1. How a payslip taught France about their Transparency rights

    Have you ever wondered what the Prime Minister’s payslip looks like? We’re not talking about how much he’s paid — that’s a matter of record — but the actual paper document.

    Over in France,  Xavier Berne from the Alaveteli-based site Ma Dada has just created a bit of a stir by receiving Emmanuel Macron’s fiche de paie in response to an FOI request. This response set off extensive coverage in the French national media on how citizens can use their right to transparency.

    Payslip of President Macron

    Ma Dada were kind enough to talk us through what happened, and how it’s resulted in a better understanding of FOI across France. Developer Laurent Savaete sent us the picture you see at the top of this post, of the front cover of the national paper Libération, which he describes as France’s rough equivalent to The Guardian.

    “Transparency was the front page story”, Laurent says, “which is highly unusual. The next four pages covered transparency, how everyone can use it, and profiles of four power users.” National TV also picked the topic up.

    Just like here in the UK, Macron’s actual salary was already known. The scoop was in receiving the facsimile of the paper document, which came about because Laurent’s colleague Xavier sometimes sends out interesting FOI requests, “for educational purposes, to show that it is possible”.

    Quite by accident, this one actually turned out to be a perfect piece of FOI promotion: because the content of the payslip was nothing new in itself, the media focused on the means by which it was obtained.

    How it happened

    WhatDoTheyKnow dreams of such amazing coverage, and we’re sure that Alaveteli projects around the world feel the same! So, how did it come about, and can other FOI projects replicate these conditions in their own countries?

    Well, we can try, but Laurent reckons that it was broadly down to the planets aligning. As he explains it, “A journalist had been in touch around that time about something else; Xavier happened to mention he’d received the payslip, and she was interested in writing a story. 

    “She is not a long time FOI user herself. To be honest, it was lucky timing — Xavier had just received the response, and the news cycle needed something to break up their coverage of Gaza and Ukraine.”

    If there’s a lesson to come out of this, we think it might be: keep requesting interesting stuff, and keep talking to journalists.

    A spike in new users 

    Because Ma Dada knew the coverage was coming, they had time to put some safeguards in place to make sure the site could handle extra traffic. “We cranked the server up to the max to make sure everything kept running  — which worked across the swell in interest, but we wouldn’t be able to afford keeping it at that level longer term”.

    The peak in visitors may have retreated now, but there’s been an undoubted uptick in usage. “We’ve been seeing a surge in registration for both standard and Pro accounts, and a definite increase on requests being made on Ma Dada for the last two weeks. 

    “We had around 40,000 visitors on the day of story; and 15-20,000 the day after.”

    Reaching the people

    How do you know your media coverage has touched the nation? Well, Laurent was given a nice clear illustration: “The day after the paper came out, I was chatting with the owner of a bookshop in the south of France, and he asked what I do in life, so I said: ‘I work on a project in public transparency’, to which he replied, ‘Oh, they just talked about that on the radio this morning!’. 

    “That radio segment was discussing our publication and mentioned Ma Dada. It was super cool to bump into someone who’d actually heard of us outside of our own dedicated circles.”

    Very cool indeed! And now? Ma Dada are already thinking how they can replicate this great success. “We’re thinking about other documents we might request to get the same amount of publicity again in the future.”

    Best of luck, Ma Dada! Your next story should be received by a more informed general public, thanks to that alignment of the planets.

  2. TICTeC 2024 – that’s a wrap!

    We’ve just come back from two intense days packed with presentations from the wonderful global community of civic tech practitioners. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who made TICTeC 2024 possible: our wonderful speakers, delegates both on the ground and joining us remotely; sponsors the National Endowment for Democracy, the team of red-shirted mySociety staff who made everything run so smoothly (including our volunteer for the day, Teona); venue Mary Ward Hall; and the videography team from AV Projections who gave our online attendees a seamless experience.

    Each attendee will of course have their own highlights, but they surely must include some of the following: María Baron and Nick Mabey OBE igniting each day’s proceedings with relevant and provocative keynotes; a panel of seasoned civic technologists reflecting on what happened the day they woke up and realised their project had become critical national infrastructure; first-person testimonies from practitioners operating in hostile or war-torn environments; and deep dives into where AI can be helpful and where it has inherent dangers.

