Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.
As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.
Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’
Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.
We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.
But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.
If you want to help campaign
The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.
At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.
Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.
In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:
- Request to see the tender for the provision of cladding
- How missing and unaccounted-for people have been counted
- Details of insurance on the tower
- Numbers and demographics of tenants
- Income and repairs expenditure
- Details of the 2013 emergency fire test
- Date of the last fire test
- Further details on the cladding, fire alarm and sprinklers
If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.
Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:
- Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea The council in which Grenfell Tower is situated
- London Fire Brigade The service which ran rescue and firefighting operations
- Kensington and Chelsea TMO The Tenant Management Organisation, or Arms-Length Management Organisation (ALMO) which managed the tower
- Metropolitan Police
- All ALMOs (for those who wish to ask for information about other blocks)
- All Housing Associations Note that, unless publicly owned, housing associations are not subject to FOI; however they are included on the site for the reasons you will see at the top of each housing association’s page on WhatDoTheyKnow, like this one.
Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.
Lobby for change
Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.
If you want quick answers
Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.
If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:
- Cladding on other tower blocks – reassurance needed
- Is Katherine’s Court in Spring Boroughs similar cladding to Grenfell Tower
- High Rise blocks in Wood Vale
But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.
WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.
What we will be doing
We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.
Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.
Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.
*Unless covered by an exemption.
Millions of people will have reached for their phone this morning and checked Facebook for the result of the UK General Election.
Now, you may or may not be one of those people yourself, but there’s no disputing that many of us turn to social media as our primary source for big news. Through the night, Facebook was a place where we could express feelings about the results as they came in, share news stories and ask questions: it gives us a rounded view of an event like an election, quite unlike any you’ll receive from traditional media.
And this morning, those logging in to Facebook may have seen something like this — an invitation to follow your newly-elected or re-elected MP and other elected representatives, from local councillors to MEPs:
We’re glad to say that mySociety has been working alongside Facebook to help make this happen.
Reaching people where they are
mySociety has a mission to make democracy more accessible for everyone, and via our websites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, we serve and inform more than 400,000 UK citizens per month.
That figure has, as we’d expect, spiked in the last few weeks as people rush to check their MPs’ track records, all the better to cast an informed vote; but all the same, we’re well aware that 400,000 users is only a small proportion of the country’s electorate.
What’s more, our research has consistently shown that our services don’t adequately reach the people that need them most: our typical user is male, reasonably affluent, well-educated, older and white — I mean, we’re glad to be there for everyone, but generally speaking this is a demographic that can inform itself quite readily without any extra help.
That’s not a problem Facebook has, though, with their 32 million UK users. 75% of them log in on a daily basis, and almost half are under the age of 30*.
That’s why we were so keen to join forces with the Facebook Civic Engagement team, to help this large online audience see who their representatives are today.
Facebook for engagement
You may not have been aware that Facebook has a dedicated political engagement team — unless you came to TICTeC this year, of course, in which case you’d have seen a walkthrough of the extensive research that’s gone into their election offerings globally — but if you use Facebook at all, and if you’re in a country that has recently had an election, you’ve probably seen some of their work.
Over the last few weeks in the UK, people on Facebook were alerted to each stage of the electoral process. They were invited to check who their candidates were and what they stood for; offered a reminder to vote and provided information on where and how to do so; and finally, encouraged to share the fact that they had voted, tapping into the proven peer encouragement effect.
mySociety behind the scenes
Thanks to our experience running TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, plus the support we receive from Commercial Evaluations and their Locator Online service and our involvement with Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, we have access to accurate and up-to-date data on candidates and representatives at every level, from local councillors up to MEPs, and including MPs — all linked to the relevant constituencies.
In all, this totaled around 23,000 people. What we needed to discover was how many of them were on Facebook — and could we accurately link our records to their Facebook pages?
Working together with Facebook, we built an admin tool that displayed likely pages to our team, on the basis of names, locations and the really giveaway information, such as ‘Councillor’, ‘MP’ or the constituency name in the page title. Some representatives didn’t have individual pages, but ran a party page; those counted too (and of course, a fair proportion of representatives have no Facebook presence at all).
