1. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 1

    There are now Freedom of Information websites running on our Alaveteli software in 25 jurisdictions worldwide, which between them have processed more than 330,000 FOI requests.

    But what sort of information is being revealed through these sites? And what impact has this information had? In our new series of posts, we’ll be giving you a roundup of some of the most interesting and impactful requests made on Alaveteli sites from across the world.

    To kick off, here are the stories of two interesting requests; one from Australia’s Alaveteli site RightToKnow and one from Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy: (more…)

  2. What People Want To Know on WhatDoTheyKnow

    mySociety’s flagship Freedom of Information (FOI) request portal WhatDoTheyKnow.com, operating in the UK since 2008, has amassed a whopping 330,000 FOI requests (and counting) from citizens over its eight year life-span.

    That equates to approximately 15-20% of all FOI requests made in the UK. It also represents the largest database of FOI requests in the country, having provided a platform for requests and responses to over 17,000 UK public authorities to be published publicly online.

    Those are some impressive numbers: however, until now we haven’t known much more about what requests are being made, whether there are trends, or indeed, whether the responses that people are receiving are satisfactory.

    We thought it was about time that we took a look under the bonnet of WhatDoTheyKnow to find out the answers to some of these bigger questions.

    Subject matter

    We decided first to look at what themes and policy areas people were most interested in when making an FOI request. We chose this area because we suspected that many people would be asking for similar things from similar authorities. If this is the case, then this would be a clear evidence-based argument for authorities to increase pro-active publication of certain information.

    The task itself was not an easy prospect. WhatDoTheyKnow does not have a tagging or categorising system, so there are over 330,000 requests that we had no quick or easy way of comparing. The volume of data was also so high that we couldn’t reasonably extract every request and analyse which policy area(s) it was relevant to.

    To solve this issue, we decided to focus on the 20 authorities receiving the highest volume of FOI requests between 2008-2016. This way we could rely on a large sample of requests for both both local authorities and government departments. The list of authorities is below.

    Department for Work and Pensions

    6,841

    Department for Education

    1,974

    Home Office

    5,381

    Wirral Borough Council

    1,953

    UK Borders Agency

    3,377

    Birmingham City Council

    1,582

    Brighton & Hove City Council

    3,367

    Liverpool City Council

    1,538

    Transport for London

    3,111

    Westminster City Council

    1,501

    Ministry of Defence

    2,859

    HMRC

    1,476

    Metropolitan Police Service

    2,515

    Bristol City Council

    1,301

    Ministry of Justice

    2,372

    Lambeth Borough Council

    1,296

    BBC

    2,310

    Camden Borough Council

    1,290

    Department of Health

    1,989

    Kent County Council

    1,235

     

    Taking all the requests made to these public bodies gave us a total of 49,500.

    With the generous support of Thomson-Reuters, we were able to use OpenCalais, their automated tagging system, to assign one or more thematic tags to each FOI request made. Over 100,000 hyper-granular tags were automatically applied in this way.

    Once that was complete, we went through each tag and the requests it was associated with. We grouped tags into policy areas and checked for any that had been incorrectly assigned. We then split the authorities into two groups: Local Authorities and Departmental Bodies, to compare the most requested information.

    Among Local Authorities, the top requested information concerned:

    1. Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
    2. Social Care Information concerning care providers and their funding/operations, care in the community arrangements, social worker qualifications and staffing levels, and information concerning the operation and monitoring of social work departments
    3. Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
    4. Authority management Citizens also wish to know with greater detail how authorities are operating internally, requesting management and meeting information, emails about decision-making, and structural information concerning development, contracting and relationships with private companies
    5. Business rates Concerning long-term empty properties, the impact of rates on town centres, charitable or other discounts, and regeneration.

    These are the top five of thousands of tags, but common themes were clear when comparing these authorities.

    Generally, requesters have shown they want information in a more detailed form than authorities are currently providing, in particular in the expenditure of public funds and those services catering for complex cross-cutting social issues. Given the ongoing housing crisis in the UK,  coupled with the ageing population, it is likely that information concerning these policy areas will be in increasing demand.

    Conversely, among Departmental Bodies, the top requested information showed few common themes. This is primarily due to the differences in policy areas between the departments. There were, however, significant spikes in certain policy areas within departments, particularly around immigration, and this will be the focus of future investigation.