    The last in-person conference was in 2019, and to be completely honest, we did wonder whether we’d be able to fully recapture the TICTeC spirit. Fortunately, people’s reactions, messages and social media posts — not to mention the buzz of excitement throughout the two days — has put those concerns entirely to rest. There’s as much affection and appreciation for TICTeC as there ever was.

    Thanks to everyone who was a part of it – not least our own Gemma Moulder who pulled off her usual seemingly effortless, but in reality massive, feat of organisation.

    We’ll be sharing slides, videos and photos as soon as they’ve all been processed, so watch this space.

     

    Photo: Alice Williams

     

     

  3. Parents for Inclusive Education are on a mission — with the help of FOI

    How do you bring about systemic change within structures that are embedded into the national culture? That’s a big question, but it’s one that users of our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow are often tussling with.

    One place to start is with data that helps you map the current state of affairs, and FOI can be the perfect medium for getting hold of that. When we spoke to Jack Russell from Parents for Inclusive Education (PfIE), a grassroots organisation of primary school parents in Northern Ireland, he explained the value of data very well: “it means you can start a conversation”.

    So, what are PfIE trying to achieve?

    “We came together because we want to see a more inclusive primary education for every child” – and they’re starting with religious education.

    “We realised that, for many parents, there was a lack of clarity around how RE is delivered in Northern Ireland, and what rights parents have in this area.”

    PfIE wanted to gather data on who comes into schools to deliver RE lessons, collective worship and assemblies. Their aim was to achieve an accurate, representative picture of practices across Northern Ireland, as opposed to their baseline assumptions which, as they admit, had up until then been based on anecdotal evidence.

    From small beginnings

    And so began a large-scale FOI project — although initially the team had much more modest plans: 

    “At first, we were only going to contact our own schools to ask them who was given access and how this was communicated. 

    “But then we realised that other parents might want to be informed about these practices at their schools — and they were entitled to answers too. So we decided to send a Freedom of Information request to every publicly funded primary school in Northern Ireland, apart from special schools: that was 772 in total.”

    The organisation had some tech expertise amongst its members, and, as they explained, at first it seemed that WhatDoTheyKnow wouldn’t quite be suitable for their needs:

    “One of our team — Laura — had successfully used WhatDoTheyKnow in the past to query hospitals about their waitlist times for outpatient appointments, so she suggested using it. But after some initial research, we decided not to, as we’d wanted to include attachments and links in our requests. 

    “I’d written a script to batch send them all, but it turned out that these were heavily spam filtered by the schools’ email server, so we fell back on WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “I’m really glad we did, as the fact that all correspondence will be public is a huge plus for us.”

    Managing batch FOI requests

    So, how did PfIE manage their 772 FOI requests? They signed up for our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service, which is designed specifically to help keep track of large batches like this, and also allows users to keep their requests and responses private until they’re ready to release their findings.

    “We focused our questions around two areas: first, access: which churches and religious organisations were being given access to schools, and how that access was managed via processes and/or controls; and secondly communication: whether and how parents were made aware of religious visitors; and were informed about the options to withdraw their children from religious practices.

    “We asked 14 questions in total, some of which were yes/no or multiple choice, others which required free-form answers.”

    FOI allows the request-maker to specify the format they’d like to receive their responses in, which can save a lot of data-cleansing further down the line. As Jack acknowledges,”we received submissions back from schools in varied formats, including Word and PDF attachments, and also as plain or rich text email replies.”

    It was all useful, though. “The data we collected provides us with an objective, fully representative sample — we had a 99% reply rate — to gain an accurate understanding of RE practices in Northern Ireland primary schools. 

    “We understand this response level to be unprecedented, according to academics we’ve spoken to who have conducted similar research. Our project is primarily focused on making data transparently available to parents, so from this perspective the 99% number is hugely encouraging. It also means that any aggregate conclusions we draw are as close to being unbiased as possible — we actually have a response rate that is higher than the NI Census 2021 (97%) which people were legally required to complete.”

    Tenacious in the face of challenges

    Getting to this gratifying result wasn’t all plain sailing, though. Jack explained the issues they encountered along the way:

    “Some schools initially mistrusted the FOI request email that came through WhatDoTheyKnow, and didn’t know whether they had to reply. However, a couple of weeks after we sent the request out, the Northern Irish Education Authority issued guidance instructing schools to reply, providing an information document and template response.”