While our tool filtered the results reasonably well, it was still necessary to make a manual check of every record to ensure that we were linking to the correct representative, and not, say, someone who happened to have the same name and live in the same town. We needed to link, of course, only to ‘official’ pages; not representatives’ personal pages full of all those things we use Facebook for on a day-to-day basis. Those holiday snaps, Candy Crush results and cat memes won’t help constituents much: what we were looking for was the kind of page where constituents could message their reps, find out about surgery times, and get the latest news from their constituency.
Now of course, until the results came in, no-one knew precisely which candidates would be MPs! So a small crack team of mySociety people worked through Thursday night to do the final matching. It was a very long night, but we hope that the result will be an awful lot more people following their representatives, and so quite effortlessly becoming more politically engaged, thanks to a platform which they already visit on a regular basis.
We are happy to confirm that FixMyStreet Professional (the service formerly known as FixMyStreet for Councils) has been accepted onto the GCloud9 procurement framework.
Why is this important?
Using GCloud9, which is overseen by the Crown Commercial Service, removes much of the admin burden from public sector teams who are seeking to procure cloud based software and makes it easier to get down to the question of who has the best product for their needs.
What is FixMyStreet Pro?
FixMyStreet Pro represents the outcome of our co-design project with Oxfordshire County Council to take our popular FixMyStreet platform and build in a new set of features that genuinely made it as useful as possible for their staff (and Council staff all over the UK).
With a focus on retaining the user focused design and approach FixMyStreet was known for we have added or improved functionality for Council customer service staff and introduced a whole new set of tools to support Council inspectors including the ability to manage their tasks from within the app and to work offline when out and about.
This project has also made some improvements to the wider user experience for citizens with new front-end features being added all the time based on user research and feedback.
Want to learn more?
You can find out more about the service over on the GCloud Digital Marketplace or check out our own product pages where you can also get in touch with us if you would like to see a demonstration of the service or learn more about how we might be able to help.
Last you heard from from the EveryPolitician team we were talking about integrating EveryPolitician more deeply with Wikidata.
Here’s a quick update on what to expect in the coming months and a note on how you can get involved – we are going to need a lot of help!
Before we can make headway on a deeper integration, there are some pretty foundational pieces of the puzzle we need to put in place.
Some key data is missing, and you may be surprised to discover that it is pretty basic stuff. Take a look at this for example:
This is from a report we have generated to highlight gaps in the links between items. Notice how not even all of the offices have been filled in on the country page, let alone who occupies those offices?
This is the type of foundational data we are hoping to get in place over the next little while, and you can help…
How you can get involved
Over the coming weeks we’re going to be conducting a few experiments in public and trying to get data into Wikidata. We’ll need as much help as we can get!
The experiments will focus on using Wikidata to attempt to answer some questions we find interesting and see how we can expose gaps and inconsistencies in the data. In doing this, we’ll be pointing to specific reports we have generated and asking you to help us fill in the gaps.
Our first question will be:
“What is the gender breakdown of heads of government across the world?”
We’ll be blogging about the investigation over on Medium. The first post is already there:
Keen to dive straight in? Help us fill in the blanks you see in this report! If you are familiar with Wikidata, you will probably be able to get started straight away, but there are also tips and pointers in the Medium post if you want a bit more guidance.
You can get notified of the challenges to complete the data as soon as they are published by following the EveryPolitician bot on Twitter.
Want even more details on our plans?
We should also mention that we’ve updated our proposal to the Wikimedia Foundation to make a couple of things clearer about the problem we are trying to solve and our proposed solution (the proposal is still being reviewed). If you are interested in the nitty-gritty, that’s the best place to get the full overview of what we are planning.
If you’ve been watching the progress of our Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists, campaigners and activists, you might be interested to know that we are now accepting applications for pre-launch access.
Successful applicants will have an early opportunity to put the service through its paces. WhatDoTheyKnowPro will launch as a paid-for service, but as a beta tester you’ll have up to a year’s access for free, because we’re keen to see how you’ll use it — and to hear your feedback on which features are useful.
