We heard from Transport for London that FixMyStreet has played an unexpectedly valuable part during London’s lockdown.
We recently ran a couple of user groups for some of the authorities who use FixMyStreet Pro. These had been planned as in-person events, but of course, like everything else these days, had to transition to online.
Nonetheless, they were a good chance for us to present some of FixMyStreet Pro’s new features, and to hear from our client authorities about how they’ve been using the service. Sally Reader’s description of how FixMyStreet has come into its own for TfL while the capital is shut down was particularly thought-provoking — you can watch it here.
We’d all been thinking that lockdown means fewer people on the streets, and therefore less opportunity for damage. But Sally pointed out that faults still happen: trees might fall down, blocking roads; or there might be increased levels of vandalism now that boredom is an issue for many — and there’s still a great need to keep the network safe for the transport workers helping to run it, and of course those who are using it.
At the moment, these passengers are by and large key workers who may be at the end of a long working day on the frontline — as Sally puts it, the last thing they need is to be standing in a smashed up bus shelter as they await their transport home.
Additionally, TfL are using their Streetcare FixMyStreet reports to help alert them to potentially dangerous faults and to provide extra eyes and ears on the network while non-essential on-street works have been halted.
It was a surprise to both us and TfL, but we were pleased to hear that FixMyStreet has been such an asset during these times.
Image: Ben Garratt
Investigative journalism platform The Ferret has just launched an online training course on using Freedom of Information — and all trainees get a free subscription to our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service for professional users of FOI.
Based in Edinburgh, the Ferret is a community journalism initiative that describes itself as ‘for Scotland and beyond’. Since 2012 its members’ investigations have rooted out the truth around local, national and international issues including coronavirus, Brexit, dark money — and much more. They’re a co-operative, so supporters become part-owners. If they want to, they can also access the resources and training to pursue their own stories.
And now, the Ferret’s online Freedom of Information course shares everything the founders know about the use of FOI for tracking down facts. This resource would be useful for anyone wanting to know the ins and outs of the act and how to use it, not just for journalism but potentially for campaigning or research purposes too. And it’s not just restricted to the use of FOI in Scotland: you’ll learn everything you need to know to use FOI across the UK… and beyond.
The course costs £30, but six months’ WhatDoTheyKnow Pro usage is bundled in. Since that’s worth £60 on its own, you’re ahead before you even begin.
We’re big fans of the Ferret at mySociety, and we have every confidence that this course will be a springboard for a new generation of great investigative journalists. If you think you might like to be one of them, then why not give it a try? More details here, and in this Twitter thread.
Back in January, we announced that the climate would be mySociety’s main focus this year.
A few months on, how are we doing with that?
One easy way to check is our new Climate page on the mySociety website, where we’re listing projects as they launch. Meanwhile, here’s a quick rundown as of now.
In a practical piece of support for the environment, we created the digital platform for Climate Assembly UK.
This citizens’ assembly was run by Involve and Sortition Foundation, with mySociety handling the online element – which became increasingly important during the lockdown.
This has allowed for the publishing of information including a background to the assembly, agendas and livestreams of presentations, keeping the nation informed while the 110 assembly members learn, debate and vote.
When the covid-19 pandemic meant that the final weekend couldn’t run as normal, the project pivoted to a virtual assembly running over additional weekends.
Once it’s over and a final report has been produced, that will be available on the Climate Assembly site, too.
Tracking climate action
Many local councils in the UK have now declared a climate emergency, recognising the seriousness of the climate situation and commit to taking action.
However, there is no one place where these can all be seen and assessed. And while the declarations are welcome, what we really need to address the climate emergency, both at a national and local level, are concrete plans.
So, working closely with Friends of the Earth UK and other groups active in this space, we’re working towards a site that will allow campaigners, councils and members of the public to see what councils have said they’ll do about the climate emergency.
As a first step, we’re crowdsourcing a list of councils’ Climate Action plans. You can help by having a quick search for the ones that are missing.
Looking to ourselves
If we’re holding others up to scrutiny of course, we really need to also be making sure that we’re doing everything we can to reduce our own environmental impact.
So we’ve set up an internal Climate Action Group to research, report back, and recommend changes to company policy.
The first thing we did was start gathering data, so that we know our baseline carbon output for a year. That way, we have something to benchmark against and see if we’re making progress.
While travel is obviously halted for the moment, it has always been fairly extensive at mySociety. Here’s where we got to, to be picked up again if and when things return to normal:
- We agreed to join the Climate Perks scheme, which gives staff members additional days of paid leave if they use sustainable transport for their holidays.
- We drafted a policy around work-related travel, which must be for essential purposes only. Where a trip would be under a set number of hours, it must be by sustainable transport.
