About six million people a year visit mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow.com; there are well over 100,000 registered users, and over 385,000 requests have been made via the service.
Of course, it’s fantastic that WhatDoTheyKnow is so well used, but the growth and popularity of the site brings its own challenges, not least the day-to-day admin that keeps the site running.
Many aspects of the site’s operation are run by volunteers, supported by mySociety’s staff and trustees — and due to the site’s success we’re looking to expand the volunteer team.
What does volunteering involve?
The work is pretty varied, but there are some frequent and recurring tasks:
Dealing appropriately with requests to remove material from the website
This is one interesting challenge which arises fairly often. Sometimes these requests are from public bodies who’ve released information they didn’t mean to; and they can also come from individuals and companies who are named in correspondence on the site.
These decisions are not always as black and white as you might expect. Some recent examples where we had to carefully consider the balance on both sides were:
- Material which Transport for London were concerned could be used to steal a tube train. We considered: was this a genuine risk? Was our publication really increasing the risk? Was the information already available elsewhere? What was the potential value of publishing the information to tube staff and their representatives, travellers and the wider public?
- Sainsbury’s were concerned that published material didn’t reflect their corporate policy on “workfare”. That may have been the case, but we asked ourselves whether that made it inappropriate to continue to publish the information that had been released. Additionally, where did the public interest lie? What legal risks were there arising from continued publication?
Responding promptly and accordingly to accidental releases
Thankfully, the frequency with which public bodies accidentally release personal information in bulk via Freedom of Information responses is decreasing, but the WhatDoTheyKnow team still have to act promptly when this does occur.
We often help users on both sides of the FOI process. For requesters, we can answer questions about FOI and how to use it, and we also work with the staff of public bodies who are at the receiving end of requests.
And all the rest
There’s always more that can be done to promote the service, draw attention to interesting correspondence on the site, and lobby for improvements to our access to information laws.
The wider team at mySociety help people around the world to establish and run their own online Freedom of Information services; and new features are being added to the UK site to make it more attractive to professional users such as journalists and campaign groups. Volunteers have the opportunity to get involved in these activities, helping steer the direction of new projects, based on their frontline experience of being a site administrator.
Keeping the database of thousands of public bodies up to date is another challenge, especially given the frequency of reorganisations in the UK’s public sector.
We work primarily by email, with regular video conferencing meetings, and occasionally meet up in person.
As a volunteer, you can decide how much time you put in, and what aspects of running the service you decide to take part in — but ideally we’re looking for people who can spare at least an hour or two, a couple of days a week.
We understand that people’s external commitments vary over time, and of course, there’s a flexible approach if a team member needs to step away for a stretch now and then.
What makes a good WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer?
There’s one characteristic that all the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have in common: a belief in the value of Freedom of Information, or, more widely, the expectation of transparency and accountability from the bodies which citizens fund.
As for practical skills: perhaps you’ve been involved in moderating discussions on the web, or have experience with access to information, defamation, or data protection law. Or perhaps you have, or would like to gain, experience dealing with “customers” by email.
Primarily we’re looking for people capable of making good judgements, and who can communicate clearly online.
Before joining the team, new volunteers will have to agree to follow our policies covering subjects such as security and data protection. That said, part of the role may be, if desired, taking a part in developing and refining these, and other, policies as the service grows and changes.
How to apply
If helping us run WhatDoTheyKnow sounds like the kind of thing you’d be interested in doing, then please do apply to join us.
We only have the capacity to bring on and train a few volunteers at a time, and it is important that those chosen to help administer the service are trustworthy and committed to its policies, direction and non-partisan stance. For these reasons, we are recruiting volunteers via a formal application process.
To apply please write to us before the 20th of March 2017, introducing yourself, and letting us know about any relevant interests or experience you have.
What do we offer in return?
As a volunteer, the main reward comes from the satisfaction of assisting users, making good decisions, and helping run what is fast becoming a key part of the country’s journalistic and democratic infrastructure.
