1. TICTeC Local: schedule finalised

    You can now see the full agenda for TICTeC Local, our one-day conference examining Civic Tech at the local government level — and if it sounds good, you’d better book now, because spaces are limited.

    Free tickets

    Thanks to the kind support of FutureGov, we have a set number of sponsored places for public sector attendees — at no cost. If you work in the public sector and can commit to attending please choose the ‘Public Sector Sponsored Tickets’ option on Eventbrite.

    Additional speakers

    With a heady blend of innovators from within government, and external practitioners who are driving social change, TICTeC Local is going to be like nothing we’ve ever seen before in the sector.

    We’ve already announced many of the speakers, including Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Officer at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government, and Beatrice Karol Burks, Director at Futuregov.

    Now here are a few more of the movers and shakers who’ll be inspiring you:


    Theo Blackwell

    Chief Digital Officer for London

    Mayor of London mayoral team logoTheo is London’s first Chief Digital Officer. His job is to transform the capital into the world’s smartest city, and to make public services more accessible, efficient and responsive to the needs of Londoners.

    Previously with Camden council, Theo was credited with bringing it the title of ‘leading digital borough’ thanks to its use of public data; he has also worked at GovTech accelerator Public Group.


    Linda O’Halloran

    Head of Local Digital Collaboration Unit, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government

    MHCLG logoLeading this relatively new unit, Linda aims to disrupt the local government IT market and stimulate the move towards interoperability standards for local services. She has a background with Government Digital Service and was also the founder of Thinking Development, an NGO created in response to Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.


    Alison McKenzie-Folan

    Deputy CEO and digital transformation lead, Wigan Council

    Wigan Council logoAdvocating ‘digital by default’ strategies wherever possible, Alison is widely seen as the reason Wigan council was named as LGC Digital Council of the year; she’s known for embracing cutting-edge technologies in the pursuit of better public services, and happily collaborates with other authorities to help everyone innovate for good.


    Eddie Copeland

    Director of Government Innovation, Nesta

    Nesta logoEddie works with city data analytics, behavioural insights, digital government, collaborative platforms and digital democracy for Nesta, the global innovation foundation. He is an advocate of government and public sector organisations making smarter use of people, data and technology to deliver more and better with less.


    Sarah Drummond

    Co-founder & managing director at Snook

    Snook logoInnovating through research, strategy, design and delivery, Snook only works on projects that will have a meaningful impact on society. That’s led them into designing tech for fishermen, domestic abuse survivors, cyclists and plenty more. Sarah was awarded a Google Fellowship for her work in technology and democratic innovation and named as one of Good magazine’s 100 extraordinary individuals tackling global issues in creative ways.


    Zara Rahman

    Research, Engagement and Communities Team Lead, The Engine Room

    The Engine Room logoZara has worked in over twenty countries in the field of information accessibility and data use among civil society. Now, with social change NGO The Engine Room, she works with communities and organisations to help understand how new uses of data can responsibly strengthen their work.


    Steve Skelton

    Strategic Head: Policy & Information Services, Stockport Council

    Stockport Council logoStockport Council is working, under the banner of the Digital Stockport project, to improve the customer experience through the use of online technologies. Steve leads organisational and place-based strategy, and the Digital by Design programme. He sits on the @GMCADigital Steering Group and is prototyping a Greater Manchester Office of Data Analytics.


    Helen Gerling

    Lead Consultant, Shaping Cloud

    Shaping CloudDefining the use of cloud within central and local government to re-imagine the way services are delivered, Shaping Cloud informs and advises on digital transformation. Helen brings prior experience as a CIO and Director in the public sector.


    Julian Tait

    Open Data Manchester

    Open Data Manchester logoOpen Data Manchester is an association for people who are interested in realising the potential of data to benefit citizens, business and public bodies. Previously with FutureEverything, Julian led the Open Data Cities programme, bringing about a change in the way that public bodies within Greater Manchester use data.


    María Izquierdo

    Designer, IF

    Projects by IF logoIF helps organisations to earn the trust of their users when it comes to data, advising on design and security, and always with a focus on ethical practice.

    As IF’s inhouse designer, Maria is well-placed to explain how good design can play a critical part in this mission.