- We’ve agreed to carbon offset all flights that mySociety pays for (in practice, this means staff flights and the flights of TICTeC travel grantees). While recognising that offsetting isn’t the perfect solution, we’ll do this until we can find a better solution.
- Where flights are part of a project’s grant funding, we’ll include offsetting as a cost.
- We created TICTeC’s environmental policy.
Our other big area of concern is around hardware, from our own computer equipment to the server farms pumping out emissions on our behalf. In this area we’ve:
- Drafted policies that extend the expected lifespan of staff computers, and suggest sustainable ways to recycle or repurpose them when they’re no longer in use.
- Started researching our hosts’ environmental policies with the aim of considering these as equally important to cost when we decide whether to renew contracts or to take business elsewhere.
More widely, we’re ensuring that we make it clear to all suppliers that we’d like to know their environmental policies — and that these will be a key consideration when we choose who to go with. We believe that this simple step helps create a commercial imperative that companies make progress in this area.
Similarly, we intend to keep talking about this within our sector, so that it becomes a norm. Just now, it doesn’t feel right to be plotting out our travel plans for the year ahead, but we hope we’ll be able to share our thinking in plenty of detail soon.
Image: Andy Falconer
We were glad to see this recent tweet from Andy Mabbett:
— Andy Mabbett (@pigsonthewing) May 5, 2020
Andy has imported the IDs of every authority listed on our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow into Mix’n’match, a tool for helping to link a dataset with existing Wikidata entities. Once a match has been made, the URL of the body’s WhatDoTheyKnow page is available as one of its identifiers (specifically, P8167).
This means that anyone running a project that utilises Wikidata will have the option to include WhatDoTheyKnow data in their site or app.
Andy says, “Wikidata acts as a hub for all sorts of databases and identifier systems. For example, it can be the only way of linking (programmatically, in the linked data sense) an MP’s official parliamentary record to their IMDb entry. I do a lot of work making that happen. As a regular and satisfied user of WhatDoTheyKnow, it appealed to me to add that site’s 24.5K listings of UK public bodies to the mix.”
The best-known site relying on Wikidata is of course Wikipedia, so in theory it would now be feasible, say, to include a template that automatically pulled the relevant WhatDoTheyKnow link into Wikipedia articles about authorities, or to build a browser extension that provided those links when the user visited such articles.
It would also be possible for us to pull information back the other way, so for example we might consider importing the first paragraph of a Wikipedia page for a body and using it within the introduction, as a way of providing context.
The matching of WhatDoTheyKnow authorities confirms which Wikidata URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) relates to each, meaning that these can now be used in “sameAs” metadata headers, scehma.org markup, etc. We think this might have a beneficial effect on the way search engines treat our pages in the future — something we’ll be keeping an eye on to check if that’s true.
Additionally, this works as a nice proof of concept that we can potentially recommend to other Alaveteli sites around the world, given that the Wikidata project is, of course, international.
But first, the bodies need to be checked with the Mix’n’match tool. At the time of writing, 1,302 bodies have been resolved, and can be seen here. Anyone is welcome to help by confirming more matches: just log in with a Wikimedia account.
Thanks to Andy for this initiative — it’s great to see the potential of our data being widened in one fell swoop.
There has already been a mutual benefit to this linking. WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Matt has been able to use examples of failed matches to find cases where our database needed to be brought up to date with name changes. At the same time, Andy says it has helped him and his fellow Wikidata volunteers to create new items about councils and other bodies that were in WhatDoTheyKnow but not Wikidata.
Richard, also one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s volunteer team, says, “I’ve often thought there’s a lot of overlap between what we do on WhatDoTheyKnow and what Wikipedia volunteers are doing — we’re both maintaining lists of public bodies — so any tools for closer collaboration are great.”
Image: Carl Nenzen Loven
Freedom of Information was one tool used in a coordinated campaign to prevent a council from selling off a large part of its property portfolio — including many social housing homes.
Councils, strapped for cash during austerity, have been looking for other ways to raise revenue. As we saw from The Bureau Local’s sold from under you investigation, that has often meant selling off public land and property.
But that can only be done once — the asset, and the benefits from it, are then gone. And when the properties in question are homes, there’s a significant human cost too.
The Stop Haringey Development Vehicle campaign (SHDV) successfully prevented a property deal that would have brought about the demolition of some of the borough’s biggest housing estates so that the land could be redeveloped for enormous profits.
The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.
It was a campaign that gained press attention and community support. It went as far as court, with substantial legal costs covered through crowdfunding.
Hilary Adams told us how SHDV used our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, not just to send FOI requests but also to comb through the requests that were already published on the site to see what previously-released information might be useful.
