactive map of Wallonia.

    This shows which municipal councils in the region are making useful documentation publicly available ahead of their committee meetings.

    If the district is coloured green, they’re proactively publishing the documents; amber shows that they are publishing, but only on request; and red indicates a complete lack of publication. A decree going through Belgium’s lawmaking procedures will require such proactive publication, and while some are ahead of the loop, others have a way to go.

     

    Wallonie: votre commune est-elle transparente? A static image of the heatmap: Walloon districts in red, green or amber

    “The law is going through the last phase of regional parliament”, said our contact at Transparencia, Claude Archer, last week. “Lawmaking is slow, but this does now look like it’s reached the final step.” 

    And that progress would have been even slower if it weren’t for Transparencia’s efforts. That it has come this far, says Claude, is “a direct consequence of the heatmap. The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree. We’re two years away from the next local election, so we have to keep pressure up if we want to see results!”.

    Informing citizens

    Municipalities must publish an agenda ahead of their meetings, but this is often very concise and the titles of the various points aren’t always self-explanatory.

    The heatmap forced them to go faster and not to forget the decree.

    And minutes of the meeting are shared afterwards — but by then it is, of course, too late for an interested party to intervene. For the sake of transparency, the ideal is to provide citizens with a bit more detail before meetings go ahead.

    This isn’t a huge burden: it only requires the councils to publicly share documents that they would already be preparing for councillors — a summary of the topics to be discussed, and the ‘draft deliberation’, which gives a rough indication of what is likely to be said during debates.

    This pre-publication would allow citizens to see if a topic they are interested in was about to be discussed or voted upon. They might alert their representative if they see any factual errors in the proposed points of debate, says Claude in a news story published by the popular Belgian daily Le Soir. But he adds that it would also be “a symbolic measure, [showing] that democracy is everyone’s business and not just that of elected officials”.

    Gathering data

    So, what does this map do, and how did Transparencia create it?

    Transparencia used Alaveteli Pro to obtain the underlying data for this project. Claude explained how it has had such a decisive effect on the local municipalities’ commitment to transparency. If you run your mouse over the map, you can see that for each municipality, it says whether or not they are publishing documents ahead of council meetings. There are 262 municipalities in Wallonia, and for each one, an FOI request was sent to ask what their policy is around these documents (examples can be seen here – in French).

    It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map.

    The data-gathering has taken more than two years, and has grown beyond a project of a small transparency organisation – they’ve extended their reach by training up journalists and showing what can be done with data from FOI requests. This has been an interesting exercise in itself, says Claude, who notes that while Transparencia are more about using FOI for activism, journalists can use it in their ‘everyday generic investigations’. And of course, journalists are the ones who can get stories in front of readers.

    Alaveteli Pro is the add-on for Alaveteli sites, providing a suite of features for professional users of FOI — here in the UK we run it as WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, but the same functionality can be added to any Alaveteli site. Among these features is ‘batch request’, which eases much of the hard work involved in sending FOI requests to a large group of authorities, and managing all the responses.

    Claude explains that Transparencia made the first wave of requests themselves, but they sensed that the project would get more leverage if it belonged to a couple of prominent newspapers, Le Soir and Le Vif. “We gave them ownership even though the project was instigated by Transparencia.”

    Divide and conquer

    So, for the second wave, “We divided the country into six regions. We allocated one journalist to each region and they made batch requests to the municipal councils in that region through their Pro account. We then exported the spreadsheet from the batch requests and from that we could build the maps with a bit of Python code and boundaries in a GIS system.”

    And what’s the result when the municipalities see the map? “They don’t like being red or orange when their neighbour is green,” laughs Claude. “It’s the number one topic of conversation within the municipalities every time we update the map, and it makes a lot of new municipalities join the commitment to publish.”

    Breakthrough

    So things were looking positive and then, yesterday, we received an ecstatic update from Claude. “Exactly one year after Transparencia’s hearing at the regional parliament, and six months after publication of the heatmap in the press, the Walloon parliament passed the bill this afternoon in the special commission, and it will be officially adopted 15 days from now.”

