1. Spreadsheets begone! FixMyStreet Pro for Peterborough

    We know that in many cases, when we install FixMyStreet Pro for a new council, we’re bringing not only a smooth reporting interface for residents, but also a better day-to-day experience for staff. In the case of Peterborough City Council, that was very much the case.

    A very manual process

    Peterborough had been using a stopgap solution for street reports, after the service they had been using ceased to exist. So, for some time, residents had been asked to make their reports through basic online forms. Not too onerous, but clunky enough.

    The real pain point was mostly experienced, however, by council personnel. Customer services staff had the job of manually transferring the details from a spreadsheet and into the council’s Confirm CRM, where highways inspectors could pick up the reports and act upon them.

    Then, once an issue had been resolved, inspectors manually updated another spreadsheet to let the customer service centre know of the status change, in case the report-maker called for an update.

    There was no automated means by which a user could be updated with progress on reports, or told when it had been fixed.

    So in short, FixMyStreet Pro will be making life easier all round, for staff and for residents. Plus the easier internal workflow should save a substantial amount of time and money, while keeping citizens engaged and informed every step of the way.

    Improved efficiency

    Councillor Farooq Mohammed said, “The introduction of FixMyStreet has brought in significant improvements to the services PCC provide to its residents. FixMyStreet not only brings efficiencies to various service departments, it is very user friendly and easy to use for our residents. This improves the response time to our residents.”

    And Peterborough’s ICT Project Manager Jason Dalby added, “mySociety fully understood the challenges we face as a local authority and very quickly turned our requirements into an automated fault reporting system with integration into our Highways back office Confirm system, improving our efficiency by eliminating manual data entry.

    “We are proud to be partners with mySociety and continue to work closely with them to improve FixMyStreet for our mutual benefit”.

    We’ll continue working with the council over the next few months on their other service areas too, so watch this space.

    If you’re a council and there’s potential for efficiencies  in your reporting system (whether large or small), do check out the FixMyStreet Pro website, and then get in touch.

     —

    Image: Dun.can (CC by/2.0)

  2. Can a widget save democracy?

    This a guest blog by Joe Mitchell from Democracy Club, a non-profit whose aim is to create the digital foundations to support everyone’s participation in democratic life.


    The TL; DR

    Democracy Club has produced an election information widget that you can add to any website. It’s free. It provides candidate and, where we have it, polling location information for any postcode.

    Check it out:

    The backstory

    As you may be aware, the UK Parliamentary General Election will take place on 12 December.

    You may be less aware that no public body takes responsibility for accurate, locally relevant digital information about elections.

    Local governments publish election and candidate data as PDFs on their websites (or, in one notorious case, simply printed out and stuck up on the noticeboard outside the council offices).

    Polling location information is printed on cards and sent, in theory, to every voter. It sometimes never arrives. And good luck if you live in a house of multiple occupancy, if you struggle to read the print, if you lose it or if you don’t have it with you when you need to refer to it.

    Digital technology has massively improved access to information in many other areas of our lives, so a group of volunteer developers and digital types got together to try to apply the approach to elections in the UK.

    That group formed Democracy Club, which is now several thousand volunteers and a small core team constantly working to bring together election, candidate and results data. We also work with local government to aggregate local polling location data and make it available online.

    The candidate data we produce is published openly and is used by news media, campaign organisations and, ultimately, voters to learn more and participate in the campaigns. The polling location data we produce is available via an API.

    Not everyone has the time to develop a stand-alone product with our data. So we produced a polling location finder widget, which has been popular among local newspapers and local councils. Today, we’ve introduced a widget which includes  candidates data too. Users pop in their postcode and away they go. They can click through to a candidate’s page on WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk for more information.

    The civic need for this information is clear. At the last general election, polling location data was accessed (via our website, The Electoral Commission’s website or via the widget) over 1.8m times at the last general election. Candidates information was accessed over 1m times, but this doesn’t count all the uses powered by a one-off CSV download.

    The fact that this information — increasingly critical to our functioning as a democratic society — is managed and produced by a tiny non-profit is not a ringing endorsement of our democratic institutions’ fitness for the 21st century.

    Democracy Club is working hard to convince public bodies to take on the basic open data elements of our work: when are elections happening, for which area, who are the candidates, what is their preferred contact method, what were the results, etc. And civic user needs go beyond elections — we can’t get to a world of user-friendly, accessible information about democratic processes until the raw data exists for local democracy too.

    But for now, at least there’s a widget.

    Let us know what you think! You’re welcome to hop into the Democracy Club Slack — or reach out via Twitter or email.

    Image: Justgrimes (CC by-sa/2.0)

  3. Can you help TheyWorkForYou survive… and thrive?

    TheyWorkForYou is currently operating without dedicated funding, and that’s a problem. In order to keep it running for the next twelve months, we’re going to need your help.