Back in 2017 Haringey council planned to set up what is known as a Joint Venture Vehicle — basically, a business arrangement between a number of parties — with Lendlease, an Australian multinational property developer.
Hilary tells us, “The deal was widely advertised as having the potential future value of £2 billion. Half the property would have been given to Lendlease, everything to be owned 50/50. The company was not expected to pay, but rather would have borrowed money to use to develop the land, then sell many of the new properties.
“The first part of this plan would have included the transfer of Northumberland Park Housing Estate, one of the largest in Haringey, along with many other smaller estates and individual social housing properties.
“Those properties would have been demolished and replaced with largely private housing with reduced tenancy protections for any remaining social housing tenants.”
But the council had not foreseen the degree to which the community would fight for their homes, and for the right to be included in major decisions that affected their borough.
Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.
Hilary says, “This was a broad-based opposition, both from members of political parties and many other local individuals in the community.
“We feared, with good reason, that much of the social housing would be lost in this process. The sale would have, on day one, included the whole of the Commercial Portfolio of the council which amounted to a value of many millions. It also included the majority of council offices and other properties.
“The second part of the plan would have included Broadwater Farm estate, another very large social housing estate, with a view to demolition and redevelopment with mostly private housing.”
As well as the potential loss of countless homes, with no promise of rehousing within the borough, the plan was being implemented with very little scrutiny.
The councils’ assessment reports were not publicly shared — and the only consultation held was an informal survey at a fun day, asking whether people supported ‘better quality housing’. Of course, most said yes!
FOI as a campaign tool
One of Hilary’s contributions to the campaign was in the assessment of information released through existing FOI requests, and in the putting in of new requests to fill the data gaps.
“I attended a meeting where a local councillor spoke about the plans for the HDV. She had recently been elected and was horrified by what she had discovered.
“Once the campaign had started up, it was this same councillor that suggested I should use your site to coordinate the questions we might need to ask. I became the lead on this part of the campaign, although it was not my only area of work.”
How FOI helped
“The role WhatDoTheyKnow played was invaluable in terms of us seeking and often finding a wide variety of data to inform our campaigning, publicity and political pressure.
An FOI response can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.
“I took responsibility for collating information that was already on your site and pertinent to us, and also for working out what further questions remained that we might need to ask.
“We had a team issuing the requests, and I kept track of all the responses. That information was all collated and summarised by me and several reports compiled for use with both our media contacts and for our legal challenge.
“Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible. As I am sure you can imagine, even with the site it was a gigantic task and I spent more hours of my life than I would have liked reading some of the most boring and irrelevant responses!”
At this point, we must nod towards our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service, which was in development at the time — but which would definitely help any future campaign with the donkey work of a mass FOI project.
What was uncovered
Hilary continues: “With diligence some gems of information came to light, some of which was already in the public domain — that often feels like it is hidden in plain sight and so our questions led to documents we otherwise might not have thought to consider.
“One element which came up repeatedly, and which helped to sway public opinion was the regularity with which meetings were held, yet no records were kept.
“I eventually collated all of these together, showing a pattern that led us to believe there was a degree of secrecy at play. Public money and resources were being disposed of yet much of the supposedly transparent decision making was anything but.
“Another influential element revealed via FOI was that the property developers were meeting regularly with not only key council officials, but other significant public bodies. These meetings were officially consultative, yet clearly the minutes showed them making important decisions as to how Tottenham should be redeveloped. No representatives of local residents or small and medium local business had any equivalent access to the public authorities in this way with all the direct and indirect influence implied.
“And while councillors were verbally assuring the community that social housing was protected, in reality the paperwork showed commitment only to 31% affordable homes — a very different concept to actual social housing at council rents, which were not secured in the plan. In Haringey there were something like 10,000 on the waiting list, and we could find no evidence, despite verbal assurances, as to how anybody would eventually be housed.
“We also found repeated examples of large amounts of public money being given to developers who would later make significant profits.
“All of this resonated strongly in the community and was fuel to the fire of the campaign both from a media and public opinion perspective.”
Publicity for the campaign
Freedom of Information also came into its own by providing the basis for press coverage.
“We received significant media interest, and the ongoing information we were getting was useful, as new information would act as a focus for a fresh round of media attention.
“I put together a compilation of FOI responses in the hope that by saving journalists work, we would encourage attention on the issues that caused us most concern.
“Each new revelation that we were able to publicise had the effect of building opposition to the scheme and strengthened the campaign against it. We developed a good relationship with a Guardian journalist, Aditya Chakrabortty, who took a personal and long term interest in the issue.
