If you’ve been watching the progress of our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists, you might be interested to know that we are now accepting applications for pre-launch access.
Successful applicants will have an early opportunity to put the service through its paces. WhatDoTheyKnowPro will launch as a paid-for service, but as a beta tester you’ll have up to a year’s access for free, because we’re keen to see how you’ll use it — and to hear your feedback on which features are useful.
WhatDoTheyKnowPro is our first launch of Alaveteli Professional, accessed via the WhatDoTheyKnow website and specifically for UK users who utilise FOI in their work or campaigning.
It’s the first instance of the service we plan to make available to other Freedom of Information sites running around the world on our Alaveteli platform.
What you’ll get
Since we last caught up with Alaveteli Professional, we’ve made really concrete progress with several of the features that, at the time of that blog post, were just entries on our long to-do list.
Here’s what users will access:
- The ability to keep requests private until your story has been published
- A powerful private dashboard that helps you track and manage your FOI projects
- A super-smart to-do list that makes it easier to follow the progress of your requests
- Action alerts that nudge you when it’s time to take the next step in a request
And very soon, we’ll also be carefully rolling out the batch request features, which will allow you to:
- Make one request to multiple authorities
- Manage large volumes of responses and easily keep track of the status of each request
- Get regular updates as the responses come in, without overwhelming your inbox
We’re excited about the batch feature in particular, and we know that many of our prospective users are, too. At the same time, we’ve heard some concerns that it might encourage a scattergun approach that wastes authorities’ time.
Our planned development will ensure that people use this feature responsibly, and, consequently, get the best returns from it. This will include a prompt to send a smaller batch initially, so that the remainder of the requests can be refined based on the quality of information that is returned — there’s nothing worse that asking every council in the country for information and then realising that you’ve worded your question in a way that means you can’t use the resulting data!
At the moment, batch requests can’t be made on WhatDoTheyKnow without help from the site administrators. We’re aware that many journalists and activists already make many batch requests outside WhatDoTheyKnow for this very reason. We’d like more of these requests to be released in public (we estimate that around 15% of UK FOI requests are made via our site): so by including this capability in WhatDoTheyKnowPro, we hope we’ll not only be steering people to use those powers sensibly, but that much more information will also end up in the public domain — maximising its usefulness.
Apply for free access
If that all sounds exciting, then apply here. We’d love to hear how you plan to use WhatDoTheyKnowPro.
This week, we heard from a user whose MP’s agent had threatened to take him to court if he shared an image, showing TheyWorkForYou data, on social media. Here’s what we think of that.
Available to all
Prior to an election, you’ll see all sorts of messaging trying to turn you towards, or against, specific candidates — some from political parties, some from independent campaigning groups, and some just from individuals who feel strongly.
At mySociety, we’re non-partisan: we strive for neutrality in our websites and services, and they are available to everyone, no matter which part of the political spectrum you are on. We won’t tell you how to vote; we will, however, present the facts and give you the tools that allow you to make up your own mind.
When we looked into the image our user had wanted to share, we found that there are many similar images, generated from a single source, using TheyWorkForYou voting data to highlight the voting records of Conservative MPs in marginal seats. Here’s what they look like:
And for political balance, here’s an image with a similar intent, highlighting a Labour MP’s voting record (but not from this election, sorry: we have been unable to find anything more up to date, but feel free to send us any you’ve seen and we’ll add them to this post):
We have no problem with our data being shared in this way, so long as the wording is unchanged, and the source is credited (as clearly it hasn’t been in our latter example). Adding the source benefits everyone, because while top-line statements like these are, of necessity, brief in a shareable image, they are backed up on TheyWorkForYou with links to the actual votes that substantiate them.
As we say, this data is available to anyone, and TheyWorkForYou covers every MP, so there’s no unfair political advantage being gained here. The votes are statements of fact; and indeed there may well be people looking at a list like that and finding that, actually, they quite agree with everything on the list, in which case the image would be having the opposite effect from that intended.
