1. Digitising parliaments: it took a pandemic

    Thanks to all who attended the second in our series of TICTeC Seminars this week: and if you weren’t able to attend, catch up with the video or read the collaborative notes taken during the session.

    Many thanks, too, to our panelists, who spoke so knowledgeably and engagingly about the experiences of parliaments around the world that have been forced to make a quick switch to digital technologies during the COVID months.

    Julia Keutgen of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Avinash Bikha of the Centre for Innovation in Parliament and Lord Purvis of Tweed from the UK’s House of Lords were led in conversation by mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.

    We heard about parliaments in Morocco, Brazil, Chile, the Maldives, and of course the UK, with a rounded view of the benefits of quick digitisation against the challenges and inconveniences. Naturally, parliaments and their members come in all shapes and sizes around the world, and their readiness or suitability for transferring to online methods vary accordingly.

    On the negative side, some representatives have struggled to adapt, especially if older; and all may be missing the nuances of face to face conversations with their colleagues.

    But there are positives too, with MPs able to spend more time in their constituencies helping constituents, and (close to mySociety’s heart, this one) a quicker turnaround of digital data on voting results.

    Watch the video to hear plenty more detail on this engrossing topic.

    The third and final TICTeC Seminar in our autumn 2020 series will focus on civic tech’s role in the climate crisis and will take place next month — date TBC. Sign up for TICTeC updates and we’ll send you an alert once timings are confirmed.

    Finally, if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.

    Image: Joakim Honkasalo.

  2. No boundaries to Freedom of Information

    A forthcoming tribunal will examine the blocking of FOI requests that have been placed by people living outside the UK.

    To those at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow, the matter is quite simple: the UK’s Freedom of Information Act was written explicitly to allow “any person” to request information from a public body. There’s no restriction to say that the requester must be a UK citizen.

    A phrase often used is that the FOI process must be ‘applicant blind’. An authority doesn’t have the right to refuse information because of what it knows about the requester. That applies to nationality as much as to any other characteristic.

    We vehemently defend this principle, not least because we have seen first hand that important investigations can result from cross-border collaborations — right now, we’re working to support journalists across Europe working on several stories that cannot be confined to one territory.

    Associates across the international FOI network are proof positive that this kind of collaboration is invaluable in getting to the truth. Last year, Arne Semsrott of German FOI site FragDenStaat told us of a project they are running in tandem with Spain-based AccessInfo, to find out more about the treatment of migrants in many countries.

    “You can file FOI requests for Frontex documents anywhere in Europe”, he said, “so we’re asking in different countries for ‘serious incident’ reports: these will tell you of human rights violations”.

    If each country insisted that its information was only accessible to its own citizens, there would be significantly less opportunity to uncover such cross-border instances of mistreatment, not to mention stories of corruption, malpractice, misspending and cronyism. And as we know, such phenomena are unlikely to respect jurisdictional boundaries.

    For a view from closer to home, we can consult a member of the experienced WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team. Richard Taylor comments, “If UK FOI requests were restricted to British citizens or to those living in the UK, that could, depending on how it was implemented, seriously impact our ability to provide WhatDoTheyKnow’s service.

    “Providing proof of nationality or residence would be a significant additional hurdle for people making requests, and for us in managing them.”

    We question why there is a need for a tribunal to examine a point of the Act that is already quite clear — and, since there is to be one, call upon them to make a judgement that adheres to the letter, and spirit, of this country’s information law.

    Image: Max Böhme

  3. Join us at LocalGovCamp

    We’re longstanding supporters of LocalGovCamp, the conference where innovators in Local Government come together to share knowledge on how to improve services.

    This year we’re both sponsoring it and running a couple of hands-on, interactive sessions. All online, of course, given the way things are these days.

    On Tuesday 6 October, join a mySociety-led discussion with Mark and Zarino, on how consistent data standards across councils could open the doors to much better innovation.

    We’ll be looking at our own Keep It In The Community project, nodding to our Council Climate Action Plans database, and inviting attendees to join a wider discussion on how we can encourage better joined-up data across councils.

    And on Weds 7 October, our designer Martin will be running a mock ‘consequence scanning’ exercise. He’ll take participants through a new and useful way of assessing and mitigating risks in new government services, as conceived by Dot Everyone, recently taken up by Future Cities Catapult, and now used successfully in service design workshops by SocietyWorks.