“In this article, for example, he makes direct reference to something we discovered via FOI: the existence of a shadow board, consisting of council officers and an elected councillor, which was set up prior to the council agreeing formally to the HDV with Lendlease.
“This is a good example of how facts can be hidden in plain sight. Nobody opposed to the HDV had been aware of this until it was revealed in an FOI response. It had been included in one line of a 650 page council report, but few people read every document.
“As this article reveals, this was only one of many vast collections of documents relating to the HDV. In that context, well placed questions can shed light on otherwise hidden corners.
“Naturally we needed to read all the documentation, and there were a few people involved in the campaign who would do so. An FOI response, however, can help focus on a key set of facts from a sea of too much detail.”
FOI contributing to the court case
“Just as with the journalists, I compiled a summary of the FOI responses we felt were most useful, and this was used by the legal team in their preparation.
Without your excellent site this task would have been virtually impossible.
“We lost the legal case, but the one element found in our favour was that the council had failed in their duty to consult.
“That information had been confirmed by FOI requests, by virtue of the limited response. They had been unable to provide much detail in relation to consultation, thus proving that nothing meaningful had taken place.
“However, we were deemed to be out of time and the court case fell. Having said this, we had never expected to win the whole campaign via the courts. Any win would have only meant that they would be required to amend the process — the law would never have stopped the entire plan. We did not doubt they had the legal right to do it: we simply felt that it was not in the best interests of the people of Haringey.
“Our main aim was to delay the signing of the contact with Lendlease long enough that new councillors would be in place and they would vote against the scheme. Unless we had amassed enough information to convince the court to allow the case to be heard, we would not have gained that delay: while the result was awaited, the council were prevented from signing any contract.”
Looking back and looking forward
A new council was voted in with members more sympathetic to the cause; that council halted the HDV and the campaign was eventually won after two long hard years. But is that the end of it?
Hilary reckons so, for now at least: “The nature and vast size of the proposed HDV scheme was unique, and unlikely to be attempted again in the next decade.
“Yes, our campaign had a huge impact, but we think the whole scheme was in danger of collapsing anyway because it was such a bad idea. It had few guarantees of success, and there were many ways in which it could have failed without any intervention from ourselves.
“However, that failure would only have become apparent long after the public land and properties had been privatised, after which we would simply never have got them back.”
And while the campaign succeeded, we cannot be complacent.
“The HDV was conceived in the context of current times. Regeneration in Haringey, and indeed the world, continues to be a hot issue — there’s an international movement to privatise public land, housing and resources.
“But while the underlying issues remain, and regeneration remains a cover for what amounts to social cleansing, we do feel that our campaign contributed to some shift in the discourse around these issues.
“We won, and that was a significant event that has inspired others to try to defend their areas and raised public awareness of all of the issues encapsulated within.”
Hilary continues to campaign with FOI.
“Currently I am involved with the Wards Corner Latin Village campaign and we are using WhatDoTheyKnow to seek information that might help in that struggle.
“Before the HDV I had never submitted an FOI request before — WhatDoTheyKnow made it really easy.”
We’re very glad to be of use in these campaigns, and we wish Hilary the best of luck in future endeavours to preserve this pocket of North London.
We’ve added a new functionality to the Alaveteli Pro codebase, allowing you to download a zip file containing all correspondence and attachments from a batch, and a spreadsheet (csv) to show the progress status of every request.
Alaveteli Pro is our tool for professional users of Freedom of Information. If you’re UK-based, you’re probably most familiar with our local iteration WhatDoTheyKnow Pro — but don’t worry: when we talk about improvements to Alaveteli Pro, you can be sure they’re also part of the WhatDoTheyKnow toolkit.
How to export
You’ll find these tools at the foot of the batch container in the requests list.
Why data exports?
Of course, we like to think Alaveteli Pro is a useful tool in its own right: there’s a lot you can do within the Pro interface, and it was built specifically to help you keep track of all your FOI activity in one place.
But sometimes users want to use external tools – either because they’re just more familiar with them, or because they want to do something beyond the functionality we offer.
Now there’s a simple way to get data out of Alaveteli, allowing you to analyse it with the tools of your choice, or perhaps send a progress report to a supervisor or editor.
It’s part of a programme of work to support cross border journalism between European organisations, supported by Adessium Foundation, allowing us to refine and improve the codebase for the benefit of all Pro users.
The technical bit
Those with a bit of coding knowledge may be interested to hear how we approached the zip download functionality. mySociety developer Graeme explains:
“With batch requests potentially going to as many as 500 different authorities, each request can receive several responses and attachments in return.
“All these emails and files mean that compiling the zip for download could be a lengthy job and would normally cause the request to time out. So for this new feature we’re utilising file streaming to send chunks of the zip as they become available.