Volunteers may be invited to mySociety events and meet-ups, providing a chance to take part in discussions about the future direction of the service and the organisation’s activities more generally. There have been a number of conferences held, where those running Freedom of Information sites around the world have got together to share experiences: one or more volunteers may be invited to join in, with travel expenses paid.
Other ways to help out
If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps there’s something on mySociety’s Get Involved page that is — or you could:
Image: MarkBuckawicki [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
MapIt has had a bit of a refresh to bring the look into line with the rest of the mySociety projects. At the same time, we thought we’d take the opportunity to make it a bit easier for non-technical folk to understand what it offers, and to make the pricing a little less opaque.
You may not be familiar with MapIt, but all the same, if you’ve ever found your MP on TheyWorkForYou, written to your representatives on WriteToThem, or reported an issue through FixMyStreet, you’re a MapIt user!
That’s because MapIt does the heavy lifting in the background when you enter a postcode or location, matching that input to the boundaries it falls within (ward, constituency, borough, etc). It is, if you like, the geographic glue that holds mySociety services together.
Like most of mySociety’s software offerings, MapIt is available for others to use. So for example, the GOV.UK website uses it to put users in touch with the right council for a number of services, and Prostate Cancer UK uses it on their campaign site, using MapIt’s knowledge of CCG (Clinical Commissioning Group) region boundaries.
And you can use MapIt too: if your app or website needs to connect UK locations with areas like constituencies or counties, it will save you a lot of time and effort.
Pricing and payment is a lot slicker now: while it was previously managed manually, you can now purchase what you need online, quickly and without the need for human intervention. It’s also quite simple to see the pricing options laid out.
We hope that this will make it easier for people to make use of the service, and better understand what level of usage they need. But if you need to experiment, there’s a free ‘sandbox’ to play about with!
As ever, we’re happy to provide significant discounts for charity and non-profit projects: see more details on the licensing page.
If you have any questions or comments please do get in touch.
There’s a new piece of data on MapIt, and it wasn’t added by us. It’s tiny but useful, and it’s slightly esoteric, so bear with us and we’ll explain why it’s worth your attention.
Local Authority codes come from the government’s set of canonical registers. They may not look much, but they’re part of a drive to bring consistency across a wide range of data sets. That’s important, and we’ll try to explain why.
One name can refer to more than one thing
If you try to buy a train ticket to Gillingham in the UK, and you are lucky enough to be served by a conscientious member of staff, they will check whether you are going to the Gillingham in Kent (GIL), or the one in Dorset (GLM).
The names of the two towns might be identical, but their three-letter station codes differ, and quite right too — how, otherwise, would the railway systems be able to charge the right fare? And more importantly, how many people would set off confidently to their destination, but end up in the wrong county?
I mention this purely to illustrate the importance of authoritative, consistent data, the principle that is currently driving a government-wide initiative to ensure that there’s a single canonical code for prisons, schools, companies, and all kinds of other categories of places and organisations.
Of particular interest to us at mySociety? Local authorities. That’s because several of our services, from FixMyStreet to WriteToThem, rely on MapIt to connect the user to the correct council, based on their geographical position.
One thing can have more than one name
I live within the boundaries of Brighton and Hove City Council.
That’s its official name, but when talking or writing about my local authority, I’m much more likely to call it ‘Brighton’, ‘Brighton Council’, or at a push, ‘Brighton & Hove Council’. All of which is fine within everyday conversation, but which is an approach which could cause mayhem for the kind of data that digital systems need (“machine readable” data, which is consistent, structured and in a format which can be ‘understood’ by computer programs).
Registers of Open Data
The two examples above go some way towards explaining why the Department for Local Government & Communities, with Government Digital Services (GDS), are in the process of creating absolute standards, not just for councils but for every outpost of their diverse and extensive set of responsibilities, from the Food Standards Agency to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the Land Registry and beyond.
Where possible, these registers are published and shared as Open Data that anyone can use. It’s all part of GDS’ push towards ‘government as a platform’, and in keeping with the work being done towards providing Open Data throughout the organisation. Where possible these registers are openly available, and can be used by anyone building apps, websites and systems.