    We hope you’ll come along and enjoy some good discussion and deep dives into local government service improvement: find out more and book your place here.

     

  4. Challenging refusals: upholding the right to information

    We’re very pleased to say that we’ve been awarded funding by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust to extend the Freedom of Information services we offer through WhatDoTheyKnow and WhatDoTheyKnow Pro.

    This work will support users in taking the next steps, if appropriate, when their requests for information are denied.

    A bit of background

    In the last few years, there has been a significant and sustained decline in FOI requests being granted by the UK government.

    According to the Institute for Government, the proportion of refused FOI requests reached a record level in the third quarter of 2019, with departments refusing to comply in full with more than half of all FOI requests that they received. This compares to around 40% in 2010 and around 30% in 2005.

    And yet, our research found that, when challenged, a large proportion of refusals were overturned, suggesting that the fault did not lie with the type of request being made. 22% of internal reviews resulted in the full or partial release of information, and a further 22% of appeals to the ICO led to all or some of the information being released.

    For local authorities, up to half of internal reviews – and just over half of all ICO appeals – led to the release of all or some of the information requested. In Scotland, with its own FOI regime, 64% of appeals to the Information Commissioner resulted in the full or partial release of information.

    And so, while acknowledging that some refusals are certainly legitimate, there is a clear case for challenging such responses. But to do so is daunting, especially for novice requesters who can understandably be discouraged by an official response citing exemptions in legalese.

    Our plan

    This new funding will allow us to approach the issue from four different, but interlinked directions, each intended to inform and support users in challenging government refusals of FOI requests.

    • When a WhatDoTheyKnow user confirms that they’ve received a refusal, we’ll be integrating context-sensitive advice. This will inform the user of their right to appeal, give clear guidance on how to assess whether the authority has complied with the law, and also advise on other channels, beside FOI, by which information may be obtained.
    • We’ll automatically identify which exemption has been cited in the refusal, giving us the ability to help users better understand why their request has been turned down.
    • Based on this finding, we’ll offer context-specific advice for the exemption identified. For example, if the request has been turned down because of cost, we’ll show how to reframe it to fall below the ‘appropriate limit’.
    • Finally, once the user has been fully informed, we’ll offer the support they need to escalate the request to an appeal.

    Ultimately we hope that this work will help reset the balance on the public’s right to access information, better enabling citizens, journalists and civil society to effectively scrutinise and hold authorities to account.

    As always, we’ll also be thinking hard about how to make all of this apply more universally, across the various legislatures that apply in jurisdictions where people are running sites on the Alaveteli platform.

    If this interests you, watch this space. We’ll be sure to update when we’ve made some progress on the project.

    Image: Tim Mossholder

  5. Catch up with the first TICTeC Seminar

    Open Data: an essential, not just ‘nice to have’

    Would societies around the world be better able to respond to the pandemic, if more or better open data were freely available?

    That was the question put to our expert panel on Tuesday, in the first in our series of online TICTeC Seminars.

    Karabo Rajuili of Open Ownership, Olivier Thereaux from Open Data Institute and Fabrizio Scrollini of the Open Data Latin American Initiative (ILDA) were led in a discussion by our own Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.

    We heard of the need for — and simultaneously the impossibility of — a rapidly-constructed open data standard; the benefits and dangers of releasing data about COVID to a potentially uninformed public; and the need for good ownership data to be freely available in a fast-moving procurement environment in which there may not be the tools to investigate where money is being spent.

    After the speakers had laid out their positions, the floor was opened for questions, each of which ignited still more informed debate. Finally, attendees were invited to a quick (and optional!) networking session in which they could speak to other attendees more directly.

    If that all sounds interesting, you can catch up on the main session for yourself by watching the video or reading the collaborative notes that were taken by attendees.

    There are still two more TICTeC Seminars in this series to go, so do join us to take part in the conversation.

    On 20 October, panelists will discuss why it’s taken a pandemic for more parliaments to digitise; while in November (date TBC) the topic will be the climate crisis. Find full details for both sessions here, and don’t forget you can sign up for TICTeC updates.

    Also: if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.