    Pop open the bubbly, that’s a win for transparency; and it’s not just Claude who thinks so: “I have just proudly received a congratulatory text from the head of the Green Party, Stéphane Hazée, at Walloon regional parliament”, he tells us, sharing the screenshot:

    Text in French saying 'just a word tolet you know that the decree has passed and thanks for the help you gave in getting it through'

    (Translation: Just a word to inform you that the proposal for the ‘publicity decree of municipal councils’ was adopted this Tuesday in the PW committee. Thank you again for your involvement which clearly helped to convince. Sincerely.)

    We’re always pleased to see our tools being used to bring about tangible change; and increased local transparency is something that’s very much on mySociety’s mind at the moment, as you can see in our work around climate.

    Image: Pierre André Leclercq (CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  3. New funding from The National Lottery Community Fund

    National Lottery Community Fund logo

    Our Climate programme is benefitting from generous support — £495,907 over three years — from The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activities in the UK.

    As you’ll know if you’ve followed along with our updates, mySociety’s Climate programme focuses on the local response to climate change, by sharing open and accessible digital services and data to support faster, fairer, more informed and more effective action. 

    Now, thanks to funding made possible by National Lottery players, we want to strengthen the ecosystem of local networks and enable citizens and communities to be more engaged in the local climate policy environment. A key part of this is our collaboration with other organisations — we bring our strengths; they bring theirs, and together we create projects that are more than the sum of their parts. 

    Additionally, we are actively listening to all sorts of organisations to understand what tools and data they need, before wrapping those needs into our development programme: it is this approach that has led to many of the new features on CAPE, the Climate Action Plan Explorer. 

    And this National Lottery funding has already allowed us to embark on an ambitious outreach plan, speaking to a wide network of NGOs, charities, campaign groups, journalists, researchers and local authorities across the UK — those who are working in climate, those in associated spaces and even those with a more tangential relationship to the issue (because it’s a truism that climate will affect every area of life). We’ve been finding out where our commonalities are, how our data and tools can be of help, and what opportunities there might be to work together. 

    We will, of course, continue to keep you informed as we make progress — and we want to offer our sincere thanks to The National Lottery Community Fund for their help in making that progress happen.

  4. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #3: Accessing quality information for civic tech success

    How can we overcome barriers to accessing good data and documentation?

    Last week, a global audience came together online for the third TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.

    Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion of one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.

    In our third Surgery, the discussants explained the barriers they’ve experienced in accessing good-quality data and information, and then some of the ways they’ve found to meet these challenges, and ideas for what might be missing.

    It was fascinating to learn how similar the issues are, as well as where they diverge, in the several countries represented by our speakers and by the audience.

    This time around, our expert panel comprised Nehemiah Attigah of Odekro in Ghana; Laura Zommer from Chequeado in Argentina; Khairil Yusof representing the Sinar project in Malaysia; Sym Roe of Democracy Club, in the UK; and Nati Carfi of Open Data Charter, in Argentina.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but we’ll summarise the main points in this blog post.

    Problems

    Data is often not in the right format to use digitally or is not machine-readable – documents have to be scanned and then digitised through OCR.

    Officialdom/authorities can be problematic in a number of ways:

    • They might demand unwarranted fees for information;
    • They might be ignorant of legislation such as FOI that requires them to provide information on demand;
    • Laws might be contradictory, for example one law might penalise officials who give out information, while another gives citizens the right to request it;
    • There might a low level of understanding as to how the data could be used;
    • There can be concerns that the data would uncover the authorities’ own corruption;
    • They might stop publishing data or change the format it is in, due to political circumstances;
    • They might work to different deadlines or timescales than is useful for organisations’ needs.

    Even if the data is available, it can be too complex for a non-expert to understand.

    Good open source code that exists might not be suitable for every country’s circumstances.

    Possible solutions

    • When authorities can see the data in use, it’s much easier for them to understand why it’s needed – so resources showing examples of where civic tech is working elsewhere (for example in other countries) or making prototype tools that show what could be done might be a solution.
    • Groups could publish stories in the media about what happens when data stops being published or changes in a way that damages the tools people rely on.
    • Could data sources be archived to provide a permanent home in case the official sources stop publishing them?
    • Educating the public to make them understand data better – through blog posts, podcasts, ‘data translators’ or whatever means.
    • Publishing case studies that explain solutions that haven’t worked, as well as those that have.
    • Training for NGOs and organisations on how to engage with authorities.
    • Training for the public on how to use data.
    • Translating existing guidance on open data standards into languages other than English.
    • Producing resources that explain the value of open data standards rather than just advocating for open data standards in of themselves.
    • Research how access to information laws apply to datasets and how those laws work in practice.

