1. A demain: see you in Paris

    TICTeC logoAs we speak, several excitable members of the mySociety team are on their way to TICTeC 2019 via the channel tunnel. We’re so looking forward to catching up with the Civic Tech community and hearing all about the research you’ve conducted since last year.

    Whether it’s your first time at TICTeC or you’re returning, we know there will be much to enjoy. We’re especially eager to hear the view from France’s Civic Tech movement. Speakers will include our hosts at OECD; MP Paula Forteza; Secretary of State for the Digital Sector Mounir Majoubi; and Pauline Véron, Deputy Mayor of Paris.

    We’ve shouted a lot about our two keynotes, Alessandra Orofino of Nossas and James Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies: if you need a refresher on their inspirational backgrounds, follow those links to read the relevant posts. But there is plenty more to engage you, too.

    This year we’ve noted strong themes coming through in the selected sessions, including the potential for Civic Tech to tackle political polarisation, fake news and civil unrest; women in Civic Tech; and the impacts/practicalities of participatory budgeting, among many, many other strands. You can see the full rundown via our Twitter feed, which we’ve been using to trail every session over the last couple of weeks.

    If you’re now kicking yourself because you can’t make it, do watch out for our live streaming of key presentations. You’ll be able to see these on YouTube. If you’re a YouTube user, you can visit the links listed below now, and click the ‘set reminder’ grey button so that you’ll receive a nudge to watch:

    Or if you’re more habitually on Facebook, we’ve also listed ‘events’: follow these to make sure you receive a reminder before we go live (they’ll remind you to go to the YouTube link, where the actual streaming will be taking place):

    No need to fret if you can’t make the livestreams, either. As always, we’ll also be posting permanent videos of all the main presentations, along with slides and photos as soon as we can after the event.

    And for now, on y va!

     

    Image: Benh Lieu Song (CC by-sa/4.0)

  2. FixMyStreet Pro and Bromley: driving efficiency through technology

    Seven years ago, Bromley Borough Council was one of the first authorities to implement FixMyStreet Pro and we’ve enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship ever since. It’s been a true partnership as Bromley work closely with us, letting us know their needs and how best we can innovate to meet them. The resulting development then passes on to all our client councils.

    The value FixMyStreet Pro brings to Bromley was recognised last night when the implementation was shortlisted for an award at the 2019 LGC Awards, in the category “Driving efficiency through technology”.

    In the end, we just lost out to the worthy winner Orkney Islands Council — but If you’d like to know more about the features and development that got the project shortlisted, take a look at our case study here.

    FixMyStreet and bromley council at the LGC awards
  3. WhatDoTheyKnow Pro helps TBIJ get the whole picture on council sales

    In a major new inquiry, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism made Freedom of Information requests across all 353 UK councils.

    Their aim? To build up a full picture of the public places and spaces sold by councils across the country, as they struggle to make up funding shortfalls.

    The Bureau used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro‘s batch functionality to help them in this mass investigation, which has resulted in an important report for Huffington Post as well as an interactive public database where you can search to see what your own local council has sold.

    In total, councils’ responses have confirmed the sale of over 12,000 assets since 2014. The report goes on to prove that in many cases, the proceeds have been used to fund staff redundancies as authorities are forced to cut back.

    Investigations like this serve to highlight one of the key benefits of WhatDoTheyKnow Pro’s batch feature. While some of the data may have previously been available piecemeal – published in regional papers, perhaps, or requested at a local level — this is the first time that the full picture across the country has been made visible.

    One of the journalists responsible for the report, Gareth Davies, says:

    I’ve been working on these FOIs since July last year and I’ve no doubt the dataset I built would be nowhere near as comprehensive without the @WhatDoTheyKnow Pro dashboard. Also means I know exactly which councils have still yet to respond, 180+ days later.

    We are glad that the service was of help.

    If you’d like to check out WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, sign up here.

    Image: © Mat Fascione via geograph.org.uk/p/4278237 (cc-by-sa/2.0)

  4. Progress on Keep It In The Community

    Now KIITC is a one-stop database of community assets

    We’ve kept you informed every step of the way as we develop Keep It In The Community (KIITC) into a database of the places and spaces across England that are of value to local people and communities — see our previous blog posts here.