If you read our blog post from yesterday, you’ll know that we’ve recently introduced Facebook and Twitter share buttons to make it super-easy to share any MP’s votes. So, in short: share our stuff. That’s part of what it’s for.
And yet, the user we mentioned had been told by someone working on behalf of the MP’s campaign that he would be ‘taken to court’ if he shared such an image, as it was ‘based on unreliable data’.
All of our voting analyses are based on the official data put out by Parliament, and we do our utmost to ensure that they are fair: while much of TheyWorkForYou’s content is published out via automated processes, we recognise that voting data is too subtle and sensitive to manage in any way other than manually. That’s why all our voting information is painstakingly compiled by hand, in a process we’ve described previously in this post.
MPs do occasionally contact us to question the wording of certain voting topics, and we are always happy to explain how we arrived at them, and improve them if we agree that the votes have been misrepresented.
We would be quite happy to hear directly from the MP in question and to discuss any information which they perceive as inaccurate: we note that their voting page has been in place on TheyWorkForYou since August 2015 (it has been viewed by over 5,500 people, 67 of them from within the Houses of Parliament) and in that time we have not been contacted with any query.
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In order to make debates and votes a bit easier to find, understand and share, we’ve recently introduced some new features on TheyWorkForYou.
What am I looking for?
Our users frequently write to us to say that they can’t find a specific vote on TheyWorkForYou — and that’s often because descriptions of votes in the media, or in conversation, don’t reflect the way they are referred to in Parliament.
The official record, for example, will not bring you a vote titled ‘Snooper’s Charter’, ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘Brexit’: you’ll have to know enough to search for the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’, ‘Social Tenants Deemed to Have Excess Bedrooms’, or ‘Exiting the European Union’.
So we’ve put in place a few different ways to find the content that matters to you.
99% of the time when people ask us where to find a particular vote, it’s something that happened in the last few days, or at most, weeks.
So now, you’ll see a new ‘Recent Votes‘ tab in the main TheyWorkForYou menu, which leads to a page listing the last 30 votes:
If you’ve entered your postcode on the homepage (or your browser cookies remember you from previous visits), you’ll also see your own MP’s stance under each vote, like this:
There’s one important point about this page: it only contains those votes for which we currently have policy lines — that is to say, the votes we include on MPs’ pages. That’s because they are the ones for which we already have a plain English description. Fortunately, these are almost always the ones that people are most interested in.
If you want to find a vote that isn’t on this page, you can always look on Public Whip, which is where the raw voting data that feeds TheyWorkForYou comes from.
If you click through from any of those listings, you’ll get a page dedicated to that particular vote.
Here you’ll see something that we know is important to many of our users, set out nice and clearly: the ‘division’, ie which MPs voted for and against, who was absent and who abstained.
Again, if you’ve entered your postcode on the site, you’ll also see how your own MP voted, in the top section of the page:
But even better, if what you’re most interested in is your own MP’s position in a specific vote, you’ll get this version of the page when you click through from their voting record — as clear as we can make it:
So that’s all fine and dandy for people who think in terms of MPs and votes. But for a long time, we’ve wanted to explore ways to make parliamentary content more welcoming for complete political newbies.
We’ve been meeting with groups of young people around the UK to find out more about how they access politics, and one finding is that they think in terms of issues. Politics comes through the lens of topics like ‘the NHS’, ‘the environment’ or ‘Brexit’.
For that reason, we’ve created topic pages like this one, which gather together a lot of relevant and immediate content, showing how your MP voted, how all relevant votes went, debates and a chance to sign up for email alerts:
We’ll be adding more of these as time goes on.
Easier to share
The final feature we’ve introduced was a direct result of observing the way that you, our users, share our content on Facebook and Twitter.
We started collecting examples of where people had made a screenshot of voter records in order to make a political point, and we soon saw that this was a very common thing to do, especially at key points like the current run-up to the General Election, or a party leadership campaign.
