1. Self-service at Mapumental

    whatcouldyoudo

    From today, it’s much easier to buy transit-time maps from Mapumental. We’ve added a self-service shop which allows you to generate your own maps, instantly and easily.

    The technical amongst you may like to know that the service queries the Mapumental API; for everyone else, it’s probably enough to say that your maps will just appear, as if by magic.

    Mapumental maps are cheaper when you buy in bulk, so we’ve also integrated a credits system. If you know you’ll have an ongoing need for our maps, stock up on credits (also completely self-service) and you’ll soon start benefiting from some substantial discounts. We’ve included a nifty little credits calculator on the page, so you can find the price band that best suits your needs.

    Check out the new interface at Mapumental now. All the benefits of a self-service checkout, none of those irritating “unexpected item in the bagging area” announcements.

  2. Bristol: We’re coming back to see you

    7858490506_6a9b40bb1a_kAs last year’s meet-up in Bristol was so fun, we thought; why not have another?

    So, after a bit of encouragement from some of our Bristol-based friends,  we’ll be back on 23rd July to host another meet-up at the Royal Navy Volunteer pub.

    Our meet-ups are open to everyone. Come along if you’re interested in hearing more about inspiring tech projects in Bristol and beyond, and if you fancy having a drink with the following guest speakers:-

    Paul Wilson and Professor Dimitra Simeonidou, Bristol Is Open:

    Paul and Dimitra will speak about Bristol Is Open and its mission of creating an open programmable city region that gives citizens more ways to participate-in and contribute-to the way their city works. Find out more about the project here: http://www.bristolisopen.com/

    Mike Dunn, Sift Digital: 

    Mike is a UX consultant with Sift Digital in Bristol. The Bristol Pound is an local alternative currency designed to benefit independent businesses. They’re trying to get us to completely rethink where our money goes. Mike will talk about how he put together a lightweight programme of user research and digital strategy work to suit their (very) limited budget, and why digital people should use their powers to do good.

    Ben Fowkes, Delib: 

    Ben leads the consultancy team at digital democracy company, Delib, where he helps governments tackle tricky initiatives that require input from citizens. Ben will be giving a talk about his recent trip around the US which saw him visit large swathes of government, universities and hallowed ground like Civic Hall in New York, to attempt to answer the question – ‘What is Civic Tech?’. He’ll explore the differences and indeed, the similarities, between the respective countries and look at larger trends and opportunities from the other side of the pond.

    Our very own Ben Nickolls:

    Ben heads up the mySociety Services team. He’ll talk about some of the innovative digital projects we’ve been working on recently to help local government and other institutions better serve the public.

    They’ll be some other speakers too; which we’ll add to the meet-up’s Lanyrd page in due course.

    So, we hope to see you there!

    When: Thursday 23rd July 2015, drop in any time between 7pm and 10pm
    Where: The Royal Navy Volunteer pub function room, 17-18 King St, Harbourside, Bristol , BS1 4EF
    How: Add your name to the Lanyrd page: http://lanyrd.com/2015/mysociety-friends-meet-up/, so we know you’re coming.
    Who: Anyone who fancies it.

    NB: Watch our Twitter stream on @mySociety to check for last minute advice about where we are sitting or if we have moved venues for unforseen reasons.

    Photo by Derek Σωκράτης Finch (CC)

  3. Well what do you know? It’s a new look for WhatDoTheyKnow

    Our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow has a fancy new frontage.

    Coming hot on the heels of TheyWorkforYou’s new homepage, the fresh look is part of our rolling process of design improvements. Out goes the rather sober grey and burgundy colour scheme, and in comes a fetching cobalt blue paired with banana yellow.

    As you might have guessed, though, there’s more to this than a new palette. Yes, in the fast-changing world of web design, fashions change and dated sites can run the risk of looking irrelevant—but we are also keen to ensure that any new design works for its keep.

    Not just a pretty face

    It’s important, when we invest time and resources into a redesign, that there are tangible improvements. So, like almost everything we do these days, the changes will be subjected to scrutiny from our Research team.

    They’ll be checking that we’ve:

    • Improved the site’s usability, making it more obvious how to browse or file FOI requests;
    • Encouraged users to take the step of making an FOI request, even if the concept is a new one for them;
    • Enabled people to understand what the FOI Act is, and what rights it confers.

    That’s a lot to expect from a simple redesign, so let’s take a look at how we hope to achieve it.

    The title

    Of course, the first thing visitors see is the title text. It may seem pretty simple, but, as anyone who writes will know, the shorter the sentence, the harder it is to get right.

