1. Introducing the first of TICTeC’s keynote speakers: Helen Milner

    Helen MillnerTICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies. It’s a great chance to hear from researchers and practitioners right across the sector, from many different countries and with many different approaches.

    Not least among these will be our keynote speakers. Today, we’re delighted to announce the first of these: Helen Milner, CEO of Tinder Foundation.

    Helen has had a long history in delivering training around the internet and particularly, as a means of addressing social exclusion.

    Hi Helen. Give us the elevator pitch: what will you be talking about at TICTeC, in a nutshell?

    Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?

    I’ll be putting a series of questions: is digital trying to fix outdated modes of democracy?

    Are people getting increasingly detached from politics and do they feel that democratic structures are impenetrable no matter how much politicians tweet?

    Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes? Or can communities co-design a better future for everyone using tech?

    There are lots of clever people developing democratic and civic tools and apps to help people have a voice—but unless people have the skills to get online, and to use these apps, they will remain the preserve of the digitally confident.

    I will be trying to answer some of these questions and discuss how our efforts can make maximum impact for most people most of the time – and leaving no-one behind.

    And why should people be excited by this?

    As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.

    As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.

    At Tinder Foundation, we’re committed to helping the 12.6 million people in the UK—and the next 3 billion around the world—who don’t have basic digital skills, and so who aren’t realising all of the benefits of the digital world.

    My work as a Commissioner for the UK Parliament’s Digital Democracy Commission brought me up close to the barriers of history and culture looking from the inside out.

    What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?

    Tinder Foundation’s ethos is very much about taking collaborative approach to extend our reach and ensure that our models of delivery are co-designed for social challenges, rather than assuming a one-size fits all approach.

    I’m excited about being part of the conversation so that together we can ensure that democratic and civic technology is accessible to everybody in society.

    Where does your passion for digital and social inclusion come from?

    In the UK there are still a shocking 12 million people—and 3 billion worldwide—who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.

    I went to school in south London where I was educated alongside people from all different backgrounds and have always believed in equality of opportunity. In the UK however, there are still a shocking 12 million people – and 3 billion worldwide – who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.

    By not helping these millions and billions of people gain we are further marginalising the most disadvantaged people in society as well as making it less easy for them to have a voice.

    My role on the Digital Democracy Commission presented recommendations about how everybody in society could engage with the democratic process via digital channels, for example the potential for online voting and a website to help make politics more accessible to those who aren’t currently engaging with politics (such as young people).

    The commission also made a strong case for investing in digital skills training in order to ensure that people can participate with a more digitised political system in future, and the same goes for civic tech.

    If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?

    Civic tech is about more than just technology—its evolution should be driven by a desire to include everyone and empowering everyone to participate in decision-making about matters that impact on them: community, housing, education, transport, the environment, budgets, et al.

    Unless there is a shared commitment towards ensuring everyone can engage with democratic and civic tech, the power to influence change in society will continue to be held in the hands of a committed few.

    You won’t want to miss what Helen has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now. Earlybird pricing runs until February 19.

  2. Crowd-sourcing candidate data in Costa Rica: TusRepresentantesLocales

    Costa Rica will soon be holding elections, voting in mayors and local representatives for each canton — the equivalent of county level. Traditionally these elections have a low turnout  — around 20% of the population — and very few people know who the candidates are.

    Indeed, voters tend not to be very informed about the differences in role between councillors, representatives and mayors. As a result, many simply vote for family members, friends or people they know who are standing, rather than the issues the parties are campaigning about.

    Technology to the rescue

    Can technology help? You may remember YourNextMP, the crowdsourcing software which gathered details of every single candidate in the UK, prior to our own General Election last year.

    That’s now been made available, as YourNextRepresentative, for international usage. Costa Rican version TusRepresentantesLocales launched a couple of weeks ago as a joint initiative between Accesa and mySociety.

    5243818933_a399f4fb40_zCanton elections are a relatively recent institution in Costa Rica; the first Mayor was elected in 1998 and the February 2016 election will be the first time that all three positions go to ballot on the same day!

    Accesa’s goal is to share knowledge about these elections to improve the turnout and have a more informed voter population.

    As you may remember from YourNextMP, the data is mainly gathered via crowdsourcing — asking the general public to add verified information from news stories, political parties’ websites, etc. YourNextRepresentative works the same way.

    Accesa will work with students from the Political Sciences school, community youth groups and in harder to reach cantons, such as the ones bordering Nicaragua, local government members.

    Accesa also want provide something for the candidates that no one else provides: candidates are looking for more coverage of their work around the election —  especially the representative candidates because there is generally more focus on the mayoral ones. TusRepresentantesLocales will give them a platform.

    Manfred Vargas from Accesa says:

    “One of the main challenges that Costa Rican democracy currently faces has to do with how to strengthen public interest in local elections and local governments.

