We’ve talked a lot about our new service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information — but it’s not always the professionals who uncover the news stories.
This week, we mark WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary. As part of the celebrations, we thought we’d look back on the news stories that came about because of requests made through the site. Many of these began with an FOI request submitted by a user with no links to the press, and were picked up by news outlets because the response was of public interest.
From the restrictions on what names can be given to a baby in this country, to an accidental torpedo release, and via a geographically-accurate Tube map, it makes for fascinating reading. You can see them all here.
On 22 February 2008, we posted an announcement on this very blog: “the new mySociety Freedom of Information site is now live”.
More than 450,000 requests later, WhatDoTheyKnow is marking its tenth anniversary: as part of the celebrations, we’ve put together a timeline showing how WhatDoTheyKnow has intersected with the history of FOI in the UK since we first gained our right to information in 2005. If nothing else, you may enjoy looking at the site’s rather more primitive design back in its early days.
The past decade has seen legal challenges, contributions to Parliamentary inquiries, and the development of our code for use in other countries (26 and counting). It has proved that an ambitious project can be kept going thanks to the efforts of unpaid but skilled and dedicated volunteers.
Most of all, though, it’s seen you, the general public, submitting requests for information, and sharing the responses you receive. That was always the idea, and, it turns out, it’s a pretty sound one.
The Freedom of Information Code of Practice is a set of guidelines for the public authorities that are liable to respond to requests for information under the FOI Act. It advises these bodies on how to adhere to the law and what counts as best practice.
The Cabinet Office recently ran a consultation on proposed revisions to the Code of Practice. Since this Code directly relates to the activities of the website WhatDoTheyKnow, and the services it provides for our users, we put in a response, which you can view here.
The response was submitted under the joint names of WhatDoTheyKnow, our FOI codebase project Alaveteli, and mySociety itself, having been worked on by the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team, those working on the Alaveteli project, and mySociety’s researchers. Between them there is a substantial amount of experience and knowledge on FOI in the UK: much of our response is based on our experience in helping users to obtain information from public bodies.
Indeed, our response commented on points which we felt particularly affect our users; among other issues, we responded on:
- Timeliness of responses, including the introduction of time limits for internal review and public interest test extensions, and the importance of prompt responses to requests which inform current public debate.
- The use of pseudonyms by those making requests: what counts as a pseudonym; whether this should be one of the indications that can be used to label a request as vexatious, and whether authorities might, at their own discretion, process a request even if pseudonymous.
- Proactive publication, including the point that routine publishing of data may be more efficient and cheaper than responding to individual repeated requests. One suggestion is that every Freedom of Information request should prompt a consideration by the public body of whether the kind of information requested could practically be routinely published.
- The application of fees to a request: the desirability of pointing out that most FOI requests do not incur a charge and that the requester will never be charged without notice. People can be deterred by the prospect of fees, and bodies’ responses often contain worrying notices about them in their emails and on Freedom of Information web-pages, when in reality they are rarely applied.
- The means of communication: that requests made by email, unless the requester specifies otherwise, should be taken as a preference for a response by email; the ease of making FOI requests; and the ease of using data in the format provided in any response.
We replied on several other points too, including the status of the Code of Practice itself. It was issued in 2004, and has not been updated since, and in fact it’s not a document that we use regularly when we’re advising users or corresponding with public bodies about the application of Freedom of Information law.
The high quality guidance which we, and our users, do use on a day-to-day basis comes from the Information Commissioner, so we suggested the Government consider whether, and if so how, the Code of Practice could incorporate, or endorse that documentation.
One other important point is that the Code of Practice constitutes guidance rather than law, so any welcome shifts in policy that it endorses should ideally be reflected in the law too.
As a case in point, while the Freedom of Information Act has always covered information “held on behalf” of a public body, the proposed Code of Practice sought to make information held by contractors working for public bodies more accessible in practice: we welcome this but we do caution that issuing a new Code of Practice is not a substitute for amending the law, if that’s what’s required.
If you are interested, do read our submitted document in full.You may also like to see responses from the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the Open Government Network: as we three organisations’ submissions share several common themes (without our having consulted one another), we hope that there’s a good chance of the Government taking them into account.