WhatDoTheyKnowPro is our first launch of Alaveteli Professional, accessed via the WhatDoTheyKnow website and specifically for UK users who utilise FOI in their work or campaigning.
It’s the first instance of the service we plan to make available to other Freedom of Information sites running around the world on our Alaveteli platform.
What you’ll get
Since we last caught up with Alaveteli Professional, we’ve made really concrete progress with several of the features that, at the time of that blog post, were just entries on our long to-do list.
Here’s what users will access:
- The ability to keep requests private until your story has been published
- A powerful private dashboard that helps you track and manage your FOI projects
- A super-smart to-do list that makes it easier to follow the progress of your requests
- Action alerts that nudge you when it’s time to take the next step in a request
And very soon, we’ll also be carefully rolling out the batch request features, which will allow you to:
- Make one request to multiple authorities
- Manage large volumes of responses and easily keep track of the status of each request
- Get regular updates as the responses come in, without overwhelming your inbox
We’re excited about the batch feature in particular, and we know that many of our prospective users are, too. At the same time, we’ve heard some concerns that it might encourage a scattergun approach that wastes authorities’ time.
Our planned development will ensure that people use this feature responsibly, and, consequently, get the best returns from it. This will include a prompt to send a smaller batch initially, so that the remainder of the requests can be refined based on the quality of information that is returned — there’s nothing worse that asking every council in the country for information and then realising that you’ve worded your question in a way that means you can’t use the resulting data!
At the moment, batch requests can’t be made on WhatDoTheyKnow without help from the site administrators. We’re aware that many journalists and activists already make many batch requests outside WhatDoTheyKnow for this very reason. We’d like more of these requests to be released in public (we estimate that around 15% of UK FOI requests are made via our site): so by including this capability in WhatDoTheyKnowPro, we hope we’ll not only be steering people to use those powers sensibly, but that much more information will also end up in the public domain — maximising its usefulness.
Apply for free access
If that all sounds exciting, then apply here. We’d love to hear how you plan to use WhatDoTheyKnowPro.
In the past week more than 300 Freedom of Information requests made via WhatDoTheyKnow.com resulted in information being released. Volunteer Molly Williams has pulled out a few highlights:
Flight paths over London
One user of our service noticed an increased number of flights within the vicinity of South Norwood and asked the Civil Aviation Authority for a map of the flight paths over London and for information on recent changes.
The requested maps were provided and the request-maker was advised to contact Heathrow and London City Airports to seek more information about any changes to their operations.
Overdue library fines
After being chased by the Information Commissioner, the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts revealed it took in £2,169.20 from payment of fines for overdue library books in 2015/16; the money is set to be re-invested into learning resources.
The requestor has made a similar request to many universities.
In Barnsley, 69 dogs were put down between April 2016 and April 2017, with two enforcement notices issued regarding dogs without microchips.
James Jones, who made this request, has asked for similar information from a number of other councils in the area.
Number of homeless youth under 25 in Sheffield
Statistics on the number of people aged 16-25 found to be homeless by Sheffield City Council have been released. The council didn’t directly answer a request for the average waiting time for homeless youth to be housed but stated: “Our target is to rehouse any person to whom we have a full duty towards within 12 weeks, and this is rarely exceeded.”Age
2015 2016 2017 16 2 0 0 17 4 1 0 18 12 10 0 19 10 8 3 20 26 18 3 21 22 11 3 22 20 16 0 23 19 17 6 24 16 19 8 25 13 18 9 Totals 144 118 32 Overall : 294
Spending on agency teachers
Spending on agency workers in every Nottinghamshire Primary School in 2016/17, and the number of pupils at each school was revealed, and showed Chilwell School, with 759 pupils, spent the most on agency supply staff at £229,074.49.
Is a high level of spending on agency supply staff something to be concerned about? We at WhatDoTheyKnow don’t have the information and background knowledge to put these figures into context but they, and the fact they’re accessible under FOI, might be of interest to school governors, parents, councillors, supply staff and agencies.