    Thanks to additional development and some welcome data input, we’ve reached a new phase in its evolution. Back in September we explained how the site contains a snapshot of registered Assets of Community Value (ACVs).

    KIITC now also includes the records of places valued by locals, collected by Sheffield Hallam University.

    Furthermore, and perhaps most excitingly, it invites local groups to add their own entries, of assets which are of benefit to the local community but are at risk of going into private hands.

    So now, Keep It In The Community’s data comes from from a number of sources:

    • The snapshot of data obtained from every council in England in September 2018, comprising around 5,000 registered ACVs.
      Each of these listings contains as much data as we were able to retrieve from the relevant council at that time, including details such as nomination and expiry dates. Note that any information after September 2018 (eg if an application has progressed) won’t be recorded unless it has subsequently been added by a council or user.
    • Sheffield Hallam University, who invited community groups to register their  community-owned or managed assets, shared that data with us — adding a further 150 or so entries to the site. These can be identified by the ‘valued by locals’ label. Again, there is scope for users to add more detail to each.
    • Councils can maintain existing records and add new ones if they wish to.
    • If you are part of a community group or have a connection to a building that is, or should be, an ACV or community owned, you can add it — or add further details to existing records.

    While we’re not in a position to maintain the data on registered ACVs as time progresses, Keep It In The Community does give a picture of the thousands of spaces and places perceived to be of value to their communities up and down the country — and invites councils and community groups to help keep it up to date.

    Keeping these listings accurate — and making them special

    Anyone can add a new asset or edit the information about an existing one if they have a connection with or knowledge about it. The first step is to either find the asset you wish to edit and click “Edit”, or click on the map and fill in the form to create a new asset.

    For any listing, users can upload photos, provide the name of the community group that is backing its status, add more detail about the building’s history, etc.

    Users’ collected memories and descriptions will stand as a public statement on why the asset has value, and could also be used as supporting documentation if they are planning to go through the process of getting a place registered as an ACV.

    All changes are recorded publicly on the site so it’s possible to keep track of who made which changes and when – always useful if any mistakes creep in.

    Stylish pages

    Along with these additions to the data, we’ve given the site a really nice new look.

    Keep It In the Community is built on the FixMyStreet software, and this project is a great demonstration of just how flexible the underlying codebase is: as you’ll see, it doesn’t just have a new colour scheme (as many of the FixMyStreet variants do), but the entire layout of each page is different too, lending them a style more reminiscent of sites like AirBnB — very suitable for a project that’s all about properties!

    Work will continue on KIITC, and we’ll be sure to keep you informed as it progresses.

    Image: Adrien Olichon

  5. Better case management of FOI and Subject Access requests

    If you were reading back in September, you might remember the work we did with Hackney Council to create a more effective interface for people making FOI requests — we blogged about it here.

    We’re really pleased to be able to extend this work, thanks to a successful bid to the Local Digital Fund. Over four months, we’re working with Hackney and some other authorities (Suffolk, Stevenage, East Herts and Cornwall) to take a really good look at the workflows of council staff who manage and respond to FOI and Subject Access requests.

    Around 475,000 FOI requests were received by UK local authorities in 2017 – which averages out at 1,100 per authority, although it’s unlikely to be weighted evenly across the board. Nonetheless, one thing’s for sure: a significant amount of every council’s time and resources are spent in triaging and responding to requests, and with this work we’re hoping we can bring efficiencies and improvements.

    In this phase, we’re conducting user research and then using what we discover to prototype ideas for an end-to-end request-handling system — open source, of course. Once that’s complete and we’ve got a good picture of the challenges involved, the processes already available and feedback on our own prototypes, we’ll be able to advise on whether it makes sense to proceed further.

    One commitment we made when applying for this project was that we’d be ‘working in the open’. We want to document what we’re up to at every stage along the way, so not only will any other authority be able to benefit from a finished product that could result from our work; but also, everyone will be able to learn from what works, and maybe even what doesn’t, as we go through this process of investigation and discovery.