    In any large batch of FOI requests there will be a variety of levels of response, and PfIE came across this too. 

    “There were non-responses, partial responses and responses with an incorrect understanding of the question. Our first technique to remedy these was by following up via WhatDoTheyKnow, which provided alerts and tools which made this very easy to do — another reason I’m very glad we went with the platform!”

    Fortunately, the FOI Act has a provision for dealing with non-responders: referring them to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    “For persistent non-repliers, we contacted the ICO, who very diligently helped us further encourage schools to respond.

    “But several of the schools that responded late, following an ICO decision notice, sent their responses to our own email account, meaning that the responses didn’t appear on WhatDoTheyKnow. The team at WhatDoTheyKnow were very helpful in adding these: I sent through several batches of .eml files and they made sure they appeared within the conversation.”

    On a mission

    So how will PfIE be sharing their findings? They are launching a report today, On A Mission, with an event at Stormont. They’ve also created an online map to help people explore the data.

    But they’re not stopping there: “After releasing the findings of our report, we plan to create resources and a set of best practices for schools to achieve a more inclusive RE experience for all students. We also plan to engage and empower parents, hopefully promoting a sense of transparency and open dialogue between the school and parental community.

    “Beyond this, we have several other plans to empower parents, increase transparency and improve the education system in Northern Ireland”.

    And that’s how you start to make change

    PfIE have used the mechanism available to them to produce exactly the outcome they were after.

    “The tools provided by mySociety, together with help from the ICO in chasing up the late responders, and the cooperation of the NI Education Authority in doing the same have been invaluable in achieving this level of response,” says Jack.

    “We would definitely recommend WhatDoTheyKnow. The tools have been really useful in managing a large scale request, and the fact that all correspondence will be publicly searchable and visible is invaluable: it adds a great deal of credibility to our research by effectively underwriting our findings with an auditable trail of evidence. 

    “And on top of this, the team have been super-helpful and a pleasure to work with! “

    We’re glad to have been of service. Thanks very much to Jack for talking us through the project. If you’d like to know more, visit the PfIE website, where you can also sign up to their newsletter to be kept informed.

     

    Image: Priscilla Du Preez

  4. Statement on the proposed ICO fine to PSNI

    The ICO have today announced that they intend to fine the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for their accidental release of staff’s personal information in August 2023. This data was released in response to a Freedom of Information request made using WhatDoTheyKnow.

    mySociety is a charity; we run WhatDoTheyKnow as a vital tool to help anyone exercise their right to information held by public authorities. We understand the repercussions of a breach like this, which serves to demonstrate that public authorities must be good at dealing with personal information. We welcome the ICO’s emphasis on the importance of robust release processes to ensuring that information that is important to the public interest can be released safely. 

    We take the responsibilities that come with operating a large platform extremely seriously, especially around the personal data breaches that can occur when authorities’ release processes fail. Following this breach, we’ve undertaken a significant programme of technical and process work to play our part in reducing the risks of this kind of incident.

    We’ve developed a new piece of code which analyses spreadsheets as they come in as responses to FOI requests on WhatDoTheyKnow, and holds them for review if they are detected to contain hidden data. The deployment of this code has proven successful and we will be continuing to improve it. In its first three months, this spreadsheet analyser has screened 3,064 files and prevented the release of 21 spreadsheets that have been confirmed to contain data breaches, and 53 which were likely to contain data breaches (around 2% of the files screened in total).

    In an ideal world, such measures would not be necessary; we continue to work with authorities making such releases to help them understand the reasons for data breaches, the potential severity of their impact, and how to avoid them.

    This blog post was updated at 10:04 on 23 May to correct the figures around the number of spreadsheets screened.

     —

    Image: Pietro Jeng

  5. TICTeC schedule now online!

    Yes, it’s that marvellous time for the Civic Tech community: the full TICTeC schedule is now online and you can browse it to your heart’s content, picking which sessions you’ll attend — not always an easy decision when there’s so much to choose from!

    As usual, TICTeC promises access to civic tech around the world with insights you won’t get elsewhere, presented by a truly amazing roster of international speakers. This year we have a focus on threats to democracy and climate, and the tools that are working to counter them.

    You’ll find grassroots NGOs, making a difference through their on-the-ground technology; representatives of governments; tech giants; and of course the academic researchers that make sense of everything we do in the civic tech world.