And now we come to those Local Authority codes that you can find on MapIt.
Anyone can contribute to Open Source code
Like most mySociety codebases, MapIt is Open Source.
That means that not only can anyone pick up the code and use it for their own purposes, for free, but that they’re also welcome to submit changes or extensions to the existing code.
And that’s just how GDS’ Sym Roe submitted the addition of the register.
What it all means for you
If you’re a developer, the addition of these codes means that you can use MapIt in your app or web service, and be absolutely sure that it will integrate with any other dataset that’s using the same codes. So, no more guessing whether our ‘Plymouth’ is the same as the ‘Plymouth’ in your database; the three-letter code tells you that it is.
Plus, these register codes identify a local authority as an organisation, or a legal entity, as opposed to setting out the boundary, so that’s an extra layer of information which we are glad to be able to include.
The Police Federation of England and Wales is the latest body to be added to WhatDoTheyKnow.
Thanks to the Policing and Crime Act 2017, which came into force on January 31, the Federation is now subject to Freedom of Information. That means that if you make a request for information which they hold, under most circumstances they must provide it.
These new responsibilities were announced by Theresa May back in 2014 when she was Home Secretary:
I will bring forward proposals to make the Police Federation – that is, the national organisation and all the regional branches – subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
I know that some of you will find these changes unpalatable. In particular, I know that some of you will find the Freedom of Information Act an unwelcome intrusion. But the Police Federation is an organisation created by statute, it serves a public function and the Normington Review demonstrated very clearly that it is an organisation in need of greater transparency and accountability. So it is a change that I believe needs to be made.
Whether it was found unpalatable or not — it happened. Accordingly, that’s now reflected on WhatDoTheyKnow, so if you have a burning question for the Federation, now is the time to ask.
It’s a little-known fact that FixMyStreet was originally called Neighbourhood Fix-It. Launching the site was a good idea, but changing that name may be the next best thing we ever did.
Ten years on, the site has processed over 900,000 reports, sending them to every local authority in the UK. In doing so, it helps citizens take an active part in keeping their own local communities clean, safe and functional. Meanwhile it ensures that you, the user, never have to give a second thought to which council needs to receive which type of report.
It’s been adopted as several councils’ primary fault-reporting interface on their own websites, from Bristol to Oxfordshire and even Zürich, and we’ve worked in partnership with these authorities to develop new features that make it as useful and simple to use as possible. Watch this space, as we’ll be talking a lot more about these soon.
FixMyStreet continues to surprise even us. Thanks to its remarkable flexibility, the codebase has also been used to underpin a number of other projects, including Collideoscope, where you can report cycling collisions and near misses, and the Channel 4 tie-in, the Empty Homes Spotter. We know there will be many more to come.
So, here’s to FixMyStreet. At heart, it’s a little site that matches a pin on a map with the body that’s responsible for that location. But when you consider what it’s achieved — getting communities fixed up, making council reporting interfaces more user-friendly, empowering people to take their first steps into local participation, even challenging corruption — well, we hope you’ll see why we’re proud of how far FixMyStreet has come.
As Mark mentioned last month I have recently joined mySociety as Product Manager in the Better Cities team. This is something of a departure for me as I have spent most of my career working for large, publicly funded institutions — places like the Office for National Statistics, Medical Research Council and Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs to name but three.
That said a large part of all those roles was trying to convince colleagues of the benefits of using the kind of products and services organisations like mySociety provide so maybe it isn’t that big a leap after all.
It has been a long held ambition of mine to work for mySociety — looking back it was almost 10 years ago when I first mentioned them/us on my blog and the organisation has been a consistent influence on me ever since with a number of former staff, trustees and volunteers becoming friends and colleagues over the intervening years.
It was my gateway to the wider world of the ‘civic tech’ community to which I have been a proud contributor for many years now — most recently mainly through running a weekly jobs list for public service minded organisations seeking digital staff.
At the moment I am primarily focused on learning as much as I can about our FixMyStreet platform (including the ‘..for Councils’ product) and investigating the MapIt service as well. As I get up to speed with things I am also taking the opportunity to get about and about — attending events and trying to meet people who make use of our projects.