    Nick Stanhope

    Founder & CEO, Shift

    Shift logoShift is an award-winning charity, designing products and building social ventures for social change. Nick was named one of Britain’s 50 New Radicals by The Observer and NESTA and is a board member of the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology.


    Don’t miss TICTeC Local

    Book your place here.

    There’s more information about TICTeC Local on the main TICTeC website.

  2. mySociety to affiliate with Code for All

    mySociety has been a leading light in the Civic Tech movement since 2003, helping to shape and define the sector and building services used by over ten million people each year in over 40 countries worldwide.

    During this time Civic Tech has grown and matured; delivering plenty of impact, but also hitting numerous stumbling blocks along the way. In mySociety’s fifteenth year we’re taking stock of the best way to achieve our long term goals and ambitions.

    So today at the Code for All summit, Heroes of Tech in Bucharest, we announced our intention to become an affiliate member of the Code for All network.

    mySociety and Code for All both recognise the power of working in partnership, of being honest and self-critical about the effects of our work, of working openly and transparently and seeking the best outcomes for citizens in their dealings with governments and the public sector.

    Code for All is probably best known for Code for America, which set out the blueprint for a civic tech group working closely with government. Now that Code for All is growing beyond these early roots to become more than a collection of individual ‘Code For’ organisations it is broadening its own perspective to include more groups outside of government, we feel that this is a good time for mySociety to deepen our collaboration within this growing movement.

    Every success we’ve had has come from working well with our partners. Each of our services internationally is run by a local partner with mySociety providing development help and support and the benefit of our service development and research experience.

    In recent months through our Democratic Commons project we’ve worked with numerous Code for All partners, including CodeForPakistan, OpenUp, CodeForJapan, ePanstwo, G0v and others. Those of you who have attended our TICTeC conferences will know that they attract many members of the Code for All network as participants each year.

    What mySociety can bring to the network is a unique international aspect, a commitment to collaborate and combine our efforts on cooperative democratic projects, a willingness to more widely share our research and evidence building experience and a desire to improve the positive impact of our work.

    We would benefit from more of our work being seen as truly collaborative, and are no strangers to the challenges of seeking grant and project funding and the importance of working together to achieve this.

    With all the challenges facing democracy — governments struggling under austerity; fake news and dark money distorting the truth; a slow burn environmental catastrophe playing out around us; hard won rights and the norms of a fair and just society under threat — now more than ever feels like an important time to be working more closely together.

    So we’re excited by the opportunities that this timely partnership will deliver and keen to see where this takes us.

  3. My FOI request’s been refused — so, what now?

    Our WhatDoTheyKnow.com service makes it really easy to request information from public bodies: all you need to do is describe the information you are seeking, send your request, and the authority provides it to you.

    At least, that’s what happens when everything goes smoothly.

    The default case

    When you request information, the authority generally has two duties under the FOI Act:

    • They must confirm or deny whether the information is held
    • If they do hold it, they must disclose it.

    But, there are circumstances – called exemptions – where the authority can withhold the information, or where they might not even state whether or not they have it at all.

    Understanding which exemptions have been applied will also help you to understand what to do next.

    The authority have confirmed they hold the information, but refused to release it

    Why have they refused?

    If your request is refused, the authority must say which exemption/s allow them to do so — have a good read of their response, and find out which one/s have been applied.

    You’re looking for a section number that refers to the part of the Act that explains why they can refuse. You can check on FOIwiki’s handy table for the full list of exemptions.

    Generally, when citing an exemption, the authority will also include the relevant text from the FOI Act, but if not, you can check it for yourself in the actual wording of the Act.

    Example of an authority explaining which exemption they have used

    They did not cite an exemption

    Authorities must say which exemption applies to your request — so, double-check that they haven’t done so (look in any attachments as well as in their main email), and once you are certain that they haven’t, write back and ask them to confirm which exemption they are using. Here’s an example of that in action.

    If you want to, you can quote the part of the FOI Act which says that they must do this: Section 17 (1)b:

    A public authority which, in relation to any request for information, is to any extent relying on […] a claim that information is exempt information must […] give the applicant a notice which—

    • states that fact,
    • specifies the exemption in question, and
    • states (if that would not otherwise be apparent) why the exemption applies.