North Wales Police have two drones ready to be deployed for incidents such as searching for missing people, demonstrations, surveying crime scenes, festivals and sports events, image capture, armed support, and policing collision scenes.
The force’s response reveals their drones have not yet been used operationally.
Find out if your police force is using drones, and perhaps whether doing so has reduced their spending on helicopters, by looking to see if the information is already on WhatDoTheyKnow — and if not, request it yourself.
Moreton railway crossings
On multiple occasions when I visited Moreton level crossing in Dorset I noticed that the time taken from the barriers closing to the train passing is considerably less than other level crossings on the same line; what is the reasoning for such a short time?
Their response was:
In short the time difference between Moreton and other crossings is down to the fact that they are different types of crossing.
The crossing at Moreton is what is termed an ‘automatic half barrier crossing’. Such crossings operate much more quickly than full barrier crossings since they rely on the train hitting a treadle (a device that detects that a train axle has passed a particular location) on the approach to the crossing to start the barriers’ descent. Since these are half rather than full barriers anyone or anything on the crossing at the time the barriers come down can still exit the crossing. Full barrier crossings do not work on the same automated system but instead require a signaller to monitor the crossing (either on site or via CCTV at a signal box). It should be noted that the risk associated with half barrier crossings is much greater than that associated with full barrier crossings and, in consequence, their use is limited to only quieter roads.
Injuries to people at time of arrest
Staffordshire Police released information by request showing that 26 allegations were made by people who stated they had been injured while in police custody or at the time of arrest. Of those incidents, two resulted in fractured limbs.
Number of delayed FOI requests
And finally, another FOI request via WhatDoTheyKnow revealed how many FOI responses to Somerset County Council had been delayed in the past three years.
‘We do not record the number of requests that have been delayed, but instead record the number of requests that have not been sent out within the 20 working day deadline.’
Period Number of requests received Number of requests on time Percentage of requests on time Number of requests not sent out within 20 working day deadline 01/04/2014 to 31/03/2015 1307 756 57.84% 551 01/04/2015 to 31/03/2016 1192 692 58.05% 500 01/04/2016 up to 31/03/2017 1219 772 63.33% 447
The law requires Freedom of Information requests to be responded to promptly. If you’re not happy with the responsiveness of your local public bodies you could write to your elected representatives; mySociety’s service WriteToThem.com can help you.
We hope this post gives you a taste of the kind of information which can be obtained under Freedom of Information law. If you would like information like this from your own local public bodies then first check WhatDoTheyKnow and if it has not already been requested you can make a request yourself.
We’re keen to make a round-up of interesting releases like this a regular feature. If you’ve spotted information released via WhatDoTheyKnow which you think we should note in our next post then do let us know either on Twitter where we’re @WhatDoTheyKnow or via our contact form.
This week, we heard from a user whose MP’s agent had threatened to take him to court if he shared an image, showing TheyWorkForYou data, on social media. Here’s what we think of that.
Available to all
Prior to an election, you’ll see all sorts of messaging trying to turn you towards, or against, specific candidates — some from political parties, some from independent campaigning groups, and some just from individuals who feel strongly.
At mySociety, we’re non-partisan: we strive for neutrality in our websites and services, and they are available to everyone, no matter which part of the political spectrum you are on. We won’t tell you how to vote; we will, however, present the facts and give you the tools that allow you to make up your own mind.
When we looked into the image our user had wanted to share, we found that there are many similar images, generated from a single source, using TheyWorkForYou voting data to highlight the voting records of Conservative MPs in marginal seats. Here’s what they look like:
And for political balance, here’s an image with a similar intent, highlighting a Labour MP’s voting record (but not from this election, sorry: we have been unable to find anything more up to date, but feel free to send us any you’ve seen and we’ll add them to this post):
We have no problem with our data being shared in this way, so long as the wording is unchanged, and the source is credited (as clearly it hasn’t been in our latter example). Adding the source benefits everyone, because while top-line statements like these are, of necessity, brief in a shareable image, they are backed up on TheyWorkForYou with links to the actual votes that substantiate them.