In the weeks to come I’ll be attending MeasureCamp in Cardiff (4th February), giving a talk at World IA Day in Manchester (18th February), speaking at BathHacked on the 22nd February (Bath), helping out at day one of Open Data Camp in Cardiff (25th February), going to ProductCampon the 4th March (London) and giving a lightning talk at the launch of the new Tech4Good group in Bristol on the 23rd March. All this as well as hosting my regular ‘minimal viable meet-up’ on the 8th February in Bristol.
If you are attending any of these events please and want to chat ‘Better Cities’, civic tech or just want to get hold of one of our lovely stickers please come and say hi — there are rarely any other attendees who sound as Bristolian as I do so I am usually easy to find. Also if there are any events you’d like to suggest I attend — either to give a talk about the mySociety ‘Better Cities’ work or just generally an opportunity for me to learn more about how people are using digital tools to engage with and influence local democracy please do let me know.
I am @jukesie on Twitter (be warned — I am something of a prolific tweeter!) and my email is email@example.com so please get in touch.
Audrey is Taiwan’s Minister for Digital, and is part of a massive shake-up that has seen that country embrace unprecedented levels of transparency, accountability and citizen participation. Her keynote will describe some of the ground-breaking methods they’ve introduced.
One of these is Audrey’s famous accessibility. Using a public platform, she is happy to answer questions from anyone, and endeavours to do so within 48 hours. We posed ours there, but we’re replicating them below for our readers to follow.
Such is her schedule that Audrey will be delivering her keynote virtually, but there will be an opportunity for delegates to put questions to her live. Accordingly, we’ve gone a little more in-depth with this conversation.
Why haven’t we in the West heard more about the transformations that have been happening in Taiwan? They really are so ground-breaking — do you have any idea why they might not have received more global coverage?
There is reasonable regional coverage in Korea, Japan and Hong Kong. However, global awareness is limited by Taiwan’s restricted participation in multilateral organisations, as well as the relative lack of English material (somewhat ameliorated by recent advances in machine translation).
How would we go about encouraging our own governments to follow in your footsteps? You visited the UK Parliament recently: what was your perception of how they are doing on the Open Government front?
While rules, playbooks and tools are reusable, each government’s political context is unique, so I would encourage everyone to pave their own path instead.
I didn’t stay long enough to learn about UK’s progress — looking forward to learn more from mySociety folks in the future, perhaps when TICTeC comes to Asia. 🙂
TICTeC is all about measuring the impact of civic technologies. Do you have systems in place that help you assess the effectiveness of the measures you put in place?
Yes, there are quantitative engagement metrics and surveys, though they are mostly in Chinese — for example for the petition platform [opens as document; in Chinese].
Clearly, it’s early days yet, but have your implementations been an unqualified success?
For the past 100 days, our main contributions are proceeding well — providing an internal collaboration platform (sandstorm.io) for participation officers from every ministry; requiring all regulations and trade-related laws to be open for public discussion (join.gov.tw); as well as help codifying an open multi-stakeholder mechanism into the draft of Digital Communications Act.
What feedback have you had from citizens and the national press?
In Taiwan’s post-2014 political climate, mainstream press and citizens would never call for “less transparency”, so people mostly respond favourably — of course, there are calls for more accountability and more informed participation, for meaningful conversations to form around divisive issues.
What proportion of the population has taken part in your crowd-sourcing projects? Do you worry about the elderly or less connected not being sufficiently represented in decision-making?
As a proponent of assistive civic tech, it is important that we seek diversity of opinion (not zero-sum voting) and each engagement venue opens up access for previously unavailable folks (not taking existing venues away) — see this write-up by LÜ Chia-Hua.
Of course, even in a democracy of feelings, there will still be some people who lose out, or see a decision that doesn’t go the way they wanted. Are you sensing more understanding from these people, since they’ve gone through the online debates process?
Yes. Generally we come up with rough consensus that people can live with — as long as the procedure are transparent and accountable, we are seeing people who did not get what they initially demanded nevertheless help defending the result.
