1. Introducing the keynote speakers at TICTeC 2017

    You can be sure of seeing thought-provoking speakers at TICTeC, all focusing on the vital area of researching the impacts of Civic Technologies. We put a lot of effort into making sure of that!

    And we especially strive to bring you keynote speakers who are inspiring, insightful, surprising… in some cases even provocative. You may still recall last year’s keynote Helen Milner asking ‘Is Civic Tech just an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?’.

    For TICTeC 2017, we can promise keynotes that are just as compelling. We’re delighted to say that each day’s proceedings will be kicked off by  Tiago Carneiro Peixoto and Audrey Tang.

    Tiago Carneiro Peixoto

    Tiago PeixotoTiago is from the World Bank, which has the ambitious mission of reducing world poverty.

    As a Senior Public Sector Specialist, Tiago works with governments to develop solutions for better public policies and services.  As you might expect, that involves research around technology, citizen engagement and governance, to help understand how those things can intersect for the good of all. One example of that is the research using FixMyStreet reports, which demonstrated how government responsiveness can lead to citizens becoming more engaged.

    If you’d like further reason to pay attention to his keynote, well, Tiago was featured in TechCrunch as one of the twenty most innovative people in democracy. We know he’ll have plenty to say that is of direct interest to TICTeC delegates.

    Audrey Tang

    By @daisuke1230. Cropped by KOKUYO (hist.) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia CommonsIn her inauguration speech, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said, “Before, democracy was a clash between two opposing values, but now democracy must be a conversation, a dialogue, between many different values”. To help bring about this vision, she appointed Audrey Tang as Minister for Digital in her new cabinet.

    If you think parliamentary proceedings can be as dull as ditchwater, you may be in for a surprise. Audrey was not a standard appointment: she comes from a background of activist hacking, for one thing.

    Since her arrival in August 2016, the government has undergone a colossal transformation into one of the most open and participatory administrations operating in the world today, ranking top in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index.

    Audrey will be running through some of those groundbreaking changes in her keynote at TICTeC. Note that she’ll be ‘appearing’ virtually — she’s very much in demand — but there will still be the opportunity to pose questions to her live.

    Get involved

    Stand by, as we’ll shortly profile our two keynotes further. For now, we hope your appetite has been suitably whetted.

    If you’re interested in presenting a session or workshop at TICTeC, see the Call for Papers here — and submit before February 10.

    Registration to attend is available at the earlybird price until March 10 — book here.


    Images: Florence, Italy by Lex Kravetski; Audrey Tang by @daisuke1230 via Wikimedia Commons – both CC/by/2.0,

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  2. How secrecy helped us bring about transparency

    Over the past six months, mySociety has been working on a project so sensitive that we even referred to it by codename when talking about it internally.

    That might seem a little over the top, until you realise that we were partnering with asl19.org, an organisation working — for their own safety — out of Canada, with the mission of helping Iranian citizens to assert their rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

    Ironically, this level of secrecy was necessary in the name of providing citizens with a platform for openness and transparency: we were working on a website, based on our WriteInPublic software, that encourages Iranian citizens to ask questions of their MPs. The project would enable Iranian citizens to pose their questions directly, online and in public, and anonymously.

    Such a concept has never before seen in Iran, where there is a culture of heavy censorship, clampdowns on free speech, and online surveillance — so there was a real risk of personal endangerment for those involved.

    Writing in Public

    Here in the UK, mySociety runs WriteToThem, a service which allows citizens to contact their elected representatives quickly and simply.

    Messages sent through WriteToThem are private, and we’re sure that’s most appropriate for our users. Often people are requesting help with personal problems, or informing representatives how they would like them to vote — either way, messages usually deal with matters that people tend to keep to themselves.

    But there’s certainly an argument for putting some conversations between citizens and their representatives in public. Imagine, for example, asking a councillor what had happened to funds that had been allocated to a project that never came to light; or spotting what appeared to be a falsehood in an MP’s statement, and being able to ask them to justify it with facts.