    That’s why we’ve set up mySociety’s first ever crowdfunder. If you enjoy — or perhaps even rely on — TheyWorkForYou’s services, then please be a hero and pledge to help ensure the site can continue to provide them.

    Donate now

    Why donate?

    TheyWorkForYou has a simple aim: to make it easier for everyone to understand what happens in Parliament – from a searchable, shareable record of exactly what was said in debates, to how your MP voted. We think that it’s important in a democracy that you should be able to see who your MP is, check what they are saying and how they are voting on your behalf.

    Now more than ever, the UK needs clarity over what’s said and done in Parliament. As political activity becomes more complex, and has more effect on all of our lives, TheyWorkForYou’s remit becomes all the more critical.

    However, just keeping the site going on a daily basis takes a substantial amount of staff time and expertise, not to mention the costs involved in hosting a heavily-visited website. Taking all that into consideration, it takes a good sum of money just to keep standing still. We’ve worked hard to find the support we need through our usual funding channels, but so far without success.

    Then, if we want to do more than just keep TheyWorkForYou in its current state — and we’ve got a long list of much-needed features we’d love to add, many of them suggested by you, our users — we need to reach the full target of £25,000.

    How you can help

    So if you’re in a position to do so, please put on your democracy superhero cape and donate to help keep TheyWorkForYou running.

    And if you’re not, then you can still help by sharing the link to the crowdfunder far and wide. We really appreciate it.

    Donate now

  4. FOI helps reveal the new surveillance tools deployed by police

    Camilla Graham Wood is a Legal Officer at Privacy International, an organisation advocating and litigating for stronger protections of citizens’ privacy, dignity, and freedom.

    At AlaveteliCon, Camilla presented on PI’s ‘Neighbourhood Watched’ campaign against the deployment of new technologies by police forces in the UK, many of which are unknown to the general public — and unrestricted by current regulation.

    These include facial recognition, hacking, mobile phone extractions, and predictive policing: all examples of the police harnessing new technology with the aim of becoming more efficient — but where PI see great risks for the loss of liberties and for mistakes to be made. Freedom Of Information has been a crucial tool in their efforts to uncover the facts.

    An initial tip-off

    We asked Camilla how the organisation had first become aware of these technologies.

    “It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.”

    “We were contacted by investigative news co-operative Bristol Cable, who had looked into police accounting records and seen reference to Cellebrite, an international company well known for selling mobile phone extraction technology”.

    Mobile extraction allows the police to download all content and data from a phone. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained, “They fit a device, about the size of an iPad, to your phone and it will copy across everything on there. This was rolled out, without any announcement, around the London Olympics.

    “Obviously you might have concerns around police accessing the material that’s on your phone at that time, but there are also ongoing implications — for example if you don’t change your password afterwards, they then have access to all your various accounts on an ongoing basis — they can access your email, social media etc.

    “So we decided to take Bristol Cable’s investigation further, and that led to the use of FOI to uncover the extent that this technology was being used, particularly for low level crimes.

    “We anticipated this would show whether it was being used on a wide scale by frontline police officers. And it is”.

    Neither confirm nor deny

    “New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces.”

    That may sound like a simple result: put in some FOI requests, get the information back. In reality, though, it has not been quite so easy. “The state often does not want to say when they’re using specific technologies, so they will use the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ response. It’s hard to find out about technologies if the state doesn’t want you to know about them.

    “We sent FOI requests to all 43 police forces in the UK in January 2017 to find out which were using this technology in relation to low level crimes. We then sent follow-up requests later in the year. A large number of the forces responded that this second request was vexatious, largely because we had already asked questions about other forms of surveillance such as predictive policing, facial recognition and social media monitoring. They said that because we had already asked about what new technologies they were using, our FOI request on mobile phone extraction was vexatious.

    “This meant that we had to request individually to each force to conduct an internal review, then subsequently a review by the Information Commissioners Office. But we were, at least, successful in this challenge”.

    Camilla explains that although PI eventually received these responses, a number of them had had to restrict the amount of information provided due to time and cost limits. That in itself revealed something pretty telling — an inability to audit the use of mobile phone extraction. “It appears that the data is held on individual files, so they could not tell us how many victims, witnesses and suspects had been subject to this technique”.

    The work hasn’t all been adversarial though. At AlaveteliCon, Camilla explained how she had attended police conferences as a speaker. Though a little daunted, she found that she was warmly welcomed by officers who wanted to know more about how they could better answer FOI requests.

    Facial recognition, body cameras and predictive policing

    “PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime.”