    In conclusion, we understand that very few FOI requests are completely identical in subject matter, but broad trends are clearly evident.

    If Local Authorities proactively publish more granular information about the policy areas we now know citizens are actively interested in, they may see a dip in formal FOI requests.

    Publishing information and data in a machine-readable format may even enable other civic technologists like ourselves to build tools to assist councils in their delivery of vital services. Whilst this will not eradicate FOI requests completely, it would hopefully begin a shift in behaviour.

    In short: wouldn’t it be great if, instead of authorities seeing FOI as an administrative burden, they began to see pro-active publication as an opportunity to harness the skills, initiative and flexibility of citizens.

     

    Image: Allison McDonald (CC)

  3. Inform yourself before the referendum

    If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.

    On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.

    We believe in an informed vote.

    That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.

    Check the facts

    Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.

    They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.

    Ask some questions

    Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.

    But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.

    You can use WhatDoTheyKnow to ask for information from UK authorities, and AskTheEU for EU bodies — AskTheEU is a site run on our Alaveteli Freedom of Information software.

    Know where to vote

    Democracy Club are the stalwart crew of volunteers who crowdsourced details of all candidates before the UK general election and again before the recent local elections.

    Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.

    Image: Eisenrah (CC)

     

  4. Does your council break the law?

    That’s the question that a WhatDoTheyKnow user recently asked on Reddit, after asking local authorities in the UK how they pay care and support workers on sleep-in shifts.

    Many care worker positions require regular overnight shifts. Depending on the job, you might be there ‘just in case’, with an expectation that you’ll generally get a night of uninterrupted sleep; or you might be there specifically so that you can respond to regular calls for help from clients.

    Either way, you’ve been contracted to be away from your home, ready for work if needed. That’s why the law states that the national minimum wage should apply to sleep-in shifts — but as this user discovered through a systematic series of Freedom of Information requests, many councils fail to meet this standard.

    It’s always good to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used to uncover this kind of important data. You can read more, check how your own council fares, and see the conversation unfold via some interesting users’ comments on Reddit, or see the original requests on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    Image: Fiona Kwan (CC)

     

  5. Do authorities respond faster by email or through an FOI website? Our latest research

    When you send a Freedom of Information request through a site like WhatDoTheyKnow, do authorities respond in the same way as to a request sent via email? Our latest research would suggest that there is a small but crucial difference.

    Just one channel

    We provide Alaveteli, the software that underpins Freedom of Information sites all over the world — but of course, those sites are not the only means by which citizens can make FOI requests.

    A Right to Know means that citizens can request information via whatever means are allowed in their country’s law: traditionally, that’s by post, but many authorities will accept requests via phone and email, and there are even examples of responses being obtained via Twitter.

    So Alaveteli sites make a complicated and potentially intimidating process easier, and they also have the benefit that they publish requests and responses online for everyone to access, but they represent just one channel via which information can be accessed.

    Something that we’ve often wondered is whether there is any difference in the way authorities respond via an Alaveteli site, or via the email system.

    An experiment

    So mySociety’s research team got together with Informace Pro Všechny, the Czech Republic’s Alaveteli site, to conduct an experiment.

    The question under scrutiny: Are Freedom of Information requests sent via email treated the same as requests sent via an Alaveteli platform that allows citizens to make requests via an online portal, and publishes all responses publicly on its website?

    We wanted to know:

    • Would responses be the same?
    • Would it take the same amount of time to get a response?
    • Would you overall get a better or worse service via Informace Pro Všechny than via a personal email address?

    These questions are especially pertinent to us because we want to make sure that our technology is working for people, rather than against them. At the very least, we want to ensure that using an Alaveteli platform such as Informace Pro Všechny will provide the same level of service that citizens can expect from using private email addresses. If using a site such as this does not result in the same level of service, then this would be an issue we as civic technologists should know about and try to address.

    Our experiment was simple. We sampled 100 public authorities (town halls and ministries), and sent them two separate requests via a private email address, and two separate requests via Informace Pro Všechny.

    The information requested was deliberately simple and uncontroversial, and clearly subject to Freedom of Information law, to avoid any deliberation by public authorities about whether to release it.

    Findings

    The good news is that using both channels of communication — individual email or Informace Pro Všechny — results in the same quality of response. Neither method of communication was found to be inferior to the other with regard to how substantive the response was.