    They did cite an exemption

    Once you know which exemption has been used, you are in a good position to examine whether it has been correctly applied .

    FOIwiki’s table lists all the exemptions that an authority can use, and includes some technical details about how they can be applied.

    Some exemptions have very little room for appeal and the decision to apply them is obvious: for example, the Ministry of Defence won’t release plans for an upcoming battle in a time of war, making a request for this type of information pretty futile.

    Others rely much more on the judgement of the authority who’s dealing with your request. Under Section 38, for example, a request can be turned down because it might ‘endanger the physical or mental health of any individual’– but in many cases, assessing how someone’s mental health might be affected by the release of information must require a certain amount of prediction.

    Some exemptions allow an authority to use additional tools for assessing whether or not to release information:

    • A public interest test
    • A prejudice test

    They said they’d applied a Public Interest Test

    Some exemptions, known as ‘qualified exemptions’, require the authority to apply a Public Interest Test. This may give you more opportunity to ask for a review.

    You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s qualified, in FOIwiki’s table.

    In short, a public interest test sees the authority  trying to weigh up the benefit to the general public of the information being released against the safeguards that the exemption is trying to provide, and decide which has more weight. The ICO provide good information about Public Interest Tests, with several examples of how they have been applied in the past.

    If you think you can demonstrate that the Public Interest Test has come down on the wrong side of this weighing up exercise, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the end of this article for next steps.

    They said they’d applied a Prejudice Test

    Some exemptions, called ‘prejudice based’ exemptions, require a prejudice test. Again, this might also give you more opportunity to ask for a review.

    You can check the details of your exemption, and whether it’s prejudice-based, on FOIwiki’s table.

    Generally speaking, it’s applied to exemptions which seek to protect certain interests — for example, Section 29 of the Act allows exemption where release might do harm to the economy.

    The prejudice test is a way for the person dealing with the request to check that the perceived threat is ‘real, actual or of substance’, and that there’s a reasonable risk that the release would cause the harm that the exemption is trying to protect against. There is a good explanation in the ICO guidelines.

    As with Public Interest Tests, if you can demonstrate that the Prejudice Test has come up with a decision that is arguably misapplied, you may want to ask for an internal review — see the foot of this article for next steps.

    They didn’t apply a Public Interest test

    This probably means that the exemption is “absolute”, which makes it hard to challenge.

    First, check on FOIwiki’s table that the Section the authority is using is an absolute exemption.

    If it is:

    • You might like to consider how cut-and-dried it is that the information falls within the class that the exemption protects. If it is clearly covered by the exemption (for example you have asked for information that is self-evidently provided to the authority by Special Forces) then there isn’t much point in going any further. But suppose you have been told that, under Section 21, the information is accessible via other means. Section 21 is an Absolute exemption but may be open to a challenge if, for example, there are circumstances which prevent you from accessing the information.

    If it’s not:

    • Ask the authority what public interest test they applied (or more details of how they applied it).

    The authority won’t confirm or deny whether they hold the information

    Why won’t they confirm or deny?

    If confirming or denying whether the information is held would actually reveal exempted information in itself, then the authority may refuse to do so.

    You can read more about this in the ICO’s guidance.

    Can I do anything if they ‘neither confirm nor deny’?

    Yes — you can challenge this stance if you have reason to believe that confirming or denying that they hold the information would not reveal exempted information in itself. However, it can be a time-consuming and potentially difficult route to take, and even if you are successful in getting the authority to confirm that they have the information, you may then find that an exemption is then applied, taking you practically back to square one.

    Next steps

    If you still want the information you’ve requested, there are some general tactics you can use when faced with an exemption:

    • Reduce the scope of your request: Check the exemption cited and, if possible, modify your request to circumvent it.
    • Ask for an internal review: if you think the exemption, public interest test or prejudice test has been wrongly applied, you can ask for another member of staff to assess your request and whether you should have received a full, or partial, response.
    • Appeal to the ICO: If you’ve had an internal review and still think the decision was wrong, you may make an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

    Read more about all of these routes on our guidance page.

