1. TICTeC: See you tomorrow in beautiful Barcelona

    Yes, time flies — TICTeC really is tomorrow!

    We’re looking forward to hearing from those at the heart of civic tech research. We can’t wait to see old friends and make new ones, too.

    But if you can’t be with us for this unique conference on the impacts of civic technologies, don’t despair. You can follow along via the #TICTeC hashtag, which we’ll be encouraging people to use across all the usual channels.

    Of course, we’ll also be busy taking notes, photographing and collecting footage for blog posts and videos after the event, so watch this space for those summaries.

    And now: off to Barcelona. ¡Hasta mañana!

     

    Image: Moyan Brenn (CC)

  2. Running a campaign? The WriteToThem tool can help

    WriteToThem is our service that helps people write to their elected representatives, quickly and easily.

    People running a campaign often send their supporters to WriteToThem and ask them to contact their MP. But it’s always easy to lose people between one website and the next: you’ll get far better results if you can send your users right in to the message-writing process.

    Fortunately, the WriteToThem embeddable tool lets you do just that. It’s free, and available to any campaign that wants to use it. We recently came across a great example of how this tool has been used by Stepchange, the debt charity, so we wrote it up in a case study.

    If you’re wondering whether this tool might work for your own campaign, you can read their experience here.

     

  3. Where Next for Open Standards

    Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.

    We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.

    It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.

    This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.

    In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.

    Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.

    Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.

    Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s reporthighlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.

    The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.

    Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.

    Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.

    Practical Next Steps

    The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.

    We were particularly keen to build on the progress that we’ve made in popularising the Open311 standard, which we can use to integrate FixMyStreet.com with each local authorities’ systems.

    We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.

    This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.

    Lewisham Open311 App Results

    Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.

    From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;

    1. Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
    2. Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
    3. Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints

    As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.

    We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

  4. Introducing EveryPolitician’s bot

    mySociety’s EveryPolitician project aims to make data available on every politician in the world. It’s going well: we’re already sharing data on the politicians from nearly every country on the planet. That’s over 68,652 people and 2.9 million individual pieces of data, numbers which will be out of date almost as soon as you’ve read them. Naturally, the width and depth of that data varies from country to country, depending on the sources available — but that’s a topic for another blog post.

    Today the EveryPolitician team would like to introduce you to its busiest member, who is blogging at EveryPolitician bot. A bot is an automated agent — a robot, no less, albeit one crafted entirely in software.

    First, some background on why we need our little bot.

    Because there’s so much to do

    One of the obvious challenges of such a big mission is keeping on top of it all. We’re constantly adding and updating the data; it’s in no way a static dataset. Here are examples — by no means exhaustive — of circumstances that can lead to data changes:

    • Legislatures change en masse, because of elections, etc.
      We try to know when countries’ governments are due to change because that’s the kind of thing we’re interested in anyway (remember mySociety helps run websites for parliamentary monitoring organisations, such as Mzalendo in Kenya). But even anticipated changes are rarely straightforward, not least because there’s always a lag between a legislature changing and the data about its new members becoming available, especially from official national sources.
    • Legislatures change en masse, unexpectedly
      Not all sweeping changes are planned. There are coups and revolutions and other unscheduled or premature ends-of-term.
    • Politicians retire
      Or die, or change their names or titles, or switch party or faction.
    • New parties emerge
      Or the existing ones change their names, or form coalitions.
    • Areas change
      There are good reasons (better representation) and bad reasons (gerrymandering) why the areas in constituency-based systems often change. By way of a timely example, our UK readers probably know that the wards have changed for the forthcoming elections, and that mySociety built a handy tool that tells you what ward you’re in.
    • Existing data gets refined
      Played Gender Balance recently? Behind that is a dataset that keeps being updated (whenever there are new politicians) but which is itself a source of constantly-updating data for us.
    • Someone in Russia updates the wikipedia page about a politician in Japan
      Wikidata is the database underlying projects like Wikipedia, so by monitoring all the politicians we have that are also in there, we get a constant stream of updates. For example, within a few hours of someone adding it, we knew that the Russian transliteration of 安倍晋三’s name was Синдзо Абэ — that’s Shinzo Abe, in case you can’t read kanji or Cyrillic script. (If you’re wondering, whenever our sources conflict, we moderate in favour of local context.)
    • New data sources become available
      Our data comes from an ever-increasing number of sources, commonly more than one for any given legislature (the politicians’ twitter handles are often found in a different online place from their dates of birth, for example). We always welcome more contributions — if you think you’ve got new sources for the country you live in, please let us know.
    • New old data becomes available
      We collect historic data too — not just the politicians in the current term. For some countries we’ve already got data going back decades. Sources for data like this can sometimes be hard to find; slowly but surely new ones keeping turning up.