    If such conversations are carried out online, they create a permanent public record that everyone can access.

    That’s why we created the WriteInPublic software, building atop the WriteIt software created by the Chilean Civic Tech group Ciudadano Intelligente (also known as FCI).

    As a side note — if you have the contact details of your politicians, or can find them on our data project EveryPolitician, it’s extremely simple to set up your own WriteInPublic site, with no coding required.

    Up and running

    In fact, Asl19 say that the most challenging part of the project wasn’t something technical at all. To their surprise, it proved very difficult to locate email addresses for Iran’s members of Parliament. While most MPs have their own websites, they tend to use web forms rather than publish an email address.

    That challenge was eventually overcome with help from other organisations. Asl19 collected the emails, which they shared with us. We added them to EveryPolitician’s data, which WriteInPublic uses.

    The site is now live and people have sent over 400 messages. As a taste of how it’s being used, one citizen is requesting help with legal obstacles to getting medical treatment, and others, encouraged by an activist group, are asking that their MPs vote for a forthcoming bill which will give protection to those with disabilities.

    And, best of all, MPs are responding — well, there are 33 responses thus far. So will the project blossom, becoming an active forum for open debate between citizens and their government?

    It’s early days yet, but we hope that this project will provide a groundbreaking space for open debate in Iran.

    Image: Daniyal62 (CC by-nc/2.0)

  3. OGRX: sharing the best in Civic Tech research

    At the Impacts of Civic Technologies conference TICTeC last year, we were treated to a presentation on a resource for the Civic Tech research world. OGRX, the Open Government Research Exchange is a repository of digital, eGov and Civic Tech peer-reviewed and stand-out articles, out of GovLab NYU — you can see the in-depth presentation here.

    As one of the featured Editors of OGRX, mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul was recently invited to make her top five picks from the collection. As she explains, her selection runs from the “paper that should be read by all newcomers to the Civic Tech world” to the “important piece of literature that I take inspiration from when designing my own research projects”.

    Rebecca has this to say about the value of sharing other people’s research in the sector, and the benefits of OGRX:

    Rebecca Rumbul“The mySociety research team spends lots of time asking interesting questions about Civic Tech, and dreaming up ways to answer those questions, but one of the main things we do that is not so obvious is read about other people’s research. A LOT!

    “Before we start any new research project, we carefully review what others have done before us, thinking about what worked for them, what kind of experimental design they used, what other writers inspired their research, and what insights they were able to draw from their work. Learning about others’ research is one of the main parts of the job of researching the impacts of Civic Tech.

    “This is one of the reasons that we began the annual TICTeC conference: to give practitioners and researchers interested in the impacts of Civic Technology a genuine opportunity to learn, share and challenge each other in a safe space.

    “Alas, TICTeC only happens once a year, and outside of that, it can be tough to know where to go to find interesting, current and relevant research, especially if you don’t have university access to online journal articles.

    “That’s where OGRX really fills the gap. If you are thinking of submitting something for TICTeC and want some inspiration, or if you are just interested in accessing good quality and relevant content, why don’t you have a look around? You can also submit your own research!”

  4. Don’t miss your chance to attend TICTeC 2017! All the important dates

    Now the new year’s begun, we’re allowing ourselves to get excited about The Impacts of Civic Technology conference in April. This will be the 3rd annual TICTeC, bringing researchers, practitioners and activists together in Florence, Italy.

    TICTeC was a sell-out last year, so if you’re hoping to participate, make sure you don’t miss the boat! Here are the important dates for your diary:

    10 February

    For those who would like to run a workshop or give a presentation: please ensure you have submitted your abstract by this date.

    10 March

    Earlybird registration ends, so if you want to take advantage of the better price for snappy booking, better get to it!