    And here are some other useful links from the Information Commissioner’s Office:

    Finally, for now

    The ideal is, of course, to submit a request which does not trigger an exemption, as clearly this saves everyone’s time. You can see our advice on writing responsible and effective requests here.

    That said, full or partial refusals are not an uncommon occurrence — it’s totally routine for FOI responses to have some material removed (usually personal information such as names and roles of junior officials, or material identifying members of the public), or to turn the request down completely.

    There are just over 25 exemptions listed in the Act (the exact number depends on how you count subsections and variants), removing the obligation for bodies to provide information in categories as diverse as any and all communications with members of the Royal Family, to commercial interests and trade secrets — and all sorts of things in between.

    We’ll be examining the various exemptions available to authorities and suggesting ways in which you can avoid them.  Keep an eye on our blog — and we’ll also link to posts from this post as we publish them.


    Image: Scott Warman

  4. We are going to the Code for All Summit

    For a large part of next week, mySociety team members Mark, Rebecca and I will be attending the Code for All Summit, this year to be held in beautiful Bucharest.  

    Code for All, for those who don’t know, is the largest international network of Civic Tech organisations who “believe that digital technology opens new channels for citizens to more meaningfully engage in the public sphere and have a positive impact on their communities”.

    And, as a collective, they have achieved some brilliant things;  developing open source toolkits for disaster relief, schooling future generations and making laws and governments more accessible to citizens around the world.

    This year, for the first time, Code for All takes the form of an open doors summit, as the aim is to get “every great mind of Civic Tech” together, not just the official Code For All affiliates. Under the title of “The Heroes of Tech”, it will focus on the barriers, challenges and the future of Civic Technology and explore the conference themes of The Power and  Impact of Civic Tech, Scaling Civic Tech,  Civic Tech & the Wider Context and Sustainable Civic Tech.

    Our Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul,  will be leading a workshop to explore how to best to evidence Civic Tech, disseminate learning in the impact field and explore what themes and activities will be featured in mySociety’s next Impacts of Civic Technology conference (TICTeC) in Paris, March 2019, and our Chief Executive Mark will be delivering a presentation and workshop, to co-define and develop a declaration for the Democratic Commons.

    We will be sure to report back!

  5. TICTeC Local – first speakers announced

    Tuesday 6 November sees the first ever TICTeC Local, a one day conference examining Civic Tech at the cutting edge of local government.

    mySociety’s annual TICTeC conference has already established itself as the must-attend event for the Civic Tech community. Now TICTeC Local promises the same opportunities for learning, networking and take-home lessons — for Local Government. If you have an interest in how technology is changing the ways citizens interact with councils and city governments, this conference is for you.

    Where Civic Tech meets Local Government

    The schedule is shaping up nicely for a full day of commentary and presentations from inspiring thinkers.

    They are a blend of hands-on Civic Tech practitioners, and representatives from the authorities, both in the UK and abroad, who are transforming local services at the grassroots level.

    Here’s a run-down of the speakers confirmed so far.

    From government

    MHCLG logoPaul Maltby

    Chief Digital Officer, Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government

    As Director of Data at the Government Digital Service (GDS), Paul led a cross-government programme designed to improve the way government approaches, uses and handles data. He’s now brought his insights to Local Government, as CDO at MHCLG. No-one is better placed to give us the ‘state of the nation’ when it comes to how digital technologies can transform citizen-government interactions.


    Kirklees Council logoCarl Whistlecraft

    Head of Democracy, Kirklees Council

    Carl is known for innovative approaches to service delivery, citizen engagement and governance. His passion for local democracy is demonstrated by his role in establishing Notwestminster, a national network where people can share ideas for improving local democracy.


    José María Becerra González

    Consul project, Madrid City Council

    Consul is a free citizen participation tool which fosters transparency and democracy in local government. It’s being used in 18 countries around the world to give citizens a say in the decisions that shape their communities.


    Linclnshire County CouncilAndrea Bowes

    Data and Information Systems Technical Architect, Lincolnshire County Council

    Lincolnshire Council are the latest to integrate with fault-reporting service FixMyStreet, as part of a council-wide strategy to shift to digital.