As we say, this data is available to anyone, and TheyWorkForYou covers every MP, so there’s no unfair political advantage being gained here. The votes are statements of fact; and indeed there may well be people looking at a list like that and finding that, actually, they quite agree with everything on the list, in which case the image would be having the opposite effect from that intended.
If you read our blog post from yesterday, you’ll know that we’ve recently introduced Facebook and Twitter share buttons to make it super-easy to share any MP’s votes. So, in short: share our stuff. That’s part of what it’s for.
And yet, the user we mentioned had been told by someone working on behalf of the MP’s campaign that he would be ‘taken to court’ if he shared such an image, as it was ‘based on unreliable data’.
All of our voting analyses are based on the official data put out by Parliament, and we do our utmost to ensure that they are fair: while much of TheyWorkForYou’s content is published out via automated processes, we recognise that voting data is too subtle and sensitive to manage in any way other than manually. That’s why all our voting information is painstakingly compiled by hand, in a process we’ve described previously in this post.
MPs do occasionally contact us to question the wording of certain voting topics, and we are always happy to explain how we arrived at them, and improve them if we agree that the votes have been misrepresented.
We would be quite happy to hear directly from the MP in question and to discuss any information which they perceive as inaccurate: we note that their voting page has been in place on TheyWorkForYou since August 2015 (it has been viewed by over 5,500 people, 67 of them from within the Houses of Parliament) and in that time we have not been contacted with any query.
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In order to make debates and votes a bit easier to find, understand and share, we’ve recently introduced some new features on TheyWorkForYou.
What am I looking for?
Our users frequently write to us to say that they can’t find a specific vote on TheyWorkForYou — and that’s often because descriptions of votes in the media, or in conversation, don’t reflect the way they are referred to in Parliament.
The official record, for example, will not bring you a vote titled ‘Snooper’s Charter’, ‘Bedroom Tax’ or ‘Brexit’: you’ll have to know enough to search for the ‘Investigatory Powers Bill’, ‘Social Tenants Deemed to Have Excess Bedrooms’, or ‘Exiting the European Union’.
So we’ve put in place a few different ways to find the content that matters to you.
99% of the time when people ask us where to find a particular vote, it’s something that happened in the last few days, or at most, weeks.
So now, you’ll see a new ‘Recent Votes‘ tab in the main TheyWorkForYou menu, which leads to a page listing the last 30 votes:
If you’ve entered your postcode on the homepage (or your browser cookies remember you from previous visits), you’ll also see your own MP’s stance under each vote, like this:
There’s one important point about this page: it only contains those votes for which we currently have policy lines — that is to say, the votes we include on MPs’ pages. That’s because they are the ones for which we already have a plain English description. Fortunately, these are almost always the ones that people are most interested in.
If you want to find a vote that isn’t on this page, you can always look on Public Whip, which is where the raw voting data that feeds TheyWorkForYou comes from.
If you click through from any of those listings, you’ll get a page dedicated to that particular vote.
Here you’ll see something that we know is important to many of our users, set out nice and clearly: the ‘division’, ie which MPs voted for and against, who was absent and who abstained.
Again, if you’ve entered your postcode on the site, you’ll also see how your own MP voted, in the top section of the page:
But even better, if what you’re most interested in is your own MP’s position in a specific vote, you’ll get this version of the page when you click through from their voting record — as clear as we can make it:
So that’s all fine and dandy for people who think in terms of MPs and votes. But for a long time, we’ve wanted to explore ways to make parliamentary content more welcoming for complete political newbies.
We’ve been meeting with groups of young people around the UK to find out more about how they access politics, and one finding is that they think in terms of issues. Politics comes through the lens of topics like ‘the NHS’, ‘the environment’ or ‘Brexit’.
For that reason, we’ve created topic pages like this one, which gather together a lot of relevant and immediate content, showing how your MP voted, how all relevant votes went, debates and a chance to sign up for email alerts:
We’ll be adding more of these as time goes on.
Easier to share
The final feature we’ve introduced was a direct result of observing the way that you, our users, share our content on Facebook and Twitter.