“This means that the zip starts downloading immediately and you don’t have to sit watching and wondering whether anything is happening – you can see more and more data being transmitted.”
We hope you find this new feature useful. Please do let us know how you’re using it and any feedback you may have.
Image: Startup Stock Photos
In May 2019 Pressure Vessels, a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), sought to understand increasing levels of stress on the mental health of academic staff.
Dr Liz Morrish, a Visiting Fellow at York St John University, and Professor Nicky Priaulx, a Professor of Law at Cardiff University used Freedom of Information to understand the changing state of staff bodies’ mental health, analysing the demand for counselling and occupational health services within HE.
The first Pressure Vessels report focused primarily on academic staff, while this follow-up broadens the brief to incorporate professional services staff.
“Professional services staff are often marginalised in discussions about the higher education workforce, despite the significant roles they play. They are also more likely to be vulnerable to restructuring and redundancy,” say the study’s authors.
Of course, like every other sector in society, Higher Education has experienced a severe change in working conditions due to the global pandemic. But as Dr Morrish points out, “higher education staff and managers would be unwise to disregard the additional pressures this will bring. Like the virus, workplace stress is here to stay and must be addressed.”
The data in Pressure Vessels II was obtained by requests for information made to 17 universities, on staff numbers accessing counselling and referrals to occupational health for the 2016/17 and 2017/18 academic years.
The first report inspired Sheffield lecturer Tom Stafford to plot the figures onto graphs for each institution — he also offered to make graphs for any more data that could be obtained from other HEIs.
We are pleased to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used as part of a campaign to understand conditions and press for improvements. It’s just one more example of how our right to information can be used for the greater good. Read Pressure Vessels II here.
Image: Nik Shuliahin
This brings some substantial improvements to the code. The update is available to anyone running a site on the FixMyStreet platform, which includes our own fixmystreet.com; the installations we provide for councils and authorities; and the FixMyStreet instances run by others, in places from Australia to Uruguay.
If you run a site on the FixMyStreet platform yourself, or are just interested in the technical details, you can read the release notes here.
Meanwhile, here’s a rundown of the new front-end features you might notice if you’re a user of FixMyStreet.
Run the site as an app
FixMyStreet can now be added to phones (and desktops for that matter) as a ‘progressive app’. Here’s what to look for when you visit fixmystreet.com:
On Chrome for Android:
Access from the bar at the bottom of the screen.
Click the share icon at the foot of the screen.
Then select ‘add to home screen’.
On Firefox for Android:
Look for the pop up notification or tap the home icon with a plus sign in it in the URL bar.
Any of these methods will install a version of FixMyStreet that will behave like an app, placing an icon on your desktop, browser start page or home screen.
This way there is no need to download or update from the app store, and changes to the main website (which are invariably released sooner than on the app) will be immediately available to you.
Cobrands (for example the councils that use FixMyStreet as part of their own websites, and people running FixMyStreet in their own countries) can provide their own logo and colourscheme as well.
Mobile browser improvements
Whether you install the progressive web app or just visit fixmystreet.com on your mobile browser, you may notice some nice new features.
- If you use the geolocation function (‘use my location’), your position will be displayed on the map:
- When viewing an area, you can access the filters to narrow the reports displayed down by their status (fixed/open etc) and category:
- If you’re about to report something that looks like a duplicate, you’ll not only be shown the report/s that have already been made, but you’ll also see a small inline map without having to scroll back to the main map to check where they are.
- The site recognises that when you’re on a mobile, the message about uploading a photo shouldn’t invite you to ‘drag and drop’, but rather to either take a new one or select a photo from your phone.
- If you’ve placed the pin incorrectly, the ‘try again’ process is clearer.
If a picture paints a thousand words, then your Twitter character count just went stratospheric. Now, when you share a report on places like Twitter or Facebook, if there’s a photo included in the report, that will also be pulled through.
Previously, the ‘open graph image’ that was shown by default was the same for every report — which could get a bit boring in aggregate, and certainly missed some of the impact that people might want to share when they’re posting about their own, or others’ reports.
Social media isn’t the only place that FixMyStreet reports can be piped to, though — the site also has several RSS capabilities that have been baked in since its early days.
For those not totally up to speed with RSS and what it can do, we’re now no longer displaying them as raw XML but as a nice simple web page that explains its purpose.
To see this in action, click ‘Local Alerts’ in the top menu of any page. Here’s a before and after:
What benefits one, benefits all
Much of this work is thanks to NDI, the National Democratic Institute.
NDI offer the FixMyStreet codebase as one of their DemTools, installing it in countries around the world as an innovation which empowers citizens to keep their neighbourhoods clean and safe.