    From Civic Tech

    Anthony Zacharzewski and Michelle Brook

    The Democratic Society

    The Democratic Society (Demsoc) works for more and better democracy, helping governments that want to involve citizens in decision-making to be transparent, open and welcoming of participation. Anthony founded DemSoc in 2006 after 14 years in strategic roles in UK central and local government; and as Managing Director, Michelle leads on the organisation’s research projects.


    Beatrice Karol Burks

    Futuregov logoStudio Director, FutureGov

    FutureGov seeks to reform public services by supporting organisations through digital transformation and service design. Over the past ten years, they’ve helped more than 100 local and national authorities over four continents think differently about public services.


    New Citizenship Project logoJon Alexander

    Co-founder, New Citizenship Project

    Jon co-founded this social innovation lab in 2014, to help catalyse the shift to a more participatory society. The New Citizenship Project works with all types of organisations to engage people as citizens, working with tools as varied as documentary films to setting up new social enterprises.


    The Federation logoEmer Coleman

    Digital Leader

    Ex of Government Digital Service and City Hall London where she established The London Data Store, Emer is now helping to build The Federation, an open community of digital businesses & innovators, built on co-operative values, in the heart of Manchester.


    Don’t miss TICTeC Local

    Book your place here, and sign up for our mailing list to make sure you hear the latest details as our schedule is confirmed.

    There’s more information about TICTeC Local on the main TICTeC website.

  6. We know half a million things

    In the year of its tenth anniversary, and by complete serendipity on International Right To Know Day, our site WhatDoTheyKnow has processed its half a millionth Freedom of Information request.

    The mySociety team have found it increasingly hard to concentrate on work this afternoon, as the numerical counter on WhatDoTheyKnow’s homepage crept ever closer to the 500,000 mark… and at 4:56pm today, the milestone request was sent off. It was to Mid Devon District Council asking for the costs of implementing and maintaining flood defences.

    WhatDoTheyKnow has long been mySociety’s most successful site, if you count success by the number of users. Every month, between 500,000 and 600,000 people pay a visit. Some of them submit a request, contributing to the total of ~2,700 made monthly; others come to access the information released by authorities and published in WhatDoTheyKnow’s ever-growing archive of public knowledge.

    The site’s success can be ascribed to its simple formula of making it very easy to send an FOI request, which is published online along with the response it receives. The idea of putting the whole FOI process in public was resisted in some quarters during the site’s infancy — indeed, even the concept of responding by email rather than by post was fought against.

    But the site,  launched soon after the FOI Act came into force in the UK, has gone on to become an accepted part of the country’s landscape, and we’d like to think we’ve played a part in shaping attitudes —  and how the Act is implemented.

    The requirement for authorities to respond via email has now been enshrined in Ministry of Justice guidance.  WhatDoTheyKnow itself is explicitly mentioned as a valid vehicle for FOI requests in the ICO’s documentation, and in 2017 an independent commission even recommended that publishing responses should be ‘the norm’.

    The site clearly meets a need. And that need isn’t specific to the UK, as proven by the fact that the open source software on which WhatDoTheyKnow runs, Alaveteli, has also been picked up and is being used to run more than 25 other Freedom of Information sites around the world.

    Finally, never let us miss the chance to praise the volunteer team who keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, helping users with their requests, setting site policies and dealing with issues such as accidental data releases from authorities. Without these knowledgeable and dedicated people, we simply wouldn’t be able to provide this service.

    And now – onwards to the next 500K!


    WhatDoTheyKnow currently has no dedicated funding, and is run by volunteers. If you’d like to see it reach the million-request milestone then why not make a donation?
    Donate now

    Image: Bernard Hermant (Unsplash)

  7. Why having the Right To Know matters

    Today is International Right To Know Day.

    Right to Know Day was started back in 2002 by international civil society advocates, and has since been officially adopted by UNESCO with the more formal title of ‘International Day for the Universal Access to Information’.

    To mark this day I wanted to highlight some of the reasons why having the Right to Know/access to official information is so important, and give examples to illustrate these reasons.