@TheyWorkForYou – @EmmaReynoldsmp is saying that you refused to note that she was on maternity leave next to her voting record? Is that true? Is that something that is under active discussion? it seems to penalise female MPs as it stands https://t.co/7FfPFLY2EP
— Simon Burall (@sburall) February 1, 2018
TheyWorkForYou refusing to note that an MP was on maternity leave? Wait, that doesn’t sound like us…
TheyWorkForYou has one main aim: to make it extremely easy to see what’s going on in Parliament. To that end, we publish debates, voting records, and all sorts of details about MPs such as their job titles, expenses, and even which words they use most often.
Sometimes, interpreting all of these facts needs a little context. Case in point: when an MP is off on extended sickness or maternity leave, the number of speeches and votes they make will, of course, go down. There are many little exceptions like this, in fact: for example, my own MP was, for a while, a teller, meaning that he counted votes and was not normally allowed to vote himself. As you’d expect, this had quite an effect on his voting tally.
Now, the trouble with these exceptions is that they’re not easy to code. Most of TheyWorkForYou’s data actually comes from Parliament itself: they provide all the day’s debates, for example, as XML code, which our automated scripts pick up and publish out in the nice, readable format you see each morning on TheyWorkForYou. That’s how we’re able to publish such a large quantity of content on so many MPs: if TheyWorkForYou was compiled editorially, it’d require a far larger staff than we have.
So in fact, when Emma Reynolds got in touch to ask that we note her maternity leave on TheyWorkForYou, we didn’t refuse. Rather, we told her the truth: that it was a tricky issue that would require a manual bit of coding, but we’d add it to our development list and hopefully get to it.
And that’s what we did. The trouble is, our development list is long, and we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to prioritise. This ticket is now a few years old (Ms Reynolds was not the first to ask for a note on her record to explain special circumstances) and it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list above bug fixes and other more urgent additions. TheyWorkForYou is currently unfunded, so of course, projects which have funding and expectations/deadlines attached to that funding take priority.
Note: In retrospect, we recognise that the advice below is not strictly relevant to this post. While we do very much need funding, and also do very much encourage anyone with coding skills to come and help out with our backlog, these two solutions would not alleviate the main obstacle to the issue above, which is that the required data isn’t output by Parliament. So, feel free to read on if you like, but with that in mind. mySociety CEO Mark Cridge put out a series on tweets on Friday which clarify our thinking; you can see those here.
Until we’re able to prioritise this piece of work (or any other that our users/MPs would like to see), there are a couple of solutions.
Ask for Parliament to add such information to their output
As mentioned above, most of TheyWorkForYou’s content is automated, so if there were a data source to show that an MP was on a leave of absence, we could easily pick it up and include it on their page. We’ve asked an MP’s office about this but they replied:
We are not aware of any official source of information about an MP taking leave of absence.
From our point of view, this would be far preferable to a manual solution, which would rely on MPs getting in touch themselves to let us know when exceptions applied. This would almost certainly lead to a situation where some did, and some didn’t, meaning the information could look more accurate than it really was. Many researchers use our outputs, so we wouldn’t want this to become the foundation of a study on MPs’ leaves of absence!
Be the change you want to see
OK, that’s a bit of a hippy-esque maxim, but in this case it’s quite apt.
A small job like this would not take very long or cost very much — the reason we haven’t yet managed it isn’t because it’s a massive piece of work, but because there are so many other pressing tasks.
An MP (or anyone) who wanted to see a new feature could help by making a donation. If you specify that it is for a particular addition to the site, we’ll get back to you to discuss how viable that is, and how we can make it happen.
Or do it yourself! Like most mySociety projects, TheyWorkForYou runs on Open Source code. That means that, if you have development skills, you are very welcome to fork the code and make a pull request for whatever improvements or additions you like. We’ll gratefully merge in any that fit with the site (have a chat with us first to make sure everyone’s on the same page).
If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP), you could even contract one to do this for you.
We hope that’s cleared things up a bit. We’re not out to demonise MPs who take maternity leave, honest. And we’ve lodged an official request for a correction from the Times.
Image: Erik Lundqvist
March 3 is Open Data Day, and groups all around the world will be using Open Data in their communities, to show its benefits and to encourage the sharing of more data from government, business and civil society.
Obviously, that depends on their having some good-quality data to work with — and we’d like to help make that happen. Or, more accurately, help you to help make that happen.