    What are the other devices and methods in use that the public may not be fully aware of? Camilla highlights body cameras which can be switched on or off by the police officer wearing them, and the footage from which can be used in tandem with facial recognition.

    Then there are IMSI catchers, which imitate a mobile phone mast and are able to monitor your location and activity. Also of concern are predictive policing methods, which raise all kinds of issues around biases that are baked in to the system — Beryl Lipton from Muckrock in the US is also doing work around this, and we’ll be writing about that in a further post soon.

    Should we be worried?

    Reading about such technologies, one might dismiss any concerns — after all, police have a job to do, and it’s natural that they should be using the latest advances in tech to do so. Camilla spells out why we should apply a little more judgement:

    “FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret. It can be one of the few means to find out that information.”

    “New surveillance technologies are radically transforming the ability of police and intelligence agencies to monitor our civic spaces and collect, categorise, store, analyse, and share our personal data. These authorities are expanding the depth and breadth of their surveillance of our civic spaces (by that I mean real life spaces like public streets, parks and squares, as well as digital spheres including the internet, messaging apps, and social media platforms), often without sufficient legal basis or democratic input and oversight.

    “While new technologies may be deployed under the guise of protecting democratic society, without adequate regulations and safeguards those technologies can threaten democratic participation and dissent — and thereby undermine democracy itself.

    “PI is particularly concerned about technologies that police and intelligence agencies can, and sometimes do already use to monitor people who have not committed nor are suspected of any crime”.

    Freedom of Information is the key to transparency

    “People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools”

    So, time to deploy our right to information, something that every UK citizen enjoys. How useful has FOI been to the campaign?

    “FOI is one of many options we’ve used to discover information about what the government is doing, often in secret.

    “It can be one of the few means to find out that information. As far as I am aware, there was nothing published on the use of mobile phone extraction by the police. The public were unaware the scale that this was being used.

    “As a result of our FOI activity, this has been brought into the open”.

    Taking it further

    But PI’s activity and the wider repercussions of the campaign don’t stop there. “Based on these findings, we published a report.

    “We’ve also written to the Investigatory Powers Commissioner stating that we believe the use of this technology may constitute hacking or interception.

    “We have complained to the Information Commissioner that the tech is in breach of the old and new data protection act — that complaint is still under investigation. We’ve also given evidence to the Law Commission in relation to their consultation on the use of search powers; an investigation was commenced by the Scottish Parliament into the use of this technology by Police Scotland; and we’ve trained lawyers to raise awareness about this technology.

    “Our work has even informed the debates around the use of this technology against rape survivors and we have raised concerns about the relevant issues to digital forensics”.

    You can get involved

    Now PI hope to get the general public mobilised in protesting these affronts to our privacy. “We hope to see people challenge their local police force on the use of these technologies. As we approach the local elections next year and in particular the election of Police and Crime Commissioners, we would encourage individuals to use the materials in our Neighbourhood Watched campaign and write to their local representatives to ask what new technologies are being used against local residents.

    “People have a right to transparency around the technologies that are being used; they have a right to question whether there is any justification for the deployment of these tools and to ask what safeguards and protections are in place to protect against misuse and abuse”.

    PI are now keen to replicate the Neighbourhood Watched campaign in other countries, to help create more transparency and accountability around these technologies.

    Finally we asked Camilla whether she had advice for those involved in sometimes difficult investigations such as this. She had just three words: “Persistence is key”.

    Image: Phil Hearing

     

  5. Our services during election periods

    If you’re a user of mySociety’s Democracy-focused sites, such as TheyWorkforYou and WriteToThem, you may notice a few changes during the election period.

    Generally speaking, the sites just work. Sure, there are a bunch of tasks we’re managing on a daily basis behind the scenes, but none of those need bother you, the user. To employ a tired old metaphor, the sites glide swanlike, while under the water there’s some busy paddling to ensure that the latest debates, votes and representatives’ contact details are all present and correct.

    During an election, though, that paddling becomes a bit more visible, and some services may be interrupted.

    WriteToThem

    You want to contact your MP? Here’s the thing: officially, you don’t have one at the moment.

    Parliament has dissolved. The representatives formerly known as MPs are no longer allowed to refer to themselves as such, and their parliamentary email addresses have been withdrawn.

    So when you visit WriteToThem, you’ll see this message where we normally provide the link for writing to your MP:

    What WriteToThem looks like during an election

    Note that you can still use WriteToThem to contact all your other representatives, from local councillors to MSPs, Assembly members, MEPs, etc — provided that your issue is relevant to them (you’ll see a short list of the types of issue each representative deals with, on the site).

    If you’ve got something to say about the current political situation or a matter that you’d like your MP to vote on, though, you’ll just have to wait. Even if your former MP is standing for re-election, they’re most likely dedicating a lot of their time to canvassing, and of course they won’t be taking any issues into the debating chamber just now because Parliament is not in session.