    So, with all this sort of thing going on, it’s too much to expect a small team of humans to manage it all. Which is where our bot comes in.

    Hello bot

    portrait of bot

    To be honest with you, the bot doesn’t really look like this because, being software, it’s entirely non-corporeal. Sorry.

    We’ve automated many of our processes: scraping, collecting, checking changes, submitting them for inclusion — so the humans can concentrate on what they do best (which is understanding things, and making informed decisions). In technical terms, our bot handles most things in an event-driven way. It springs into action when triggered by a notification. Often that will be a webhook (for example, a scraper finishes getting data so it issues a webhook to let the bot know), although the bot also follows a schedule of regular tasks too. Computers are great for running repetitive tasks and making quantitative comparisons, and a lot of the work that needs to be done with our ever-changing data fits such a description.

    The interconnectedness of all the different tasks the bot performs is complex. We originally thought we’d document that in one go — there’s a beautiful diagram waiting to be drawn, that’s for sure — but it soon became clear this was going to be a big job. Too big. Not only is the bot’s total activity complicated because there are a lot of interdependencies, but it’s always changing: the developers are frequently adding to the variety of tasks the bot is doing for us.

    So in the end we realised we should just let the bot speak for itself, and describe task-by-task some of the things it does. Broken down like this it’s easier to follow.

    We know not everybody will be interested, which is fine: the EveryPolitician data is useful for all sorts of people — journalists, researchers, parliamentary monitors, activists, parliamentarians themselves, and many more — and if you’re such a person you don’t need to know about how we’re making it happen. But if you’re technically-minded — and especially if you’re a developer who uses GitHub but hasn’t yet used the GitHub API as thoroughly as we’ve needed to, or are looking for ways to manage always-shifting data sets like ours — then we hope you’ll find what the bot says both informative and useful.

    everypoliticianbot-small
    The bot is already a few days into blogging — its first post was “I am a busy bot”, but you can see all the others on its own Medium page. You can also follow it on twitter as @everypolitbot. Of course, its true home, where all the real work is done, is the everypoliticianbot account on GitHub.


    Images: CC-BY-SA from the EveryPolitician bot’s very own scrapbook.

  5. West Ham stadium ruling: a win for transparency

    You may have seen the blanket press coverage last week: the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the publicly-funded authority which owns the Olympic Stadium, lost its recent tribunal and was ordered to publish its contract with West Ham football club.

    This is a story which goes back to last August, when we first blogged that WhatDoTheyKnow user Richard Hunt had submitted a request for the contract via the site, on behalf of a group of Football Supporters’ Trusts.

    In September, we updated the story as LLDC pushed back from publishing the full contract, citing ‘commercial confidentiality’. It seems the subsequent tribunal dismissed this as a valid reason to withhold the information — information which has now been pored over in detail by the nation’s media.

    Many concluded that the authority have struck a poor deal on behalf of the general public; we particularly enjoyed a statement from Barry Hearn, former chairman of Leyton Orient, who reportedly stated, “My dog could have negotiated a better deal for the taxpayer.”

    Whatever your opinion on the deal itself, we think it’s right that the information should be firmly in the public domain, so that people can clearly see the financial affairs of the authorities they pay for.

    Richard Hunt, whose request kickstarted this whole affair, says that it represents a good result for football, too:

    The effort to get the contract released under FOI was started by a football fan and then, as the LLDC resisted disclosure, mushroomed into a full scale campaign run by a coalition of football club Supporters Trusts.

    It gained such wide support precisely because football fans are taxpayers too, and there was a widespread perception that one such club was receiving public funds to get a new stadium, whereas other clubs had funded new stadia themselves (or more accurately from the revenues earned from  their fans ).

    It was a rare example of football fans overcoming tribal divisions to work together, and is expected to be showcased at the Supporters Summit meeting organised by the Football Supporters Federation this coming July.

    Well done to all involved! You can see the original Freedom of Information request here.

    Image: Daniel Coomber (CC)

  6. International Citizen Beta

    We’re helping our friends at Citizen Beta by sponsoring (and co-hosting) an international-themed event next Monday (25th April 2016, 7pm–10pm). There will be three presentations, one from OneWorld about their work overseas, one by our own Jen about some of our recent international projects, and then there’s the spotlight: a talk from the Kuala Lumpur-based Sinar Project.

    If you’re in or near London, please do come: sign up on Citizen Beta’s attending.io page.