Just as with Global Legislative Open Week last October, we’ll support groups who would like to run a workshop, getting together with other like-minded people to improve the open political data available for your country in Wikidata.
Funding and support available
Thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re able to offer some support to individuals/groups who are interested in running Wikidata workshops during February. If you’d like to hold an event like this, it’s pretty simple: all you need is a space, and someone with some existing Wikidata skills who can show others how to add or improve data. Then you just have to pick a date, and put out the word for people to join you.
We can help with a few things, so let us know once you’ve decided to take part, and we’ll chat with you about what might be useful. Here’s what we can offer:
- A small amount of funding to help cover event costs
- In-person support during your event – we may be able to send one of our EveryPolitician/Wikidata team to your event to present, participate and advise
- A review of your country’s existing political information in Wikidata and some pointers about possible next steps
- Ideas for how you and your attendees can:
a) Use the data for interesting research and projects, and
b) Improve the data for future research queries/projects
Workshops can take place at any time until the end of February.
So, if you’d like to be part of this push to improve and use political information in Wikidata in order to contribute to the Democratic Commons, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org
TICTeC2018 in Lisbon is going to be amazing, and we can say that with confidence.
Not just because we know that it’ll feature the usual blend of insights from all sorts of people at the cutting edge of Civic Technology; and not just because it will afford the usual opportunities for swapping stories with others in your field, all against the backdrop of Portugal’s lovely capital.
Giving us even more assurance that TICTeC2018 will be one of the most memorable yet, are our two must-hear keynote speakers. As Gemma has already announced, Professor Jonathan Fox and Martha Lane Fox will be kicking off the proceedings each day — and they have more than their vulpine names in common: you can be sure that they’ll each be delivering some truly thought-provoking insights for those in the field of Civic Tech.
To give you a small taste of that, we had a chat with Jonathan about his keynote, which will be on the topic of the political construction of accountability keywords.
Not to ‘spoiler’ your keynote, but could you give an example of the kind of keywords you’ll be focusing on?
Our words inform messaging, which is key to building broad constituencies for change.
Key terms in the field of accountability practice are both politically constructed — and contested.
For example, sometimes pro-public accountability forces lose the battle for what keywords mean. Consider the term “fake news” — during the 2016 US presidential campaign, this term was used to push back against the political use of disinformation.
Not only was this effort unsuccessful, the term itself was then appropriated and twisted by its original targets. Now the dominant use of the term “fake news” (not only in the US) is to undermine the credibility of independent investigative reporting.
The idea of analysing keywords to shed light on contested meanings draws on a long tradition in cultural studies, most notably a 1976 book by Raymond Williams. In this approach, a keyword is “a socially prominent word (e.g. art, industry, media or society) that is capable of bearing interlocking, yet sometimes contradictory and commonly contested contemporary meaning.” You can see more about this on the University of Pittsburgh’s Keywords Project.
Why do words matter so much, when some people might feel that action is a priority?
The real question about the viability of any term is whether it effectively communicates its meaning to its intended audience.
Accountability keywords have different meanings, to different actors, in different contexts — and in different languages.
The resulting ambiguity can either constrain or enable diverse strategies for promoting public accountability. This is relevant for action because our words inform messaging, which is key to building broad constituencies for change.
What led you to this precise area of research?
I have long been curious about the most appropriate way to communicate ideas about accountability across languages and cultures.
It is easy to become frustrated when literal translations sound awkward or fail to communicate. This led me to explore alternative communication strategies, looking to learn from examples of invented terms that manage to take off and enter everyday discourse (like “whistleblower”), or terms that come from popular cultures than can be relevant.
We’re delighted that you’ll be one of our two keynotes at TICTeC. What are you most looking forward to about the event?
I very much look forward to catching up on cutting edge research, learning from TICTeC participants.
I very much look forward to catching up on cutting edge research, learning from TICTeC participants — and finding out whether and how the ideas that I am working with might resonate.
For example, I am trying out an invented term that is intended to question the researcher-practitioner dichotomy in which researchers are assumed to be the knowledge producers and practitioners are cast as the knowledge consumers… In an effort to recognise more explicitly how practitioners can also be knowledge producers, I am proposing the term “action strategist.”