We started collecting examples of where people had made a screenshot of voter records in order to make a political point, and we soon saw that this was a very common thing to do, especially at key points like the current run-up to the General Election, or a party leadership campaign.
To save you the bother of making and saving a screenshot, we’ve now added these share buttons at the foot of each section of votes on MPs’ pages:
That’s it for now, but this is all part of a rolling program of improvements, so do feel free to feed back with any related features you’d like to see.
Today, mySociety, in partnership with Microsoft, launch Civic Tech Cities, a new piece of research looking at the technologies local governments implement to serve and communicate with their citizens. You can download it here.
Civic Tech: whose job is it?
Debating and making decisions on behalf of the people; managing services, disseminating information — all of these have been the agreed tasks of local government for a very long time. But has citizen-facing technology now also become a core function of government? And if so, how are they doing?
We often say that mySociety was originally set up to show governments how they could be using digital better, and that one day we hope to have done ourselves out of a job.
But perhaps it’s wrong to foresee a time when we’ll be able to pack up and go home. Perhaps those within government will never be able to escape internal bureaucracies and budget constraints to provide the software that their citizens will really benefit from; perhaps the provocative NGO, one step ahead with citizen-to-government technologies, will always be a necessary agent.
We won’t know for sure until we start researching beyond our own sphere.
A vital new area for research
When we set up the mySociety research programme, as you’d expect, our first priority was to look at the impact of the services we, and other organisations like us, were providing.
Around the same time, the term ‘Civic Tech’ was gaining traction, and it carried with it an implicit reference to applications made outside government, by organisations like us, cheekily providing the tools the citizens wanted rather than those the government decided they needed.
If our aim was to wake governments up to the possibilities of digital, to some extent it has been successful. Governments around the world, at all levels, have seen the financial and societal benefits, and are producing, buying in, and commissioning civic software for their own online offerings.
It is, then, high time that the sphere of government-implemented civic technologies were more closely examined: how effective are they? Who is using them? What changes are they wreaking on the relationship between citizen and government? How, indeed, are governments themselves changing as a result of this new direction?
Civic Tech Cities
Thanks to generous funding from Microsoft, we were able to conduct research that seeks to answer these questions, in the context of municipal-level council digital offerings in five US cities.
Emily Shaw, in collaboration with mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul, examined standalone projects in Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Washington DC and Seattle, to produce case studies that cast a light on the state of institutional civic tech in the current age.
The technologies chosen for scrutiny were diverse in some ways, but the challenges they faced were often alike: and we can all, whether inside or outside government, recognise common pitfalls such as failing to budget for ongoing maintenance of a service that was expected to roll happily along, untended, for the foreseeable future; or building a world-changing digital service that fails to gain traction because its potential users never get to hear about it.
It’s our hope that local governments everywhere will benefit from this in-depth look at the tools US municipal governments have put in place, from LargeLots in Chicago which sold disused land in disadvantaged neighbourhoods for a nominal $1 fee, to RecordTrac in Oakland, a request and response tool for those seeking information under California’s Public Record Act.
Better tools make better policy
Interestingly, one of the key findings of this report is that developing digital tools alongside policy, rather than bolting these tools on afterwards, results not only in better tools, but better policy too.
The user-centred design principles that have been central to the Civic Tech movement had a knock-on effect beyond the software development departments of municipal government. They began to shape the ways in which policy itself was developed, resulting in services that were more accessible and appropriate to the communities they serve.
Finally, it’s not just governments who will learn from this examination of best practices, potential problems and unexpected bonuses; we, and other NGOs like us, can gain crucial insights from the sector which, after all, is pursuing the same aim that we are.
You can read the research paper here. Many thanks to Microsoft for making it possible, and to Emily Shaw for putting in the time and effort to make it a reality.
Image: Jindong H
OpenStreetMap is a project that creates and maintains maps all over the world, putting them out as open data that anyone can use.
While many additions are made by on-the-ground volunteer contributors, the input of other data sources allows OpenStreetMap to make leaps and bounds in its coverage, as you might imagine. But using such data is only possible if it can be reused within the terms of OSM’s share-alike open data licence, the ODbL.
