1. Talking about the mySociety design process

    Last month, I gave a talk at DotYork—a digital conference in the North of England—about the way mySociety designs and builds websites for different countries and cultures all around the world.

    If you’re into web technologies, or user research, or just generally the sort of work mySociety does, then it’s a fun 15 minute watch!

    You can download the slides from my talk here, or watch videos of all the other DotYork 2017 talks here.

    At the end of the Q&A session, I said I should write a blog post with links to some of the stuff I couldn’t fit into my talk. So here is that blog post!

    Header photo © Hewitt & Walker

  2. Introducing OPRAmachine: tackling political corruption in New Jersey

    The latest installation of our Alaveteli software, OPRAmachine, is an interesting new use of the platform. Rather than covering a whole country, as most of the other Alaveteli installations around the world do, it services just a single US state.

    OPRAmachine, which launched in October, allows citizens to request information from state and local governmental agencies in New Jersey, under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).

    We asked Gavin Rozzi, the local journalist who has built and runs OPRAmachine, about the site and its impacts so far:

    Why did you decide to set up OPRAmachine?

    I developed an interest in New Jersey’s Freedom of Information law in the course of my work as an independent journalist. I created OPRAmachine because there is a void in our state for a statewide Freedom of Information portal.

    Historically, New Jersey has gained a reputation as a state with excessive spending on state and local government, along with an enduring “culture” of political corruption, as defined by The New York Times.

    I have found that in all too many cases, a lack of transparency and compliance with OPRA disclosure requirements has gone hand in hand with instances of government mismanagement and corruption at the state and local level, some of which have been publicised over the years.

    While working in my capacity as an independent journalist, I began making extensive use of the OPRA law in order to study the activities of local governments in New Jersey. I became very familiar with the process and the how the law is effective at bringing about vitally needed transparency through the right it gives citizens to obtain public records.

    (more…)

  3. WhatDoTheyKnowPro has launched… quietly.

    If you happen to have visited the WhatDoTheyKnowPro page recently, you might have noticed that we’ve changed from offering free beta testers’ accounts to rolling out the payment interface.

    Yes, we’ve launched! But not with a bang: having quietly introduced the payment option, we wanted to wait for a while and check that there were no issues before making a public announcement. Consider this that public announcement.

    Just a reminder at this stage, in case you haven’t followed along with previous blog posts: WhatDoTheyKnowPro is a Freedom of Information toolkit which provides extra help with sending and organising requests. It’s designed to provide extra functionality for journalists and other people who use FOI in their jobs; if you’re a standard user of WhatDoTheyKnow, there’s nothing to  pay and there never will be. We’ll always keep the site, and all its current functionality, free for everyone.

    The question of price

    Launching WhatDoTheyKnowPro provoked an interesting debate on where to position it, pricewise.

    It’s not that we’ve never put a price on any of our services before: mySociety is a social enterprise, and we charge for some use of our APIs; our council clients pay us for FixMyStreet Pro; you can buy transit-time maps on Mapumental. These sources of income are just part of what help us to provide our core citizen-facing services for free.

    And we’re hardly trailblazers in that respect: in fact, it was fascinating to read the Knight Foundation’s recent report Scaling Civic Tech and see how common it is in our sector to rely on a variety of revenue streams, from user donations to philanthropic grants, to paid-for services.

    But while we may have experience in charging for our services, it’s definitely the first time we’ve had to price up a Freedom of Information toolkit for journalists and professionals!

    What’s it worth?

    We were effectively in the position of many an enterprise startup: with a market proposition that doesn’t exist in this exact form anywhere else. How do you know how to price something in those circumstances? Set it too low and you could miss out on important revenue; too high and you’ll alienate potential customers, many of whom are freelance journalists paying for their work tools out of their own pockets.

    Still, this project has been a process of tackling problems and questions thoughtfully — from deciding which features to include in this initial version, to debating how to encourage journalists to link back to the news stories they’ve created once they’re live. Perhaps we could bring the same approach to pricing.