    To that end, we’ve been making  weekly updates which anyone who’s interested can read. In summary, though, we kicked off the work in the first week of January, and so far we’ve drafted a research plan; spent some time re-reading our own research on FOI statistics and local government FOI admin; and had an intensive couple of days interviewing and observing council staff in Hackney as they go about their business dealing with FOI and Subject Access requests.

    The user research continued over the weeks as we conducted remote interviews with staff from the other councils — Stevenage, Cornwall and Suffolk.

    This has already been incredibly useful and, just as you’d expect, we’ve found out small details and wider themes this way that we would never have chanced upon without having the chance to observe governance staff in their own environment.

    It’s an opportunity for councils as well: as far as we can tell, it is unusual for authorities (and in some cases, even, departments within the same authority!) to communicate with one another about their FOI processes and challenges. Our research will hopefully be a novel chance for them to compare methods and learn from one another.

    We’ll be updating our weeknotes regularly, and we’ll also come back here to share our progress and findings, so depending on just how much depth you want, follow along at the LocalGovDigital Pipeline, or just wait for our next blog post here on our own site!

    Image: Hackney Council offices by Martin Wright

  6. From promise trackers to participatory budgeting — and everything in between: TICTeC 2019

    We’ve just shared the schedule for our Impacts of Civic Technology conference, TICTeC, and in all honesty? We’re excited.

    It’s almost complete, but we’ll be adding a few more details of additional sessions once they’re confirmed. We’re also expecting a number of side events to spring up, too. Yes, that’s right, TICTeC has grown a fringe!

    TICTeC has been growing in momentum since its beginnings in 2014. This year, once again, thanks to a higher number of submissions than ever — and the increasing quality of those submissions — you’ll experience an unsurpassed line-up of speakers, each with deep insights into the field.

    Tickets are going faster than ever before: more than half of them are sold already, and and we expect to sell out well before the event, so don’t delay if you’re hoping to join us in Paris: register now.

    Our keynotes

    Each day will kick off with an inspiring presentation from a standout practitioner that has brought significant change through Civic Tech projects.

    On day one Alessandra Orofino, founder of Nossas, will speak about her project to empower citizens throughout Latin America; day two begins with Bloomberg PhilanthropiesJames Anderson explaining how a global network of mayors are sharing technologies to improve cities worldwide.

    Themes

    As always, TICTeC examines projects from across the Civic Tech field; but each year, certain themes emerge that reflect the current preoccupations of society more broadly.

    Image by Patrice Calatayou - Gilets Jaune marching in Paris

    The French experience

    Thanks to generous support from the OECD, our venue is the beautiful OECD Headquarters & Conference Centre in Paris. It’s fitting that, during the two days, we’ll hear a lot from those making a difference in the French context.

    Speakers include Pauline Véron, Deputy Mayor of Paris and member of the Socialiste party; Paula Forteza, MP with En Marche! and Tatiana de Feraudy from Décider ensemble.

    They’ll be not only giving us a good overview of Civic Tech in France, but also looking at how digital democracy might be the key to the issues raised by the Gilets Jaunes uprising.

    Image by Daniel Latour: a room full of citizens partaking in a PB session

    The wisdom of crowds

    As concepts such as Participatory Budgeting reach maturity, we can now stand back and assess what works well and what doesn’t, when you turn to the citizenry for decision-making.

    Theo Bass from Nesta in the UK will examine online deliberation tools; Benjamin Snow from Germany’s Civocracy will give an honest look at what you can do when citizen consultation tools launch with a sizzle rather than a bang. Thanks to Reboot‘s Panthea Lee and Gil Pradeau from the University of Westminster, we’ll get a look at Participatory Budgeting in both the US and France.

    Tackling extremism

    Extremism, and its spread via digital means, are of course of huge concern across many different countries.

    We’ll hear from the USA’s National Democratic Institute on how Civic Tech might tackle political polarisation; and from the UK’s Full Fact on how machine learning can simplify the factchecker’s job. Marko Skoric from Hong Kong will examine whether blocking, filtering and unfriending on social media actually adds to division.