    So, here goes:

    The Right To Know helps fight corruption and exposes wrongdoings

    Being able to access information held by public authorities allows citizens to uncover potential mismanagement of public funds, and abuses of public policies and laws.

    Some relevant examples  of this include when police use banned restraint techniques in prisons and immigration centres, when government departments miss their own targets and when campaigning groups break electoral law by spending too much money on their campaigns.

    The Right To Know helps citizens hold their public authorities and governments to account

    Since the introduction of the FOI Act, we all have the opportunity to question the status quo and point out when things just aren’t right.

    Like when one dedicated citizen used her Right to Know to make sure schools, local education authorities and the Department for Education were taking the issue of asbestos in schools and the health and safety of teachers and pupils seriously.

    Or one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers using his Right to Know to uncover that many councils are not doing the necessary administration work in order to be able to fine taxi drivers who refuse to accept disabled passengers, and therefore implement anti-discrimination law. Holding authorities to account so they do implement this is really important, otherwise discrimination against wheelchair users may continue to get worse.

    The Right To Know helps citizens get useful information that matters to them

    Sometimes the information you need isn’t freely or easily available, so using your Right to Know to get that information into the public arena is a great idea.

    People have used their Right to Know to get information on when museums are free to visit, where you can post your letters and where you can find a toilet, to name a few examples. All useful information for them personally, but also for the rest of society as well!

    The Right To Know helps citizens find out what’s going on in their local communities

    It’s important to know what’s going on in your local area so you can get involved, raise objections, think of solutions…or just for curiosity’s sake.

    These examples show how people have used their Right to Know to discover plans for local community sports stadiums and facilities, the number of homeless people in the area, and plans for housing developments.

    The Right To Know helps citizens get things changed for the better

    There are several instances of requests leading to tangible change that make improvements to people’s lives.

    For example using the Right to Know led to the exposure of vital information which helped lead to wages going up in one of the UK’s biggest care home operators, and Transport for London changing their attitude to cyclists’ rights.

    The Right To Know helps taxpayers find out how their money is spent

    Do you ever wonder how your hard earned taxes are being spent? Using your Right to Know uncovers all sorts of interesting, and sometimes controversial, expenditure.

    For example the NHS spent £29 million on chaplains in 2009/10, in 2008/09 Birmingham City Council spent £53,000 on bottled water for its staff and Greater Manchester Police spent £379,015 on informants in 2009/10.

    Having this information open for all to see sometimes leads to changes in how public authorities spend their budgets.

    For example Birmingham City Council went on to change their water policy so they now connect water coolers directly to mains water to save money and resources. This may not have happened if it wasn’t for an active citizen using their Right to Know to reveal this information, and therefore prompt a positive change.

    There are plenty more reasons why having the Right to Know is important, but these are the highlights for me. Fundamentally, the Right to Information empowers citizens to be active members of society so they can work towards creating a more fair and just world.

    So celebrate your Right to Know, on this day and every day, as it’s an incredibly useful right to have.

    Remember, using our WhatDoTheyKnow website makes the process of asking public authorities for information really easy and you can browse what other people have already asked for and the responses they received, so why not check it out.

    Image: Scott McLeod (CC BY 2.0)

  8. How Global Witness is using EveryPolitician data to spot potential corruption

    Since 2015, mySociety have collected and shared open data on the world’s politicians via the EveryPolitician project. 

    And while we receive emails from across the world pretty much on a weekly basis, asking us to update a dataset, we still can’t say exactly who uses the EveryPolitician data, and for what purpose.

    This is largely because we want to place as few barriers as possible to using the data. Asking folk to fill in a form or register with us before they access data which we believe ought to be free and accessible? Well, that would be counter to the whole concept of Open Data.

    But that said, it’s really useful for us to hear how the data is being put to use, so we were very pleased when Global Witness sent us their report, The Companies we Keep.

    This fascinating read shares the results of their analysis of the UK’s Persons of Significant Control Register (PSC) in which Global Witness used EveryPolitician data to see if there are politicians who are also beneficial owners of a company registered to the UK.