    Where it becomes a little more tricky is if you have a constituency issue you want an MP to help with. Perhaps consider if it’s something your local councillor/s may be able to help with instead — it’s always worth asking them, anyway. If not, and if it’s an urgent matter, it may be worth calling your former MP’s office, as some (especially those standing for re-election) will still be running a bare bones service.

    If your issue is not urgent, then wait until a couple of weeks after the election. In particular, if you find yourself with a brand new MP they’ll be finding their feet, setting up staff and office equipment, etc.

    TheyWorkForYou

    You’ll see the word ‘former’ used a lot, if you visit TheyWorkForYou over the next few weeks. For example, the homepage generally has a prominent link to direct you towards your own MP’s page. These days, it looks like this:

    TheyWorkForYou showing the woird 'former' during an election

    And if you do click through to any MP’s page, you’ll see that they now have this below their name:

    On the page where we list all MPs, you’ll see this factually accurate message at the top:

    If you want a list of who the MPs were, it’s still there, you just have to click the link.

    And then there’s one more thing: of course, as there are no debates taking place in Parliament, we’re not sending out Westminster email alerts (you’ll still get those from Scottish Parliament and the London Assembly, though).

    When will everything be back to normal?

    Our friends at Democracy Club collate the election results as they come in, producing data that we can then import. Thanks to them we’re generally able to update TheyWorkForYou pretty much in real time. So, when you wake up in the morning you’ll hopefully be able to:

    • Check who your MP is;
    • If it’s someone new, sign up for alerts so you get an email when they speak.

    For a little while, of course, new MPs will have very little content on their pages: you’ll see a message to say that data will start to appear once they’ve done a bit more.

    WriteToThem takes a little longer to get back up to speed: that’s because we need to import all the MPs’ email addresses, and these can take a while to come through. If we’re using an official parliamentary email address, experience shows that they may not even be set up by Parliament for a short while.

    So please be patient — as we mentioned earlier, it’s probably best to wait a couple of weeks before contacting your brand new MP in any case.

    Meanwhile…

    While mySociety sites are fully operational in the periods between elections, there are other organisations who swing into action and do their best work during this time.

    So here are a few things you can do, thanks to those other orgs, while you wait for mySociety’s democracy services to return to normal.

    • Visit WhoCanIVoteFor and WhereDoIVote from Democracy Club to discover who your local candidates for the General Election are, what they stand for, and where to find your nearest polling station.
    • Upload scans of the political mailouts coming through your door to ElectionLeaflets, and help build a permanent archive of promises that elected representatives can be held to account for further down the line.
    • Get the Who Targets Me extension on your browser to see clearly who is behind the political ads you’re being served on Facebook.

    And finally: if you have questions about the whole electoral process, read the beginner’s guide to the UK General Elections we put together in 2017. While the names and dates have changed since then, the facts are still the same.

    Image: Reproduced with the permission of Parliament

  6. Taking Parliament to court: how Vouliwatch pursued the right to transparency

    Vouliwatch is a platform for Greece which strives to make democracy more accessible for all. If you’re familiar with mySociety’s projects, it might be easiest to see it as a mixture of TheyWorkForYou (it publishes MPs’ votes); WriteToThem (making it simple for citizens to contact their representatives), and a campaign for more transparency and better oversight in the country’s parliament, often using Freedom of Information toward these aims.

    This year, Vouliwatch found themselves in the extraordinary position of issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. Their Managing Director Stefanos Loukopoulos explained how it all happened, in his presentation at AlaveteliCon.

    He left us with quite the cliffhanger — would the case go to court or not? — so we were keen to catch up and find out how it had all resolved. But to begin with, here’s what he told us back in October:

    “In Greece, there’s an independent committee known as the “Committee of Control”: it’s made up of judiciary, ombudsmen, and three MPs sit on it as well.

    “Its role is to audit and check asset declaration and the finances of MPs, as well as the financial activities of political parties.”

    As you’re probably aware, over the last eight years Greece has been in the grips of a massive financial crisis, losing more than 25% of its GDP. Stefanos says, “It’s a situation unknown anywhere else in history.

    “The two parties who were in power during the period that led up to the crisis owe, between them, over 350 million Euros to the banks, the majority of which is unserviceable.”

    So, that’s the background. And now to the nitty gritty of the case.

    “Every year the Committee of Control put out a report. For the last three years it has said exactly the same thing: ‘Some political parties’ have taken public funding which was supposed to be for research, and used it for operational purposes. However, the report doesn’t go into detail of which political party, or how much money.

    We were accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!

    “The Committee has the power to impose sanctions, and the law is quite clear on this point: if funds are not being used for what they should be, or are stated to be used for, then they need to be returned… but year after year, these powers weren’t used and nothing was done about it.

