1. TICTeC: See you tomorrow in beautiful Barcelona

    Yes, time flies — TICTeC really is tomorrow!

    We’re looking forward to hearing from those at the heart of civic tech research. We can’t wait to see old friends and make new ones, too.

    But if you can’t be with us for this unique conference on the impacts of civic technologies, don’t despair. You can follow along via the #TICTeC hashtag, which we’ll be encouraging people to use across all the usual channels.

    Of course, we’ll also be busy taking notes, photographing and collecting footage for blog posts and videos after the event, so watch this space for those summaries.

    And now: off to Barcelona. ¡Hasta mañana!

     

    Image: Moyan Brenn (CC)

  2. Running a campaign? The WriteToThem tool can help

    WriteToThem is our service that helps people write to their elected representatives, quickly and easily.

    People running a campaign often send their supporters to WriteToThem and ask them to contact their MP. But it’s always easy to lose people between one website and the next: you’ll get far better results if you can send your users right in to the message-writing process.

    Fortunately, the WriteToThem embeddable tool lets you do just that. It’s free, and available to any campaign that wants to use it. We recently came across a great example of how this tool has been used by Stepchange, the debt charity, so we wrote it up in a case study.

    If you’re wondering whether this tool might work for your own campaign, you can read their experience here.

     

  3. West Ham stadium ruling: a win for transparency

    You may have seen the blanket press coverage last week: the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the publicly-funded authority which owns the Olympic Stadium, lost its recent tribunal and was ordered to publish its contract with West Ham football club.

    This is a story which goes back to last August, when we first blogged that WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt had submitted a request for the contract via the site, on behalf of a group of Football Supporters’ Trusts.

    In September, we updated the story as LLDC pushed back from publishing the full contract, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. It seems the subsequent tribunal dismissed this as a valid reason to withhold the information — information which has now been pored over in detail by the nation’s media.

    Many concluded that the authority have struck a poor deal on behalf of the general public; we particularly enjoyed a statement from Barry Hearn, former chairman of Leyton Orient, who reportedly stated, “My dog could have negotiated a better deal for the taxpayer.”

    Whatever your opinion on the deal itself, we think it’s right that the information should be firmly in the public domain, so that people can clearly see the financial affairs of the authorities they pay for.

    Richard Hunt, whose request kickstarted this whole affair, says that it represents a good result for football, too:

    The effort to get the contract released under FOI was started by a football fan and then, as the LLDC resisted disclosure, mushroomed into a full scale campaign run by a coalition of football club Supporters Trusts.

    It gained such wide support precisely because football fans are taxpayers too, and there was a widespread perception that one such club was receiving public funds to get a new stadium, whereas other clubs had funded new stadia themselves (or more accurately from the revenues earned from  their fans ).

    It was a rare example of football fans overcoming tribal divisions to work together, and is expected to be showcased at the Supporters Summit meeting organised by the Football Supporters Federation this coming July.

    Well done to all involved! You can see the original Freedom of Information request here.

    Image: Daniel Coomber (CC)

  4. Which ward will you be in on May 5?

    Are you still in the same ward? Check whether your ward boundaries have changed here.

    May 5 is election day

    If you’re a UK citizen, you have an election in your near future. We can say that with confidence.

    May 5 sees elections not only for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but also for many local councils. Londoners will be picking their London Assembly representatives and their Mayor. As if all that isn’t enough, there are also Police and Crime Commissioner Elections.

    Ward boundaries are changing

    You might think you already know where to vote, and who’s standing for election in your area.

    But both are dictated by which ward you live in — and that may not be the one you’re used to, thanks to ongoing changes in ward boundaries.

    There’s no need to worry, though. As before, we’ve provided a nifty tool that will tell you whether your ward has changed. Just enter your postcode here.

    Thanks to Democracy Club’s new project Who Can I Vote For? you’ll also be able to click through to see whatever information is available for candidates in your ward.

    Image: Matt Brown (CC)

  5. Dostup do Pravdy: the secret of FOI success

    Last week, Ukrainian Freedom of Information site Dostup do Pravdy processed its 10,000th FOI request.

    That’s pretty impressive, given that they launched just a couple of years ago, in 2014.

    We offer hearty congratulations to the Dostup do Pravdy team. We’re also looking very closely at how they achieved this level of usage, because the site runs on our Alaveteli platform — and we’re keen to share the secrets of their success with the rest of the Alaveteli community.

    So we called Yaroslav, one of the team, and asked him to outline the various factors that have helped boost the site’s popularity. We’ll be writing this up in more detail as part of a guide to marketing Alaveteli sites, but for now, here are the headline points.

    Link with a news outlet

    Dostup do Pravdy was set up in collaboration with Ukraine’s biggest online news outlet, and from the beginning they have employed a journalist to work solely on stories generated through Freedom of Information.