     

  6. Stop the bombing of civilians, with WriteToThem

    Humanity & Inclusion is a charity working to combat the injustices faced by people with disabilities and vulnerable populations in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.

    Their recent campaign, ‘Stop Bombing Civilians’, encourages supporters to protest the bombardment of innocent citizens in areas of conflict like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.

    As their website explains, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. Many are left injured or disabled with their lives and livelihoods completely ruined — surely all would agree that this is not a just or desired outcome of bombardment, no matter what your view on the conflicts generally.

    And so we were gratified to learn that WriteToThem, our ‘contact your MP’ service, is playing a part in this campaign.

    A toolkit for speaking out

    Humanity & Inclusion have put together a set of actions that supporters can take, from signing a petition to taking a selfie and sharing it on social media — or writing to your MP.

    “WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”

    And that’s where we came in: this last action is managed through integrating WriteToThem on the charity’s campaign page (something that any campaign can do, for free).

    We asked Tom Shelton from Humanity & Inclusion to explain more about how they used our service within their integrated campaign.

    Up to date contacts

    Tom explained that a central part of the campaign is the petition, and it is easy enough for them to run petitions by using the forms on their own website.

    However, when they’re asking supporters to directly email MPs, it’s just too complex to maintain and implement the dataset of politicians’ contacts themselves.

    “Yes, this data is publicly available, but like many small organisations, we have no capacity for maintaining its integrity”.

    Flexible and free

    So the charity looked around to see what tools were available.

    “There are some impressive tools out there, but most of them are pretty expensive given our modest needs. In previous years, we have used a relatively low cost paid tool for this type of ‘email your MP’ campaign.

    “We needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use.”

    “However, given that this new campaign was quite targeted, we were expecting a relatively low volume of emails, so we needed something that was easy to implement on our website, and we didn’t want to make any investment in a paid tool that would involve setup costs.

    “We also wanted to avoid an ongoing subscription cost as we knew that our campaign would probably be paused at various points and then re-activated later (say, during elections, parliamentary recess etc).

    “In particular, we needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use, and would help them to approach MPs in a way that is appropriate and would get the best response.

    “Based on this, WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”

    For all levels of coding knowledge

    How easy was it to add the tool to their website?

    Tom says that, for anyone with basic web skills, the postcode box option is very simple to set up.

    “The more complex integration is also quite straightforward, but due to time constraints, we opted to integrate the postcode finder widget.

    “The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent.”

    “This fitted nicely in with our website and immediately worked. The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent, as is the guidance for how best to use the tool for effective campaigns.”

    Humanity & Inclusion are actually a great example of an organisation who have read the guidelines and included them into their campaigning plans: if you visit the ’email your MP’ page of their campaign, you’ll see that they encourage you to write messages in your own words, while providing inspiration for some of the points that might be included.

    This is because WriteToThem blocks mass copies of identical messages, based on evidence that these tend to be regarded as a nuisance by politicians, rather than having the desired effect.

     

    Thank you very much to Tom and Humanity & Inclusion for sharing their experience of using WriteToThem as one part of a simple but effective online campaign.

    And now, if you have been convinced of their cause, we suggest that you take advantage of their campaign pages, and email your MP.


    Image: ©Peter Biro/HI
    Nada, 10, was injured in a bombing with her father in Mosul. As a result of her injuries her leg was amputated below the knee and she will need jaw surgery to help make eating less difficult.

  7. Problems with your tower block? Please tell us all about it.

    Do you live in a tower block as a social tenant?

    Have you ever had — or are you still having — problems with any of the following?

    • Damp or mould
    • Leaking pipes
    • Cracks in the walls or ceilings
    • Broken windows, doors, lifts, etc
    • Poor repairs, or repairs that never get done
    • Fire risks, such as dangerous cladding or cluttered fire escape routes
    • Pests such as fleas, cockroaches, vermin or moth
    • Unsafe gas or electricity
    • Poor heating
    • Landlords that don’t respond, or don’t fulfil their legal duties

    If so, Tower Blocks UK would love to hear from you — and if the problem is ongoing, help to point you in the right direction so that you can take steps to get things resolved.