    • Hear from Mevan Babakar, News and Information Credibility Lead at Google;
    • Learn how tech has shaped citizen-government communication from the Taiwan Ministry of Digital Affairs;
    • See what happens when you wake up and realise your civic tech project is now critical national infrastructure, with Alex Blandford of the University of Oxford

    These are just a few of the 60+ sessions from an international range of perspectives that you can dip into across TICTeC’s two days. Which will you choose?

    Come along in person, or tune in from home

    This year, most of TICTeC’s sessions will be livestreamed, so you can tune in no matter where you are (the workshops won’t be broadcast, as they don’t lend themselves to online participation). If you’d like to attend virtually, you can book a ticket via Eventbrite for just £50.

    Or, if you’d prefer to join the conference in person, enjoying all that a real-life meet-up entails, with sessions interspersed with networking, nibbles, and socialising, make sure you snap up one of the limited slots. But hurry – TICTeC always sells out, and this year is looking like no exception.

    Register for TICTeC now.

  6. TICTeC keynote speaker announcement: Nick Mabey OBE

    Hot on the heels of our last big announcement, we’re very happy to confirm our second keynote for TICTeC, The Impacts of Civic Technology conference 2024: Nick Mabey OBE.

    If you’d like to hear from one of the big players, really making a difference to the UK’s climate change response, you’ll want to make sure you’re at TICTeC this year. 

    Nick is a founder of E3G (Third Generation Environmentalism), an independent climate change think tank with a goal to translate climate politics, economics and policies into action — and is now its co-CEO.

    He has previously worked in the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, UK Foreign Office, WWF-UK, London Business School and the UK electricity industry. As an academic he was lead author of Argument in the Greenhouse, examining the economics of climate change. 

    He also founded London Climate Action Week, one of the world’s largest climate festivals, which takes place on 22-30 June — so if you’re in London for TICTeC and you have an interest in climate, it might be worth sticking around for that! 

    Nick will open the second day of  proceedings at TICTeC, setting the scene for presentations and workshop sessions that strive to examine the central question: What is needed to make civic tech tackling problems around climate change more successful and impactful on a global scale?

    Few people are better equipped to bring such a broad spectrum of knowledge and experience to this complex issue. If you’d like to tap into some of that, then make sure to snap up your tickets to TICTeC

    BOOK YOUR PLACE AT TICTeC NOW

    The TICTeC 2024 schedule will be published very soon, so watch this space.

  7. The Council Climate Scorecards project is having international impact

    Canada differs from the UK in many ways: obviously it’s vastly bigger, extending across many more latitudes; its climate, nature and terrains vary hugely; its cities are more dispersed and diverse — and accordingly, the challenges the two countries face around tackling the climate emergency are different, too. 

    But there are some significant ways in which we are alike, too, as we learned when we chatted with Hannah Muhajarine, National Campaign Manager at the Climate Reality Project Canada

    Climate Reality, like mySociety and Climate Emergency UK, have identified local councils — or municipal governments as they’re called in Canada — as crucial contributors to our respective countries’ decarbonisation. Both sides run projects that monitor the climate action of these authorities, helping citizens to keep an eye on their progress.

    “Scorecards helped us reimagine both our content and project design.”

    Hannah first heard about the Council Climate Action Scorecards on the Local Zero podcast, and immediately saw the parallels between our two projects. Not only that — she understood that Climate Reality could learn from our project, adopting some of the Scorecards’ approaches. 

    We were keen to hear how the Scorecards have encouraged Climate Reality to enrich and broaden their own work in monitoring climate action at the local level. So, first of all, what is Climate Reality?

    “We’re the Canadian branch of The Climate Reality Project, which is an international climate organisation,” explained Hannah.”We work by training citizens on climate advocacy, education, and communication.  

    “This includes supporting a network of Community Climate Hubs across Canada, which mobilise citizens to get involved in local climate advocacy targeting city and town councils. 

    “These grassroots groups get involved in a variety of projects, including making sure that climate is a priority during municipal elections and budget-setting; participating in public consultations relating to climate; campaigning to get their council to declare a climate emergency; organising campaigns; hosting community-facing public events on climate, and more.”

    All good stuff, but a lot more hands-on advocacy than we’ve been doing over here. So, where are the links with the Scorecards project?