    Citizen Beta is a roughly-monthly meetup for civic tech people. Next Monday’s event will follow the usual format of Q&As after each presentation with (deliberately) lots of meeting, mixing, and chatting too. It happens in Newspeak House in Shoreditch, and refreshments will be provided.

    We’re very pleased to have been able to make this event happen. It was precipitated because Khairil from Sinar is coming over to our side of the world for mySociety’s forthcoming TICTeC 2016 conference in Barcelona. (If you haven’t already got a ticket to TICTeC then, sorry, you’re too late; but of course keep an eye on this blog because we’ll be sharing photos, videos and accounts from the event).

    OneWorld, like mySociety, are based in the UK, but work all over the globe. Their projects often depend upon the classic civic tech components of web and mobile, but they’re also actively involved in addressing health and rights issues in the countries in which they operate. They have a wealth of experience from running projects in developing countries, especially when it comes to understanding both the capabilities and the limitations of the technologies they use.

    The Sinar Project, which the aforementioned Khairil heads, is a civic tech group based in Kuala Lumpur. They first came to our attention because they were using two of our codebases (FixMyStreet and MapIt). We’ve been friends ever since, and it’s always been a delight when our international paths have crossed. In many ways Sinar perfectly epitomises the philosophy of civic tech/open source reuse that mySociety, and specifically Poplus, is so passionate about: when you have a small team of super-focused developers (shout-out to Sinar’s Motionman and Sweester!), you simply can’t afford to waste time reinventing the wheel.

    On Monday evening Khairil will be showing some of the impressive ways they have been combining their tech skills and tools in a political environment which is considerably more hostile than that in the UK.

    Oh, one last thing — sorry; we do realise that this is a London event. mySociety itself is a remote-working organisation, which means we’re spread all around the UK, so we know that not everything happens in London. But that’s where Citizen Beta is, so that’s where this particular meetup is happening.

    It’s going to be great — so if you can come, please sign up. See you there!

    Image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Horng Yih Wong of Khairil Yusof speaking at TEDxKL

  7. Which ward will you be in on May 5?

    Are you still in the same ward? Check whether your ward boundaries have changed here.

    May 5 is election day

    If you’re a UK citizen, you have an election in your near future. We can say that with confidence.

    May 5 sees elections not only for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly of Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but also for many local councils. Londoners will be picking their London Assembly representatives and their Mayor. As if all that isn’t enough, there are also Police and Crime Commissioner Elections.

    Ward boundaries are changing

    You might think you already know where to vote, and who’s standing for election in your area.

    But both are dictated by which ward you live in — and that may not be the one you’re used to, thanks to ongoing changes in ward boundaries.

    There’s no need to worry, though. As before, we’ve provided a nifty tool that will tell you whether your ward has changed. Just enter your postcode here.

    Thanks to Democracy Club’s new project Who Can I Vote For? you’ll also be able to click through to see whatever information is available for candidates in your ward.

    Image: Matt Brown (CC)

  8. The interop problem in Civic Tech research

    How do researchers accumulate knowledge about civic technology? So far, many of our most active discussions still happen at conferences and in the informal writing of blog posts. Individual organizations (like mySociety) are investing more heavily in the production of academic-quality research, so we can all see more clearly what happens when we try to use technology to bring people and governments together. But is this work yet diffusing into academic use?

    I wrote about this question while researching the context of mySociety’s current work on US city-led civic tech. Although the term “e-government” seems to have been largely bypassed in current civic technology practice, it’s useful to see that “e-government” is still a very important concept. For those of us trying to see how governments approach the use of technology in connecting to citizens, research on e-government provides a useful perspective. At the same time, however, the perspectives of e-government and civic technology also diverge — and that too is important to note.

    *******

    Why Civic Technologists Should Still Care About E-Gov

    As a recovering academic, I spend more time than I should going down rabbit holes: reading articles which cite interesting studies, which I then go find and read, and then they cite interesting papers, and pretty soon way too much time has gone by. I’m currently researching the role of civic technology projects enacted by U.S cities for mySociety, so I’ve been actively looking for those civic tech rabbit holes.

    There’s just one hitch: civic technology barely exists in the academic context. E-government, on the other hand, continues to have an active research program.

    Searching “e-government” in Google Scholar returns 169,000 cited works—10,600 published since 2015 alone. Searching “civic technology,” meanwhile, nets a total of 185. (And one of the top results references technology in the Honda Civic.)

    Read more at Civicist.

  9. Dostup do Pravdy: the secret of FOI success

    Last week, Ukrainian Freedom of Information site Dostup do Pravdy processed its 10,000th FOI request.

    That’s pretty impressive, given that they launched just a couple of years ago, in 2014.