    As you may recall, we recently co-launched the FixMyBlock website in partnership with Tower Blocks UK. It is designed to help tenants get problems resolved, whether that takes a letter quoting the relevant laws to your landlord, or escalating the issue to another level. It suggests a range of possible routes, from contacting your local councillor, for example, to getting together with other tenants to form a united action group.

    Now, it would be great to hear tenants’ real-life experiences so they can be included on the site. It doesn’t matter whether you’re at the end of the story — you got your problem fixed — or are still trying different methods to solve the issue. Either way, we’d really like to know more.

    Sharing experiences can help others who are having a similar problem. It tells them they are not alone, and may give new ideas on how to rectify the issue.

    So, if you have a tower block-related problem and you’re happy to tell us all about it, please let us know on this form.

    Image: Professor Paul Wenham-Clarke

     

  8. Talking TICTeC 2021

    We need your input on the future of TICTeC – read on to find out more about our plans and have your say.

    We’ve been running our Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) since 2015, and in that time it’s become a key annual milestone for the sector to stop, gather and take stock of how civic technology is shaping societies around the world.

    We believe more than ever in TICTeC’s core ethos: that every organisation developing and running technology that serves citizens — including ourselves — should do so with evidence-based research at the forefront of their decisions, and should examine their impacts. This is to ensure validity and legitimacy, but also to curb and mitigate possible detrimental and unintended consequences.

    Such an approach is especially important for organisations involved in democratic and civic technology, as active, informed and engaged citizens are needed now more than ever to tackle vital issues such as climate change, systemic racism, and health crises. If the tools we build to empower citizens to get things done don’t serve them or function as planned; then it’s time to do things differently.

    TICTeC allows attendees to learn from each other to do this, by sharing best practices, research, methodologies and lessons learnt – so that, ultimately, better civic and democratic tools are developed.

    We will meet again

    TICTeC truly is a global gathering, bringing together around 200 attendees from around 30 countries from across the world.

    Usually, by this time of year, we are well into the organisation of next year’s TICTeC, which we traditionally hold in March or April, in a different global city each year. And by September, we’ve usually decided where we’ll be holding the event and announced all the details including our open Call for Proposals and registration.

    However, this year, as we all know, has been like no other.

    Due to the coronavirus pandemic and the complications it brings for organising global gatherings, we have chosen not to pursue our usual plans. Therefore, for the first time since 2015 we are not planning to run an in-person TICTeC in March/April next year.

    We are instead considering our options for hosting the in-person TICTeC later in 2021, and in addition to our online TICTeC Seminar series this autumn (please do come!), we’d like to organise some further TICTeC initiatives in spring 2021.

    Help us shape TICTeC

    We’d like to make our next TICTeC initiatives as useful as possible to all those working on, using, funding or researching civic technology. What would you find helpful? What would best meet your needs and goals? More seminars? Perhaps workshops, training or networking events? Virtual or in-person? Or perhaps other initiatives that don’t involve actually convening in either of these ways, like podcasts, forums or information sharing?

    We are really keen to hear your feedback on this, as well as on the development and improvement of TICTeC in general. You can let us know your thoughts by filling out this survey or emailing us directly on tictec@mysociety.org. We’d be grateful for any feedback before 31st October 2020.

    Time to reflect

    We’re obviously disappointed to not be organising TICTeC as usual this year, as it is truly a massive highlight for us, and is one of the few gatherings of the global civic tech community left. However, we’re determined that we will meet again and we’re glad to have some time to reflect on how we do things.

    The last few months have been a good time to reflect, speak to other event hosts, attend as many virtual events as possible, review virtual platforms, update our environmental policies, and think about how we can use TICTeC to raise more underrepresented voices.

    So as well as changing the time of year we host TICTeC in 2021, we’ll also be organising things differently. We have a new Environmental Policy that will govern our decisions about future TICTeCs – e.g. hosting in cities that more attendees can reach by train/sea; carbon offsetting; opting for catering with the lowest carbon footprints; and encouraging attendees to play their own part in keeping their carbon footprints down or offsetting etc. And we’re working on plans to make TICTeC as diverse, inclusive and equitable as possible.

    We will continue to reflect and adjust, and your feedback will really help us with this, so we’re really grateful for your thoughts.