    “To support the Hubs and their local advocacy work, since 2018 Climate Reality has led a project called the National Climate League (NCL), where we trained volunteers to collect data every year on a set of climate-related indicators measuring climate progress at the local level across Canada”.

    Ah yes, the overlaps certainly begin to become obvious — in fact, that’s exactly what Climate Emergency UK did for the UK Scorecards. So, what sort of data were Climate Reality collecting?

    “For example, the number of Passive Certified buildings within municipal limits, the number of transit trips per year, household waste per year… we also tracked a smaller number of policies, like climate plans and climate targets, adaptation plans, green building policies and so on.”

    And, like the Scorecards, all this information was a useful way of letting the public know how their local government was getting on: “Climate Reality staff would pull together the volunteer-collected data each year and publish it in a report, with data visualisations comparing municipalities across the range of indicators, the results of our policy scan, and case studies of top-performing municipalities.”

    “Learning about the Scorecards provided a great inspiration, and a specific model for us to work towards.”

    Hannah goes on, “In the spring of 2023, we’d just launched the fifth edition. We were interested in re-evaluating the design of the project, and especially expanding the policy aspect.”

    This was great timing: “It was around then that I heard about the Scorecards on an episode of the Local Zero podcast. I was really excited, since the project had many parallels to ours, but featured more detailed and extensive criteria — plus it was a bit larger scale in terms of volunteer participants and the number of councils covered, and it used the scoring method to compare councils with one another, which we hadn’t previously considered.”

    What great synchronicity. So, what changes did Climate Reality make, inspired by the Scorecards?

    Hannah explains, “Scorecards helped us reimagine both our content and project design. For example, we introduced more extensive and in-depth training for volunteers. Inspired by the way that Climate Emergency UK work, we identified volunteers with key skills, and harnessed them to help with data verification. 

    You also influenced us to add questions around retrofit programmes, support for low-income homeowners and rental housing; renewable energy targets; and community climate action funding.”

    And so, what were the outcomes of these changes?

    “We were able to recruit 51 volunteers to participate in data collection this year, and collect data for 53 municipalities across Canada, which is a great expansion on the project compared to last year.

    “Plus, the new version of the NCL includes 21 policy questions, each with several sub-questions. So we’re now tracking things like climate plans, community greenhouse gas reduction targets, citizens’ climate advisory committees, mode-share targets, curbside composting programmes, and more. 

    “We’re hoping the new Scorecards-informed version of the NCL will provide a great boost in terms of the data and information available to our network of climate advocates, and give them a new tool they can use to engage in local climate advocacy, targeting city councils, towns, and even other jurisdictions perhaps — as well as communicating with their community about how their city/town compares to others on climate. 

    “My hope is that expanding and strengthening the policy element of the NCL — which the Scorecards helped us do — will really help boost local advocates’ policy literacy, help them identify specific policies, targets and programmes that other municipalities have implemented and which they might like to build a campaign around and encourage their municipality to adopt. They’ll be able to evaluate their council’s climate plans and targets against what has actually been implemented and what the outcomes have been — in other words, they’ll be empowered to draw the connection between policy and action, just as the Scorecards have done.”

    Climate Reality won’t actually be scoring the municipalities this year, though Hannah says it’s a consideration for future iterations. “As you all know, there are challenges with designing an objective, properly weighted scoring system, so we decided we didn’t have the capacity to go all in on trying to design something this year, but it would be something we’d like to do in the future. Obviously it is a really good method for translating a lot of detailed, diverse policy information into something that can provide an at a glance comparison.

    “Overall, learning about the Scorecards and connecting with Climate Emergency UK provided a great inspiration, and a specific model for us to work towards, as well as really helpful advice on specific shared challenges.”

    We are very gratified to hear that. It is always wonderful to connect with other projects around the world that are working towards similar aims by similar means, and to exchange ideas. Thanks very much to Hannah for telling us all about it.

    Image: Will Clewis

  8. Council Climate Action scorecards support climate officers

    Lucie Bolton took the position of Climate Strategy Officer at Rother District Council in 2022. Since then, she’s found the Council Climate Action Scorecards project an invaluable support for her work. 

    Hearing this, we were of course keen to find out more — so we asked Lucie to share her journey, from brand new climate officer to now, a couple of years on, with a refreshed strategy and action plan in place.