    The abstention rates in past local elections have been incredibly high and most citizens don’t even know who their mayors or councillors are. This year, for the first time, elections for all local positions will be consolidated in one single electoral process that will take place on February 7th, and there’s been a big push to make sure that citizens realise that their municipalities really do matter and their vote counts.

    This site is our contribution to this effort and we believe strongly in it because it accomplishes two very important goals: it lets citizens know who their candidates are, and, by virtue of being a collective effort, it encourages citizen engagement and participation in the electoral process”.

    We wish them luck for the elections and can’t wait to see the outcome!

     

    Images: Ingmar Zahorsky (CC)

  3. Launching infoLib Liberia: optimism and hard work

    On January 8th Liberia launched their new Freedom of Information platform, infoLib, based on our Alaveteli software — not just by pressing a button to put the site live, but with a public event that reached many sectors of society.

    The launch was a great success: it was attended by representatives from groups including university students, government ministries and NGOs, each of which will be able to use the site for their own needs.

    The platform, jointly build by iLab Liberia and mySociety, is Liberia’s first step in streamlining the process of making a freedom of information request.

    The Liberian Government and many of the country’s NGOs are excited about infoLib’s ability to monitor when requests come in and to ensure that they are replied to on time.

    Attendees expressed happiness with the platform and excitement about what it means for Liberia. Many have said they’re more optimistic that requests will be answered, now that there is a clear, transparent way to scrutinise the government.

    The event featured a Q&A session about compliance and functionality: the many questions from the audience were answered by the newly trained Public Information Officers as well as the team from iLab.

    So what’s next?

    Focus is on driving usage; iLab will be accompanying the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition on their nationwide tour talking about FOI.

    In our last post, we talked about how the site is attempting to reach the country’s offline population as well as those who have internet access. On tour, the team will take requests from users, either on paper or directly onto the site if there’s an internet connection.

    Growing usage of the site will be a slow process. While there’s enthusiasm for the project, it’s all very new and people want to see proof that it works — so we have a lot of hard work ahead of us in the coming months.

    In addition to this, iLab are going to be running FOI surgeries on community radio stations in the counties and Monrovia. People will have the opportunity to phone in and make an FOI request, and the answers to previous FOI requests will be shared.

    Finally we’ll be working on training up the last PIOs and building their skills to give them the best chance to answer requests promptly, online, and with the relevant information.

    Everything’s going to plan so far, and there are many aspects of this launch that people launching Alaveteli sites in the future can learn from. Thanks for sharing your progress, iLab, and best of luck as you go into the next phase of your journey.

  4. A new look for AsktheEU.org

    Back last year, we told you about WhatDoTheyKnow’s fancy new redesign, as part of our rolling process of design improvements.

    WhatDoTheyKnow is powered by Alaveteli, the freedom of information software that also underlies 25 other FOI request platforms around the world. A great benefit of this global usage is that when we make improvements to one site, we can make them available for everyone else, too.

    So, using what we developed and learned from the WhatDoTheyKnow redesign, we added the updated look and feel to the latest version of Alaveteli.

    Now any Alaveteli install that upgrades to the latest version can also have a fancy new look!
    And that’s what AsktheEU.org has done. And doesn’t it look great?

    AsktheEU.org is an Alaveteli instance, run by Access Info Europe, which allows citizens to request information from the European Union. So if you need to escalate your request to an EU body and your country’s part of the EU, you should give AsktheEU.org a go.

    Mobile responsive

    A major improvement is that the site is now mobile responsive – so viewing it using a handheld device is ‘a total breath of fresh air’ (to use the words of mySociety designer Zarino!).The site was originally built with the assumption that most users would be on their desktop machines — which was true when it first launched, but certainly isn’t any more. Mobile users make up about 50% of the traffic these days, so this will make it much easier for them.

    These changes also mean that users with visual impairments (or simply those who prefer bigger text on their web pages) can zoom in using their browser’s zoom controls, and use the new site perfectly comfortably, with no degradation in experience.

    Lighter, faster pages

    The new site is now much quicker to load, which should help those on poor connections or mobile devices.The designers achieved this by cutting down the number of files in the pages’ styling.

    Space to breathe

    The new request pages are now also more modern looking, with increased white space and improved contrast and type hierarchy, which should make them easier to quickly scan and find what you’re looking for.

    The base font size has also been increased, making text, especially on the Help and About pages, much easier to read. And links now have underlines, to better distinguish them for users with trouble seeing changes in colour.

    Well done to the Access Info and mySociety teams for making these improvements!

    We’re hoping that, all together, they will make the site more accessible and therefore attract more visitors, so we’ll be keeping an eye on the impact of the new design and will report back.