TICTeC is attended by activists, funders, academics, government organisations and representatives from the private sector — all working within the field that we label as Civic Tech. First: since you’ve given so much thought to terminology: would you say ‘Civic Tech’ is a satisfactory term for what we do? And second, what one piece of advice would you give us all when it comes to naming and talking about our work?
Yes, I think the term does work. My first reaction was to think that it has the advantage of being fairly self-explanatory — though a quick search finds some important differences in interpretation.
But the real question about the viability of any term is whether it effectively communicates its meaning to its intended audience.
Thanks to Jonathan for this preview of his keynote presentation. If you’d like to hear more on this topic, make sure to book your tickets soon, while the early bird price still applies.
Or perhaps you’d like to present your own research into the impacts of a Civic Technology that you’ve been studying? Our Call For Papers is still open, but hurry: there’s just over a week to get your proposal in.
The words ‘annual report’ might bring to mind a dull brochure dotted with graphs, pie charts and photos of directors in suits.
That’s not quite how we do things at mySociety though. Our annual report takes just five minutes to read, with plenty of nice pictures and not a suit in sight.
Got a moment? Take a look now.
If you happen to have visited the WhatDoTheyKnowPro page recently, you might have noticed that we’ve changed from offering free beta testers’ accounts to rolling out the payment interface.
Yes, we’ve launched! But not with a bang: having quietly introduced the payment option, we wanted to wait for a while and check that there were no issues before making a public announcement. Consider this that public announcement.
Just a reminder at this stage, in case you haven’t followed along with previous blog posts: WhatDoTheyKnowPro is a Freedom of Information toolkit which provides extra help with sending and organising requests. It’s designed to provide extra functionality for journalists and other people who use FOI in their jobs; if you’re a standard user of WhatDoTheyKnow, there’s nothing to pay and there never will be. We’ll always keep the site, and all its current functionality, free for everyone.
The question of price
Launching WhatDoTheyKnowPro provoked an interesting debate on where to position it, pricewise.
It’s not that we’ve never put a price on any of our services before: mySociety is a social enterprise, and we charge for some use of our APIs; our council clients pay us for FixMyStreet Pro; you can buy transit-time maps on Mapumental. These sources of income are just part of what help us to provide our core citizen-facing services for free.
And we’re hardly trailblazers in that respect: in fact, it was fascinating to read the Knight Foundation’s recent report Scaling Civic Tech and see how common it is in our sector to rely on a variety of revenue streams, from user donations to philanthropic grants, to paid-for services.
But while we may have experience in charging for our services, it’s definitely the first time we’ve had to price up a Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists and professionals!
What’s it worth?
We were effectively in the position of many an enterprise startup: with a market proposition that doesn’t exist in this exact form anywhere else. How do you know how to price something in those circumstances? Set it too low and you could miss out on important revenue; too high and you’ll alienate potential customers, many of whom are freelance journalists paying for their work tools out of their own pockets.
Still, this project has been a process of tackling problems and questions thoughtfully — from deciding which features to include in this initial version, to debating how to encourage journalists to link back to the news stories they’ve created once they’re live. Perhaps we could bring the same approach to pricing.
Ask the experts
Fortunately, with over 100 beta testers, we had a pool of users who knew the service well enough to be able to give an expert opinion on how much value it was bringing them. Sending out a survey brought some very useful responses, not to mention feedback about what our beta users liked and what they’d appreciate in future roll-outs.
That said, we’re well aware of research indicating that people are not always experts on what they are actually willing to pay.
And of course, it makes sense that different people will attach different values to a service, depending not only on their own finances but, in this case all sorts of other factors such as how frequently they use FOI and how accustomed they are to paying for technology.
Faced with responses to the survey that ranged between a suggested price of £1.00 a month to £50.00, that was, in some strange sense, reassuring to know.
To be fair, those were the extremes. There was a good consensus in the middle and that helped us decide on an introductory price of £10 a month. We’ll assess this after a few months to see whether it’s bringing the number of sign-ups we expect.
Open for business
If you’re a journalist or someone who uses FOI in your work, you can now go and give WhatDoTheyKnowPro a go! We hope you’ll let us know how you find it.
Image: Sven Scheuermeier (Unsplash)
Yesterday Matt explained what we hope to achieve with the Democratic Commons, our drive for shared, high-quality political Open Data.