    Take it from us, this deceptively simple piece of copy represents quite a bit of anguished brainstorming:

    title

    It tries to distill a complex idea into something that absolutely everyone can understand, even if they’ve never heard of FOI before. Meanwhile, the subtitle highlights your legal right to information.

    The count

    Alaveteli, the software this and many other FOI sites around the world are built on, has always included two figures on its sites’ homepages: the number of requests that have been made through the site, and how many public authorities it has contact details for. The image below displays WhatDoTheyKnow’s stats at the time of writing:

    count

    It’s a nice way of showing that the site is both useful and used, but there’s something else, too: when users see that other people have taken an action online, they’re more likely to take the plunge themselves. It’s the same thinking that informed our byline on WriteToThem: “Over 200,000 messages sent last year.”

    How it works

    The homepage now includes a simple graphic to show the path you can expect to take if you go ahead and file an FOI request on the site:

    howitworks with link

    Breaking the process down into just three steps makes it look manageable, and there’s a link deeper into our help pages for people who want to understand the FOI Act better.

    For those who prefer to browse

    Some content remains the same. We’ve still included links to the latest successful requests—albeit lower down the page, so as not to distract from the page’s main message, that you can make a request. These show, more graphically than any piece of copy could, that you can get results:

    successfulrequests

    They’re also a great way into the site for people who just want to browse: they are a random assortment of requests that have recently been marked as successful, and can often throw up some surprising and interesting subject matter.

    Sharing the benefits

    Provided that we discover that the design has been effective in the areas mentioned above, we hope to roll it out as an option on the wider Alaveteli codebase, so it can be implemented by anyone running an Alaveteli site.

    Meanwhile, the open source code can be accessed on Github by anyone who would like to use it.

  4. FixMyStreet for Councils cuts call handling times, makes savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils delivers cost savings—and that’s a fact.

    Oxfordshire County Council installed FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system in March 2013. Like every council, they were keen to see reductions in their expenditure, and were hopeful that FixMyStreet would help them in their aim to shift problem-reporting online.

    We’re delighted to hear that, two years on, those benefits are tangible. Not only can they demonstrate a cut in call handling times, but they can also put a figure on just how much they have saved.

    Tim White, Oxfordshire’s Service Improvement Lead in the Customer Service centre, says:

    FixMyStreet has reduced the average handling time of our calls from nearly four minutes to around two minutes.

    Robert Hill, Oxfordshire’s Web Services Manager, puts a figure on the savings, reckoning that the reduced time logging faults equates to £16,047.60 a year in staff costs.

    But that’s just a small proportion of the reductions they could be looking at. Oxfordshire chose not to opt for full back-end integration at the time of install, but it is something they are now considering:

    “By moving to an end to end system provided by FixMyStreet we would be able to remove additional cost by eliminating the need to inspect reports that meet certain criteria and passing them straight through for repair.”

    mySociety’s agile approach has worked well for Oxfordshire. Tim White continued:

    “Working with My Society has been a refreshing experience.

    “They are very open to making changes to the way that the product works in order to improve both the customer experience and the experience for council employees.

    “Using an agile approach to development means that we are able to get changes made quickly and incrementally, making the council more responsive to the demands of our residents.”

    If you’d like to see a drop in your own call-handling times, and the associated cost benefits, take a look at FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: David Howard (CC)

  5. Using FOI to uncover the truth about the living wage

    WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information website, through which you can send an FOI request to UK publicly-funded bodies. It is used in many different ways, by many different users.

    Here’s a recent blog post by Doug Paulley which we think is worth highlighting. It uses a series of FOI requests across every council with social services responsibilities in England, Wales and Scotland, and every health and social care trust in Northern Ireland, to get to the truth of a simple question: whether or not a particular disability organisation, Leonard Cheshire, was honest when stating that they wanted to pay their carers a living wage.

    We wanted to draw your attention to it because, as well as being a good read, it really highlights the innovative uses that can be made of the rights we enjoy under the FOI Act. It also shows that you don’t have to be a journalist to dig into a story like this. Perhaps it gives you ideas for something you’d like to investigate?

     

    Image: Alexander Ridler (CC)

  6. FixMyStreet for Councils: ticking all the boxes

    FixMyStreet for Councils is great for citizens, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s also great for councils.

    Here are six ways in which FixMyStreet for Councils can help you save money and meet internal targets.

    1. Proven cost savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils’ highly usable interface has been proven to deliver channel shift, with shorter call times and resulting cost savings on staff FTE.

    Read our recent figures from Oxfordshire County Council, or take a look at our case studies from Barnet Borough Councilpdf and the city of Zurichpdf to see just what benefits these authorities saw with their FixMyStreet for Councils installations.