    “The council had declared a Climate Emergency in September 2019, going on to adopt their Environment Strategy in 2020”, explains Lucie, “But the pandemic and staff changes meant the production of a Climate Action Plan was delayed. That’s not to say climate action wasn’t taking place, but there were no KPIs, and it wasn’t fully embedded across the organisation.”

    “Scorecards helped us reimagine both our content and project design.”

    Post pandemic, recognising a need for a more concerted approach, the council employed two new staff: Lucie as Climate Strategy Officer, plus a new Climate Project Officer.

    “I was brought in to refresh the Environment Strategy — which was renamed the Climate Strategy — and to develop and deliver the Climate Action Plan.”

    While Lucie had highly relevant experience in her background, the council context was new for her: 

    “I came from an environmental NGO, where I was involved with developing strategies, but I hadn’t developed a Climate Strategy for a local authority before. 

    “I performed the usual strategy development activities — gap analysis, evidence base and so on — and when I was looking at best practices across the sector, I came across the Council Climate Plan Scorecards.”

    The Climate Plan Scorecards, released in 2022, were the precursor to the Climate Action Scorecards. They scrutinised every UK council’s action plans, marking them to a wide set of criteria. 

    “This was a fantastic resource for me,” says Lucie, “as I was able to see what good looks like and what we should be aiming for. 

    “I used the Scorecards to look at neighbouring authorities, authorities with similar emissions, demographics et cetera. Along with other resources like the UK100 Powers in Place report, it helped me shape the Rother District Council Climate Strategy. 

    “I was also able to reach out to different authorities and speak to their Climate Officers, which was useful.”

    In 2023, the Council Climate Action Scorecards were launched, providing Lucie with still more invaluable data.

    “I found the methodology particularly useful for developing Rother District Council’s Climate Action Plan. It was also useful to benchmark against, to see what we have already achieved and where we could do better”. 

    “This was a fantastic resource for me, as I was able to see what good looks like and what we should be aiming for.”

    “Overall, the results were useful in demonstrating to colleagues the sort of things we could be doing and what our neighbouring authorities were doing.”

    Rother District Council adopted the refreshed Climate Strategy and Climate Action Plan in December 2023, and Lucie continues to dip into the Scorecards.

    “I am now using them regularly in the implementation of the Climate Action Plan. For example, we have an action to eliminate pesticide usage in the council’s grounds maintenance. Using the Scorecards, I can quickly find examples of other councils who have already done this, and access the information I need through the evidence links.

    “I’m really pleased to hear there will be another round of council scoring. I think Rother District Council will score better thanks to the action we have taken since the first round of scoring, though I am concerned the timeframe will mean some significant activities will still be in progress. Our new Local Plan, for example, is aiming to be ambitious and align with our 2030 target, but is unlikely to be ready to be examined in that round.”

    Thanks very much to Lucie for sharing her story. We hope it inspires other Climate Officers to explore how the Scorecards project can aid them in their work.

    Image: Chris McAuley (CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

  9. Access to Information network: data visualisation Show and Tell

    Organisations all around the world run Freedom of Information sites based on our Alaveteli platform. There are also sites running on other codebases. Either way, we’re all working to the same goals, and we believe that each site can learn from the others: for that reason, we’ve set up the Access To Information (ATI) network, a place for people who run FOI sites to meet, chat and share experiences.

    Within this framework, there’s the chance for practitioners to pair up and exchange specific skills under a mentorship arrangement — and last week, we heard from GONG in Croatia who have been learning from Georgia’s ForSet.

    ForSet began life as a data visualisation organisation, and these beginnings have allowed them to communicate data from their FOI site as compelling, visual stories: skills that GONG were keen to get to grips with. Sara, project co-ordinator at GONG, told us about working with Jubo from ForSet on data visualisations — and how her learnings will change the organisation’s work going forward.

    Sara explained that they agreed two main goals for this project: firstly, to improve GONG’s data visualisation skills; and secondly, to use data visualisation to promote their FOI site Imamo pravo znati (IPZ) to journalists and general users. They were successful on both counts, not only did Sara learn how to use new methods and tools; but their outputs also brought approximately 50 new users to IPZ, and two additional Pro users (Pro usage is free on the site, but numbers had been stagnant of late, so this was notable).

    So, how did they go about it? The mentorship comprised four stages: data collection, analysis, storytelling and visualisation, with the last being very interconnected.