    This has given them several great advantages: a ready-made audience for their most interesting requests; a channel through which to ensure that the general population knows about their rights in FOI; and professional expertise in pulling out which information was the most newsworthy.

    Troubled times

    Of course, no-one would choose to live through political upheaval, but there’s no doubt that Ukraine’s recent history made the populace all the more keen to access facts.

    FOI proved a crucial tool in uncovering and publicising stories of corruption, such as the diversion of funds meant for the army, when high-up officials were coincidentally seen driving top-of-the-range BMWs.

    Stories that grab the public’s imagination

    Right now, Dostup do Pravdy are working on a campaign to find the owners of historic buildings which are falling into disrepair, a story which has captured the attention of the wider community.

    Similarly, they’ve probed into figures on domestic violence cases, a story which got picked up by all the national media.

    On the road

    Ukraine is a relatively big country, with some regions where internet access is poor. The Dostup do Pravdy team are partway through a series of 15 grant-funded ‘roadshows’ in which they invite local activists to come and learn more about Freedom of Information, and train them in how to make requests.

    These activists also help to spread the word amongst the wider community and local media. Where there is no access to the internet, they revert to the lower-tech FOI channels of phone and written letter.

    The visits are also an opportunity to meet with officers from public authorities — the people on the receiving end of the FOI requests.

    Employ an intern

    There’s always more work than there is time to do it, when you’re a small team trying to make a big difference. Dostup do Pravdy were only able to find all the details they needed for their historic buildings project by employing an intern who could go through all the various registers to find crucial information.

    Use social media

    Dostup do Pravdy have seen great increases in visits to their site, both in terms of people browsing information, and those who go on to make an FOI request.

    Alaveteli does allow for a certain amount of discussion of requests, via its annotations functionality, but Dostup do Pravdy also have almost 10,000 followers on Facebook, and it’s here that they’ve seen discussion flourish. It’s also a great platform for sharing their investigative stories, and publicising their events.

    Users also come to Facebook to ask for assistance in making their requests, or following up those that have gone unanswered. Administrators encourage users to keep pushing for the information they require, and can point out where authorities are in breach of law, or point them in the right direction to get further help from the Institute of Media law, who can offer legal aid and advice.

     

    So there you are: that’s the combination of factors that have led to success for Dostup do Pravdy. We wish them all the best as they charge towards their next milestone. Будьмо!

     

    Image: Juanedc.com (CC)

  6. Just who is this Stephen Crabb?

    Well, it certainly all happened over the weekend: the resignation of one Secretary of State on Friday and the quick appointment of another by Saturday.

    It all left a lot of people wondering just who this Stephen Crabb fellow was, and what he stood for.

    Fortunately, there’s a very handy website where you can look up the details, debates and voting records of every MP — we refer, of course, to our very own TheyWorkForYou. Over the weekend, we saw the link to Crabb’s voting record shared across social media (and even good old traditional media; we were also mentioned on Radio 4’s Any Answers). Naturally, most interest was around Crabb’s voting habits when it comes to welfare and benefits.

    The upshot of this was that TheyWorkForYou saw almost three times our normal traffic for a Saturday. Over the weekend, 30% of all page views were for Crabb’s profile or voting records. In contrast, just 1.83% thought to check out his predecessor’s record: yesterday’s news already, it seems.

    So Stephen Crabb’s the new guy, and you may want to keep up to date with his contributions to Parliament. Sign up here and we’ll send you an email every time he speaks.

     

    Image: Number 10 (CC)

     

     

     

  7. Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement

    mySociety’s Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul, gives an overview of our research work in the latest publication from the World Bank’s Open Knowledge Repository. Also featured is an experiment in citizen engagement from Mzalendo in Kenya, that was first shared at TICTeC.

    Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement: A Practical Guide is a handy collection of examples and lessons from practitioners in Brazil, Uganda, Cameroon and Kenya, on how to measure the impact of civic technologies.

    Rebecca explains the methods we’re currently using to answer questions like, “are institutions equally responsive to citizens?” and, crucially, “are our tools genuinely making a difference?”.

    Meanwhile, Lily L. Tsai and Leah Rosenzweig, who contributed last year to our Impacts of Civic Technologies conference TICTeC, give an overview of how they used Facebook ads to draw conclusions about what makes people take concrete political actions online.

    You can download the guide for free here — and don’t forget, if you’d like to hear more about the ways in which civic tech’s impact is being tested by projects around the world, there are still a few tickets available for TICTeC 2016.

     

    Image: Alistair Nicol (CC)

  8. Publishing responses to FOI requests ‘should be the norm’, says government commission on Freedom of Information

    Answers to requests already are published where they are made through public websites like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but we think that this should be the norm.

    For us, of course, this was the stand-out line from the independent commission on the Freedom of Information’s reportpdf, published today. It’s great to have an official endorsement of WhatDoTheyKnow’s core premise. But there is plenty more to take in.