    We offer hearty congratulations to the Dostup do Pravdy team. We’re also looking very closely at how they achieved this level of usage, because the site runs on our Alaveteli platform — and we’re keen to share the secrets of their success with the rest of the Alaveteli community.

    So we called Yaroslav, one of the team, and asked him to outline the various factors that have helped boost the site’s popularity. We’ll be writing this up in more detail as part of a guide to marketing Alaveteli sites, but for now, here are the headline points.

    Link with a news outlet

    Dostup do Pravdy was set up in collaboration with Ukraine’s biggest online news outlet, and from the beginning they have employed a journalist to work solely on stories generated through Freedom of Information.

    This has given them several great advantages: a ready-made audience for their most interesting requests; a channel through which to ensure that the general population knows about their rights in FOI; and professional expertise in pulling out which information was the most newsworthy.

    Troubled times

    Of course, no-one would choose to live through political upheaval, but there’s no doubt that Ukraine’s recent history made the populace all the more keen to access facts.

    FOI proved a crucial tool in uncovering and publicising stories of corruption, such as the diversion of funds meant for the army, when high-up officials were coincidentally seen driving top-of-the-range BMWs.

    Stories that grab the public’s imagination

    Right now, Dostup do Pravdy are working on a campaign to find the owners of historic buildings which are falling into disrepair, a story which has captured the attention of the wider community.

    Similarly, they’ve probed into figures on domestic violence cases, a story which got picked up by all the national media.

    On the road

    Ukraine is a relatively big country, with some regions where internet access is poor. The Dostup do Pravdy team are partway through a series of 15 grant-funded ‘roadshows’ in which they invite local activists to come and learn more about Freedom of Information, and train them in how to make requests.

    These activists also help to spread the word amongst the wider community and local media. Where there is no access to the internet, they revert to the lower-tech FOI channels of phone and written letter.

    The visits are also an opportunity to meet with officers from public authorities — the people on the receiving end of the FOI requests.

    Employ an intern

    There’s always more work than there is time to do it, when you’re a small team trying to make a big difference. Dostup do Pravdy were only able to find all the details they needed for their historic buildings project by employing an intern who could go through all the various registers to find crucial information.

    Use social media

    Dostup do Pravdy have seen great increases in visits to their site, both in terms of people browsing information, and those who go on to make an FOI request.

    Alaveteli does allow for a certain amount of discussion of requests, via its annotations functionality, but Dostup do Pravdy also have almost 10,000 followers on Facebook, and it’s here that they’ve seen discussion flourish. It’s also a great platform for sharing their investigative stories, and publicising their events.

    Users also come to Facebook to ask for assistance in making their requests, or following up those that have gone unanswered. Administrators encourage users to keep pushing for the information they require, and can point out where authorities are in breach of law, or point them in the right direction to get further help from the Institute of Media law, who can offer legal aid and advice.

     

    So there you are: that’s the combination of factors that have led to success for Dostup do Pravdy. We wish them all the best as they charge towards their next milestone. Будьмо!

     

    Image: Juanedc.com (CC)

  10. Open Standards Workshop on April 19th

    We share the belief, set out in the recent Connected Councils report from Nesta, that open standards are key to unlocking the potential of government as platform for local government.

    We want to help local authorities understand the benefits of open standards, too. So to that end we’re holding a half-day workshop at Newspeak House London on Tuesday 19th April (the day before the Digital Government conference in London).

    From our perspective this is important because when councils adopt new services they often miss the opportunity to create a genuinely open platform allowing councils, third sector and commercial organisations to work well together (I’ve written more on that in a post over on Medium).

    We’re inviting local authority staff who are responsible for setting strategy for open data and digital standards, and we’ll have a handful of interesting speakers, roundtable discussions and a spot of lunch as well.

    We’ve been fans of the Open311 standard for reporting non-emergency local issues online for some time. This open standard makes it easy for us to submit issues from FixMyStreet.com directly into a local authority’s case management system, and, just as importantly, report back when they have been resolved.

    Open standards are a fundamental aspect of digital transformation for every local council. We want to do what we can to help extend the scope and use of these standards, and learn how we can better deliver services that make use of them.

    We’d love to hear from you about your use of open standards in local government, to share experiences on how this can power service development and identify opportunities to extend the take up of standards. We’d also like to ensure that we are building services that you actually want to use to help your local residents.

    If you or a colleague would like to attend, or if you know people in other councils who are interested in Open311, FixMyStreet and other open standards, then please request an invite on our Eventbrite page.

    —-

    Image credit Deborah Fitchett https://flic.kr/p/7EyMVT