    This very current concern is sure to be in evidence right across many of the other sessions, too.

    Image by Ken Douglas - sunrise over urban silhouettes

    The urban experience

    Taking a cue from James’ keynote, we’ll see many examinations of Civic Tech in the city, from Jose Alberto Gomez of Mexico on better mobile apps for fault reporting; to analyses of Civic Tech in diverse urban areas from the Centre for Conflict and Participation Studies in Italy. And our hosts OECD will be presenting the concept of an urban barometer.

    Impactful Civic Tech projects

    Luminate are one of several participants in a panel which examines Civic Tech in Latin America for a wider understanding of applicable insights. Jasmina Haynes from Integrity Action in the UK will present the Nepalse experience on how to check whether grants are doing everything the funders hoped they would. And several more sessions will have an emphasis on ensuring initiatives are impactful.

    TICTeC 2018

    And more

    With three to four tracks running each day, there’s plenty to choose from — including a look at the issues that arise in long-running Civic Tech projects, by mySociety’s own developer Matthew Somerville — so make sure to have a browse through the schedule for a full picture of what to expect.

    Act now

    And then, we can’t stress this enough: book your ticket, or you might be too late.

    Images: Gilets jaunes Patrice Calatayu (CC-by-sa/2.0); Capital budgeting session Daniel Latorre (CC by/2.0);

    Urban dawn Ken Douglas (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  7. TICTeC 2019 keynote speaker: James Anderson

    When you realise that borrowing ideas is not a sign of weakness, but as Bloomberg Philanthropies‘ James Anderson puts it ‘a badge of honour’, you can really maximise the benefits for cities — and their citizens — around the world.

    That’s the thinking behind the Government Innovation programs James heads up: despite the diversity of the world’s cities, it’s undeniable that they are facing many of the same problems, from climate change to low civic participation, from pollution to health issues.

    If a scheme in one city is driving forward sustainability, growth or efficiency, why expect others to reinvent the wheel hundreds of times? It makes perfect sense to pass on the findings about what works and what doesn’t to other cities facing similar issues.

    Among other initiatives, James is responsible for forging a global network of mayors in 290 cities across 25 countries, to share knowledge and technology around areas as diverse as bike-sharing schemes, measures against childhood obesity and urban sprawl, tackling corruption, encouraging recycling, and many many more.

    You can tap into Bloomberg Philanthropies’ vision and James’ own hands-on experience by coming to our conference on the impacts of civic technology, TICTeC. James is the second of our keynote speakers (see Alessandro Orofino, our other keynote here), and we know that he’ll be offering inspirational and tangible takeaways from a perspective that’s highly relevant for our times.

    Make sure you don’t miss out: book your ticket to TICTeC now.

  8. Expanding our research store

    We’ve been working over the last few years to make our research as easy to read and explore as we can. However, because we release a lot of open data (and are usually open to sharing other data with researchers) there’s also been a lot of research written by researchers outside mySociety, which of course also forms part of the knowledge base about our services.  

    As such, we’re expanding the scope of the research store to include work about mySociety’s services that has been produced by researchers beyond our own team.

    Where papers have been released under a Creative Commons licence but there is only a PDF file available, we will sometimes create more accessible versions. For instance, we have already done so with Emily Shaw’s research into Civic Tech Cities and Frederik M Sjoberg, Jonathan Mellon, & Tiago Peixoto’s exploration of how receiving a response through FixMyStreet affects the probability of making future reports.

    This isn’t yet a comprehensive collection, but we plan to add new research as it is published, and retrospectively add older research on a rolling basis. Sign up for our newsletter to hear when new research is added.

    While we’re making things easier to find — we’ve also started including mySociety’s responses to calls for evidence and consultations on the research portal, and you can see those here.

  9. TICTeC 2019 keynote speaker: Alessandra Orofino

    Need a bit of inspiration in these turbulent political times? You’ll get it in spades from ‘urban activist’ Alessandra Orofino, the first of our confirmed keynote speakers for TICTeC 2019.