    The even better news is that use of Informace Pro Všechny resulted in faster responses to requests. Whereas private email requests were provided on average within 9.2 days, responses to requests sent via Informace Pro Všechny took only 7.2 days – two days quicker.

    This is a positive outcome that was by no means certain, and at this point we are unable to fully explain it. It is possible that public authorities were quicker to respond to Informace Pro Všechny requests because these were known to be published online, and therefore, a slower response would be more noticeable.

    Or the quicker response rate via the site could be attributed to the fact that its users are known to be politically active, politically interested or involved in journalism: a quicker response might reduce negative coverage or feedback. Or it could be that other external factors we were unaware of influenced the result.

    More research would be required to determine the causes of these differences, however, at this point, we are simply delighted to say that Informace Pro Všechny is currently the quickest tool to use to request information from government in the Czech Republic.


    Image: A pre-Czechoslovakia dissolution stamp, from 1966. Most FOI responses are much quicker than this, by post or other means. Karen Horton (CC)

  6. Become a mySociety board member

    Whilst election fever grips the UK, we’re seeking some new representatives of our own, to join our two company boards.

    We are inviting candidates to put themselves forward to become a Trustee of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy or as an independent Non-Executive Director of our commercial business mySociety Ltd.

    This is a unique opportunity to join a very smart group of board members in helping guide the development of the UK’s original civic tech agitator, as we plot out a course over the next few years.

    As our work has become increasingly global we would like to expand our charitable board with at least two additional trustees who can bring a combination of experience of international development, campaigning and research. If you’ve helped grow an organisation and have a good head for figures and legal matters, that would be of great benefit as well.

    On the commercial side we’re especially looking to expand our service provision to the public sector in the UK, and wish to appoint up to three new directors, who will ideally bring in some mix of experience from government, public sector, digital product development and importantly marketing and commercial skills. Again finance and legal expertise is appreciated, along with an entrepreneurial streak.

    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 can apply for the charitable Trustee role here, and the commercial Non-Exec Director role here.

    We’ll be accepting applications until 10am on Monday 6th June – but don’t leave it until the last minute to apply!

    Image courtesy of Shell Vacations Hospitality (please note this is not our real boardroom)

  7. Discussing impact in Barcelona: TICTeC 2016

    The chairs have been stacked, the banners rolled away, and 142 delegates have returned to their 29 home countries. TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technologies conference, is over for another year.

    The 1.5 day event saw a concentration of wisdom and expertise from across the civic tech sector, and we’re keen to ensure that we share as many insights as possible.

    To that end, we’ll be publishing materials such as photos, videos and slides, as soon as we can. We hope that, if you weren’t able to attend, they’ll give you a taste of the TICTeC experience — and, if you were there, they’ll serve to keep it fresh.

    Some materials will take a little time: videos, for example, are currently in post-production, and should be ready within a few weeks. We’ll be announcing on the mySociety Twitter feed, Facebook page and this blog when they’re online, or check the TICTeC resources page.

    Meanwhile, here’s what’s available right now:

    • Slides from all the speakers Click on each speaker’s name to access them.
    • Photos: all under Creative Commons, so feel free to download and share them if you wish.
    • A Storify to help you relive the experience through hashtagged tweets and photos.
    • The TICTeC Google Group: everyone who attended the conference is a member, so this is the place to continue discussions or begin new ones.

    Thanks so much to everyone who participated, making TICTeC a real success. We hope to see you all again.

  8. TICTeC: See you tomorrow in beautiful Barcelona

    Yes, time flies — TICTeC really is tomorrow!

    We’re looking forward to hearing from those at the heart of civic tech research. We can’t wait to see old friends and make new ones, too.

    But if you can’t be with us for this unique conference on the impacts of civic technologies, don’t despair. You can follow along via the #TICTeC hashtag, which we’ll be encouraging people to use across all the usual channels.

    Of course, we’ll also be busy taking notes, photographing and collecting footage for blog posts and videos after the event, so watch this space for those summaries.

    And now: off to Barcelona. ¡Hasta mañana!

     

    Image: Moyan Brenn (CC)

  9. Running a campaign? The WriteToThem tool can help

    WriteToThem is our service that helps people write to their elected representatives, quickly and easily.