    “We believe people have the right to know what’s happened to this public money. We sent letters, but in return we were just accused of trying to destabilise democracy. We think that actually, democracy is more harmed by hiding this information!”

    “After two years, we finally submitted a formal FOI request. We didn’t expect an answer (and we didn’t get one) but at least we were covered by FOI law, so we knew exactly what information we should have been entitled to. After consulting with a law specialist we decided to take Parliament to the constitutional court. This is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

    And so that was how Vouliwatch ended up issuing a lawsuit to their own parliament. The day Stefanos was telling this tale at AlaveteliCon, things had started to move. He said:

    “The legal team at Parliament have suggested just today that the information we asked for has actually been released, but I haven’t received it yet. I’ll keep you updated. I’d love to take them to court really, it would create a far bigger buzz and perhaps open more people’s eyes to what FOI is and how it can work to expose malpractice.”

    So, of course, when catching up with Stefanos a few weeks later, we were keen to know: was the information released, or did they get to go to court?

    “In brief, yes, the information was released, so there was no court appearance after all.”

    But the effort was still worthwhile on many fronts. The information was, Stefanos says, shocking:

    If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.

    “The current ruling party Νέα Δημοκρατία (New Democracy) — which, by the way, owes give or take 142,100,000 Euros to the Greek banks (and it should not be forgotten that the banks have been practically recapitalised by the taxpayer on a number of occasions during the crisis) — has been using the state subsidy intended solely for educational and research purposes to repay its loans, for at least two consecutive years. This amounts to about a million Euros.

    “The Committee of Control had actually detected this malpractice, but did not impose any sanctions — and worse, actually tried to conceal the story. If it wasn’t for our FOI request and our appeal to the Constitutional Court, no-one would have ever heard about it.”

    There’s more detail on the whole tale on the Athens Live site. But getting the story out to the wider population has been a struggle, says Stefanos:

    “Unfortunately the media landscape in Greece is very problematic, to say the least. All the big mainstream media groups belong to a handful of oligarchs (shipping tycoons, mainly) who have historically had close ties to the traditional political parties, New Democracy and PASOK.

    “So, unsurprisingly perhaps, our story was covered only by independent media or left leaning newspapers and was totally ignored by all the big media groups.”

    Of course it’s daunting to take your own Parliament to court. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time.

    But there have been some visible results from Vouliwatch’s hard work.

    “The new president of the committee publicly pledged that they would be stricter during the next auditing process.

    “So that’s a positive outcome, but I must say that he didn’t mention anything about adding more details in the next report (which should be published by the end of the month so we are really looking forward to seeing what it will look like).

    “Meanwhile, we got in touch with the parliamentary groups of various parties (except for New Democracy of course) asking them to table a parliamentary question on the issue. The only one that took it up was Μερα25 (Mera25), which is the Greek branch if you like of the Democracy in Europe Movement Diem25, and is led by Yanis Varoufakis. The (oral) question was posed in Parliament during its plenary session and the shadow minister of the interior tried to justify New Democracy’s actions by using legally unfounded arguments.

    “We countered/deconstructed these in a reply and published it out — and Μερα25 is going to use it in their comeback question.”

    And as for Vouliwatch’s day in court? It’s not entirely off the table, though now to the Committee of Control rather than Parliament as a whole: “Currently we’re drafting a lawsuit against the committee for breach of duty and will submit it to the relevant attorney general.”

    This sort of work matters in Greece, and not only to uncover malpractice. Even if it’s hard to get mainstream media coverage, it all helps to highlight people’s right to information and how FOI can be used. But Stefanos says it’s not easy:

    Our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency

    “FOI in Greece is, unfortunately, virtually non existent. Despite the decent legal framework around it, citizens and journalists alike are unaware of their rights and how to exercise them — and the state (as well as public authorities/institutions in general) have failed to communicate it or make it easy for the public to use.

    “I think our case proves that FOI does have a strong role to play in the fight against corruption/lack of transparency in Greece; however, one may be easily dissuaded and disappointed because in most cases one needs to resort to litigation in order to get a response.

    “In other words, we took the case this far because it’s part of our work as an organisation. I doubt that a citizen or journalist would follow the same strenuous course as we did, bearing in mind the costs of litigation, the time required, the legal research etc, etc.”

    Is it daunting issuing a lawsuit to government?

    “Yes, of course. But the prospect of facing a court case is also exciting at the same time. If we were ordered to pay out a large amount in reparations it would be close to catastrophic for our organisation. However, our case was legally airtight and the chances of losing it minimal, which is why Parliament decided to back off and release the information in the end.”

    Bravo Vouliwatch — and we’ll be watching future happenings with great interest.

    Stefanos Loukopoulos is the managing director of Vouliwatch and spoke at AlaveteliCon in October 2019.

    Image: A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons)

  7. FragDenStaat: a lighthearted approach with a serious mission

    FragDenStaat (“Ask The State”) is Germany’s FOI site, running since 2011.

    Having always provided a platform for the general public to submit FOI requests, the organisation recently made the decision to focus more on the campaigning side of their activities. By using pre-filled FOI requests and encouraging their supporters to send them, FragDenStaat can harness the power of numbers.

    As Project Leader Arne Semsrott explains: “We are trying to show the possibilities of FOI, using it together as a group or movement with a shared goal, not just as separate individuals”.

    It’s an approach they used in a campaign to uncover the hygiene ratings of restaurants (which, unlike the UK, are not routinely published in Germany) — users were invited to file a pre-written request to the relevant authorities, and over 20,000 such requests were made, then the responses published. It’s hoped that doing so will bring about change — FragDenStaat say, “The platform will provide transparency until the authorities do it themselves”.

    More recently, a similar campaign sought to reveal the facts behind the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup). It began when FragDenStaat requested a study from the German Federal Institute that stated that the weedkiller “probably” isn’t linked to cancer.

    “We were told not to publish it”, said Arne. “So we published it”.

    This mischievous approach is one of FragDenStaat’s defining qualities, but there’s always a serious point behind it. In this case: “We were told that we weren’t allowed to publish this report, but through FOI, we – and therefore anyone – is allowed to have it. It’s ridiculous.”

    This is also an issue which we sometimes come across at WhatDoTheyKnow, where responses come complete with a generic footer prohibiting the publication of the information. Like FragDenStaat we think there’s a good argument against this. Freedom of Information law in the UK as well as in Germany is “applicant blind”, so anyone can request the same document and get a copy of it. That being so, it is more efficient to publish it online, and it saves taxpayers’ money since the authorities aren’t having to respond to multiple requests for the same information.

    The German Federal Institute thought differently, however, and FragDenStaat were taken to court for copyright violation.

    Officially, the report couldn’t be shared: what now? Arne continues the story: “So we built a one-click mechanism where anyone could make the same FOI request. Within two weeks, 45,000 people had requested it. The Institute had never had so many emails and didn’t know how to cope.

    “We know this because we then requested the internal communications around how they were handling it. They developed an online solution with a log-in code to prevent people spreading the report further. We then developed some code to automatically log you in and download it.

    “The legal proceedings are still pending but we would like to see a judgment by the Court of Justice on copyright vs FOI.

    “If we lose the case it might mean that copyright gets used as a reason for denial in lots more requests. And if this happens, we need to make so much of a fuss that it becomes an unattractive proposition to do so. What we have achieved so far, though, is that we are pretty certain that most public authorities don’t want to confront us that way anymore.”

    Since turning into more of a campaigning organisation, FragDenStaat are involved in more than 45 lawsuits. That might seem daunting to some small organisations, but Arne thinks differently:

    “Over time we have learnt that one of the biggest tools we have to change the practice of FOI is strategic litigation. We have won most of our cases and are always keen to tackle legal questions that have not been addressed in German courts before. We have the feeling that the FragDenStaat community likes our approach and there are enough people who are willing to donate for our legal costs”.

    FragDenStaat consistently bring an inventive angle to their campaigns, which sometimes borders on cheekiness. Asked about this, Arne replies: “To most people, files and documents appear to be the most boring thing on earth (which of course they aren’t!), so we feel that we need a bit of fun to attract people to the topic. And actually it’s way more fun for us that way.

    “I do believe that our actions have forced authorities to take us seriously. There are of course people who are not fans of our work, but there are quite a few FragDenStaat supporters among authorities – even if they don’t show that publicly”.

    Another campaign focuses on migration politics across Europe, and specifically Frontex, the border force. FragDenStaat have been working in collaboration with Luisa Izuzquiza at AccessInfo to file requests and build up a picture of human rights violations towards migrants: “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe, so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

    This campaign, too, has involved FragDenStaat filing a lawsuit, this time in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The hope is that it will clarify the degree to which Frontex is open to public scrutiny. Again, the costs of litigation are borne by supporters who are encouraged to chip in with a small donation of a few Euros, ideally on an ongoing monthly basis.

    Arne says, “EU migration politics is a topic that I have worked on for a long time now. I think that it’s heavily underreported, especially since Frontex has gained a lot of power and budget increase over the last few years. By talking to activists in the field, we learned what kind of documents might be produced by the agency on a regular basis and we began systematically requesting them”.

    Shockingly, the reports released show that Frontex are well aware of such abuse but close their eyes to it.