    Founder of Meu Rio (My Rio), Alessandra hasn’t just brought about change herself; she first gave 160,000 residents in her native city of Rio de Janeiro the power to do it for themselves, with an array of digital tools that facilitate campaigns, civic engagement and participation, and then went on to found the even more ambitious Nossas to unroll similar initiatives across several other Brazilian cities.

    Each calls itself a network of inclusion for a more democratic, inclusive and sustainable city, allowing people to organise around causes and places they care about. The vast majority of its members are in their twenties — as is Alessandra herself.

    At mySociety, we talk a lot about giving people the tools they need to be active citizens, and Nossas is a shining example of what you can achieve on that front. Stacy Donahue of Luminate — the philanthropic organisation supporting technology that empowers people and institutions to build just and fair societies — thinks so too, calling Alessandra an inspiring role model amongst investees.

    Meu Rio saw early successes such as preventing a school from being replaced by a carpark for the World Cup; and the introduction of a new missing persons system for the police, to deal with a chronic lack of information around a major issue for the city. Now, similar breakthroughs are being made on a regular basis by its sister organisations under the Nossas banner.

    If this can be done for cities as large and diverse as Rio de Janeiro, Recife, Porto Alegre and São Paulo, then why not everywhere? Book your ticket for TICTeC now, and learn what it will take to empower citizens in your own locality — directly from one who has done it herself.


    Image: TED conference (CC by-nc/2.0)

  10. Using WhatDoTheyKnow to uncover how schoolchildren’s data was used to support the Hostile Environment

    Freedom of Information forms the basis of many a campaign that seeks to expose hidden facts, or stories which should be in the public eye.

    We spoke to Jen Persson, Director of defenddigitalme, about that organisation’s tireless campaign to get to the truth on the collection, handling and re-use of schoolchildren’s personal data in England.

    What emerged was a timeline of requests and responses — sometimes hard fought for — which when pieced together reveal secrecy, bad practice and some outright falsehoods from the authorities to whom we entrust our children’s data. Perhaps most striking of the findings was the sharing of data with the Home Office in support of their Hostile Environment policy.

    As Jen describes defenddigitalme’s campaign, “It began with trying to understand how my daughter’s personal information is used by the Department for Education; it became a campaign to get the use of 23 million records made safe”.

    It’s a long tale, but definitely worth the read.

    December 2012: consultations and changes

    The story begins here, although it would still be a couple of years before Jen became aware of the issues around children’s data, “despite — or perhaps because of — having three young children in school at the time”.

    Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?

    As Jen explains, “During the Christmas holidays, the Department for Education (DfE) announced a consultation about changing data laws on how nationally stored school pupil records could be used, proposing that individual pupil-level records could be given away to third parties, including commercial companies, journalists, charities, and researchers. Campaigners raised alarm bells, pointing out that the personal data would be highly identifying, sensitive, and insecure — but the changes went through nonetheless.”

    2014: discovering the power of FOI

    Jen came across that change in law for herself when reading about a later, similar data issue in the press: there were plans to also make available medical records from GP practices. This prompted her first foray into FOI, “to answer some of the questions I had about the plans, which weren’t being published”.

    I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.

    And that first step got her thinking:

    “At around the same time I asked the DfE a simple question, albeit through a Subject Access rather than FOI request: What personal data do you hold about my own child?

    “My Subject Access request was refused. The Department for Education would not tell me what data they held about my children, and as importantly, could not tell me who they had given it to.

    “There was nothing at all in the public domain about this database the DfE held, beyond what the campaigners in 2012 had exposed. It wasn’t even clear how big it was. How was it governed? Who decided where data could be sent out to and why? How was it audited and what were the accountability mechanisms? And why was the DfE refusing its lawful obligations to tell me what they held about my daughter, let me correct errors, and know where it had gone? Why did no one at all seem to know where millions of children’s personal data was being sent out to, or why, or for how long?

    “Prior to all this, I’d never even heard of Freedom of Information. But I knew that there was something wrong and unjust about commercial companies and journalists being able to access more personal data about our children than we could ourselves.

    I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.

    “I needed to understand how the database operated in order to challenge it. I needed to be able to offer an evidenced and alternative view of what could be better, and why. FOI was the only way to start to obtain information that was in the public interest.