If you read that and thought, ‘Blimey, that sounds like a lot of work’ — well, we thought so too. Hence, three new job openings.
As so often at mySociety, the skills we’re looking for aren’t exactly mainstream: on the other hand, if you do have a particular interest in the field, the chances are you’ll be a very good match.
So if you’re a bit of a geek about political boundary data…
Or if you have big ideas about how to build and maintain a large-scale distributed architecture for sourcing and updating basic political information…
Or if writing queries to extract data from Wikidata sounds like something you might do just for kicks … well, then the chances are that you’d fit in very well.
Find out more about all the vacancies here and please do pass them along to anyone who might fit the bill.
And because we know that it can be hard to make a big decision, especially before you know exactly what a workplace is like, we’ve done two things: we’ve expanded our Careers page to include more of a description of our so-called ‘company culture’, and we’ve opened up a blog post where you can ask us anything about working here.
If you know your way around Wikidata, we’d love you to join in with the global string of events taking place for GLOW next week.
We’re very keen to get as many people as possible helping to improve the quality of Wikidata’s information on politicians. Why? Well, let’s take a quick look at a recent story that hit the news.
A new Bundestag
With Germany’s new parliament gathering for the first time on October 24, der Spiegel took the opportunity to examine their male-to-female balance, in the context of legislatures across the world. At around 31% female, they noted, the Bundestag now sits at the better end of the scale: parliaments almost everywhere are male-dominated.
How were they able to make such an assessment? As they note at the foot of their article, they used data on politicians’ gender from our EveryPolitician project.
A further exploration looked at age — they discovered that on average their parliamentarians were very slightly younger than in previous years — and they note as an aside that here in the UK, we have in Dennis Skinner the oldest MP in Europe, while Mhairi Black is the second-youngest by a whisker.
These are the kind of insights we seek to increase through our work with Wikidata as we help to boost the quality of their politician data: we consider such analysis not only interesting, but important. Whether or not countries wish to encourage fair representation across age groups and gender — not to mention many other categories — their decisions should at least be based on facts.
As things stand, there are only a handful of countries where data is good enough to be able to make such comparisons: in our vision, journalists, researchers — and anyone else — will be able to turn to Wikidata to find what they need. The forthcoming Global Legislative Openness Week (GLOW) gives us all an opportunity to put a rocket under the quality and quantity of data that’s available to people making analyses like these, that stand to benefit us all.
How to get involved
GLOW runs from next Monday until the 30th November, and we’re encouraging people — wherever you live in the world — to get together and improve the data on national-level politicians for your country.
We’re already expecting a good number of groups to run events. Get-togethers are confirmed in Slovenia, Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, Spain and more — once final details are firmed up, we think there’ll be action in other countries across the globe. Now how about you? As we said in our post last month, a concentrated effort from a small group of people can really make a difference.
We’re especially keen to encourage folk who have some experience of contributing to Wikidata: we reckon that, for this particular drive, you need to already know your way around a bit. So if that’s you, do come forward!
Start by having a look at this page, which outlines what we hope to achieve; we’ll be adding more detail this week too. You can add your country to the list if you’d like to, or explore what’s missing in the data of those countries already listed.
Or, if Wikidata’s all new to you, why not put out some feelers and see if there’s anyone who can show you the ropes while you work together? One good way is to see if there’s a Wikimedia User Group local to you.
What exactly will you be doing?
Here’s a bit more detail on what a workshop will look like.
The idea is to improve information in Wikidata about members of your country’s legislature. The ‘Progress Indicators’ on this page will give you guidance: typically you’ll be working through tasks like adding any missing “position held” statements and biographical data. We’re asking folk to prioritise current politicians, with information for historic members an added bonus if time permits.
Once sufficient data is available in Wikidata, the real fun begins! Your workshop attendees will be able to query the data to answer questions such as:
1) Can the gender breakdown and average age of members of the current legislature be calculated?
2) Can that be broken down per political party/group, or (where appropriate) by region?
3) Can you compare those figures for the legislature vs. the cabinet?
4) How far back can you generate those for?
And if the ideas start to flow, building queries and visualisations to answer other questions will also be very useful.
Let us know if you have any questions before the week begins — we’re going to be very busy during GLOW, but we’ll do our absolute best to help.
Image: Alex Iby (Unsplash)