To save you the bother of making and saving a screenshot, we’ve now added these share buttons at the foot of each section of votes on MPs’ pages:
That’s it for now, but this is all part of a rolling program of improvements, so do feel free to feed back with any related features you’d like to see.
Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.
Civic Tech: whose job is it?
Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?
We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.
But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.
We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.
A vital new area for research
When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.
Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.
If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.
It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?
Civic Tech Cities
Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.
Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.
The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.
It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.
Better tools make better policy
Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.
The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.
Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.
You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.
Image: Jindong H
OpenStreetMap is a project that creates and maintains maps all over the world, putting them out as open data that anyone can use.
While many additions are made by on-the-ground volunteer contributors, the input of other data sources allows OpenStreetMap to make leaps and bounds in its coverage, as you might imagine. But using such data is only possible if it can be reused within the terms of OSM’s share-alike open data licence, the ODbL.
And that’s where we pick up the story of Robert Whittaker, who used WhatDoTheyKnow in the hope of augmenting the OpenStreetMap offerings for Cambridgeshire, UK.
Rights of way
Robert saw a chance to add better data on public footpaths, bridleways, and byways in the county to OpenStreetMap. He explains the background:
“Councils have a legal duty to maintain an official list and physical map of rights of way, but most councils — including Cambridgeshire — also maintain an unofficial digital map as well. It was the underlying data behind the digital map that I was after.”
Not just for OpenStreetMap, though — the project’s reuse policy means that once they’ve put the data in place, it’s available for others, too.
“Having this data — and the right to re-use it — will allow people to create their own maps of the Rights of Way and mix the data with information from other sources. This would then allow, for example, routing software to plan walks using Public Rights of Way and other roads.
“Cambridgeshire was one of the few councils, until recently, that was not making the data freely available.”
The right to ask
So, how do you go about obtaining something like this? If you’re familiar with Freedom of Information or its close neighbour EIR (Environmental Information Regulations), they provide an obvious route, as these pieces of legislation provide us all with the right to request data from public authorities. Robert was very familiar:
“I’ve made quite a few FOI and EIR requests over the years, mostly through the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow.com. A lot have been for data that will be useful to OpenStreetMap mappers, but I’ve also made requests to gain information about the workings of public authorities, either to inform campaigns, increase transparency, or expose poor decision-making.
“I think the first FOI request I sent personally was in 2006 to my university to ask for the specification and testing details for an out-sourced student-facing web-app that had a particularly poor user interface. It was to inform a campaign by the Student Union to get improvements made.”
With this experience in his background, EIR and FOI were the natural routes for Robert in obtaining this data. He made three requests: first, asking for the GIS data, then, to request permission for its reuse; and finally for the related written descriptions.
The right to refuse
Unfortunately, the requests did not go as smoothly as he might have hoped. That first request was back in August 2014, and if you read through the stream of responses and annotations, you’ll see that Robert experienced almost the full set of obstacles that can get in the way of an FOI response — from the council simply not responding in time, to their responding with only parts of the data he had asked for, and citing rules which didn’t apply to the situation in hand.
It’s a good thing that Robert is both well-informed and tenacious, as surely these hurdles would have proved discouraging, if not completely off-putting, to many requesters.
Much of his argument pivoted around a specific exemption — a clause which allows an authority not to provide data under certain circumstances, in this case, the enticingly named EIR 6(1)(b).
“EIR 6(1)(b) allows public bodies to refuse to provide information in a specific form or format, if it’s already publicly available and easily accessible in another form.
“The council argued that because they had an online map available on their website, the information about the rights of way was already available and so 6(1)(b) meant they could refuse to release the underlying data.
“I successfully argued that the map was only a summary or approximation of the underlying data I’d requested. That data contained the actual coordinates of the points and the lines joining them to make up the routes. I think one of the key arguments was that given the data you could generate the map, but given the map you could not recreate the full underlying dataset, you could only obtain an approximation to it.”