    2. We take the risks

    In these times of budgetary cuts, it helps to know there won’t be any unforeseen costs in maintenance or hosting. We manage all of that, and as it’s all included as standard, that counts as real added value.

    Worried about the loss of data? No need: because FixMyStreet is all ‘in the cloud’, there’s no risk of it ever going missing.

    3. Sustainable contracts

    We know you’re looking for partners you can rely on. With twelve years in the business, we’re a solid, reliable organisation that can offer long-term contracts with no worries about sustainability.

    4. Meet your Social Values Act quota

    As a not-for-profit charity, mySociety ticks all the right boxes when it comes to your Social Values Act quota. Every penny we make goes towards our charitable projects, empowering people and giving better access to democracy.

    mySociety also employs volunteers and runs various forms of outreach in the civic technology area, aided by profits from our commercial services—your money does good.

    5. Accessible—for all your residents

    FixMyStreet has a WCAG 2.0 accessibility level AA, opening it up to the blind, partially-sighted and any other users who rely on screen readers.

    6. Open and transparent

    If your council has an overall remit towards transparency and accountability, FixMyStreet offers a great step forward. Publishing all reports online, it provides a platform for you to show exactly what’s being fixed and what the persistent issues might be in each area.

    FixMyStreet also provides a continually-updating source of data which can be invaluable in analysing common problems, report hotspots, response times and seasonal cycles.

     

    Get in touch

    if you’d like to know more about any of these points, or have further questions then please do drop us a line. We’ll be happy to talk.

  7. Heads up, nonprofits: Google Ad Grants is allowing multiple domains again

    This is a public service announcement for any organisations that have been making use of Google Ad Grants to run Adwords for free.

    We’re the grateful recipient of a Google Ad Grant ourselves, which is why you might see our ads appearing on some Google searches. We find that Google Ads are a great channel to bring our sites to the attention of people who might not already know about them, but who are searching for phrases like “Who is my MP?”, “How did my MP vote?”, or “How can I report a pothole?”. Every year they bring us thousands of new visitors.

    The single-domain rule

    A couple of years ago, the rules around Google Ad Grants changed, stipulating that recipients must only link to a single domain, and that that should be the domain of the grantee organisation. For us, with our multiple sites, that meant making some changes. Our ads currently point at a series of landing pages here on the mySociety.org site, each of which acts as a springboard to one of our other domains.

    This is permitted behaviour and in many cases it resulted in a pretty good user experience, allowing us to focus on exactly what the user was searching for, and deliver them there.

    For example, if someone searches for ‘report a pothole’ and clicks on our ad, they’ll land on this page.

    Inputting their postcode takes them directly to the second page of FixMyStreet, with no extra clicks than if they had gone through the homepage, plus there’s the opportunity for us to talk a bit about what the site does and why it exists at all.

    Linking to additional domains

    However, we recently discovered that Google Ad Grants’ rules have been relaxed a little (at least, they have here in the UK. As terms and conditions vary from territory to territory, you should check your own region’s Google Ad Grants terms and conditions). Here’s what they look like in the UK:

    In certain cases, you may be able to promote multiple domains in a Google Ad Grants account after your original Grants application has been approved.

    To request adding new domains to your account, fill out the Additional Website Domain Request form. Your request should be reviewed within 5 business days.

    Reasons you can request an exception

    You can request an exception to the website policy if you have other websites that:

    • Promote ongoing projects with similar content owned by your organization
    • Contain the same information as your main domain but for a different language
    • Replace your original website because you’ve changed your domain since applying for Ad Grants

    We applied and within just a couple of hours, we were authorised to link directly to our own websites.

    This is brilliant for us because it means we can really maximise the value we get from the grant. We can now point searchers directly to deep content such as MPs’ voting records on TheyWorkForYou, and specific public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. We’ll probably also keep our landing pages, at least for the time being, because we think they are a good user path for the relevant search terms.

    So, if this is a ruling that was causing you headaches, it is worth revisiting the terms and conditions and seeing whether you are now eligible to do the same. Let us know how you get on!

     

    Image: Martin Deutsch (cc)

  8. Join the Poplus Show & Tell

    The Poplus community is spread all over the world—but that doesn’t stop us getting together whenever we can.

    Poplus is a worldwide federation of people and organisations with an interest in civic tech. This Friday, we will be holding a virtual Show and Tell, hearing from two very different projects:

    • Andrew Mandelbaum from SimSim in Morocco will be speaking about Nouabook. This is an application which enables anyone to contact their politicians in public, through Facebook. It uses the Poplus Component WriteIt.
    • Matthew Landauer from OpenAustralia Foundation will be speaking about Cuttlefish, one of the latest pieces of software to be certified as a Poplus Component.