    In order to interpret and compare datasets (which also included sources such as the Tax Justice Network Financial Secrecy Index), Global Witness and Datakind UK built two tools:

    • An automated system for red-flagging companies
    • A visual tool for exploring the PSC register and other associated public interest datasets

    The red flagging tool can be used to uncover higher risk entries, which do not indicate any wrongdoing but could be in need of further investigation… such as the 390 companies that have company officers or beneficial owners who are politicians elected to national legislatures, either in the UK or in another country.  

    The report also highlights some of the challenges faced by Companies House that prevent the register from fulfilling its full potential to help in fighting crime and corruption. We recommend a full read: you’ll find it here.

    It is very helpful for us to demonstrate the uses of EveryPolitician data, both for our own research purposes and to enable us to secure the funding that allows us to go on providing this sort of service.

    If you have or know of more examples of the data being used, please get in touch with me, Georgie. And if you value open, structured data on currently elected politicians, you should get involved with the Democratic Commons; this is a developing a community of individuals and organisations working to make information on every politician in the world freely available to all, through the collaborative database Wikidata.  


    Photo by G. Crescoli on Unsplash

     

     

  9. WhatDoTheyKnow Pro helps set the news agenda

    Last year, we launched WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our service for journalists and other professional users of Freedom of Information.

    As it’s a new venture, we’re keen to track whether it’s achieving everything we’d hoped for when first planning the service. One of the targets which we set, as a measure of success, is the number of impactful press stories generated by its use.

    What might count as impactful? Well, that’s obviously up for debate, but loosely we’d say that we’re looking for news stories that have a wide readership, and uncover previously unknown facts, offer new insights, or bring about change.

    Stories in the news

    A couple of recent stories, generated through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, have ticked at least a few of those boxes. At mySociety, we keep a position of political neutrality — our services are available to everyone of any persuasion, and we don’t campaign on any political issue — so we present these stories not to comment on their substance, but to note that they certainly fit the criteria above.

    Brexit is clearly one of the most vital stories of our day, here in the UK, and while many might feel that we’ve had a surfeit of commentary on the issue, we can only benefit from understanding the facts.

    One of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s earliest users, Jenna Corderoy, broke two important stories on that topic. First, that UK parliamentary standards watchdog IPSA is investigating Jacob Rees Mogg’s hard Brexit European Research Group over their second bank account and ‘informal governance structure’. This also ran in the Daily Mail.

    Secondly (and this progresses a previous story about expenses – also uncovered thanks to Jenna’s use of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro) there is the widely-reported story that the Electoral Commission had misinterpreted laws around campaigning expenses, allowing Vote Leave to overspend. This was picked up by the BBC and Guardian, among many others.

    No matter which side of the Brexit debate you support, hopefully you will agree that it benefits society as a whole to have the facts out in the open.

    From FOI request to the national news

    As a last thought: it’s interesting to us to see how a story grows from one or more FOI requests into something that hits the national news platforms. We think these stories were broken using a tried and true method that goes like this:

    • As a journalist, campaigner or researcher, you might be investigating a topic. Perhaps you’ve heard a rumour that you’re hoping to substantiate, or perhaps you’re inquiring more deeply into a story that’s already in the air. Using FOI, you can retrieve facts and figures to bolster your investigation.
    • Once you have a story, you can publish it in a smaller publication like Open Democracy, testing the water to see if it gains any traction.
    • If the story is well-received there, it’s easy to approach larger outlets with the proof (in the form of FOI responses) underpinning it.

    If you’re a journalist or you use FOI in your professional life and you’d like to try WhatDoTheyKnow Professional for yourself, then head over to whatdotheyknow.com/pro. Put in the code WELCOME18 when you sign up, and you’ll get 25% off your first month’s subscription.

    Image: Roman Kraft

  10. Collideoscope improvements: ready to roll

    Keen readers of our blog will have followed our updates on the latest round of improvements to Collideoscope, a joint project with Merseyside Road Safety Partnership.