    1. Data collection

    This stage began with both sides brainstorming potential topics for FOI requests that would be good candidates for data visualisation. An initial set of 12 topics was whittled down to five: local referendums in Croatia; special advisors (Spads) in the Croatian government; local participatory budgeting projects; local support for youth civic education; and local financing of civil society organisations. 

    GONG then sent 575 requests to local and county authorities, from which they received 525 responses — a pretty good response rate, and higher that expected. They didn’t hit many problems, although several authorities asked for the requester’s ID details, and there was one ministry that cited GDPR as a reason for refusing information on Spads. This case has now been referred to Croatia’s Information Commissioner. 

    2. Data analysis

    Jubo and Sara organised the responses they received into spreadsheets: they were looking for an angle or a story among the data, and tidying it up in this way was helpful for making comparisons. Could they find a story in there that aligned with GONG’s mission or advocacy?

    By organising the data in this way, the pair could easily see which data wasn’t really strong enough to take any further, and which lent itself to storytelling and visualisation. At this stage they rejected some of the angles they’d begun with, narrowing their projects down to local referendums, Spads, and lowering the voting age to 16 for the EU elections (this last project is pending; they’ll be launching a campaign in late Spring).

    3. Storytelling and visualisation

    Two pieces of software were used for the visualisations: Canva and Flourish. Sara was already familiar with Canva, as she uses it to create social media graphics; but Flourish was new to her, and she says she is very happy to have these new skills under her belt.

    Flourish allows you to create many different types of visualisations: you upload your data and it is fairly intuitive to create maps, charts, etc. Once these were in hand, they added a call to action for each story, encouraging people to use their FOI site and especially Pro.

    The visualisations

    Local referendums

    For the story on local referendums, GONG had requested from each local authority the number that had taken place; the topics under discussion; their outcomes; and the number of referendums that were suspended due to not being valid for whatever reason.

    They received more responses than expected, and this was also the first time nationwide data had been collected on the subject.

    Map showing where Croatian referendums were successful or otherwise in reaching quorate

    The first angle that GONG wanted to support with their data and visualisations was ‘Croatia needs a referendum law that recognises the importance of local democracy’. 

    The data showed that out of 47 local referendums that had been held, just 25 met the minimum turnout for the decision to be valid. Jubo and Sara mapped these, and paired their visualisations with the argument that a lower bar for turnout would encourage better participation in local democracy – demonstrated with human figures.

    Turnout quorum for a local referendum
    A local press outlet picked the story up, using the data to make their own story: they were the area that had had the highest number of referendums, so that was their focus. 

    Special Advisors

    The FOI requests returned the names of Special Advisors, the areas they were in charge of, and the fees they were receiving. As Sara explained, in Croatia Spads are not straightforwardly employees of the government, but they have a lot of influence, and in some cases receive huge fees.

    It became clear that there are two different types of advisors, under two laws; while each type has different functions, both are called Spads. First, there are external advisors who may or may not receive compensation; and secondly there is another class of Spads who are employed internally. Neither is subject to Croatia’s legislation on conflict of interest.

    Number of SPADS in each Croatian ministry

    A pie chart was put to service to clearly show how much compensation Spads had received. This varied widely from Spad to Spad, but the criteria dictating who received how much is still unclear: it appears to be at the discretion of the individual minister.

    Pie chart showing SPAD payment in Croatia

    In collecting this data, GONG unexpectedly unearthed a scandal, as they revealed one Spad who was abusing public funds. He was fired, along with the minister concerned; this resulted in nationwide coverage for the data; albeit again with the media’s own preferred focus.

    Lowering the voting age

    Sara says that it was a lot of work to find data to support the argument for lowering the voting age to 16 in Croatia. They wanted to show that, while young people see voting as the most efficient political action, it is denied to a large portion of them.

    Proving the absence of something is always tricky, and in this case they were uncovering that there isn’t any research to show that 16 year olds lack the cognitive abilities to vote responsibly. So they focused on other angles: in some EU countries, 16 year olds can vote, and they demonstrated that those countries are doing well in democratic processes: they score highly in the democracy index and have good voter turnout.

    Data visualisations around the voting age in Croatia

    Like many countries, Croatia’s population is ageing, so the young are in danger of being totally ignored. GONG plan to share their findings on social media in a simplified form with graphics cards, and a call to action to show support for the campaign.