    As soon as possible

    Once you’re certain that you’ll be joining us, please do book your travel and accommodation as soon as possible. Florence is a popular destination at this time of year — so the longer you leave it, the harder it will be to find well-priced flights and rooms.

    25 – 26 April

    The conference itself. Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    Looking forward to seeing you there!

    Image:  Marco (CC by-nc/2.0)

  5. Standing up for erectile dysfunction care: a digital empowerment tool

    What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.

    There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.

    The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.

    Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.

     

    Prostate Cancer tool, built by mySociety

    Educating, campaigning, sharing

    The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.

    If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.

    When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.

    Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.

    How it works

    Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.

    When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.

    PCUK comparison screen

    But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.

    Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.

    Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.

    All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.

     

    Image: Brad Hagan (CC-by/2.0)

  6. Detention Logs: using FOI to reveal the truth about immigration detention in Australia

    Australia: land of sand, surf and koalas. Renowned for its laid-back attitude and a friendly welcome for all… or so those up here in the northern hemisphere might believe, spoon-fed our preconceptions via the squeaky-clean medium of Aussie soaps.

    What’s not so well-known is Australia’s decades-long resistance to people seeking asylum. Since the early 1990s, Australian Prime Ministers have implemented, upheld and strengthened laws to hold refugees in mandatory, indefinite detention, and to forcibly turn boats away from their shores. Australia has been repeatedly condemned by the UN for inhumane treatment of people in its immigration detention system, and people held inside have maintained continuous protest for years.

    Once you learn all this, it seems perhaps unsurprising that immigration detention is, as website Detention Logs puts it, one of the most “hotly debated, contested and emotional topics in Australia”.

    Getting it out in the open

    Detention Logs is among the most purposeful and systematic uses of Freedom of Information we’ve seen yet.

    It’s not a mySociety-affiliated project (although one of its founders is also a member of Open Australia, who use our Alaveteli software to run the RightToKnow site), but it is one that’s very much in our sphere of interest. We wanted to write about it because it’s a great example of putting FOI to work in order to get truth out into the open, and make societal change.

    At the time the project was set up, Australia’s detention centres were run by the British companies Serco and G4S; access is, as you might expect, limited. However, contractors to the government must report to them, and the report documents fall under the citizens’ Right To Know via Australia’s Freedom of Information Act.

    Reports are made whenever an ‘incident’ of note occurs in one of the nation’s detention centres; that covers assault, accidents, escapes, riots, the discovery of weapons and several other categories — including births and deaths.

    Detention Logs have, at the time of writing, obtained 7,632 incident reports which cover the period between 3 Oct 2009 and 26 May 2011. These may be explored on their site via a data browser, allowing readers to filter by date, incident type and detention centre.

    Finding the stories

    Like many official documents, these reports were composed for internal eyes only. They can be difficult to decipher, or heavily redacted. Often, they suggest more questions than they answer.

    Users are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a report, then submit a further FOI request for more information: a ‘reporting recipe’ guides beginners in how to do this, and how to pull out stories both for the ‘far view’ (looking at all the data in aggregate) and the ‘near view’ (investigating individuals’ stories).

    For researchers and the technically-minded, there’s also the option to download the data in bulk.

    The result is that the public are gaining an unprecedented understanding of what life is like for detainees — and staff — inside Australia’s detention centres.

    Open data brings change

    The resulting stories are published on their Investigations page, but the data has also been used by national press and beyond.

    Luke Bacon, one of Detention Logs’ founders, told us of a few outcomes:

    • The Detention Logs project was a precursor to the Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files —  more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. These have been presented in an online exploratory browser tool: the project was led by reporter Paul Farrell who is also a Detention Logs founder.
    • In turn, this has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people in the immigration detention system.
    • The data from Detention Logs has been used in research to show that the detention system is causing people to self-harm and attempt suicide.
    • The immigration department started releasing better information about how many people were in detention.

    So — while the issue of detention continues to be an inflammatory topic for the people of Australia, the project has been at least something of a success for transparency.