Thanks to this partnership, NDI funded the addition of new features which they had identified as desirable — and which, thanks to the open codebase, will benefit users of every FixMyStreet site worldwide.
There are some other significant additions in this release, including integration, back end and security improvements, all of which will be of most interest to developers and site admins — so if you’d like to see them, head over to the full write up on the FixMyStreet platform blog.
Image: Max Fuchs
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having an impact on response times to Freedom of Information requests. Please see this information from the Information Commissioner’s Office, and the Scottish Information Commissioner. You can contact the WhatDoTheyKnow team if you have any questions about your requests.
At times of crisis, the need for factual information is clear — and Freedom of Information is the lawful mechanism by which we can demand it. And yet, it is becoming increasingly obvious that across the world, rights to information are being eroded, by design or by circumstance, as governments and authorities deal with the effects of COVID-19.
Rather than restrict access to information, at this time bodies should be moving towards proactive release, and any necessary restrictions that are put in place must be temporary and time limited.
Keeping our rights intact
At WhatDoTheyKnow we are, of course, resolute that we must not allow the current situation to cause lost ground in the right to hold our authorities accountable.
Nonetheless, we do of course recognise the difficulties involved for authorities in keeping a service running at a time when the workforce may be depleted, staff may be working from home and not able to access physical files, and resources may be quite rightly being prioritised on the frontline of the fight to keep the population safe.
We call for a common sense approach that balances this new working environment with the enhanced need for public information:
- A recognition that not all authorities and not all departments will be equally affected by the current crisis. While it is clear that those which are working in the areas of health, policing, and other frontline activities are likely to be the least able to dedicate resources to FOI, other authorities/departments should do all they can to keep their channels of information open and active.
- In the spirit of transparency and public interest, all authorities should commit to the proactive publication of information, without the need for it to be requested. This should especially apply to decisions being made around public health, responses to COVID-19, and changes to rights and freedoms of citizens; and the data informing these decisions. Proactive publication requires fewer resources than responding to individual requests as they arise.
- Measures that are put in place to relax the right to information during this fast-moving environment must be recognised as temporary and reassessed at regular frequent intervals. When the health crisis has passed, they must be removed and the right to information must be restored to the same, or better, status as previously enjoyed by citizens.
Information is vital
More than ever, now is the time to ask questions: what plans do our governments have in place to tackle this unprecedented threat? What research is guiding their actions? How are they meeting targets for testing, for vital equipment, for hospital beds?
Or, just as importantly, as Julia Keseru asks in this piece: how are the most vulnerable in society being impacted by the broad stroke decisions being implemented?
In the UK, the government has stated a commitment to transparency: “In fast moving situations, transparency should be at the heart of what the government does”. But the gaps in existing data are noted by Jeni Tennison here, alongside a call for private companies to do what they can.
And at the same time, we’ve seen a relaxation of authorities’ obligations under the FOI Act in recognition of stretched resources and depleted staff.
These have taken the form of a notification from the ICO that they will be more lenient towards authorities providing late responses, and messages from authorities themselves that they will be providing a cut-down service.
Guy’s Hospital, for example, is understandably responding with a plea for people to consider whether their request is really required; while Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council are auto-responding: “The Council is not currently in a position to respond to your request. This is as a result of ensuring that all available resources are diverted to support the community and we can continue to deliver essential and priority services during the unprecedented crisis presented by COVID19. Please resubmit your request at a later date and not before 8th June“.
Scotland’s emergency bill, voted through yesterday, massively extended the deadline for responses despite intervention from campaigners and MSPs. As a result, WhatDoTheyKnow’s auto-prompts when an authority has not responded within the mandated timeframe are currently wrong, and we’ll be looking at correcting this as soon as we can. [Update: We now account for the new law in Scotland, but there may be a few existing requests or authorities that we’ve missed out, so please get in touch if you have questions about your request.]
Information doesn’t just allow us to hold our governments to account over the actions they take during this crisis. As Newspeak House’s Corona Virus Tech Handbook has vividly demonstrated, shared knowledge allows collaboration, in some cases across borders, that may literally save lives.
A global lapse
Meanwhile, in countries around the world, the reaction has ranged from New Zealand’s ‘pro-transparency’ response, documented along with less hopeful dispatches from other countries in this post from Global Investigative Journalism Network, to Hungary’s worrying move to rule by decree.
At WhatDoTheyKnow, we stand by our international community of friends and colleagues who value the citizens’ right to know.
Access to Information and journalists’ networks are monitoring the erosion or upholding of our rights across the world, and will act to preserve them where we can.
Image: Dimitri Karastelev
Last week, we held our first ever online conference.