    Questions and answers

    Once Sara had finished her presentation, members of the audience were invited to ask questions.

    Q: How did GONG and ForSet work together?

    A: At the beginning, they had lots of online video calls, and later on when the data had come in, they communicated a lot via comments on the spreadsheets.

    Q: It feels like each of these the topics would be applicable almost everywhere: perhaps it will spark other people’s interest to do something similar for their own country. Any advice if so?

    A: The questions asked in the first two sets of FOI requests were straightforward, which led to straightforward answers. The third topic was less so; Sara and Jubo had to go through lots of reports, and often the data from one source contradicted another. Also, an uncontentious topic is likely to result in more responses: something like referendums is politically neutral, unlike spads where the authorities may have reasons not disclose information.

    Q: When you put the requests together, were you already thinking about the format it would be best to receive the data in?

    A: In that respect, the best question is one with a yes/no answer. The reason for excluding many of the initial topics at a later stage was that the answers varied so widely that it was hard to pull out statistics or a simple throughline: you’d be comparing apples with pears. So, for example, when asking how much of a local authority’s budget is reserved for supporting civic education, and how civic education is delivered, the responses could range from “We are in favour of civic education, but leave it to schools”, to “We provide money for civic education and produce our own textbooks”. Meanwhile, some authorities wrote two pages of waffle in the free text box. 

    Q: Did you narrow down the topics before or after you had submitted the FOI requests?

    A: Both. There were 12 topics at the start; they decided which of them were best suited to FOI, then sent requests for five of them. One the answers had been received, they narrowed it down to three.

    Q: Could one make data visualisation about the other two? It’s hard to find ways to show that there’s no information. Saying that 80% of authorities don’t reply is not a very exciting way of showing things.

    A: While it might not fit in with the initial aim of the project, this sort of thing can be a great way to show how well or badly FOI is working in your country. Journalists often can’t get the information they need, so build stories around the fact that there’s no data about such an important issue.

    Q: We’ve seen how much GONG has benefitted from this mentorship. What, if anything, did ForSet get from this?

    A: Sara was so quick and flexible, she was great to work with. ForSet also learned from the project: for example, that it is better when requesting a large amount of data, that is sorted by the public institution, so it’s easier to work with. You can request it sorted in the way that you need for your story, which might be different from how it is in public.

    Also, Canva is such a great tool for visualisations. They’ve now merged with Flourish, so the have advanced data visualisation features. You just have to make sure you choose the right format: the type of charts or graphs that will show your findings the most clearly. 

    Finally, ForSet didn’t know about the topics that Sara suggested, so there was plenty to learn there, plus it was great to see the ways GONG employ to publish their stories on both social media and mainstream media. 

  10. TICTeC keynote speaker announcement: María Baron

    We’re excited to announce the first keynote speaker for our 2024 Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC)!

    Join us on 12 and 13 June  — in London or online — and you’ll hear from María Baron, founder and now Global Executive Director of Directorio Legislativo.

    This year, one of the major themes at TICTeC will be the role of civic tech in safeguarding and advancing democracy where it is under threat. María and Directorio Legislativo’s work explore both  the problem, and how we can collectively roll up our sleeves and do something about it. 

    María has a long career in transparency and democratic institutions, working first across Latin America and then globally with both Directorio Legislativo and the Open Government Partnership. Along the way, María also founded the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency, convening 24 civil society organisations from 13 countries. 

    With her team at Directorio, María developed a methodology for building consensus across polarised stakeholders on tricky issues — and has brought many of those agreements to Congress, where they were signed into law.

    The Regulatory Alert Service, also from her Directorio team, enables political analysts to predict changes in regulation across 19 countries. 

    Among many other achievements, María has been awarded the NDI Democracy Award for Civic Innovation. In short, we can guarantee you’ll gain a massive dose of inspiration and hope from her session.

    And that’s just the first speaker announcement from this year’s TICTeC. Make sure you’re a part of the “best concentration of practitioners, academics, and thinkers in this field” (Fran Perrin, Indigo Trust) and book your place now.

    It’s been a while since we convened the wonderful, industrious, inspiring global civic tech community in one place, face to face — we’re ready to reignite those amazing conversations, connections and deep dives into democracy at the Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, this June. 

    BOOK YOUR PLACE AT TICTeC NOW