    “I believed it should be published in the public domain. WhatDoTheyKnow is brilliant at that. I feel strongly that if I am going to ask for information which has a cost in time and capacity in the public sector, then it should mean the answers become available to everyone.”

    And so Jen went on a crash course to learn about FOI, reading books by Heather Brookes and Matthew Burgess, and WhatDoTheyKnow’s own guidance pages.

    “I tried to ask for information I knew existed or should exist, that would support the reasons for the changes we needed in data handling. I worded some questions badly. I learned how to write them better. And I’m still learning.”

    2015: sharing children’s personal data with newspapers

    That was just the beginning: at the time of writing, Jen has made over 80 FOI requests in public via WhatDoTheyKnow.com .

    Through FOI, defenddigitalme has discovered who has had access to the data about millions of individuals, and under what precepts, finding such astonishing rationales as: “The Daily Telegraph requested pupil-level data and so suppression was not applicable.” The publication “wished to factor in the different types of pupil” attending different schools.

    Jen explains: “This covered information on pupil characteristics related to prior attainment: gender, ethnic group, language group, free school meal eligibility (often used as a proxy for poverty indicators) and SEN (Special Educational Needs and disability) status, which were deemed by the Department to be appropriate as these are seen as important factors in levels of pupil attainment.”

    But with such granular detail, anonymity would be lost and the DfE were relying only on “cast iron assurances” that the Telegraph would not use the data to identify individuals.

    2016: sharing children’s nationality data with the Home Office

    In a Written Question put by Caroline Lucas in Parliament in July 2016, the Minister for Education was asked whether the Home Office would access this newly collected nationality data. He stated: “the data will be collected solely for the Department’s internal use […]. There are currently no plans to share the data with other government departments unless we are legally required to do so.”

    But on the contrary: defenddigitalme’s subsequent requests would disclose that there was already a data sharing agreement to hand over data on nationality to the Home Office, for the purposes of immigration enforcement and to support the Hostile Environment policy.

    Jen says: “As part of our ongoing questions about the types of users of the school census data, we’d asked whether the Home Office or police were recipients of pupil data, because it wasn’t recorded in the public registry of data recipients.

    The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.

    “In August 2016, a FOI response did confirm that the Home Office was indeed accessing national pupil data; but to get to the full extent of the issue, we had to ask follow up questions. They had said that “since April 2012, the Home Office has submitted 20 requests for information to the National Pupil Database. Of these 18 were granted and 2 were refused as the NPD did not contain the information requested.

    “But the reply did not indicate how many people each request was for. And sure enough, when we asked for the detail, we found the requests were for hundreds of people at a time. Only later again, did we get told that each request could be for a maximum agreed 1,500 individuals, a policy set out in an agreement between the Departments which had started in 2015, in secret.

    “In the October afternoon of the very same day as the school census was collecting nationality data for the first time, this response confirmed that the Home Office had access to previously collected school census pupil data including name, home and school address: “The nature of all requests from the Police and the Home Office is to search for specific individuals in the National Pupil Database and to return the latest address and/or school information held where a match is found in the NPD.”

    The Home Office had requested data about dependents of parents or guardians suspected of being in the country without leave to remain.

    “In December 2016, after much intervention by MPs, including leaked letters, and FOI requests by both us and — we later learned —  by journalists at Schools Week, the government published the data sharing agreement that they had in place and that was being used”.

    It had been amended in October 2016 to remove the line on nationality data, and allowed the data to be matched with Home Office information. It had also been planned to deprioritise the children of those without leave to remain when allocating school places, shocking opposition MPs who described the plan variously as “a grubby little idea” and, simply, “disgusting”.

    Other campaigners joined the efforts as facts started to come into the public domain. A coalition of charities and child rights advocates formed under the umbrella organisation of Against Borders for Children, and Liberty would go on to support them in preparing a judicial review. ABC organised a successful public boycott, and parents and teachers supplied samples of forms that schools were using, some asking for only non-white British pupils to provide information.

    Overall, nationality was not returned for more than a quarter of pupils.