    You may remember our announcement last year, that a government commission was to consider restricting access to information, with possible outcomes being the introduction of fees for FOI requests and greater powers for authorities to turn down requests.

    Today’s report covers the commission’s findings, and is accompanied by a response on behalf of the government.

    That’s a lot of reading, so here’s what you need to know.

    No fees for FOI

    mySociety, as operators of WhatDoTheyKnow and developers of the international Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, made a submission to the commission.

    Along with several other organisations and individuals, we campaigned against introducing charges for making Freedom of Information requests, and encouraged you to share your experiences and opinions in the public consultation.

    Many of you were among the 30,000 people who took the time to contribute. Opinion across the board was overwhelmingly against the introduction of fees — and that strength of feeling has been recognised.

    In our submission, we argued that introducing a fee for making a Freedom of Information request would have a significant negative impact on our users’ ability and willingness to obtain information from public bodies and would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to serve our users as well as we do now.

    The commission stated:

    We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.

    And in turn, the government response came:

    The government agrees with the commission’s view that it is not appropriate to introduce fees for requests … the introduction of new fees would lead to a reduction in the ability of requesters, especially the media, to make use of the Act.

    Publishing responses, WhatDoTheyKnow style

    As we’ve already mentioned, the commission recommended the WhatDoTheyKnow practice of publishing responses, saying “we think that this should be the norm”, and adding:

    We consider that this will have a number of benefits, such as helping requestors to obtain information which has in fact already been released without needing to make a request, reducing unnecessary requests for information that has already been published, and allowing public authorities to avoid answering duplicate requests where they can simply point to information on their websites.

    Universities remain accountable

    We were also happy to see both the commission and the government reject lobbying from universities seeking to be excluded from Freedom of Information law. The commission wrote:

    It continues to be appropriate and important for universities to remain subject to the Act. They are highly important institutions that play a key public role.

    You can’t have everything

    All indications are that the FOI law will not be substantially weakened, and we’re delighted about that. But of course, we’d have liked the government to take the opportunity to extend and strengthen the FOI Act too.

    We and others argued for the extension of Freedom of Information law to cover more public bodies, including organisations that provide key public services, manage national infrastructure or carry out regulation on behalf of the state.

    The commission did not consider the extension of the coverage of the Act, but did recognise this as a key omission from its consideration and noted that it had received lots of responses on this subject — and that the Act’s scope ought be reviewed.

    We also made the case for time limits for internal reviews, and consideration of the public interest test. The commission agreed, but on these points the government decided not to make any changes to the law.

    Finally

    We are happy to see the government re-state its aspiration to be “the most transparent government in the world” and hope the new guidance to public bodies promised in the statement released today will help prompt them to operate more openly.

    We’ll continue to keep an eye on potential breaches to our rights under FOI. But for now, things look a lot better than we might have feared.

     

    Image: Tom Heinze (CC)

  9. Mzalendo: more reliable than the Kenyan government’s website

    For verified, reliable information, it’s usually best to go to the official source — but here’s an exception.

    Parliamentary monitoring website Mzalendo, which runs on mySociety’s Pombola platform, carries more accurate MP data than the official Kenyan Parliament site.

    Checking parliament.go.ke‘s list of MPs against Mzalendo’s, our developers discovered a large number of constituency mismatches. These, explained Jessica Musila from Mzalendo, came about because the official site has not reflected boundary changes made in 2013.

    Even more significantly, the official parliament site currently only holds details of 173 of the National Assembly’s 349 MPs.

    “The gaps in www.parliament.go.ke validate Mzalendo’s very existence,” said Jessica. We agree: it’s a great example of the sometimes unexpected needs filled by parliamentary monitoring websites.

    And of course, through EveryPolitician, we’re working to make sure that every parliamentary monitoring website can access a good, reliable source of data.

    Image: Richard Portsmouth (CC)

  10. People’s Assembly track the attendance records of South Africa’s MPs

    South African parliamentary monitoring website People’s Assembly have added an Attendance page, allowing citizens to see at a glance what percentage of committee meetings each MP has attended.

    A few weeks ago, we highlighted one major difference between the Ghanaian parliament and our own: in Ghana, they register MPs’ attendance.

    This week, we received news of another of our partners who are holding their representatives to account on the matter of attendance: People’s Assembly, whose website runs on our Pombola platform. The new page was contributed by Code4SA, who have been doing some really valuable work on the site lately.

    According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, in some cases MPs’ attendance is abysmally low. There’s also a history of those who “arrive, sign the register and leave a short while later”, a practice that may soon be on the decline thanks to People’s Assembly’s inclusion of data on late arrivals and early departures.

    With 57 representatives — or about 15% — floundering at a zero rate of attendance, it seems that this simple but powerful display is a much-needed resource for the citizens of South Africa. See it in action here.

     

    South African MPs' attendance at committee meetings on People's Assembly

    Top image: GovernmentZA (CC)