How stressful is it for a human being to hold themself up to constant public scrutiny? Transparency is of course a laudable aim, but might it sometimes be at the cost of a person’s own downtime or privacy?
Private meetings and on-the-record transcripts are fully compatible; note that we allow each participant to make corrections for ten days after the meeting: here are our guidelines.
A large proportion of Taiwanese politicians are Independents. Do you think party politics is now an outdated system?
In the cabinet there are more independents than members of any party, but in the parliament every party has more MPs than independents.
How can digital technologies bridge the gap between citizen and state without simply reverting to irrelevant soundbite politics or Twitter trolling?
We need to partner with (and become) media to make relevant facts as easy — and eventually easier — to spread.
What is the importance of TICTeC? Why assess the impact of civic technologies?
Informed discussions need to be rooted in evidence. If we are to build a global democratic network of feelings, we need to make sure that these feelings are reflective — this is only possible when they are built upon facts.
Finally: what are your next steps? Are there any more big innovations you plan to introduce during your time in cabinet?
For scalable listening to work, we need to engage people who prefer interactive & tangible understanding, including children. This post outlines the initial steps; and this one outlines the main vision.
Book your place at TICTeC
If you enjoyed reading this interview, it’s time to book your ticket for TICTeC, where every conversation will directly examine the impacts of civic technologies.
And for those who would like to present their own insights, better hurry: the call for papers runs until February 10.
We recently explained how to use pre-written Freedom of Information requests for a campaign. We’re glad to see this being used by AskTheEU, the Alaveteli site for Europe.
Today, AskTheEU launches a campaign to request the travel expenses of EU Commissioners — and they are calling on the public to help submit a total of 168 requests.
No matter what your feeling are towards the EU (let’s not even go there), we hope that everyone is in favour of transparency. AskTheEU’s campaign follows the discovery from a request that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spent €63,000 on an air taxi to Turkey for the G20 summit. Naturally, they were keen to know whether this level of spending is replicated across the organisation.
After a two-year battle, AskTheEU’s parent organisation Access Info has established that the European Commission will provide information on Commissioner’s travel expenses, but only in two-month bundles.
They’ve already made a start: after submitting legal appeals and new requests, Access Info won access to a handful of documents about the travel expenses of five Commissioners: these can be seen here.
But there’s plenty more to discover, and that’s where the general public comes in. Thanks to the pre-written requests function, all the hard work is already done: it’s just a matter of picking one or two time periods and submitting the already-composed request.
Anyone can participate by going to the campaign website from today. All requests and responses will be made public on AsktheEU.
Last week, we announced the keynote speakers for TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technology conference 2017.
Now we’re going to look at each of them in more depth, starting with Tiago Carneiro Peixoto of the World Bank. His keynote is titled (Un)Civic Tech? and will be looking at how sometimes, despite high hopes, civic technologies don’t deliver everything that’s been hoped for.
Most importantly, Tiago will examine the tangible effects of civic tech on participation, inclusiveness, and governmental action — and then go on to outline which research agendas we should be pursuing now.
We zipped a few questions across to Tiago and he was happy to give us some answers.
(Un)Civic Tech? — that’s quite a bold title, given that your listeners will all be people working in the arena of Civic Tech and with a strong belief in its power to do good! Should we be worried?
Actually my initial title was “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Civic Tech”, so it’s not all just bad and ugly. But no, you shouldn’t be worried. Unless you are extremely prone to confirmation bias!
TICTeC is all about assessing the impacts of Civic Technology, making you a particularly relevant speaker. What measures does the World Bank have in place in order to assess the impact of the work that it does?
The measures depend on the problem at hand.
But some of the recurrent measures we look at are related to the effects of technology on uptake, inclusiveness, citizens’ decision-making, and governments’ responsiveness.
For those who are getting started on the subject, I would suggest taking a look at one of our recent publications, Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement: A Practical Guide.
It’s time to focus on government responsiveness.