    These are now shipped and ready for you to use, so here’s a quick guide to what’s new. Or, if you want the tl;dr version:

    • It’s more obvious what the site’s for, where reports are sent and why
    • With our new ‘heatmap’ visualisations you can see at a glance where most incidents have been reported
    • Data can be easily downloaded for your own purposes
    • We’ll guide users to make a police report if their incident warrants it

    A clear proposition

    After putting quite a bit of thought into wording across the site, we hope that Collideoscope’s two aims are a lot more prominent throughout. These are to collect data on cycling incidents, and to make that data available to those who need it.

    New Collideoscope homepage showing its strapline: "Help Us make Cycling Safer: Tell us about your collisions and near misses so we can build the evidence base for improvements, together"

    This double aim is something that many mySociety sites have in common: they need to cater for people who want to make a report, and people who can make use of the data that those reports generate.

    Let’s look at how our recent changes meet the needs of  each of these audiences.

    Making reports

    Where do reports go?

    Collideoscope is based on the same software as FixMyStreet, but unlike our street fault site it doesn’t send your report with the expectation that it will be ‘fixed’.

    Instead, here’s what happens:

    • Just like FixMyStreet, your report is immediately published on the Collideoscope website for anyone to see.
    • It becomes part of the database of incidents that is available for researchers, campaigners etc, to draw upon.
    • At the same time, a copy of the report is also sent to your council, but this is to feed into their understanding of dangerous hotspots in their area, rather than with any expectation that they’ll respond.

    Suggesting next steps

    Of course, there are certain types of incident which should always, by law, be reported to the police. These include those where there’s any injury or damage to property.

    Now, we don’t want anyone to think that Collideoscope is an alternative to making a police report. At one point, we considered adding functionality that would allow you to additionally send your report off to the police, but we found that this would be a monumental task, far above the resources we have for this phase of the project.

    Zarino, whose research has helped inform these improvements, explained:

    Sadly, there’s no standard across the UK that we could plug into: no common set of questions to be answered, no common place for the information to be sent. Plus, the (paper!) police reporting forms are really long — they aim to gather everything that would be needed, should the case go to court.

    We didn’t think recreating those forms online would help anyone – not least because the police would, in all probability, just ask the reporter to redo it all on a paper form.

    Advising the user to make a report to the policeAt this point in time, it seems the police are far more geared up to reports being made by phone or in person. So with all this in mind, we’ve ensured that when a user makes a report that meets the required degree of severity, they’re prompted to also let the police know.

    Because we have the postcode of the spot where the incident happened, we’re able to give the user a link to the correct police force for the area, and so as not to divert the task in hand, we do this once the Collideoscope report is confirmed.

    Users making any type of report will also see a link through which they can find their local cycling campaign group, in case they want to get proactive about improving road safety.

    Using Collideoscope’s data

    By neighbourhood

    There are a number of ways to access the data on Collideoscope.

    As with FixMyStreet, you can view any neighbourhood by inputting the postcode or place name in the search box on the homepage (or asking it to automatically geolocate you). You’ll then see all the incidents reported in the area, with the option to include police reports (England only).

    But Collideoscope also has a new feature that makes it easier to understand the density of reports: you’ll notice that some of the roads appear in varying shades of orange. The deeper the colour, the more reports have been made on that street — and if you’re a cyclist yourself, you’ll know at a glance where you need to be extra careful.

    Collideoscope heatmap

    So now you can check out your route and know where to take the most care. (If you find this feature distracting, just look for the ‘hide heatmap’ button at the bottom right of the screen).

    By council or across the whole country

    We’ve introduced a nifty new reports page, from which you can see how many reports have been made, either on a council-by-council basis or for the whole of the UK. Once you’ve picked your council, you can break it down even further, by ward.

    There’s the additional option to view graphs grouping incidents by severity and by the other vehicle (if any) that was involved.

    This data can be downloaded in CSV form, for anyone who might need it to support planning decisions, research or campaigns.

    Stats on Collideoscope

    We hope you’ll go and have a click around the refreshed Collideoscope — and remember it’s there should you be unfortunate enough to get into a cycling scrape in the future. If you do, at least you’ll know that your data is contributing to a good cause.

    Will you use this data?

    As we’ve described, it’s now very easy for you to self-serve Collideoscope’s data, but all the same, we’d love to hear how you’ll be using it. Drop us a line!

    We can also help with any technical questions you may have.