    It all goes to show what can be achieved when information is shared – and when the work of trawling through it is shared too.

    If you found this project interesting, you might also like to read about Muckrock’s FOI work on private prisons in the USA.

    Image: Kate Ausburn (CC-by/2.0)

  7. Adding translated subtitles on YouTube

    Almost all the videos on our YouTube channel now have subtitles in English. You can tell which ones do, by the small CC symbol beneath each one:

    mySociety YouTube channel

    Watching our videos with subtitles

    To switch subtitles on or off, you click the CC sign at the bottom right of every video:

    Where to find the CC button on youtube videos

    If we’ve already provided subtitles for the video you’re watching, that’s what you’ll see. If you’ve picked one of the few we still haven’t got round to, you get YouTube’s automatically-generated subtitles which — while they do obviously represent great strides in voice recognition technology, compared to how things were only a few years ago — can still be a bit hit and miss.

    Subtitles make videos more useful for all sorts of people, from the hearing impaired to those who just want to watch without disturbing others. But of course, English subtitles aren’t necessarily useful for people who speak other languages.

    The National Democratic Institute (NDI) recently asked whether we’d mind them translating some of our subtitles into Arabic. Mind? We were positively delighted.

    Video with Arabic subtitles

    It turns out that YouTube has really upped its game on subtitles, making it much easier to add them to our own videos, and providing the means for others to contribute too.

    Here’s how to view subtitles in another language:

    Click on the ‘settings’ cogwheel at the bottom right of the video:

    settings cogwheel on youtube videos

    You’ll see a short menu pop up. Click on ‘subtitles/CC’:

    settings menu on youtube videos

    Then select the language you require: in this case, you have the choice between Arabic, our own English subtitles, or, for potential comic value, the auto-generated version.

    language menu for subtitles on youtube

    Incredibly, you can also select ‘auto-translate’, which takes the English transcript and gives you what appears to be a fairly reasonable version (presumably run through Google Translate) in any one of more than 100 different languages.

    Here’s how to contribute subtitles in another language

    If you think our videos might be useful for organisations, researchers or students, but that they would benefit from being able to read the subtitles in their own language, you are more than welcome to contribute a translation.

    Begin by clicking on the three dots next to the word ‘More’, and then selecting ‘transcript’ from the drop-down menu:

    youtube where to find the 'add transcript' menu

    This will show you the existing transcript in written form. At the top you’ll see a dropdown menu with options for the transcripts which are already in place, and at the bottom, ‘Add subtitles/CC’:

    where to find the 'add transcript' menu on youtube

    Again, you’ll be shown a list of the translations that we already have, and invited to search for the language that you wish to add — in this case, let’s say Greek:

    select a language to translate into on youtubeClick on the name of the language, and you get this simple translation interface, with a box below each section of the existing transcript for you to type your translation into. And as you type, you’ll see how the subtitles will look on the video.

    translation interface youtubeOnce you’re done, you just click ‘submit for review’ on the top right, and that sends us an email to tell us there’s a translation waiting.

    And that’s it! You’ve benefited everyone who speaks your language… and of course we here at mySociety will also be very grateful.


    Image:
    © European Union 2012 EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  8. Forward into alpha: what we’ve learned about Alaveteli Professional

    As we recently mentioned, one of mySociety’s current big projects is Alaveteli Professional, a Freedom of Information toolset for journalists.

    It’s something we wanted to build, and something we believed there was a need for: but wanting and believing do not make a sound business case, and that’s why we spent the first few weeks of the project in a ‘discovery’ phase.

    Our plan was to find out as much as we could about journalists, our prospective users — and particularly just how they go about using FOI in their work. Ultimately, though, we were seeking to understand whether journalists really would want, or need, the product as we were imagining it.

    So we went and talked to people at both ends of the FOI process: on the one hand, journalists who make requests, and on the other, the information officers who respond to them.