    Action lab

    Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

    We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to six people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

    To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.

     

  5. We’re keeping events hybrid: will you do the same?

    Suffering from Zoom fatigue? Understandable! We’re all tired of staring into a computer screen, we all miss seeing what people look like from the shoulders down, and we can quite see why some organisations are delighted to be running in-person events again.

    But here’s something worth noting: while the wider world suddenly saw the point of remote events during lockdown, disability activists have been fighting for them for years — long before the pandemic hit. And at mySociety, we’ve come to realise that there are some benefits of virtual events that we shouldn’t be so quick to give up. 

    Opening doors to wider audiences

    Throughout the last couple of years, our events have been freely accessible to those who find travel or in-person meetings difficult. This is no small thing, on all sides. Input from a wide range of viewpoints is valuable, providing lived experience that we might otherwise have missed. 

    Disability isn’t the only reason that people might not be able to, or want to travel. Some are protecting vulnerable housemates or family, and still need to self isolate even if wider society no longer mandates it. 

    Many have made commitments to travel less in the face of the climate emergency. Even if that’s not the case, it now feels odd to travel out of town to an event, giving up hours or even a whole day, when we’re used to joining from the comfort of our own homes. Plus, if an event is just the right fit for your work, but happens to be on a different continent, it’s now perfectly possible to be a part of it. 

    Taking our TICTeC events as an example, in the time we’ve been running them online, we’ve seen participants joining us from around 50 different countries. In person events? It was more like 30.

    Video’s just not the same

    Recordings and transcripts continue to be useful, but let’s face it: ‘a video will be available after the event’ just isn’t the same thing as proper online options for inclusion. People can’t join in, ask questions or be part of discussions if they’re not engaging in real time. 

    Providing a wide range of options for people to attend events, whatever the reason they can or can’t attend in person, means creating flexibility in our spaces. Limited time, energy and/or money are barriers that prevent many marginalised groups from becoming activists, and creating hybrid events help address those barriers.

    A hybrid approach

    Not to say that there aren’t benefits to being in the same room — and providing an option to attend remotely shouldn’t stop organisations from taking the necessary steps to make their venues accessible (we’re looking at you, COP26 conference centre). 

    We miss those in-person moments as much as anyone, and we do still hope to be running real life events in the future. But we’re committing to a hybrid approach and, from now on, we’ll always ensure that, if you’d rather access the event from home, that opportunity will be available. We’re all ears when it comes to the details that will make this work for everyone, so do get in touch if you have ideas.

    In summary, we’ll do our best to ensure that the remote experience is as fulfilling and as close to being in the room as we can make it.

    That’s our commitment — are you doing the same?

     —

    Image – Sigmund

  6. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #2: Ensuring civic tech is accessible: how can we lead and popularise best practice?

    Last week we convened for the second online TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, our hands-on programme for fixing some of the prevalent problems in civic tech.

    Each TICTeC Lab begins with a public discussion on one topic area affecting the civic tech community. Interested parties can then apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant.

    In our second Surgery, the discussants examined how to make civic tech more accessible to all: what are the barriers to accessing the tools and services we make, and despite the best of intentions, have these barriers been somehow baked in to our ‘tech for good’ practice?

    Bringing their experience and a diversity of international perspectives to the conversation were Mark Renja of Code for Africa; Laura Nelson-Hamilton from Public Digital; Oluseun Onigbinde CEO of BudgIT Nigeria, and Bonnita Nyamwire of Pollicy.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here and a transcript here, but we’ll summarise the main points here.

    Problems

    A summary of the issues identified during the chat and by the audience.

    A lack of user-centred design practices Civic tech is often built before there is a full understanding of users’ needs. Users aren’t involved in the planning or during the build, still less do we engage with people who might have extra accessibility needs.