    As well as hearing all about these projects, there’ll be a chance to catch up and have a chat about all things Poplus/civic tech. Everyone is welcome.

    Where?

    We’ll be using an online platform called QiqoChat to host this call: sign up here.

    You can create a free account using Facebook/Google/LinkedIn/Meetup/Twitter or a regular email address. Instructions for connecting by phone or computer microphone are available when you sign in and click “Participate”.

    When?

    This Friday, 12 June. Times are as follows:


    • 5 AM – US Pacific
    • 7 AM – US Eastern
    • 8 AM – Chile/Argentina
    • 12 PM – UK
    • 7 PM – Taiwan and Malaysia
    • 9 PM – Sydney
    • 11 PM- New Zealand

    Image: David Sim (CC)

     

     

  9. Learnings from AlaveteliCon (2): the challenges are the same

    The Freedom of Information technologies conference, AlaveteliCon, provided an excellent chance to share experiences and advice.

    We heard from people who run Alaveteli sites all over the world, and we learned that many of the challenges in running FOI sites are similar, no matter where they are. That’s great, because it means that we can combine our knowledge and share our experience to overcome them.

    Alaveteli is designed to work anywhere. The ideal is of a website which shows users how to make an FOI request, and sends it off to the right recipient to get it answered, then publishes the reply, ensuring that the information becomes truly open. But in many places, local circumstances interrupt that process at various stages.

    Here are some of the sticking points that were brought up. We may not have immediate solutions for all of them, but there were plenty of ideas mooted at the conference.

    If you’d like to add some more, please do comment on the Alaveteli mailing list. It would be great to see further discussion and ideas.

    Bureaucracy

    Alaveteli, in its basic form, doesn’t cater for certain FOI processes. We heard of cases where:

    • A small fee is payable for each FOI request;
    • Making a request requires an electronic ID or digital signature, which most people don’t have and which is not trivial to apply for;
    • Responses are only provided by post, on paper, thus circumventing publication online;
    • Requests are not accepted by email (although this ruling has also been turned around successfully in at least one country—Uruguay—and indeed it is an issue that WhatDoTheyKnow faced in the UK);
    • Authorities will not reply to the email addresses that FOI sites generate, because they are not “real” (ie they are not attached to the requester’s own personal email account);
    • The requester must give their name, phone number and address. This is already a potential disincentive to making a request, but then the response often includes them and they must be manually redacted by the site administrator.

    Here are a few of the solutions which were mentioned:

    • Where digital signatures are required, site admins are sending off requests on behalf of users: it’s not ideal and it takes a lot of time, but it is doable.
    • Similarly, the (non-Alaveteli) Russian FOI site RosOtvet passes users’ requests by a panel of lawyers, who make sure they are correctly worded in order that they stand the best chance of being considered.
    • Frag Den Staat, which is a German non-Alaveteli FOI site, includes a function where users can scan and upload their responses, where they’ve been provided on paper. It also allows users to redact any parts they’d like to keep private.
    • Additionally, in response to authorities complaining that their email addresses weren’t ‘real’, Frag Den Staat set up their own email provider called Echtemail (which translates as ‘real email’) and started sending requests from there instead. It hasn’t changed things yet, but they are continuing to campaign.
    • In Australia, this same “not a real email address” policy was challenged—and overcome—by a volunteer at RightToKnow.org.au, who got a new ruling put in place.
    • In places where any type of email has been refused as a legitimate channel for an FOI request, that should be challenged. There are examples elsewhere (for example, in the UK) of requests being accepted via Twitter! Uruguay and Australia have shown that rulings can be overturned; let’s share experiences and see if we can do the same in other places.
    • Keep highlighting the barriers and absurdities as you come across them, on your blog, in press releases, in whatever interviews you can get. There may be a general, unquestioned belief that your country has a functional FOI law: if your experience says otherwise, that narrative should be challenged. If you can position yourself as an expert on the niceties of FOI, the press will keep returning to you—and the better known you become, the more weight your campaigning will carry.
    • …Other ideas? Let the  Alaveteli mailing list know.

    And some solutions we don’t recommend:

    While it might be possible to add, say, a payment facility through a bolt-on service like PayPal, it tends to be our policy not to recommend this kind of adaptation.

    Why? Because our general advice is to run the site as if we lived in an ideal world—in other words, run your Alaveteli site as though Freedom of Information were truly open to all, at no cost and with no barriers.