    Since we’re planning on making Alaveteli Professional available to partners around the world, it also made sense to conduct similar interviews outside the UK. Thanks to links with our Czech partner, running Informace Pro Všechny on Alaveteli, that was a simple matter. A recent event at the Times building in London also allowed us to present and discuss our findings, and listen to a couple of interesting expert presentations: Matt Burgess of Buzzfeed talked about some brilliant use of FOI to expose criminal landlords, and listed FOI officers’ biggest complaints about journalists. Josh Boswell of the Sunday Times was equally insightful as he ran through the ways that he uses FOI when developing stories.

    These conversations have all helped.

    The life of an investigative journalist is never simple

    Alaveteli Professional process diagram drawn by Mike Thompson

    The insights our interviewees gave us were turned by Mike Thompson (formerly of mySociety, and brought back in for this phase) into a simple process model showing how journalists work when they’re pursuing an investigation using FOI.

    After conceiving of a story that requires input from one or more FOI request, every journalist will go through three broad phases: research; request and response; and the final data analysis and writing. The more complicated cases can also involve refused requests and the appeals process.

    For a busy working journalist, there are challenges at every step. Each of these adds time and complexity to the process of writing a story, which is an anathema to the normal daily news cycle. FOI-based stories can be slow, and timing unpredictable — editors do not particularly like being told that you’re working on a story, but can’t say when it will be ready, or how much value it will have.

    During the research phase diligent journalists will make a time-consuming trawl through resources like authorities’ own disclosure logs and our own site WhatDoTheyKnow (or its equivalents in other countries), to see if the data they need has already been released.

    Where a ‘round robin’ request is planned, asking for information from multiple authorities — sometimes hundreds — for information, further research is needed to ensure that only relevant bodies are included. In our two-tired council system, where different levels of authority deal with different responsibilities, and not always according to a consistent pattern, that can be a real challenge.

    Wording a request also takes some expertise: get that wrong and the authorities will be coming back for clarification, which adds even more time to the process.

    Once the request has been made it’s hard to keep on top of correspondence, especially for a large round robin request. Imagine sending a request to every council in the country, as might well be done for a UK-wide story, and then dealing with each body’s acknowledgements, requests for clarifications and refusals.

    When the responses are in journalists often find that interpretation is a challenge. Different authorities might store data or measure metrics differently from one another; and pulling out a meaningful story means having the insight to, for example, adjust figures to account for the fact that different authorities are different sizes and cater for differently-dispersed populations.

    Sadly, it’s often at this stage that journalists realise that they’ve asked the wrong question to start with, or wish that they’d included an additional dimension to the data they’ve requested.

    What journalists need

    As we talked through all these difficulties with journalists, we gained a pretty good understanding of their needs. Some of these had been on our list from the start, and others were a surprise, showing the value of this kind of exploration before you sit down to write a single line of code.

    Here’s what our final list of the most desirable features looks like:

    An embargo We already knew, anecdotally, that journalists tend not to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make requests, because of its public nature. It was slightly sobering to have this confirmed via first person accounts from journalists who had had their stories ‘stolen’… and those who admitted to having appropriated stories themselves! Every journalist we spoke to agreed that any FOI tool for their profession would need to include a way of keeping requests hidden until after publication of their story.

    However, this adds a slight dilemma. Using Alaveteli Professional and going through the embargo-setting process introduces an extra hurdle into the journalist’s process, when our aim is, of course, to make the FOI procedure quicker and smoother. Can we ensure that everything else is so beneficial that this one additional task is worthwhile for the user?

    Talking to journalists, we discovered that almost all are keen to share their data once their story has gone live. Not only does it give concrete corroboration of the piece, but it was felt that an active profile on an Alaveteli site, bursting with successful investigations, could add to a journalist’s reputation — a very important consideration in the industry.

    Request management tools Any service that could put order into the myriad responses that can quickly descend into chaos would be welcome for journalists who typically have several FOI requests on the go at any one time.