    “A report about Libyan refugee camp said it had ‘concentration camp-like conditions’ – and you can be sure that if a German person says that, it is serious. It proves they are aware of the conditions, even though they are doing nothing about them”.

    There have been results to this campaign: the European Commission has now issued a statement saying that they would investigate the claims.

    Arne Semsrott spoke at AlaveteliCon, mySociety’s conference on FOI and technology, in September 2019.

    Arne is one of the folk behind FragDenStaat, which is the German equivalent of our own WhatDoTheyKnow. Unlike many of the FOI sites around the world, FragDenStaat is not run on the Alaveteli platform, but on bespoke software that was inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow in the days before our codebase was made easier to install.

    Incidentally, if you are running a campaign, you can also use pre-written requests in tandem with Alaveteli sites, including WhatDoTheyKnow. Instructions are here.

    Image: Jen Bramley

  8. TICTeC Local 2019: wrap-up report

    City Hall in London is a spiral-shaped building that some say resembles a snail.

    The same could not be said for the speakers at TICTeC Local, the conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology for communities and local government, which took place on the building’s top floor last Friday. These proactive people move fast and get things done!

    Surrounded by a wraparound view of the Thames and Tower Bridge, we heard from a selection of folk with hands-on experience of using technology at the local or community level. See the full agenda here, where you’ll also find links to the collaborative notes that were taken during each session.

    Here’s a brief run-down of the presentations and discussions.

    mySociety research: evidence and impact

    Our own Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, kicked things off with a call for research-based decisions when it comes to attractive new forms of engagement such as the current trend towards Citizens’ Assemblies. As always, it’s important to assess what ensures good results and what can go wrong, so that we can ensure the outcomes are desirable.

    What role can digital technologies play in citizen participation?

    This panel comprised four people who are very well-equipped to speak on the subject in hand: Miriam Levin from DCMS, Eva O’Brien of FutureGov, Graham Smith, Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, and Tim Hughes of Involve.

    Beginning with a look at the role of digital technologies and a nod to those which are working well in citizen participation, conversation soon turned to the ways in which Citizens’ Assemblies can deliver less than desirable results — and, just as importantly, how to avoid that.

    Data changes everything: informed public services

    In this session, two speakers brought two very different stories to the table. First, James Maddison of the Open Data Institute presented the toolkit which the ODI has produced to help public services through the process of generating, sharing and using more open data. The rainbow-hued toolkit itself can be found here.

    Secondly, Georges Clement of JustFix in New York told the inspiring tale of how data empowered millions of tenants who were living in conditions considered deficient even by the city’s own definition. Simply by sharing data on who owned buildings (something often deliberately obscured by landlords) the organisation enabled joint campaigns, group litigation and the ranking of the ‘worst evictor’ landlords. This work led to New York’s City Mayor introducing a law that guarantees legal representation to low-income residents facing eviction.

    Click to engage: creating active citizens through digital technologies

    In this session we heard experiences from two sides of the pond: Tammy Esteves of Troy University Alabama ran through examples of local digital projects across the US, especially relating to disaster/emergency management; while Joe Mitchell from the UK’s Democracy Club explained the difficulties in measuring the impact of the work they do: making sure people are informed prior to elections.

    Earlier actions & better connections: technology combatting social problems

    Giselle Cory and Lucy Rimmington of DataKind explained how the organisation, which benefits greatly from data scientist volunteers, had used machine learning to help a Huddersfield foodbank identify which of its clients were likely to benefit most from early intervention by other services.

    In the second half of the session, Chris Hildrey outlined the work of Proxy Address, a system for giving a stable address to people facing or experiencing homelessness, and thus removing barriers in processes such as applying for jobs, opening a bank account or claiming benefits. One interesting piece of information was that, out of superstition, many streets in the UK have no number 13, with Birmingham being the city most likely to omit it.

    Showing the way: support with the digital transformation process

    Laura Payten from Government Digital Service (GDS) gave an overview of how local government pay can be used locally; while Richard Smith and Sam Whitlock from Hackney Council and Mirabai Galati of Croydon demonstrated the benefits of councils working together, especially in getting user insight and sharing evidence. They introduced a nascent user research repository that has great potential for local government across the country.

    Better foresight: Civic Tech for the urban planners

    Jonathan Pichot from NYC Planning Labs talked about the app they have produced to help automate environmental impact analyses in New York City. It’s had great impact: agency staff now spend 50% less time checking environmental analyses, saving city agencies $200,000 since 2018.

    mySociety’s researcher Alex Parsons explored some of the findings about how different groups use FixMyStreet in different ways, which can be read as a blog series here on our own site.