Part of our work can also be found at the Open Government Research Exchange, which is a partnership between GovLab, mySociety, and the World Bank’s Digital Engagement Evaluation Team.
But the best illustration of our measures and findings — which will be presented later this year — are not public yet. So, for those who would like to see it first-hand, I would suggest they come to Florence for TICTeC.
What do you perceive to be the value of TICTeC?
One of the key values of TICTeC is that it is convened by mySociety — which, since its creation, has been one of the leading organisations actually doing civic technology work.
The curation of the conference by mySociety’s team, combined with mySociety’s reputation and network, naturally tends to draw the participation of high-level researchers who are more likely to be dealing with concrete problems in the civic tech space.
What are you looking forward to getting out of the conference yourself?
Of course, I’m very curious to see the research that will be presented at the conference, and how it has evolved in relationship to previous conferences.
I am also very interested in meeting new researchers and exploring venues for collaboration with them. But I hope that the conference is also an opportunity to collectively move towards a more coordinated and problem-driven research agenda.
TICTeC brings together researchers and practitioners in Civic Tech. If you could give a single message to the community, what would it be?
It’s time to focus on government responsiveness.
You’ve done some interesting work with FixMyStreet data. What did you discover there?
We are happy to have conducted what is, to our knowledge, the first empirical work examining the effect of government responsiveness on citizens’ participation.
The fact that we did this in collaboration with mySociety and using FixMyStreet data is something we are particularly proud of.
We are now looking into other issues, such as predictors of government responsiveness. In other words, what makes governments “tick”? Does it matter who you are for governments to respond?
While these may seem like trivial questions, they have important implications for the design and performance of solutions like FixMyStreet. I don’t want to anticipate our preliminary findings now, but I will certainly do so at TICTeC.
So there you have it: several more good reasons to book your ticket for TICTeC now.
Or, if you have something to say, why not submit an abstract?
You can be sure of seeing thought-provoking speakers at TICTeC, all focusing on the vital area of researching the impacts of Civic Technologies. We put a lot of effort into making sure of that!
And we especially strive to bring you keynote speakers who are inspiring, insightful, surprising… in some cases even provocative. You may still recall last year’s keynote Helen Milner asking ‘Is Civic Tech just an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?’.
For TICTeC 2017, we can promise keynotes that are just as compelling. We’re delighted to say that each day’s proceedings will be kicked off by Tiago Carneiro Peixoto and Audrey Tang.
Tiago Carneiro Peixoto
Tiago is from the World Bank, which has the ambitious mission of reducing world poverty.
As a Senior Public Sector Specialist, Tiago works with governments to develop solutions for better public policies and services. As you might expect, that involves research around technology, citizen engagement and governance, to help understand how those things can intersect for the good of all. One example of that is the research using FixMyStreet reports, which demonstrated how government responsiveness can lead to citizens becoming more engaged.
If you’d like further reason to pay attention to his keynote, well, Tiago was featured in TechCrunch as one of the twenty most innovative people in democracy. We know he’ll have plenty to say that is of direct interest to TICTeC delegates.
In her inauguration speech, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen said, “Before, democracy was a clash between two opposing values, but now democracy must be a conversation, a dialogue, between many different values”. To help bring about this vision, she appointed Audrey Tang as Minister for Digital in her new cabinet.
If you think parliamentary proceedings can be as dull as ditchwater, you may be in for a surprise. Audrey was not a standard appointment: she comes from a background of activist hacking, for one thing.
Since her arrival in August 2016, the government has undergone a colossal transformation into one of the most open and participatory administrations operating in the world today, ranking top in the Open Knowledge Foundation’s Open Data Index.
Audrey will be running through some of those groundbreaking changes in her keynote at TICTeC. Note that she’ll be ‘appearing’ virtually — she’s very much in demand — but there will still be the opportunity to pose questions to her live.
Stand by, as we’ll shortly profile our two keynotes further. For now, we hope your appetite has been suitably whetted.
If you’re interested in presenting a session or workshop at TICTeC, see the Call for Papers here — and submit before February 10.
Registration to attend is available at the earlybird price until March 10 — book here.