    Alaveteli Professional’s dashboard interface would allow for a snapshot view of request statuses. Related requests could be bundled together, and there would be the ability to quickly tag and classify new correspondence.

    Round-robin tools Rather than send a notification every time a body responds (often with no more than an acknowledgement), the system could hold back, alerting you only when a request appears to need attention, or send you status updates for the entire project at predefined intervals.

    Refusal advice Many journalists abandon a request once it’s been refused, whether from a lack of time or a lack of knowledge about the appeals process. WhatDoTheyKnow Professional would be able to offer in-context advice on refusals, helping journalists take the next step.

    Insight tools Can we save journalists’ time in the research phase, by giving an easy representation of what sort of information is already available on Alaveteli sites, and by breaking down what kind of information each authority holds? That could help with terminology, too: if a request refers to data in the same language that is used internally within the council, then their understanding of the request and their response is likely to be quicker and easier.

    Onwards to Alpha

    We’re currently working on the next part of the build — the alpha phase.

    In this, we’re building quick, minimally-functional prototypes that will clearly show how Alaveteli Professional will work, but without investing time into a fully-refined product. After all, what we discover may mean that we change our plans, and it’s better not to have gone too far down the line at that point.

    If you are a journalist and you would like to get involved with testing during this stage and the next — beta — then please do get in touch at alaveteli-professional@mysociety.org.


    Image: Goodwines (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  9. Tweet if you’d like to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya

    We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.

    So with Article 19 East Africa, we’ve applied to innovateAFRICA, which is seeking disruptive digital ideas to improve the way that news is collected and disseminated.

    As of this year, Kenyan citizens are enjoying a new right to know, thanks to their Freedom Of Information Act, pending since 2007 and finally passed this year.

    Alaveteli Professional will provide Kenyan journalists with a toolset and training to help them make full use of FOI legislation, so they can raise, manage and interpret requests more easily, in order to generate high-impact public interest stories.

    But the project will also bring benefits to all Kenyans. By helping journalists and citizen reporters to make full use of the Act, it will ultimately make it easier for everyone to hold power to account.

    How you can help

    Now here’s the bit you need to know about: please tweet using the hashtag #innovateAFRICA explaining why you think Alaveteli Professional in Kenya is an important digital solution.

    This will demonstrate that you agree that Alaveteli Professional is worthy of innovateAFRICA’s support — every tweet helps to give our application more traction.

    Tweets from everyone are welcome, but yours will have extra leverage if you’re a mySociety partner, a Kenyan journalist or activist who would use the project, a funder or a digital innovator yourself.

    Please use your 140 characters to help us bring better FOI capabilities to Kenya! And don’t forget that hashtag: #innovateAFRICA.

    Thank you.

     

    Image: Innovate Africa

     

  10. Freedom of Information and asbestos in schools

    Lucie Stephens has sent Freedom of Information requests to every Local Education Authority in the country — over 200 of them.

    She’s requesting information about asbestos in schools, and for a reason that’s very close to her heart. Earlier this year, Lucie’s mother, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, a cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to that substance.

    Now Lucie is acting on the promise she made before her mum passed away: “To do my best to make sure no-one else has to suffer like she has.”

    We were really interested to hear how Lucie came to use Freedom of Information as tool in her campaign, so we got in touch to ask her a few questions.

    Your WhatDoTheyKnow profile page and your petition make the reason for your campaign clear – at what point did you realise that Freedom of Information would be a useful tool?

    After Mum’s diagnosis I wanted to know how safe my daughter’s school was. I wrote to them and got a positive response: her school does contain asbestos and they were willing to share this information with me.

    I then wrote to my local council to request the same information for my borough. This took a lot longer, and involved frequently having to chase and remind them of deadlines missed.

    I thought all parents and teachers should know if their school contains asbestos. I didn’t want them to have to struggle to access the information from their local council in the way that I did.