    If you’d like to hear about future TICTeC initiatives first, then do consider signing up to our mailing list or joining the TICTeC community on the Google Group.

  9. Our commitment to the environment starts with ourselves

    Working around the climate emergency, you can’t get far before realising that you must look to yourselves. And so, our environmental policy has been added to this site — you’ll see a link in the footer of every page.

    We’ve blogged previously about the work mySociety is doing within our Climate practice — the website we created for the UK’s Climate Assembly hosted an important milestone today as the final report launched; and we’re still collecting local councils’ climate plans to better allow for national analysis. Then, the third in our series of TICTeC seminars, this November, takes as its subject the climate crisis.

    But of course, every organisation also has its own responsibility towards the climate. To this end, we’ve been working on the first version of our environmental policy. It’s the outward reflection of the work we’ve been conducting internally over the past few months, to examine how we can best cut mySociety’s carbon emissions.

    You can see the policy here. We will keep working on it. If you’ve been doing the same work within your organisation, or have ideas for other ways for remote-working tech organisations to cut carbon, we would very much welcome your input.

     

    Image: Bill Oxford

  10. FixMyBlock: a toolkit for social housing tenants in tower blocks

    Today sees the launch of FixMyBlock, an online toolkit for people living in tower blocks.

    Tower blocks come with their own distinct problems, from unsafe construction to risks of fire. The shocking events at Grenfell Tower have brought such issues back to the public eye, but we don’t have to go far in history to see other disasters such as the Ronan Point collapse and the Lakanal House fire.

    The simple fact is that not all tower blocks are safe, and not all landlords are doing enough to address this.

    Today, thousands of tenants are living in conditions that affect their health and their safety. While working on this project, we heard of people living with extreme mould and damp,  with recurrent cockroach infestations, and, shockingly, with cracks in the structure of their flats that are wide enough to pass a hand through (watch this video for a visual depiction you won’t forget).

    Additionally, since Grenfell, many tenants have been living in fear that their blocks, constructed with the same unsafe cladding, might suffer a similar fate.

    And, though they’ve tried to ask their landlords to address their concerns, they haven’t got anywhere.

    So what can we do about it?

    You may remember that last September we started work with Tower Blocks UK, a campaign group that acts as an information hub for tower block residents across the country.

    Our project began as an investigation into how our popular street reporting software – FixMyStreet – could be repurposed to help tower block tenants report and monitor safety and maintenance problems in their buildings.

    But during the discovery phase (which you can read about in our report here) we found that reporting issues wasn’t the problem most tenants were facing. And our alpha testing (documented in this report here) confirmed it – a FixMyStreet for tower blocks wouldn’t actually help. Our research showed that most tenants already knew who to report their issue to. And, unlike on FixMyStreet where public reporting can help highlight problem areas, many residents were uncomfortable with reporting their safety concerns on a public forum.

    A better reporting process could wait. Instead, together with Tower Blocks UK, we wanted to solve the real underlying problem: equipping tower block tenants with the necessary understanding of their rights, their paths to escalation, and the tools they need to get their voices heard.

    FixMyBlock – empowering not reporting

    So, despite the name, FixMyBlock isn’t a “FixMyStreet for tower blocks” – it’s a living, evolving toolkit of legal primers, template letters, case studies, and action guides, that will help tower block tenants make progress on what are often incredibly sticky, complicated safety and maintenance issues.

    FixMyBlock begins by laying out the conventional steps to getting things fixed — but when these have failed, tenants can also access information on their legal rights and the power of collective action, with case studies demonstrating what has been achieved by residents’ groups, ongoing campaigns, press coverage and other channels of engagement.

    mySociety has worked with Tower Blocks UK and a number of experts in the field to create the site, which Tower Blocks UK will continue to run after handover. The work has been funded by the Legal Education Foundation.

    The site launches with information for social tenants in England and Wales, and in time Tower Blocks UK will expand the content to cover all types of tenancy across all of the UK. Meanwhile, much of the content is applicable for all, so don’t hold off from using it if you have a private landlord, or live in Scotland/NI — just be aware that some of the laws mentioned might differ in your own case.

    Please help us spread the word to anyone living in a tower block. Here’s the link again: fixmyblock.org. You can follow the project on Twitter, too.

    Image: Jimmy Chang