The (almost) right outcome
Robert was ultimately successful in his first two requests, two and a half years after making that initial request. The third is still being contested.
“It’s been frustrating, but eventually worthwhile. I’m annoyed at how long it has taken to get to the end, and also annoyed at the public money that the Council has wasted in prevaricating and trying to withhold the information.
“I think the ICO probably needs more resources to be be able to investigate cases more promptly. I also think it should take a stricter line with public authorities that frustrate requesters or the ICO’s investigations. The ICO already has some additional powers that would help here, but they seem reluctant to use them, even though doing so could speed things up significantly.”
But even while we await the outcome of the final request, Robert’s patience has already begun to pay off:
“I’ve already loaded the data into my comparison tool to help mappers improve OSM. Also, thanks to Barry Cornelius, the Cambridgeshire data is now available from his site in a number of different standard formats, for anyone else who wants to use or view it.”
We run WhatDoTheyKnow so it’s easy for anyone to make an FOI or EIR request — and your contributions help us carry on doing so.Donate now
Would you say you’re pretty clued up about the political system in the UK? If you’re reading this blog, it’s fair to assume that you know a bit more about politics than the average bear.
But that’s not true of everyone who uses our sites, and that’s why we’ve put out a Beginners’ Guide to the General Election.
It’s in three short parts — each takes only 5 minutes or so to read — and they cover the background and timetable of the Election; how to make an informed vote; and finally the logistics of actually casting your ballot.
There’s also a summary countdown so you can make sure you’ve done everything you need to.
Think this is a bit simplistic? Through the emails we receive via User Support, we have a really immediate insight into the common questions, worries and misconceptions around UK politics. Some of them are complex and esoteric. Others make us realise that if we haven’t set out the basics, we’re failing in our aim of making democracy easier for everyone to understand.
Equally, if we step away from the mySociety bubble and dip into social media, it’s easy to see the level of confusion around the pending General Election. Questions I’ve seen recently on my local community’s Facebook page include:
Do we vote twice, once for Corbyn/May and once for our local MP?
You don’t have to join a party to vote for it, do you?
Can I vote in my neighbouring constituency to help my chosen party win, if they’re a dead cert in my own constituency?
These were the real spur towards writing a simple explainer. If you come across friends, family or workmates who have similar queries, we hope you’ll find it useful to share our beginners’ guide.
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Thanks so much to everyone who joined us in Florence last week for the third Impacts of Civic Technology conference, TICTEC. As always, it was an event shaped by the many thoughtful contributions from both the speakers and the audience.
For those who couldn’t be there, and for those who were but couldn’t see everything, here’s where to find a taste of the two days.
- The official TICTeC website has a full list of speakers and the schedule. To see more about any session, click on it from the speaker’s page or from the schedule. We’ll add any links, transcripts, slides or videos as they become available to these pages, too.
- Want to know more about a specific session? Most speakers have included their Twitter handles on their page, so you can tweet them your question.
- You can also see all the slides in one place (where we’ve received permission from speakers; there may be more to follow) on Slideshare.
- Everyone who attended is automatically a member of the TICTeC Google Group (and you can also join even if you weren’t there, of course). Feel free to continue discussions or start new ones there.
- Thanks so much to the enterprising delegates who contributed to these crowdsourced notes on many of the sessions.
- We’ve gathered together the best tweets and pictures on Storify.
- Key sessions were videoed, and we also interviewed several delegates — but editing takes a little time, so keep an eye on this blog or our Twitter feed to find out when those go live.
- We’ll also put professional photos from the event over on our Flickr account, as soon as we have them. They’ll all be under Creative Commons, so feel free to download and share them if you wish.
Don’t forget that TICTeC is expanding this year: we’ll also be in Taipei as part of the Civic Tech fest in September.
We’re really glad to be taking the event to Asia, and we’re certain that this will bring a completely new perspective to the issues and initiatives discussed — it should also make the event accessible to a wider audience.