    A friend suggested that FOI would be a good way of getting hold of consistent information, and at this point it also became clear that it would be a useful way to analyse how well asbestos is being managed in our schools.

    Had you heard of the Freedom of Information Act, or used it previously?

    I had heard about FOI before but hadn’t used it. It had always seemed a complicated and challenging process, so I was nervous of it. I knew what questions to ask but was still worried about getting the format right.

    I had made contact with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), as they are also campaigning to get asbestos removed from schools. I asked them to advise on the best wording to use in order to get the information that I required, and they were really helpful.

    Once you have all the data for every school in the country, what will you do with it?

    Every parent and teacher should know if their school contains asbestos.

    I am planning to use the data collected to produce an easy-to-access national map that parents and teachers can use to find out if their school is affected. By telling parents which schools have asbestos we are enabling them to hold their school, local education authority and ultimately (we hope) the Department for Education to account. The map will also be useful for campaigners and journalists concerned with the issue of asbestos in schools.

    What would be the ideal outcome of your campaign?

    I want policy on asbestos in schools to change.

    Each school should be expected to produce an annual report on the extent of asbestos and how it is being managed. This will increase transparency and accountability until we get to the point where all asbestos in schools has been removed.

    At the same time the Department for Education needs to change its approach. It needs to commit to the phased removal from all schools by 2028.

    To achieve this they need to earmark funds specifically for asbestos removal and set annual targets for the number of schools that will be asbestos free. The phased removal should start with the most dangerous schools first but seek to remove all asbestos by 2028.

    By revealing which schools contain asbestos, the campaign will make it easier for parents to hold the DFE to account over their plans for the removal of asbestos.  

    Have any of your FOI requests been turned down?

    I made my requests to local authorities, asking them to provide the figures for every school in their jurisdiction. Most have not provided information for academies and free schools as they do not have a statutory responsibility for them.

    There were various refusals and partial responses, from authorities which just issued generic statements that ‘all local schools built before 2000 contain asbestos’ with a link to their online schools directory, to those claiming that the information sought would take too long to collect, and so refusing to issue it, or requesting payment before the information could be released.* 

    Some areas withheld data on the number of claims that they had received from teachers, school staff and ex-pupils, stating that the figures were low enough to make it possible to identify the individuals concerned. Some areas refused to release details of the amount of money paid out in claims, stating that this would breach data protection. This rule was not applied consistently, though, as some areas did release figures relating to only one claim and settlement.

    I was very irritated to find some authorities who, because they claimed to be unable to answer one of my seven questions, then refused to answer any of them. To date we only have data from 135 local councils of 152 approached. Some are very overdue in providing the data.

    In gathering the data it was clear that there is huge variety in the ways in which asbestos is being managed in schools. It was also apparent that there is a wide range of ways in which FOI requests are handled.

    What benefits did you get from using WhatDoTheyKnow?

    Without WhatDoTheyKnow I wouldn’t have been able to collect the data.

    The site was really easy to use. It was very helpful in managing the data as it appeared, and in reminding me when authorities were overdue in providing information.

    In some cases I used my right to a review to challenge the handling of a request, and this led to further information being released. I definitely wouldn’t have made a challenge without the site making the process straightforward in the way it does. 

    It has also been great to have the data held on a public site like this, so that I’ve been able to direct journalists and campaigners to the source of the data directly.

    The only challenge with the site was that the number of requests was capped. I can totally appreciate why this was, and in fact when I did contact the team and ask for this cap to be removed so that I could complete the requests in a shorter timeframe, they were very helpful. Having ascertained that I was sending bulk requests for a valid reason, they acted quickly to remove the cap.

     

    You can read more about Lucie’s campaign, and lend your support, on her petition page.

    * Note: Making an FOI request is almost always free, but authorities can charge under certain circumstances, and they can refuse to respond to a request outright if it will cost more than a certain amount — currently £450 — to do so.

    Image: Webercw (CC by-nc/2.0)