    Inhouse culture There’s often no structure within civic tech organisations that ensures that accessibility is built in from the beginning of every project – it’s often seen as something to bolt on at the end. And there’s nothing to ensure that the small changes to our working methods that have a large impact on those trying to access our services are adhered to over the years, through staff turnover or organisational growth.

    A lack of expertise Civic tech teams are often small and may not have accessibility knowledge inhouse. It can be tricky, for example, for non-experts to approach a visual interface like maps and make them equally accessible for those with visual impairments.

    A lack of funding Funding sources don’t always recognise the necessity for adding time and resource to ensure that a project is accessible. Funders prefer to fund new projects than to give additional funding to an existing one which might allow more work that would make it accessible. 

    Differing needs Audiences may have access to (or no access to) a diversity of platforms, or speak a variety of languages. We generally assume a level of literacy that a large percentage of the population doesn’t have. And those who need our services most might not even be online.

    A lack of understanding our users Engagement by those who are struggling to use the service can be misinterpreted as misuse or abuse. If users with accessibility needs aren’t already accessing our tools — because they can’t — it can be hard to identify them and therefore understand which needs we need to meet.

    Possible solutions

    Don’t assume, ask Ensure that solutions come directly from the experiences of people who will use your tech. Involve these people in every step of the build. How can we normalise this?

    Online materials Guidance like the Universal Access Guide by Code For All provides a free and open source for developers to learn from. Make your accessibility guidance friendly and approachable, like accessguide.io. Could we find ways to ensure these resources are more widely known about and adopted?

    Get buy-in — and start at the top Get the decision-makers on board with the move to total accessibility. Often this is best achieved by showing them the real-world results of making projects accessible, so this could take the form of meetings with users or really compelling case studies.

    A companywide change in culture Embrace the idea of designing and building for everyone as one of your organisation’s guiding principles. Make a guiding document for the entire organisation that informs how everyone thinks about and approaches accessibility. One way to encourage this might be to provide a template.

    Utilise pictures Like IKEA instruction manuals, don’t use text where you can use visuals. Employ illustrators to make attractive and easy to understand interfaces. Could one solution be to collaborate with an existing database of illustrators?

    Begin with your own colleagues Run an anonymous survey to find out how many staff are disabled and have issues with online tools: this is a powerful way of showing where you already have gaps internally, which can really bring home what a lack of accessibility means. Might we spin this out to a sector-wide survey?

    Share figures Try to educate your peers on disability stats so they can grasp the scale of the problem.

    Coding that instills change So much of accessibility is optional. That shouldn’t be the case. Build it in. For example, if you’re coding up a website, make it so that people can’t add an image without filling the ALT field in. 

    Seek to educate funders about accessibility and when applying for new funding, ensure that accessibility is part of the scope. Encourage funders to insist on accessibility being a consideration in every application. Could we identify which funders already consider this a priority and share that with the community?

    Consider translation and audio Even automated translation can help widen the accessibility of your materials. Can we experiment with audio based access to information?

    Building connections If we can’t do it all, can we provide a means of connecting civic tech companies with organisations that can help?

    An accessibility developer corps: a list of software developers with experience in making sites and tools accessible, available for hire and volunteering.

    See what’s already been done Identify best practice in other civic tech projects which are accessible and broadly used, whether that’s inherent or accidental. 

    Start by making events (online and IRL) accessible Include captioning, sign language, transcripts provided afterwards. Make sure videos (both prerecorded and live) have subtitles. 

    Action lab

    Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

    We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to 6 people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

    To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.

  7. A Scorecard for every council’s Climate Action Plan

    Today, Climate Emergency UK launches the Council Climate Plan Scorecards, an assessment of every UK council’s Climate Action Plan against several criteria of excellence.

    mySociety provided technical support for the Scorecards project, which used data from CAPE which was then marked against Climate Emergency UK’s scrupulous Action Plans checklist, created with advice from Ashden, The Centre for Alternative Technology, APSE and Friends of the Earth. You can read about CEUK’s methodology here (and we recommend you do; it really helps one understand the scale of what they’ve pulled off here).

    Our support for this project reflects the overarching mission of mySociety’s Climate programme, in making it easier for citizens to understand and engage with their local authorities’ actions in the face of the climate emergency; and the mission of the organisation as a whole in providing data and digital tools for meaningful citizen to government engagement.

    Climate Action Plans are often long, complex documents. The Scorecards project helps residents, who may not be experts, to understand where their council is planning well and where there is still work to be done. It gives them a way to see how good their council’s preparation is in the context of the country as a whole, and understand what could be, but is not, in their local climate plan.

    But another important aim of the Scorecards project is to benefit councils. Local authorities can now see how their Climate Action Plan compares to those of other similar authorities, and to learn from those councils who have scored better in specific areas. They should be able to see potential for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and improvement that perhaps weren’t immediately visible before this data was publicly available.

    We were happy to provide support to this project because we’ve seen how meticulous CEUK’s scoring process has been at every step of the way. They’ve trained up an incredible cohort of dedicated volunteers, who dug into the work because they believed in doing something tangible for the good of the environment. They’ve sought feedback on the first round of marking from councils, folding in the right of reply to a second round; and they’ve worked to a double auditing process.

    Meanwhile, mySociety’s input has been in two areas: help with technical development, and help in refining methodology. We were keen to ensure that the Scorecards were genuinely helpful to citizens and councils alike, rather than being a tool for mud-slinging. It’s a fact that councils are underfunded, managing multiple priorities, and dealing with a pandemic while trying to tackle their responsibilities in the face of the climate emergency.

    We see public climate action plans as part of the conversation between citizens and government about how we can tackle this crisis together. Any public plan can be a starting point for discussion where we hope that councils and citizens will both ask themselves, ‘What can we do to improve this situation?’ For the fifth of UK local councils still have not published plans to tackle climate change, that conversation has yet to begin.

    As part of this thinking, it was important for the design to make comparisons that are fair, and give useful contrasts to users in the public and in local government. Each council is compared only to those which have similar responsibilities. For example, district councils are grouped together and can be seen in the context of one another; and so can unitary councils, but you can’t compare a unitary council with a district council.

    Within each of these groups, we’ve provided options to drill down further. We’ve made it easy to compare councils in the same region, the same political control, with similar urban/rural balance, or deprivation profile. We hope this tool is helpful for everyone in making useful comparisons, and for councils in helping them learn from their similar counterparts.

    That’s it! In short: we hope you’ll learn from the Scorecard project, and we hope you’ll pass it on to others who might do so, too.


    Image: Max Williams

  8. Look back on the year, with mySociety

    Our Annual Review is now ready for your perusal!

    As usual, it’s been a joy to compile all the progress we’ve made during the past 12 months, and to sprinkle them through with some thoughts and memories from mySociety staff. We hope some of that joy comes to you, too.

    This year, for the first time, SocietyWorks has its own standalone Review, and we’ve also spun off a Transparency report for WhatDoTheyKnow. The latter is something we hope to build upon for the future, as you’ll see.

    As we head into the festive season, we wish you a very happy holiday and all the best for the new year. Now grab a mince pie, stick on that Santa hat, and settle in for a read!

     

  9. Now Croatians can pop a report on Popravi

    Another FixMyStreet site has launched in another international location, adding to the number of citizens across the world who can enjoy keeping their neighbourhoods safe and clean with the codebase’s simple functionality. 

    Popravi.to (‘Fix It’) will enable the citizens of Croatia to report issues to the authority that will get them resolved, and to make sure that everyone understands how it works there’s a jaunty video:

    Open source 

    The FixMyStreet codebase is open source, meaning that anyone with the required technical knowhow can pick it up, tweak it for their local context, and create an issue-reporting website for their own country, all for free.

    And that’s just what Gong — an NGO not entirely unlike mySociety, but Croatian — have done, with help from a cohort of Code for Croatia members. These volunteer coders gave up their time over a period of ten months to get the website up and running, led by Gong’s Miroslav Schlossberg as a project manager, who says that the project also had the wider aim of promoting open civic technology. 

    A report page from Popravi, the Coratian FixMystreet, showing a map with some report pins on it

    Gong came into being in 1997, choosing an acronym for their name to stand for “Građani Organizirano Nadgledaju Glasanje — or ‘Citizens Monitor Voting in an Organised Manner’. In time, as their activities expanded beyond elections, they realised that the name Gong itself was perfectly apt for an organisation that could be said to be sounding an alarm wherever they find corruption or a threat to democracy.

    With all of this background in mind, it may come as little surprise that the same Gong/Code for Croatia coalition are also behind the country’s Freedom of Information site Imamo Pravo Znati, which runs on our Alaveteli platform.

    Not least among their initial tasks will be securing the cooperation and understanding of the authorities to whom reports will be sent. “We are counting on the local government to recognise Popravi.to as a service that makes it easier for them to detect and locate problems and damage”, says Miroslav, “and to appreciate the contribution of citizens who report them.” 

    We recognise this sentiment very well, having spent several years doing just that here in the UK for FixMyStreet.com  — and we wish Gong the best of luck as they begin on the same journey.

  10. Notes from TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery #1: Public-private collaborations

    Last week saw the first TICTeC Civic Tech Surgery, a new format for us and a hands-on approach to fixing some of the pervasive problems in civic tech.

    The TICTeC Labs programme goes like this: we gather experts together to lead a discussion on the challenges, potential solutions and ideas within one topic area affecting the civic tech community. If interested, participants can apply to take suggested ideas forward in a smaller working group, building solutions with the aid of a grant to support their work.

    Our first Surgery saw four experts tackling the problems that occur when NGOs and non-profits take on work within governments and public authorities, something mySociety is well acquainted with thanks to our activity — now all under the banner of SocietyWorks — selling Software as a Service.

    Adding their ideas and experience to the conversation were Aline Muylaert of CitizenLab; Amanda Clarke, Associate Professor at Carleton University; Gabriella Razzano of OpenUp in South Africa and Ebtihaj Khan from Code for Pakistan.

    Notes from the meeting can be seen here, as well as the full recording of the session here, but we’ll summarise the main points here.

    Problems

    Procurement in government It can be hard for small organisations to compete against the big players, especially because bidding for a piece of work often involves jumping through many bureaucratic hoops.

    The structure of governments Set ways of doing things can often be incompatible with the Agile approach that is most favoured by civic technologists. Also, if you are affecting how one department of government works, ideally the benefits would ripple out across all other departments, but the siloed nature of government departments often prevents this.

    The short-term nature of governments When building anything, of course you want it to have a lasting effect; but elections and changes in political control often mean that a project is thrown out when a new regime takes over.

    The world view of governments An added task comes in educating governments about the motivations of civic technologists, and the value of putting citizens at the centre of work. They also need to know about the benefits of keeping projects running longterm.

    The knowledge within governments As government staff often don’t have detailed technical skills themselves, the door is open for big players to demand high dollar contracts that lock clients into a single vendor.

    Possible solutions

    Shaking up procurement One solution that can be effective is in ‘micro contracting’ – breaking a large requirement into several smaller pieces of work, thus allowing smaller organisations to bid for them. Mandates that procurement should be for open source development would also be beneficial.

    Clever contracts Civic tech providers can add clauses to their contracts which mean that time is dedicated for user-centred research, for example, or make clear that Agile methods will be used. Adding goals around impact is one way to try to ensure that the real reason for the development isn’t forgotten. Once contracts have been drawn up, the templates could be shared for other governments or civic technologists to use.

    Nurturing government staff If they are around long enough for relationships to be built, staff can be inducted into healthy civic tech approaches; for example they can be included in bootcamp sessions.

    Writing case studies It’s really useful to be able to share concrete examples of where civic tech interventions have resulted in tangible improvements, and government clients can find these very motivating and exciting. At the same time we could look to write some case studies with examples of where the problems we’ve identified were solved, eg by introducing Agile methods into the work, as a persuader.

    Research We can learn a lot of research conducted 40-50 years ago, when many of the issues with public/private contracting, a new idea back then, were the same as they are now. We also need new qualitative data from the people working on data projects: if we can uncover corruption (which we know is an issue in places across the world) it will cause an uproar.

    Action lab

    Some of this discussion also took place on Padlet and you can see more ideas there.

    We are now inviting people to join the working group (aka Action Lab), which will comprise up to 6 people who are keen to further develop solutions together, for the benefit of the wider civic tech community.

    To keep an eye on this progress, and to know more about the next Surgery, see the TICTeC website or sign up for email updates.