    Ask the experts

    Fortunately, with over 100 beta testers, we had a pool of users who knew the service well enough to be able to give an expert opinion on how much value it was bringing them. Sending out a survey brought some very useful responses, not to mention feedback about what our beta users liked and what they’d appreciate in future roll-outs.

    WDTKPro survey

    That said, we’re well aware of research indicating that people are not always experts on what they are actually willing to pay.

    And of course, it makes sense that different people will attach different values to a service, depending not only on their own finances but, in this case all sorts of other factors such as how frequently they use FOI and how accustomed they are to paying for technology.

    Faced with responses to the survey that ranged between a suggested price of £1.00 a month to £50.00, that was, in some strange sense, reassuring to know.

    To be fair, those were the extremes. There was a good consensus in the middle and that helped us decide on an introductory price of £10 a month.  We’ll assess this after a few months to see whether it’s bringing the number of sign-ups we expect.

    Open for business

    If you’re a journalist or someone who uses FOI in your work, you can now go and give WhatDoTheyKnowPro a go! We hope you’ll let us know how you find it.


    Image: Sven Scheuermeier (Unsplash)

  4. Peak performance

    At mySociety we believe in an open, inclusive web and such we try to build web apps that are accessible in the broadest sense. So while we do care deeply about things like WAI and the Equality Act this post isn’t about that — this is about making a site that works if you have a weak connection or an ageing device. I’m talking about performance.

    Graph showing total transfer data for mobile webpages in last year.Now while it isn’t a great metric to track, the fact that the average size of a web page is now over three megabytes (and pages served for mobile devices reaching an average of 2.9mb!) demonstrates that this is an age of bloat that assumes good broadband or 4G connectivity and we don’t think that’s right.

    As an example here are some numbers about the FixMyStreet site as it displays on mobile after some recent improvements.

    To load a working and styled front page on your phone takes around 9KB of HTML/inlined CSS/inlined images (that isn’t a typo – nine kilobytes). How do we pull that off? Well, the site logo and menu are both inlined so we don’t have to wait for them to load, as is the CSS needed to show the top part of the front page. 5KB of JavaScript is loaded (which amongst other things enables the geolocation) and in the background an additional massive 14 kilobytes of CSS (the main mobile stylesheet) and the remaining 20 kilobytes of images (the example report photos and footer links) are being pulled in. The page also uses prefetch to start fetching the remaining JavaScript while the user is entering a postcode or address to actually get started on FMS.

    On a desktop there’s a little bit more to add to the mix (more like 66KB of images, 19KB of CSS, plus a webfont taking 77KB) but it’s still lightning quick.

    The team haven’t reinvented the wheel to achieve this – they’ve just been ruthless and absolutely focused on only using the minimum amount of code to meet the user need. When the FixMyStreet site is deployed, the JavaScript and CSS is automatically minimised, and at that point we run penthouse to work out the critical CSS to be inlined on the front page. And whilst our main JavaScript does use jQuery, we dropped it from the front page to save yet more up-front time (jQuery is far larger alone than our current front page).

    If you are interested in more details of how this was achieved, here’s a post Matthew prepared earlier on many of the same techniques, which he used on his own project traintimes.org.uk.

    There are of course still improvements to be made – I imagine many front page viewers of FixMyStreet never need or want to scroll down as far as the images in the footer, so ideally we wouldn’t load them unless they do. Due to Windows Lumia users, which we support for a specific client use case, we’re using Appcache for offline support, but adding some form of more modern service worker would also be nice. And most of this work is for the front page (though it helped other pages too); our main JavaScript could be split up more than it is. It’s a continual process, but here is a good place to pause.

    Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

  5. Three new jobs with mySociety’s Democratic Commons project

    Yesterday Matt explained what we hope to achieve with the Democratic Commons, our drive for shared, high-quality political Open Data.

    If you read that and thought, ‘Blimey, that sounds like a lot of work’ — well, we thought so too. Hence, three new job openings.

    As so often at mySociety, the skills we’re looking for aren’t exactly mainstream: on the other hand, if you do have a particular interest in the field, the chances are you’ll be a very good match.

    So if you’re a bit of a geek about political boundary data
    Or if you have big ideas about how to build and maintain a large-scale distributed architecture for sourcing and updating basic political information
    Or if writing queries to extract data from Wikidata sounds like something you might do just for kicks … well, then the chances are that you’d fit in very well.

    Find out more about all the vacancies here and please do pass them along to anyone who might fit the bill.

    And because we know that it can be hard to make a big decision, especially before you know exactly what a workplace is like, we’ve done two things: we’ve expanded our Careers page to include more of a description of our so-called ‘company culture’, and we’ve opened up a blog post where you can ask us anything about working here.


    Image: Skyler Shepard (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  6. Democratic Commons: Open Data infrastructure for democracy

    Back in September mySociety’s Chief Executive Mark introduced the idea of the ‘Democratic Commons’: a grand vision where political data is open to all, for the benefit of all. Since then we’ve been quietly working away on making the concept a reality, with some activity more clearly feeding into it, like our current series of events for GLOW, and some requiring a bit of explanation, like our relationship with Facebook — but what we haven’t really done to date is expand on what the Democratic Commons means and why we believe it is so important.

    So let’s take a go at a clear definition.

    The Open Data Institute have been promoting the idea of data infrastructure for some time now:

    A data infrastructure consists of data assets, the organisations that operate and maintain them and guides describing how to use and manage the data.

    It underpins transparency, accountability, public services, business innovation and civil society.

    Our vision for the Democratic Commons begins with this concept and advocates for a particular strand within it. It promotes the building of an open, sustainable data infrastructure for political data on a global scale. So nothing too grand then!

    In essence this is an evolution of our EveryPolitician project — it takes the lessons we learned there and uses them to underpin a new approach. But it is also the culmination of many years of running and developing projects all over the world and facing the same challenges with the data needed to get started time and again: lists of politicians not up to date, or in an unusable format; ‘unique’ IDs being less than unique; administrative boundaries not being available, available under restrictive license or in some entirely unhelpful format.

    The effort and cost of just getting this initial data in place — before you can even start the real work of empowering citizens or holding power to account — is often so high that it stymies teams from the off.  We want to change this. We want organisations who are interested in running transparency or accountability projects in their countries to be able to find all this infrastructure in place and get to building straight away.

    Beyond this core goal we also want to provide richer open data because the better the data the better the questions that can be asked of it and if, as Giuseppe Sollazzo says, data journalism is the future of Open Data, then we need to make sure that we can provide those journalists the answers they need (and maybe help tackle #fakenews a bit in the doing so!).

    In no way do we see ourselves as the gatekeepers for this data and instead we are seeking to be true to the concept of ‘commons’ from the start — working with the global communities and platforms that already exist in support of Open Data and content.

    We’ve already started to work with the Wikimedia Foundation through our project with Wikidata and see this as a cornerstone of any approach to the Democratic Commons. Of course we also want to speak to members of the OpenStreetMap community about their experiences with administrative boundaries and we’ll be reaching out to them soon.

    In the coming weeks we are going to be recruiting for some additional colleagues to help us with all of this so if political and or geographical data is your thing please keep an eye out.

    Even with some additions to the team there’s no way we can achieve this alone — we’ve already collaborated with partner organisations like Code4Japan and Open Knowledge Foundation Deutschland  — and there will be many more partnerships to come. You can expect to read much more about that in future months.

     

    Photo by Matt Seymour on Unsplash

  7. Join us for a FixMyStreet Pro Webinar

    After several months of consultation with councils, feature development and testing, a new improved version of FixMyStreet for Councils was born. Now renamed FixMyStreet Pro, the service’s enhanced backend features — designed with and for council staff — and seamless integration with existing systems represent a genuine leap forward in street reporting software. Now we’re ready to share everything it can do for you.

    From this Friday we will be hosting fortnightly webinars to demo our FixMyStreet Pro service. If you work in street or environment services within a Local Authority or City Government we’d love you to join us.

    The sessions take around 45 minutes with plenty of time for questions and discussion – you can sign up for the next one on the FixMyStreet Pro site or use the Eventbrite form at bottom of this post.

     

    What we’ll cover

    We’ll show you how you can use FixMyStreet Pro as a single end-to-end case management service for citizens, council staff and contractors alike.

    We will take you through all of the major features, and explain how FixMyStreet Pro can help you provide a better reporting service to your citizens for street and environment issues, whilst reducing the burden on your customer service teams – avoiding any rekeying and connecting directly into your current management services.

    You’ll learn how to setup and customise FixMyStreet Pro to support your existing workflow, how to manage, moderate and respond quickly and easily to reports. We’ll also take you through the more advanced features for making use of asset layers and inspector tools.

    If you can’t wait until Friday, you can try a demo version of the service for yourself at demo.fixmystreet.com – just click on ‘Sign in’ and you can try the service in a variety of roles such as a customer service rep, a highways inspector, or a site administrator.

    If you can’t join us on a Friday please get in touch with me directly and we can arrange a one-on-one demo for you and your team.

     

    Sign up for the next FixMyStreet Pro webinar

  8. Protecting Assets of Community Value

    A couple of years ago we started discussing a collaboration with the Plunkett Foundation to create a searchable and maintainable public register of Assets of Community Value in England.

    After a few delays I’m glad to say that this project, thanks to the generous support of Power To Change, is now taking place and we’re already well under way with initial prototyping and development work.

    Now, what’s an Asset of Community Value I hear you ask? According to Locality, who are pretty good source of information on these sort of things, Assets of Community Value (ACVs) are places and spaces in your community that are important to local people and if they come up for sale, the community has the opportunity to bid for them.

    ACVs can be anything from your local pub, to a sports pitch or community hall, churches or even the local cinema. Whatever is of most importance to you and your community; and especially what you might want to protect should it change hands or come up for sale.

    The Localism Act 2011 requires district and unitary councils to publish a list of nominated, approved and rejected community assets, which can be viewed by the public.

    The vast majority of councils publish this information online, but formats and levels of information vary widely, from very basic information to more comprehensive details and support. As a result knowledge and awareness of the community right to bid is very low and take up is equally patchy, so with this project we’d like to help change that.

    Building off the back of our FixMyStreet Platform we’re creating a single register that will gather together all of the currently listed ACVs — including those that were rejected or are currently going through the process of nomination. Just as FixMyStreet publishes its reports, these assets will be displayed on the map for anyone to view, share and discuss.

    With the help of the DCLG we’ll work with local councils and provide them with support to list and manage ACVs in their area, as well as embed their own listings on their website. The service will provide help and guidance for organisations that are eligible to nominate an asset for consideration and we’ll standardise this submission process.

    As the service develops, local community members will also be able to highlight assets they believe should be put forward for consideration, as well as add additional detail such as pictures and notes to registered ACVs on the site.

    What we need help with

    At this stage we’re looking for more collaborators who are already active in this space to come forward and get involved. We’re already in touch with CAMRA, Sport England, the Woodland Trust, and the Land Registry, but if you would like to offer some help or support please do get in touch.

    We’re particularly keen to connect with Local Councils who are already actively making use of ACVs, so if you’re an officer responsible for managing the ACV process for your council we’d love to hear from you.

    We know from Locality that there were at least 5,000 registered ACVs this time last year, but that list was already a little out of date and there will be more to add. Keeping everything up to date from the usual mix of web pages, spreadsheets and PDFs is going to make things challenging as well.

    This is a particularly interesting extension of the FixMyStreet Platform and it’s a useful way for us to explore how to best extend the citizen engagement features of FixMyStreet beyond issue reporting and into celebrating what makes each local community unique and valuable.

    Image: Garry Knight (CC BY 2.0)

     

  9. GLOW is calling: help increase the world’s knowledge of politicians

    If you know your way around Wikidata, we’d love you to join in with the global string of events taking place for GLOW next week.

    We’re very keen to get as many people as possible helping to improve the quality of Wikidata’s information on politicians. Why? Well, let’s take a quick look at a recent story that hit the news.

    A new Bundestag

    With Germany’s new parliament gathering for the first time on October 24, der Spiegel took the opportunity to examine their male-to-female balance, in the context of legislatures across the world. At around 31% female, they noted, the Bundestag now sits at the better end of the scale: parliaments almost everywhere are male-dominated.

    How were they able to make such an assessment? As they note at the foot of their article, they used data on politicians’ gender from our EveryPolitician project.

    A further exploration looked at age — they discovered that on average their parliamentarians were very slightly younger than in previous years — and they note as an aside that here in the UK, we have in Dennis Skinner the oldest MP in Europe, while Mhairi Black is the second-youngest by a whisker.

    These are the kind of insights we seek to increase through our work with Wikidata as we help to boost the quality of their politician data: we consider such analysis not only interesting, but important. Whether or not countries wish to encourage fair representation across age groups and gender — not to mention many other categories — their decisions should at least be based on facts.

    As things stand, there are only a handful of countries where data is good enough to be able to make such comparisons: in our vision, journalists, researchers — and anyone else — will be able to turn to Wikidata to find what they need. The forthcoming Global Legislative Openness Week (GLOW) gives us all an opportunity to put a rocket under the quality and quantity of data that’s available to people making analyses like these, that stand to benefit us all.

    How to get involved

    GLOW runs from next Monday until the 30th November, and we’re encouraging people — wherever you live in the world — to get together and improve the data on national-level politicians for your country.

    We’re already expecting a good number of groups to run events. Get-togethers are confirmed in Slovenia, Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, Spain and more — once final details are firmed up, we think there’ll be action in other countries across the globe. Now how about you? As we said in our post last month, a concentrated effort from a small group of people can really make a difference.

    We’re especially keen to encourage folk who have some experience of contributing to Wikidata: we reckon that, for this particular drive, you need to already know your way around a bit. So if that’s you, do come forward!

    Start by having a look at this page, which outlines what we hope to achieve; we’ll be adding more detail this week too.  You can add your country to the list if you’d like to, or explore what’s missing in the data of those countries already listed.

    Or, if Wikidata’s all new to you, why not put out some feelers and see if there’s anyone who can show you the ropes while you work together? One good way is to see if there’s a Wikimedia User Group local to you.

    What exactly will you be doing?

    Here’s a bit more detail on what a workshop will look like.

    The idea is to improve information in Wikidata about members of your country’s legislature. The ‘Progress Indicators’ on this page will give you guidance: typically you’ll be working through tasks like adding any missing “position held” statements and biographical data. We’re asking folk to prioritise current politicians, with information for historic members an added bonus if time permits.

    Once sufficient data is available in Wikidata, the real fun begins! Your workshop attendees will be able to query the data to answer questions such as:

    1) Can the gender breakdown and average age of members of the current legislature be calculated?
    2) Can that be broken down per political party/group, or (where appropriate) by region?
    3) Can you compare those figures for the legislature vs. the cabinet?
    4) How far back can you generate those for?

    And if the ideas start to flow, building queries and visualisations to answer other questions will also be very useful.

    Let us know if you have any questions before the week begins — we’re going to be very busy during GLOW, but we’ll do our absolute best to help.


    Image: Alex Iby (Unsplash)

  10. Explore FOI Information

    How many Freedom of Information requests are sent through WhatDoTheyKnow as compared to those made directly to public bodies? Our new mini-site lets you explore Cabinet Office statistics in comparison to numbers from WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Every quarter, the Cabinet Office releases Freedom of Information stats for a collection of central government ministries, departments and agencies. This provides a good benchmark for understanding how requests made from WhatDoTheyKnow relate to requests made through other routes. Back in 2010 we ran several blog posts about this, though we haven’t released any comparisons in recent years — and we’re now making up for lost time.

    In 2016, WhatDoTheyKnow was the source of 17.14% of requests to audited public bodies. On the other hand, most WhatDoTheyKnow requests (88.51%) went to public bodies that the Cabinet Office figures don’t cover.

    One interesting conclusion from this is that most FOI activity in the UK is not immediately visible from the official statistics. You can read more about what we learned from the numbers, or explore the data for yourself on the mini-site.


    Image: Jerry Kiesewetter (Unsplash)