    2017: behind the policy making

    Through further requests defenddigitalme learned that the highly controversial decision to collect nationality and country of birth from children in schools — which came into effect from the autumn of 2016 — had been made in 2015. Furthermore, it had been signed off by a little known board which, crucially, had been kept in the dark.

    “I’d been told by attendees of the Star Chamber Scrutiny Board meeting that they had not been informed that the Home Office was already getting access to pupil data when they were asked to sign off the new nationality data collection, and they were not told that this new data would be passed on for Home Office purposes, either. That matters in my opinion, because law-making relies on accountability to ensure that decisions are just. It can’t be built on lies”, says Jen.

    The process of getting hold of the minutes from that significant meeting took a year.

    Jen says, “We went all the way through the appeals process, from the first Internal Review, then a complaint to the Information Commissioner. The ICO had issued a Decision Notice that meant the DfE should provide the information, but when they still refused the next step was the Information Rights First Tier Tribunal.

    “Two weeks before the court hearing due, the DfE eventually withdrew its appeal and provided some of the information in November 2017. Volunteers helped us with preparation of the paperwork, including folk from the Campaign for Freedom for Information. It was important that the ICO’s decision was respected.”

    2018: raised awareness

    In April last year, the Department confirmed that Nationality and Country of Birth must no longer be collected for school census purposes.

    However, Jen says, “Children’s data, collected for the purposes of education, are still being shared monthly for the purposes of the Hostile Environment. There’s a verbal promise that the nationality data won’t be passed over, but since the government’s recent introduction of the Immigration Bill 2018 and immigration exemption in the Data Protection Act, I have little trust in the department’s ability in the face of Home Office pressure, to be able to keep those promises.

    “The Bill includes a blanket sweeping away of privacy rights, highlighted by the 3 Million campaign, again thanks to FOI: Every EU citizen applying for Settled Status to accept its Privacy Policy that allows it to share all data with “public and private sector organisations in the UK and overseas.”

    “Disappointingly”, says Jen, “the government has decided instead of respecting human rights to data protection and privacy on this, to create new laws to work around them.

    The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.

    “It’s wrong to misuse data collected for one purpose and on one legal basis entrusted for children’s education, for something punitive. We need children in education, it’s in their best interests and those of our wider society. Everyone needs to be able to trust the system.

    “That’s why we support Against Borders for Children’s call to delete the nationality data.

    “A positive overall outcome, however”, she continues, “is that in May 2018, the Department for Education put the sharing of all pupil level data on hold while they moved towards a new Secure Access model, based on the so-called ‘5-Safes’. The intention is distribute access to data with third parties, not distribute the data itself. The Department resumed data sharing in September but with new policies on data governance, working hard to make pupil data safer and meet ‘user needs’. The direction of travel for change to manage data for good, is the right one.”

    2019: Defenddigitalme continues to campaign

    Defenddigitalme has come a long way, but they won’t stop campaigning yet.

    People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.

    Jen says, “Raw data is still distributed to third parties, and Subject Access, where I started, is still a real challenge.

    “The Department is handing out sensitive data, but can’t easily let you see all of it, or make corrections, or tell you which bodies for sure it was given to. Still, that shouldn’t put people off asking about their own or their child’s record, or opting out of the use of their individual record for over 14s and adult learners, and demand respect for their rights, and better policy and practice. The biggest change needed is that people should be told where their data goes, who uses it for how long, and why.

    “Access to how government functions and the freedom of the press to be able to reveal and report on that is vital to keep the checks and balances on systems we cannot see. We rely on a strong civil service to work in the best interests of the country and all its people and uphold human rights and the rule of law, regardless of the colour of government or their own beliefs. People working with FOI is really important, even and perhaps especially when it doesn’t make the press, but provides better facts, knowledge, and understanding.

    “FOI can bring about greater transparency and accountability of policy and decision making. It’s then up to all of us to decide how to use that information, and act on it if the public are being misled, if decisions are unjust, or policy and practice that are hidden will be harmful to the public, not only those deciding what the public interest is.

    “WhatDoTheyKnow is a really useful tool in that. Long may it flourish.”