    People running a campaign often send their supporters to WriteToThem and ask them to contact their MP. But it’s always easy to lose people between one website and the next: you’ll get far better results if you can send your users right in to the message-writing process.

    Fortunately, the WriteToThem embeddable tool lets you do just that. It’s free, and available to any campaign that wants to use it. We recently came across a great example of how this tool has been used by Stepchange, the debt charity, so we wrote it up in a case study.

    If you’re wondering whether this tool might work for your own campaign, you can read their experience here.

     

  10. Where Next for Open Standards

    Earlier this week we hosted our Open Standards in Local Government workshop at Newspeak House in London, with the aim of unpicking where open standards might be of benefit and what might be stopping us from making more progress.

    We were joined by 20 smart people representing a bunch of local councils across the UK and it’s fair to say we made a good bit of progress. A number of consistent themes arose through our discussions.

    It was widely agreed that Open Standards are key to getting the basics right, and standardising the ability of different services to speak to one another is a prerequisite for a sustainable local authority service strategy. The insistence on compliance with open standards at the procurement stage should place an imperative on suppliers to build-in interoperability and reduce the fear of vendor lock in – councils shouldn’t inadvertently replace one set of closed systems for another.

    This link between adoption of open standards and the procurement process was fundamental.

    In our opinion demanding compliance from suppliers to agreed open standards up front, is probably the single most important thing that central government could do to help local government.

    Phil Rumens from LocalGovDigital introduced recent progress on the development of the Local Government Digital Standard. Notably, it goes further than the equivalent in central government, with an emphasis on reuse of existing data and services, and commitment to make more data open and reuseable.

    Both the LGA through LG Inform, and GDS via standards.data.gov.uk already look to gather standards for use in central and local government; however adoption by local government often lags substantially behind. Simply put this is a conversation that doesn’t really happen outside a small number of web or digital staff within councils, and the wider group of service staff don’t yet understand the opportunity that open standards represent.

    Indeed, Tom Symons from Nesta who introduced the Connected Council’s reporthighlighted that the councils furthest ahead are those that have both put in the hours to achieve proper internal Governance standards, and have benefitted from leadership by the Chief Exec and Senior management team.

    The biggest need we identified was to showcase great examples of how open standards can lead to better outcomes in practice.

    Showing what’s possible, both with case studies and live services that can be adopted was seen as essential, especially when this leads to actual financial savings and better outcomes for the citizen. This is something we’re keen to put some time into in the future.

    Sarah Prag and Ben Cheetham shared their experiences of collaborating on the DCLG led Waste Standards project. The most interesting thing for me was how a group of committed individuals just decided to get on with it and find some funding to make it happen – a proper coalition of the willing.

    Practical Next Steps

    The second half of the workshop looked at what we should focus on next.

    We were particularly keen to build on the progress that we’ve made in popularising the Open311 standard, which we can use to integrate FixMyStreet.com with each local authorities’ systems.

    We heard two contrasting experiences, firstly from Chris Fairs at Hertfordshire, who employ an extensive internal management system for issue reporting including individual definitions for fault types. They discovered that citizens are not so good at judging the severity of potholes – and through triage inspection, around 40% of reports are downgraded due to misreporting.

    This contrasted secondly with the experience of Nigel Tyrell and his team at Lewisham who have recently adopted an Open311 enabled service, now linked into both FixMyStreet.com and LoveCleanStreets.

    Lewisham Open311 App Results

    Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Lewisham’s experience is that well over half of reports actually come from their own internal staff using the system. This peer to peer approach has been transformative for them, with frontline staff motivated, more in control, more engaged with and connected to residents, and better able to integrate citizen reports into their own workflow – a very neat solution.

    From this discussion we identified three specific actions that we’re going to help take forward;

    1. Identify local authority service areas that would benefit from the development of open standards
    2. Review output from the DCLG Waste Standards project, to determine how a similar approach can be applied elsewhere
    3. Feed back with suggested improvements to Open311.org for non-emergency reporting and update the list of UK Open311 endpoints

    As with any such event the real value comes in the following weeks and months as we look for ways to collaborate together and opportunities to put into practice some of the things that we discussed.

    We’ll certainly be planning follow-up events in the future, so if you’d like to get involved sign up for our newsletter, post a comment below or get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.