TICTeC, mySociety’s annual Impacts of Civic Technology conference, was to have run in Reykjavik on 24 and 25 March, but those plans were, like so many others, scuppered by the COVID-19 outbreak. Instead, on those same dates, over 250 people from 30 different countries joined us for a cut-down programme of online presentations from a selection of the speakers who’d planned to join us in Iceland.
There’s no doubt that a conference is more fun when you all assemble in the same place, make connections and maybe enjoy some socialising too. Nonetheless, we now have proof that the essential part of TICTeC, the dissemination of research and knowledge — as well as at least part of the friendly socialising — can be managed virtually. As we all seek to decrease our carbon footprints, that is important knowledge.
Other organisations are of course also looking to take their events online, and now that TICTeC is all done, several have asked if we could share some tips.
So Gemma, mySociety’s Events Organiser, has shared all the logistics below and we hope that these will be useful. As she points out, this may not be the best way to run a conference online, but it certainly achieved everything we’d hoped for in the ten days we had available to put something together.
Step 1: Making a decision
Cancelling the real-world TICTeC was a real wrench: months of work had gone into arranging speakers, putting together the agenda, booking the venue and flights, and so on. Of course, as time went on, and the lockdown became more extensive, it became clear that there really wouldn’t have been the option to do otherwise.
But we were left with a decision: should we postpone TICTeC, or perhaps simply forget all about it for this year? Or we could try to move it online.
That decision had to be made fairly rapidly, since we’d cancelled only a couple of weeks before the event. It made sense to stick to the same dates if we were going online, because people had already earmarked them as time they’d be away from their workplace.
So we decided we’d go for a virtual conference, and Gemma turned her formidable organisation skills away from Reykjavik and towards pulling this new kind of event together — all while wading through the long list of cancellations: the venue, staff flights, caterers, hotels, etc, etc.
mySociety obviously has some advantages when it comes to this sort of thing: we’ve been working remotely since our inception; and a large proportion of our staff is technically adept. That said, we didn’t build anything. The technical aspect really only came into play to help us make decisions on what existing third party platform/s we would use, so if your own organisation is not so tecchy, you may find that you can benefit from our decisions and follow this plan anyway.
Step 2: Rearranging the agenda
Once we knew we were going ahead, Gemma contacted all the speakers to find out who would be willing to do their presentations virtually, what the practical challenges were for each, and how we could get around them. For example, was their wifi signal strong enough, or would they need to rely on data? If the latter, could we pay for them to top it up?
These were significant considerations that if we hadn’t attended to them could actually have derailed the conference. In fact our intrepid keynote Nanjala Nyabola in Kenya found herself running to buy more data for her phone just minutes before her session began.
People who would have been running workshops were asked if they’d like to create a ‘fringe event’ — ie, they would do the set-up for their own online session, and we would promote it on the TICTeC agenda.
We decided not to try and run two full days, as that is a long time for anyone to sit in front of a screen. Instead, we scheduled the line up from 1pm to 5pm GMT each day, which also fitted in with a wide range of timezones.
Timezones played a part in the practicalities of putting together a schedule, too, with speakers from countries from Taiwan to South America — obviously we didn’t want to be asking anyone to have to make a presentation at three in the morning their time! Here’s the final line-up.
Step 3: Deciding on and setting up the tech
You’ve probably seen the jokey meme going round suggesting that Zoom, the online conferencing platform, was actually behind the pandemic — they certainly seem to be getting a lot of custom from it, and we have to admire how they’ve coped with the increased capacity.
We, too, decided to use Zoom, as it had been recommended by a few people we trust. Zoom isn’t entirely frictionless — you have to set up an account and it prompts you to download a piece of software before using it the first time — but it’s robust and did pretty much everything we wanted it to.
Additionally we used Slido, which allows people to submit questions and then everyone can vote for the ones they most want to hear the answers to. We’d seen this used to great effect by Audrey Tang who was our keynote-via-video link-up at TICTeC in Florence, in 2017.
Then finally we set up a Google Drive folder containing a document for each session so everyone could contribute to collaborative note-taking, and where we also stored speakers’ slides.
Gemma created a staff roles document ahead of the conference to brief the team. It was worth running through each simple task via a video call with staff about a week before the conference to make sure everyone understood their duties — this prevented any hiccups.
If you’d like to see the nitty gritty of the various options we went for in Zoom and Slido, see this document.
Step 4: belt and braces
Gemma got in touch with the headline speakers for some trial runs, to test how well their connection would stand up on the day.
If there was some danger that the connection wouldn’t be good enough and a speaker wouldn’t be able to make their presentation, Gemma asked them to prepare a video of their talk as a safety net.
In the event, everything was fine and we didn’t need to switch to video, but it was good to know that we had that fallback.