    It’s the same philosophy that leads us to advocate for an ‘applicant blind’ FOI system, where it doesn’t matter who’s making a request because everyone has an equal right to information under the law.

    In a more extreme example, it’s also why we advise people to set up Alaveteli sites even if there is no legal right to information in their country.

    Non-compliance

    In some places, there’s no law in place obliging authorities to respond to requests. In others, the law exists, but it’s not very well adhered to. The result is the same: requests get sent, but for some, no reply ever arrives.

    Clearly this is a fundamental problem in itself, but it also has a knock-on effect for the site as a whole: people lose faith in the system if they can see that it’s not getting results.

    This is a harder nut to crack, but here are some thoughts:

    In countries such as the UK, Croatia, and Czech Republic, there is a system in place to pre-empt non-compliance. In our view, this is the sign of an FOI law that is treated seriously by the authorities.

    In these countries, the right to Freedom of Information is backed up by an independent ombudsman. Additionally, anyone who doesn’t get a response within the statutory amount of time is entitled to seek an internal review: that process is automatically embedded in Alaveteli, with a reminder going out to the user if they haven’t received a reply in time.

    If you do not have such a system in your own country, the advice was to campaign and highlight poor practices: again, this is an area where successful campaigners should be able to share knowledge with those who need it.

    Data about the percentage of requests that are going unanswered can make a compelling story for the press, and also help with campaigning and advocacy. Highlight success stories, and show the public value of FOI.

    For a great example of this, see this report from TuDerechoASaber in Spain. Need a quick way to get at your site’s statistics? Foie-Graphs will do just that for any Alaveteli instance.

    If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.

    Slippery authorities

    Henare from OpenAustralia Foundation told the story of Detention Logs, a campaign to bring transparency and accountability to the detention of immigrants by publishing data on conditions and events inside detention centres.

    While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.

    Henare stated that one of Alaveteli’s great strengths is the fact that it publishes out requests even if they go unanswered. That means that they stand testament to the facts that authorities don’t want to release, as well as those that they do. Detention Logs will persist as an archive for the future, and maybe the situation will be turned around in more enlightened times.

    Official government sites

    We heard that in Uruguay, the government are planning to start their own online FOI website. As it happens, mySociety has also been involved with setting up an FOI site for the government in Panama. So it’s interesting to ask whether there is a place for independent Alaveteli sites to exist in tandem with the official sites.

    One thing to note is that Alaveteli was built with the user, the citizen, always in mind. Sites built on Alaveteli make it easy and safe to file an FOI request, while government sites are more likely to have government needs in mind.

    For example, we don’t yet know whether the Uruguayan government site also intends to publish requests and responses. If not, the ‘added value’ of Uruguay’s Alaveteli site would be obvious.

    But! Together we’re stronger

    Any one of these sticking points can seem like a real problem. But as well as a software platform, Alaveteli is a community, and we can work together to get results.

    If you need help or advice, you can always ask on the Alaveteli mailing list, where you will find people just waiting to share their support. There are now 20 Alaveteli installs, each representing a learning curve and a wealth of experience for their implementers. Together, we have more global knowledge on FOI than perhaps any other organisation—let’s use it!

     

     

    Image: Particlem (CC)

  10. Foie gras, Turkish baths and machine guns: the strange world of local government procurement

    Local government has a need for all kinds of services, from taxis to stationery. And to ensure that they get the best deals, they acquire them through a procurement process—one that, as suppliers of software to councils, we’ve become very familiar with ourselves.

    It’s quite simple: every category of goods or services has its own ID number. You identify the ones that are closest to what you provide—so in our case, it might be software development, software consultancy, and the provision of software packages.

    Then you sign up to receive notifications every time a council puts out a request for tenders that fall within one of those categories.

    Our newest team member, Camilla, has been spending a lot of time signing up for these notifications across all the various platforms in the UK (buy her a drink if you see her: procurement websites might just be amongst the most infuriating and clunky known to man), and as a result, she’s noticed that as well as all the categories you’d expect, there are also plenty more that you wouldn’t.

    For example, who knew that councils had such a regular need for

    15112310 Foie gras

    or indeed

    18318000 Nightwear
    98331000 Turkish bath services
    18511100 Diamonds
    14523400 Platinum
    16710000 Pedestrian-controlled agricultural tractors

    Then there’s

    35321100 Hand guns

    and as if that’s not enough…

    35321300 Machine guns

    There are plenty more categories that might make you go ‘hmm’ – take a look for yourself.

    Oh, and here’s a thought – if you’d like to ask your own local council what their expenditure is on nightwear, foie gras or machine guns, you can do so very easily at our own WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Dynamosquito (CC)