    Bringing the citizens in: Civic Tech for engagement and participation

    Jo Corfield and Joe Wills from the Centre for London talked about how the city’s wasted spaces can be used in a ‘meanwhile’ context (often also known as ‘pop-up’ initiatives) for the community. The thinktank’s research looked at 51 such spaces and came up with recommendations for maximising the benefits of this phenomenon.

    Then Gail Ramster of the Royal College of Art and Mike Saunders from Commonplace gave an overview of the digital tools they’d used in two projects to try and engage citizens. When there are big changes on the horizon, such as the introduction of autonomous vehicles, how can digital technologies help ensure that everyone in the community has a voice for their hopes, fears and interests? And what does being involved in an engagement process actually do to one’s stance on an issue?

    Taking back control: why community power matters to our economy and society and what gets in its way

    Vidhya Alakeson, CEO of Power To Change, gave an inspirational keynote about the power of community ownership, with examples including a bakery in Anfield, training on home building in Bristol, and an energy company on the Isle of Wight. But she explained that in England the policy around shared ownership is not yet robust enough (in Scotland it is much better) as is demonstrated by the high rate of Assets of Community Value that are registered but which never make it into the community.

    So you’ve declared a climate emergency. Now what?

    The final panel looked at the very real issues facing those in authorities who have taken up Extinction Rebellion’s challenge and declared a climate emergency. How does that translate into fast real-world action in the sometimes slow-moving world of local government?

    Sian Berry from Camden Council, Emily Tulloh from FutureGov, Trewin Restorick of Hubbub and Alasdair Roxburgh from Friends of the Earth were able to share their experiences, and a final question on what gave each speaker hope for the future ensured that we ended the day without feeling too overwhelmed.

    Thanks are due

    A special thanks to Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for London, who welcomed us to his very special workplace;  and to his assistant Davina who helped so much in setting things up. Thanks too, to all the staff at City Hall, who were without exception helpful and positive.

    Further thanks, of course, to our thoughtful and inspiring speakers, for sharing your experience and knowledge, and to attendees for making TICTeC local a place for debate and collaboration.

    Slides, photos and the notes from each session can all now be found on the TICTeC website, so go and have a browse.

  9. Fixing the streets of London: a partnership with TfL

    FixMyStreet’s offering for Londoners becomes ever better, as we announce a new partnership with Transport for London (TfL).

    For anyone making reports within Greater London, this will mean a whole new level of connectedness — with no extra effort required from you. Just make a report as usual, and if the issue is the responsibility of TfL the details will automatically be whizzed off to them.

    It will cover reports about defects including  the TfL road network (red routes), bus stops and shelters, traffic lights and trees.

    Better still, you don’t have to make the report directly on FixMyStreet.com for this to come into action. Log the issue via any of our London client borough councils’ sites — currently Bromley, Bexley, Greenwich, Hounslow, and Westminster — and the same smart routing will apply.

    This goes both ways: so if you report something on TfL’s site that’s actually a council responsibility, the report will get forwarded to them — and that applies to all boroughs, FixMyStreet Pro clients or not.

    Watch this space and we’ll let you know when it’s all hooked up and ready for you to use.

     

    Image: Alex Parsons

  10. Making things right on the Isle of Wight

    FixMyStreet Pro has crossed the Solent, with Isle of Wight the latest council to install it as their official report-making interface.

    Street issues on England’s largest island are handled by the company Island Roads, who keep things in order for residents and tourist alike, with responsibility for highways maintenance; road, pavement and cycleway improvements; street lights, street cleansing, winter gritting, bridges, drainage, street furniture and car parks.

    As with all FixMyStreet Pro integrations, islanders can take their pick between making reports through the Island Roads website or on FixMyStreet.com; either way the issue will display on both sites, and drop directly into the case management system, Confirm.

    What was different about this installation?

    Island Roads requested a feature that we hadn’t previously developed for any of our other council clients, but which we suspect that some may be interested in now they know it’s available.

    When a report is submitted, it drops into a special triage area where operatives can analyse it in more detail, ensure that it is categorised correctly, and check that it contains all the relevant information that the inspectors need in order to locate the fault and fix it.

    Island Roads have also made use of another new piece of functionality: emergency categories.

    If a user indicates the report might require immediate attention — say, in the case of a fallen tree on the road or a hazardous pothole —  the form submission is disabled.

    Instead, the user will see a message, telling them to call Island Roads directly:

    Form changes if the user selects that the problem is urgent

    The aim is that this simple safeguard will have a hand in preventing accidents.

    Alex Brown, Systems Technician at Island Roads, said: “The focus of this development has been to enable the public to report their highway related issues to us easily, with the necessary information for us to respond appropriately and deal with the issues effectively.  The project team at mySociety were excellent to work with and developed a solution which met our specific requirements.”

    Image: Mypix [CC BY-SA 4.0]