And that’s where we pick up the story of Robert Whittaker, who used WhatDoTheyKnow in the hope of augmenting the OpenStreetMap offerings for Cambridgeshire, UK.
Rights of way
Robert saw a chance to add better data on public footpaths, bridleways, and byways in the county to OpenStreetMap. He explains the background:
“Councils have a legal duty to maintain an official list and physical map of rights of way, but most councils — including Cambridgeshire — also maintain an unofficial digital map as well. It was the underlying data behind the digital map that I was after.”
Not just for OpenStreetMap, though — the project’s reuse policy means that once they’ve put the data in place, it’s available for others, too.
“Having this data — and the right to re-use it — will allow people to create their own maps of the Rights of Way and mix the data with information from other sources. This would then allow, for example, routing software to plan walks using Public Rights of Way and other roads.
“Cambridgeshire was one of the few councils, until recently, that was not making the data freely available.”
The right to ask
So, how do you go about obtaining something like this? If you’re familiar with Freedom of Information or its close neighbour EIR (Environmental Information Regulations), they provide an obvious route, as these pieces of legislation provide us all with the right to request data from public authorities. Robert was very familiar:
“I’ve made quite a few FOI and EIR requests over the years, mostly through the excellent WhatDoTheyKnow.com. A lot have been for data that will be useful to OpenStreetMap mappers, but I’ve also made requests to gain information about the workings of public authorities, either to inform campaigns, increase transparency, or expose poor decision-making.
“I think the first FOI request I sent personally was in 2006 to my university to ask for the specification and testing details for an out-sourced student-facing web-app that had a particularly poor user interface. It was to inform a campaign by the Student Union to get improvements made.”
With this experience in his background, EIR and FOI were the natural routes for Robert in obtaining this data. He made three requests: first, asking for the GIS data, then, to request permission for its reuse; and finally for the related written descriptions.
The right to refuse
Unfortunately, the requests did not go as smoothly as he might have hoped. That first request was back in August 2014, and if you read through the stream of responses and annotations, you’ll see that Robert experienced almost the full set of obstacles that can get in the way of an FOI response — from the council simply not responding in time, to their responding with only parts of the data he had asked for, and citing rules which didn’t apply to the situation in hand.
It’s a good thing that Robert is both well-informed and tenacious, as surely these hurdles would have proved discouraging, if not completely off-putting, to many requesters.
Much of his argument pivoted around a specific exemption — a clause which allows an authority not to provide data under certain circumstances, in this case, the enticingly named EIR 6(1)(b).
“EIR 6(1)(b) allows public bodies to refuse to provide information in a specific form or format, if it’s already publicly available and easily accessible in another form.
“The council argued that because they had an online map available on their website, the information about the rights of way was already available and so 6(1)(b) meant they could refuse to release the underlying data.
“I successfully argued that the map was only a summary or approximation of the underlying data I’d requested. That data contained the actual coordinates of the points and the lines joining them to make up the routes. I think one of the key arguments was that given the data you could generate the map, but given the map you could not recreate the full underlying dataset, you could only obtain an approximation to it.”
The (almost) right outcome
Robert was ultimately successful in his first two requests, two and a half years after making that initial request. The third is still being contested.
“It’s been frustrating, but eventually worthwhile. I’m annoyed at how long it has taken to get to the end, and also annoyed at the public money that the Council has wasted in prevaricating and trying to withhold the information.
“I think the ICO probably needs more resources to be be able to investigate cases more promptly. I also think it should take a stricter line with public authorities that frustrate requesters or the ICO’s investigations. The ICO already has some additional powers that would help here, but they seem reluctant to use them, even though doing so could speed things up significantly.”
But even while we await the outcome of the final request, Robert’s patience has already begun to pay off:
“I’ve already loaded the data into my comparison tool to help mappers improve OSM. Also, thanks to Barry Cornelius, the Cambridgeshire data is now available from his site in a number of different standard formats, for anyone else who wants to use or view it.”
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