If you’d like to present at TICTeC@Taipei, please submit a session proposal by 16th June 2017. Applications for travel grants are now also open, so if you need financial support to attend submit your application here by the same deadline.
We’re currently in Florence, Italy, where TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technology conference, is in full swing. But as if that wasn’t exciting enough, TICTeC will be hitting Taipei for a spin-off event later this year.
TICTeC@Taipei, hosted by the Civic Tech Fest, will run on 11 and 12 September: you can expect the same insightful sessions on Civic Tech and its efficacy.
Registration and the call for session proposals are both currently open, so if you’d like to be part of TICTeC@Taipei, act now.
If you’d like to present at TICTeC@Taipei, please submit a session proposal by 16th June 2017. Applications for travel grants are now also open, so if you need financial support to attend please submit your application before 16th June 2017.
It’s just a few days now until our annual research event, TICTeC.
The Impacts of Civic Technology conference is an opportunity for researchers, activists, funders, and all the other people that make up the ever-growing Civic Tech sector, to come together and learn from one another in two days of inspiring presentations and workshops.
In between sessions, the odds are very much in favour of conversations with people whose area of expertise is precisely relevant to your own — that’s one of the primary reasons, attendees tell us, that they enjoy TICTeC so.
And that’s before you even throw in the fact that we’ll be convening in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Florence, Italy.
The agenda is looking great: you can see it here, and more details about the speakers are here. It’s always a sign of a good event when the team members putting the website together are already talking excitedly about which sessions they hope to attend!
If all of that is making you wish you had booked a place, well, it’s not too late. There are a very few tickets left so if you act now, you could still be joining us in the Villa Vittoria for the highlight of the Civic Tech year. There are even a few free tickets available, so please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested.
If you can’t make it, don’t forget to follow proceedings on Twitter via the @mySociety Twitter page and via the #TICTeC hashtag. We’ll also be producing videos of the main plenary sessions which we’ll publish on the TICTeC website after the conference.
Ci vediamo presto!
Image: Villa Vittoria
International Women’s Day seems like a good time to check in on our project Gender Balance, the crowdsourcing website that invites users to help gather gender data on the world’s politicians.
As you may recall, our aim was not simply to present top-level numbers: data already existed that allows us to, say, understand which legislatures have the most even-handed representation, genderwise.
No, Gender Balance seeks to go more in-depth: by attaching gender data to individual politicians, and making that data available via structured datasets, we hope to allow for more subtle comparisons to be made.
For example, researchers may like to test theories such as, ‘do women vote differently from men?’, or ‘do women politicians make different laws around childcare?’ — or a whole host of other questions, all of which can only be answered when gender data relates to specific public figures, or when it is viewed in combination with other data.
The data that is collected when you play Gender Balance goes, with data from other sources, into EveryPolitician, our project that seeks to provide structured, downloadable, open information across all the world’s legislatures.
Not right away, mind you. To ensure that the data really is accurate, we make sure that each politician on Gender Balance is presented to at least five different players, all of whom give the same answer, before we consider it verified.
EveryPolitician currently contains data for about 73,000 politicians in total. In some cases, that data came to us along with a trusted gender field, so we don’t need to run that through the Gender Balance mill, but the majority of parliamentary sites don’t provide this data.
We can sometimes obtain that information from other sources, but Gender Balance has been invaluable in filling in lots of the gaps. Thanks to our players, it has already provided us with gender information for over 30,000 politicians (and in some cases, pointed out discrepancies in the data we obtained from elsewhere).
There’s still plenty to go, though, if you’d like to help; and, as elections happen around the world, Gender Balance will continue to refresh with any politicians for whom we can’t find trusted gender data. As we speak, approximately 22,000 politicians still need sorting.
That might sound like quite a lot, but each politician need only take seconds — and every little helps. So, if you’d like to help contribute a little more gender data, just step this way.
Image: India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the valedictory session of the National Conference of Women Legislators in Parliament House CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons