1. Come and see Finnish Freedom Of Information cartoonists

    Think Freedom of Information is a bit of a dry topic? Not when you mix it with some exuberant inky comic art, it’s not!

    Two Finnish cartoonists, Siiri Viljakka and Lauri Tuomi-Nikula, are visiting the UK to speak about their comic book Last Words. This graphic novella imagines one of the founding fathers of Freedom of Information, Anders Chydenius, returning from the grave to see how his ideas are surviving in the modern world.

    Siiri and Lauri will be speaking at four informal meet-ups in London, Brighton and Hastings — entry is free.

    Image: Siiri Valjakka and Lauri Tumoi-NikulaArtwork: Siiri Viljakka & Lauri Tuomi-Nikula

    If you’d like to hear Siiri and Lauri speaking about comics, FOI, and how the two can interact, you can register now at no cost.

    At the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday events, the talk will focus mainly on comics with a side order of FOI.

    At Citizen Beta on Tuesday, it will be the other way around, with Siiri and Lauri fitting in among other speakers on the topic of FOI and civic technologies – full details here. So take your pick, depending on how you prefer your arts/civic rights balance!

    The trip has been made possible by generous donations from several people via a crowdfunder. Thanks to everyone who donated, but special thanks to Dan Berry’s Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast, the Hastings 1066 Country Cartoon Festival, and my dad 🙂

  2. What are YOU doing with mySociety sites?

    If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.

    A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .

    But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.

    Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.

    Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.

    Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.

    Image: Robert Couse-Baker (CC-by/2.0)

  3. Spain: Right to Know Day ‘requestathon’ highlights frustrating FOI process

    Is there anything you’d like to know from the Spanish authorities?

    In advance of International Right To Know Day, three organisations are collaborating to make the process of submitting an FOI request in Spain a little bit easier.

    Access Info Europe, Civio Foundation and the Transparency Council of Spain are calling it “an access to information requests marathon”, and their aim is to help people navigate the tedious process of requesting information from Spanish public authorities.

    As explained in this article by Access Info Europe, the Spanish Government has established a very complicated system for filing access to information requests. This includes the requirement to log in to a government-run portal using an electronic certificate or digital identification in order to request information. These certificates and IDs are not easy to obtain.

    This, and the unwillingness of Spanish authorities to accept information requests via email, led to Civio Foundation and Access Info Europe shutting down their Alaveteli request site, TuDerechoASaber (YourRightToKnow) in December 2015 in protest. You can read more about why they did this here.

    But they still believe that citizens everywhere should be able to request the information they require. In order to help people who don’t have the required electronic certificate or digital identification, Access Info Europe, Civio and the Transparency Council of Spain will use their own electronic certificates to file requests on users’ behalf.

    From now until 28th September (International Right To Know Day) anyone wanting to obtain information from Spanish authorities can send requests to them via:

    Do let us know what you ask — we’d love to hear.

    Photo: Duncan Creamer (CC)

  4. Recruiting for diversity

    When Mark, mySociety’s CEO, put out our recent request for new board members, he mentioned a specific goal:

    There’s no getting past the fact that our current boards are entirely male. So for both roles we’d like to use this as an opportunity to redress the balance on each board, as well as add more diversity to better reflect the users of our services both in the UK and internationally.

    You’ll have seen from his follow-up blog post announcing the appointments exactly how well we did in this aim.

    But I wanted to explore this subject more deeply. When you explicitly state that you would welcome applications from women, what effect does it have on the gender split of those who come forward?

    What difference does it make to the range of backgrounds that applicants come from, when you say that you’re hoping for more diversity?

    And just what are mySociety actively doing about this aim, beyond sticking what could look very much like a token sentence into a job advert?

    Well, it started off as a short blog post crunching the numbers. And then it got long.

    When posts are too big for a quick skim, we put them on our Medium blog, so that’s where it ended up. Do go and have a look.

    We know we haven’t cracked this one yet — indeed, we know that we barely even have the right vocabulary to talk about it — so comments are welcome.

    Image: Dustin Oliver (cc-by-2.0)

  5. Teachers: Make sure your students know about their Right To Know

    28 September is International Right To Know Day, and this year it’s a particularly important milestone. 2016 marks the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information as a concept.

    If you’re a teacher of Citizenship or even subjects like Law, History, PSHE or English, you may be interested to know that we have free lesson plans available.

    These cover a wide variety of topics, including a half hour lesson on Freedom of Information, aimed at years 10-13 — there are also lessons on concepts such as democracy and having a voice in society. Developed last year in collaboration with the Citizenship Foundation, the lesson plans were created and tested by teachers and have been downloaded by hundreds of schools since their launch.

    You might also be interested to see this entertaining article from the US Freedom of Information website Muckrock, aimed directly at high school students. It is, of course, American oriented, but it’s a very good introduction to the opportunities FOI affords younger people.

    So, why not mark International Right To Know Day by introducing your students to the concept of FOI, and showing them what they can do with it in the areas they care about?

    Image: Hana Tichá (CC-2.0)

  6. Wazimap brings census data alive, with MapIt

    wazimap screenshot

    Census data: there’s lots of it. It contains fascinating insights.

    But as with many huge datasets, those insights are not always easy to find at first glance — nor is it easy for the untrained observer to see which parts are relevant to their own lives.

    Wazimap in South Africa takes the country’s census data and turns it into something the user can explore interactively. Originally conceived as a tool for journalists, it turned out to be so accessible that it’s used by a much wider range of the population, from school children to researchers. It’s a great example of how you can transform dry data into something meaningful online, and it’s all done using free and open source tools.

    Our points-to-boundaries mapping software MapIt is part of that mix, putting the data in context and ensuring that visitors can browse the data relevant to specific provinces, municipalities or wards.

    We asked Greg Kempe of Code for South Africa, to fill us in on a bit more.

    What exactly is Wazimap?

    Wazimap helps South Africans understand where they live, through the eyes of the data from our 2011 Census. It’s a research and exploration tool that describes who lives in South Africa, from a country level right down to a ward, including demographics such as age and gender, language and citizenship, level of education, access to basic services, household goods, employment and income.

    It has helped people understand not just where they work and live, but also that data can be presented in a way that’s accessible and understandable.

    Users can explore the profile of a province, city or ward and compare them side-by-side. They can focus on a particular dataset to view just that data for any place in the country, look for outliers and interesting patterns in the distribution of an indicator, or draw an indicator on a map.

    Of course Wazimap can’t do everything, so you can also download data into Excel or Google Earth to run your own analysis.

    Wazimap is built on the open source software that powers censusreporter.org, which was built under a Knight News Challenge grant, and is a collaboration between Media Monitoring Africa and Code for South Africa.

    Due to demand from other groups, we’ve now made Wazimap a standalone project that anyone can re-use to build their own instance: details are here.

    How did it all begin?

    Media Monitoring Africa approached Code for South Africa to build a tool to help journalists get factual background data on anywhere in South Africa, to help encourage accurate and informed reporting.

    Code for South Africa is a nonprofit that promotes informed decision-making for positive social change, so we were very excited about collaborating on the tool.

    Could MapIt be useful for your project? Find out more here

    How exactly does MapIt fit into the project?

    Mapit powers all the shape boundaries in Wazimap. When we plot a province, municipality or ward boundary on a map in Wazimap, or provide a boundary in a Google Earth or GeoJSON download, MapIt is giving Wazimap that data.

    We had originally built a home-grown solution, but when we met mySociety’s Tony Bowden at a Code Camp in Italy, we learned about MapIt. It turned out to offer better functionality.

    What level of upkeep is involved?

    Wazimap requires only intermittent maintenance. We had municipal elections in August 2016 which has meant a number of municipal boundaries have changed. We’re waiting on Statistics South Africa to provide us with the census data mapped to these new boundaries so that we can update it. Other than that, once the site is up and running it needs very little maintenance.

    What’s the impact of Wazimap?

    We know that Wazimap is used by a wide range of people, including journalists, high school geography teachers, political party researchers and academics.

    wazimap graphsIt has helped people understand not just where they work and live, but also that data can be presented in a way that’s accessible and understandable.

    Code for South Africa has been approached a number of times, by people asking if they might reuse the Wazimap platform in different contexts with different data. Most recently, youthexplorer.org.za used it to power an interactive web tool providing a range of information on young people, helping policy makers understand youth-critical issues in the Western Cape.

    We also know that it’s been used as a research tool for books and numerous news articles.

    The success of the South African Wazimap has driven the development of similar projects elsewhere in Africa which will be launching soon, though MapIt won’t be used for those because their geography requirements are simpler.

    What does the future hold?

    As we’re building out Wazimap for different datasets, we’re seeing a need for taking it beyond just census data. We’re making improvements to how Wazimap works with data to make this possible and make it simpler for others to build on it.

    Each new site gives us ideas for improvements to the larger Wazimap product. The great thing is that these improvements roll out and benefit anyone who uses it across every install.

    Thanks very much to Greg for talking us through the Wazimap project and its use of MapIt. It’s great to hear how MapIt is contributing to a tool that, in itself, aids so many other users and organisations.

    Need to map boundaries? Find out more about MapIt here

  7. Alaveteli Professional – learning more about journalistic use of Freedom of Information

    In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.

    Why are we doing this project?

    Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?

    Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.

    Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.

    That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.

    What we’re doing

    The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.

    We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.

    The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.

    There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.

    What’s next?

    At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.

    Image: Dean Hochman (CC by 2.0)

  8. A New Future for FixMyStreet for Councils

    Work for a council? Tell us what you need

    We’re making some pretty big improvements to the FixMyStreet for Councils service at the moment: improvements that will save councils both time and money, while giving them flexibility and insights into their fault report handling.

    This has been our core focus over the last six months, working with our customers to design a new category of case management system, for local government, and by local government.

    We’ve been working together with local authority insiders because they’re the people who know best what they require from a piece of software they will use every day.  If you also fall into that category, we’d love to hear from you.

    We’ll be sharing early iterations of the improved service as we make progress. Your feedback will be part of that process, helping shape a service that does everything you need it to do.

    As we add these new case management features, we’ve set three core principles:

    • To lower the operating cost of highways, parks and streets management by improving the user experience for all involved, from residents to council staff
    • To change the relationship between local government and providers like Skanska, Veolia et al from direct management and instruction, to one of monitoring and oversight
    • To treat the asset management system as a data repository for asset information, not a case, customer or works management solution

    If you are from a local council and you would like to find out more, or you would like to provide feedback on early prototypes, help with user testing and become a part of our development process, we would love to hear from you.

    Those who want to find out more about obtaining FixMyStreet for Councils can do so by checking out our page on the Digital Marketplace.

    Image: Highways Agency (CC by 2.0)

  9. Six new board members and one departure

    In May of this year we began our search for new Trustees and Directors to join our charitable and commercial boards at mySociety.

    I’m very glad to say that we’ve now completed our search and today we can announce the appointment of three new Trustees to the board of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD) and three new independent non-executive Directors to mySociety Ltd.

    Our three Trustee appointments are Rachel Rank, Tony Burton and Nanjira Sambuli who join our Chair, James Cronin and fellow long-standing trustees Manar Hussain, Owen Blacker and Stephen King of the Omidyar Network on the UKCOD board.

     

    Rachel Rank mySociety TrusteeRachel Rank is Chief Executive of 360Giving where she is aiming to make grant funding in the UK much more transparent. Previously she was Deputy Director of Publish What You Fund, leading the organisation’s research and monitoring work, including the development of an annual transparency index.

    Rachel has previously held positions with the Commonwealth Secretariat, DFID, DAI, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute. She has researched and written several publications on transparency, good governance and accountability.

     

    Tony Burton mySociety TrusteeTony Burton founded Civic Voice – the national charity for the civic movement; he is Vice Chair of the Big Lottery Fund (chairing its Audit and Risk Committee), Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth, Executive Chair of Sustainable Homes, Vice Chair of HS2’s Independent Design Panel and a trustee of TCV (The Conservation Volunteers).

    With 25 years’ executive experience on the boards of national charities working with communities on environment, heritage and land use, he has a strong track record in strategy, campaigning, volunteer development and external affairs for conservation, community, regeneration, planning and the environment.

     

    Nanjira Sambuli mySociety TrusteeNanjira Sambuli was until recently Research Lead at iHub, in Nairobi Kenya, providing strategic guidance for the growth of technology research in East Africa and has just taken on a new role as Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the Web Foundation. She focuses on the unfolding impacts of ICT adoption to governance, innovation, entrepreneurship and societal culture in Kenya, and across Africa, with a particular passion for the gendered aspects to technology access and adoption.

    Nanjira is on the Advisory Board (Africa) for Sum of Us, board member at Kenya’s Media Policy Research Centre, and sits on the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment where she works with panel members to demonstrate high-level leadership and renewed commitment and action towards making women’s economic empowerment a reality in our lifetime.

     

    At the same time we are enlarging our commercial board with three new non-executive Directors joining mySociety Ltd. Tim Hunt, Jonathan Flowers and Anno Mitchell join our Chair James Cronin, trustee representative Owen Blacker and myself Mark Cridge, Chief Executive of mySociety.

     

    Tim Hunt mySociety Non-ExecutiveTim Hunt is Marketing Director of The Guardian, leading the expansion of the global audience into the US and Australia whilst driving increased newspaper revenue of £64m last year.

    Tim began his career in advertising – where he was Managing Partner of St. Lukes; he also founded his own successful consultancy practice and launched Sky Italia as Marketing Director.

    Over the past 15 years he has held senior digital and tech marketing roles including board roles at YouView, Freeview and launch Marketing Director of Project Kangaroo, the internet joint venture between BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4.

     

    Jonathan Flowers mySociety Non-ExecutiveJonathan Flowers is a portfolio non-executive Director, strategic advisor for three companies and Coach, with deep experience in Local Government.

    He was formerly a member of the independent service transformation challenge panel appointed by Treasury and DCLG, Managing Director of a consulting business, Commercial Development Director for a major Financial Services company, Deputy Chief Executive of a County Council, Local Government Executive headhunter and advisor, and local government sector strategist for a FTSE-50 company.

    Jonathan is an alumnus of the Cabinet Office Top Management Programme, Fellow of the OR Society, Chartered Management Institute, Institute of Directors and the RSA.

     

    Anno Mitchell mySociety Non-ExecutiveAnno Mitchell is a specialist in digital organisational change. Over the past twenty years she has helped a diverse range of organisations to clarify their vision and purpose; helping them understand how this drives product and capability development and marketing. She was recently Chief Strategy Officer at the agency We Are Friday, where she created new digital strategies and services for international clients such as HSBC and Barnardo’s.

    Previously she has worked with government and third sector organisations, as Strategic Lead for Digital Engagement in the Department of Health, Product Strategist for iCan / Action Network at the BBC, and Innovation Consultant to Horsesmouth, a peer to peer mentoring platform for younger people funded by the Edge Foundation.

     

    Together these new Trustees and Directors bring a formidable range of important experience to our boards; drawn from fundraising, communications, marketing, product development, local government, finance, governance and international development. They also bring much needed balance in gender and our first non-UK board member.

    We all look forward to working with each of them over the next few years and we’re excited about the new connections, critique and possibilities these appointments bring.

     

    And to the single departure

    We are also saying thank you and goodbye to James Crabtree, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Contributing Editor at the Financial Times, who is stepping down from the UKCOD board after 13 years.

    James pretty much coined the idea for mySociety in his 2003 Open Democracy article which called for the UK Government to establish a civic hacking fund. This in turn prompted original founder Tom Steinberg and others to start mySociety.

    For that we are incredibly grateful and extend many thanks to James for his long and distinguished service.

    Image courtesy of Bart Heird

  10. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 5

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been opened up to the public thanks to Freedom of Information requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two, part three and part four.

    This edition features examples from New Zealand site fyi.org.nz, Hungarian site KiMiTud and UK site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Auckland residents can now visualise future development in their community

    Sometimes data released via FOI requests can be pretty incomprehensible, and frankly quite dull. That is, until someone makes a handy visualisation tool that makes the data come alive and easier to understand.

    That’s exactly what happened with this request made on the New Zealand Alaveteli fyi.org.nz. The data released was picked up by the New Zealand Herald, who have used it to make an interactive map (see screenshot below) of Auckland Council’s proposed neighbourhood development plan.

    Now Auckland residents can see at a glance how their council plans to change their local neighbourhood.

    Insights The New Zealand Herald

    A similar use of data released via FOI laws occurred a few years ago in the UK after this request on WhatDoTheyKnow. The request asked for the location of every post box in the UK. The data released has been used to create useful tools like this one (developed by our very own Matthew Somerville), which helps citizens easily locate the nearest place to post their letters:

    Find Your Nearest Postbox

    Hungarian utility provider consciously allows pollution of major river

    Another great way to help people visualise the real-life effects of the data they see in an FOI response is to video it, like investigative journalists at Atlatszo did. Their short clip graphically shows a river clogged up with four times as much sewage as the treatment plant has the capability to process.

    Sewage

    Atlatszo used KiMiTud to obtain local government audit reports of a sewage works company.

    The documents reveal that five audits have been carried out in the last few years, and serious deficiencies were found each time: harmful untreated sewage was being pumped into the nearby river Tisza.

    These findings led to the company being fined by the regulator. It is claimed that the company would rather pay these fines than spend the money updating their equipment.

    According to Atlatszo’s investigation, the company could not and did not refute that the quality of water leaving their plant is often more polluted than legally allowed, and admitted that their equipment is not up to date. Let’s hope Atlatszo’s pressure on them will make them change their practices.

    In a recent similar case in Australia, the use of FOI revealed evidence of neglect at a landfill site, with the potential for environmental harm and drinking water contamination.  

    The above examples yet again show the real diversity of information you can obtain via FOI requests, and highlight what an amazing tool FOI is for both data journalists, and investigative journalists.  

    In fact, we’re so passionate about journalists taking full advantage of FOI laws, that we’re about to launch a project that will develop a set of tools to help journalists (and others) to use FOI more easily in their work.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Header image: KOMUnews, CC