Gemma also advises to be prepared for your own connection going down, which happened to her mid-TICTeC! She found that tethering off her phone worked just as well if not better than her home broadband, so if you don’t know how to do this, it is worth looking it up. Instructions will vary depending on your phone set-up.
Step 5: promotion
Creating the event generated a Zoom URL, which we then shared with speakers.
Next, we needed to make sure that as many people as possible knew that the event was happening. We put the word out via our newsletter (with an extra reminder being sent out on the morning of the first day), and every civic tech-related mailing list or Facebook group we could think of. We also sent out scores of tweets highlighting each speaker, and a few Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram posts.
All of these communications linked to a central blog post which explained what people needed to do to participate (ie make sure they had access to Zoom, etc) and linked to the agenda. On the agenda were:
- the timings and schedule
- the links to Zoom, Slido and the Google docs
Keeping all the information in one place meant that if anything changed, we only had to edit that document. We asked everyone to share the information widely.
Mainly due to the lack of time we didn’t set up any kind of registration, such as an Eventbrite page. This had the positive effect that there were fewer barriers to joining in (and that anyone learning about the event while it was in progress, say, via Twitter, could just hop on), but it also meant that people wouldn’t receive an automatic reminder of the event starting, and that we had absolutely no idea how many people to expect.
Anyone with the Zoom meeting URL could join. Zoom prefers people to download their launcher, but we heard from a couple of sources that this isn’t necessary or particularly desirable, so we also linked to this page on how to use your browser instead.
Step 6: running the event
We always take several mySociety staff members to help run TICTeC. If you’re thinking that a virtual conference would require less manpower, that’s not what we found. We called on all of the colleagues who would have been with us in Reykjavik to help make sure TICTeC online went smoothly. There were numerous tasks: none of them was particularly grueling, but put together, they’d definitely have been too much for just one or two people to handle.
See this document for full details of everything that was going on behind the scenes while TICTeC was running.
In short, while Bec and Mark (Head of Research and CEO) were introducing speakers and running the Q&A sessions — a job requiring a surprising amount of energy — Gemma was manning a second Zoom conference, the ‘green room’, where speakers could test their connections, mics, cameras and slides before coming into the main one.
Sam, our sysadmin, was on hand in case anything failed. Myf, Communications Manager was clearing Slido between sessions and tweeting to let people know what was going on. Other staff members were ensuring that notes were being taken on the collaborative documents, and keeping an eye on Zoom chat to see if anyone needed help.
Knowing that people would be joining the event at different times throughout the two days, we kept repeating messages in Zoom’s chat about the location of Google docs, the conference hashtag, and that people should use Slido rather than Zoom to pose questions.
Slido made it easy for our two conference compères to ask speakers the most popular questions during conference Q&As. During the conference, we frequently reminded attendees in the Zoom chat to ask and vote for questions on Slido.
Step 7: sharing the event
Thanks to Zoom’s add-on allowing us to record the event, we now have videos of the whole thing, as well as a copy of everything that was said in chat.
We edited the recording down into individual sessions, which you can see on our YouTube channel.
Where we have them, the slides for the presentations are in the Google Drive, as are the notes.
Step 8: look back and evaluate
So, how was it for you?
We can’t pretend we offered anything like all the joys of swinging by the Blue Lagoon or Seljalandsfoss, checking in with associates to enjoy a pricey Icelandic beer, and mingling with the friendly civic tech community face to face. Those things, sadly, are on hold for the foreseeable.
But we do think we managed to produce something special.
There really was a sense of camaraderie and togetherness in our virtual Zoom conference room, perhaps borne of all those previous TICTeCs where people have had time to build up relationships in real life.
The presentations went well. Speakers came through loud and clear; their personalities were not reduced and their points were not diluted by the online environment. It was just as easy to take in the information and to pose questions as it would have been in a conference hall. Small jokes resonated and the resulting chuckles rippled across the world.
To our relief, and perhaps to some small degree of surprise, everything went smoothly. Gemma mostly puts this down to the planning and practice we did in the week or so beforehand, but also to colleagues and to the speakers and attendees all approaching this novel set-up with a degree of trust and a willingness to try.
We’re hugely grateful to the speakers and attendees who made all of this possible. Thanks, too, to our sponsors Luminate, Google, Facebook, the Citizens’ Foundation and Balsamiq, all of whom stuck with us as we pivoted to an online event.
Finally, kudos to Gemma who really is the linchpin of all our events and whose refusal to be daunted by a vast list of admin practicalities repeatedly serves as an inspiration to us all.
We are all very much hoping that soon enough, our community can all be in the same room again. And goodness, won’t we all appreciate it.