    There’s a secret message here for anyone running an Alaveteli site: if you’d like your site to benefit from all the improvements above, upgrade to Alaveteli 0.23. There are also loads of other benefits to upgrading, which you can check out here.

    Please do get in touch if you’d like our support to upgrade, we’re here to help!

  5. You asked for it: new voting lines on TheyWorkForYou

    We recently added an Environment section to voting pages on TheyWorkForYou, so now you can see exactly how your MP voted on issues like fracking, measures to prevent climate change, and green energy, all in one place, like this:

    David Cameron's voting record on the environment

    Votes on environmental issues are clearly a priority for our users. They’ve been one of the most-requested additions in the TheyWorkForYou postbag over the last couple of years, and we’re glad to have fulfilled those requests, even if it took a while.

    At the same time, we’ve also made several other additions to existing sections on voting pages, so now you can check how your MP has voted in these areas:

    • Assisted dying
    • Trade union regulation
    • Taxation of banks
    • Enforcement of immigration rules
    • MPs’ veto over laws only affecting their part of the UK (AKA English votes for English laws)

    To check your own MP’s voting record, head over to TheyWorkForYou.com, and input your postcode on the homepage. Then click ‘voting record’ at the top of your MP’s page.

    If you have strong opinions about how your MP voted on any issue, don’t forget, you can let them know by clicking on ‘Send a Message’, which will take you over to WriteToThem.com.

     

    Image: Paul (CC)

  6. How SocialCareInfo matches people to resources

    socialcareinfo - homepage

    It’s great to see the launch of SocialCareInfo, a new website which helps people in the UK find local & national social care resources.

    All the more so because it uses one of our tools, MapIt, to match postcodes with the relevant local authorities. The site’s builders, Lasa, came to us when it became clear that MapIt did exactly what they needed.

    Socialcareinfo.net covers the whole of the UK. Users begin by typing in their postcode, whereupon they are shown the range of services available to them.

    SocialCareInfo map page

    That’s also how many of our own projects (think FixMyStreet, WriteToThem or TheyWorkForYou) begin, and there’s a good reason for that: users are far more likely to know their own postcode than to be certain about which local authority they fall under, or even who their MP is.

    MapIt is really handy for exactly this kind of usage, where you need to match a person to a constituency or governing body. It looks at which boundaries the geographic input falls within, and it returns the relevant authorities.

    We’re glad to see it working so well for SocialCareInfo, and we feel sure that the site will prove a useful resource for the UK.

  7. Timing is everything: why we’re publishing in June

    It’s around this time of year that we normally publish our responsiveness statistics on WriteToThem. However, if you’ve been looking forward to seeing your MP’s ranking, we’re afraid you’ll have to wait a little longer.

    Two weeks after you use WriteToThem to contact a representative, we send you an automated email to check whether or not you received a response. The data gathered by these questionnaires gives us a snapshot of how well the site is working for its users; it also allows us to highlight which MPs, which parties, and which parliamentary bodies do the best and worst at responding to constituents’ messages.

    We’ve habitually analysed  a calendar year of responses, January to December. Last year, though, was an election year, meaning that several MPs were active up until May, and then several new MPs took their seats in the new Parliament. So we’re going to run the data in June, looking at May 2015 to May 2016, followed by a four-week period to ensure we’ve received all the questionnaires.

    Now, in theory, it shouldn’t matter too much, because we rank MPs by the percentage of mail sent through WriteToThem that they respond to (or more accurately, that our users tell us they have responded to). An MP may have responded to 100% of all their mail and then been voted out; their successor may then respond to 10% of their mail: both MPs would be ranked accordingly.

    In fact, that’s how we did it for 2005, the first year for which we published WriteToThem rankings, and also an election year*.

    But shifting the date like this means that the data will be less confusing. It’ll let us see how every current MP has performed, in terms of responsiveness, across a full year.

    Of course, one side effect of this is that if you’re an MP and you want to be top of the pops, you have an extra five months in which to boost your score… so, on your marks, time to get writing!

     

    Image: Debb Collins (CC)

     

    *2010 fell within a four-year period during which we didn’t publish rankings.

  8. Extension of the Freedom of Information Act in Scotland

    Should you be able to request information from private companies who perform the public function of running prisons? How about independent schools which receive public funding?

    Such questions were at the heart of a consultation from the Scottish Government last year, which asked whether the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act of 2002 should be extended to cover more bodies. These were:

    • Contractors who run privately-managed prisons
    • Providers of secure accommodation for children
    • Grant-aided schools
    • Independent special schools

    The WhatDoTheyKnow team responded to the consultation with arguments in favour of the extension of the Act to cover all such bodies: you can read the team’s full response here (including an explanation of why bodies which are not subject to the FOI Act have sometimes been added to the site).

    We’re glad to say that the consultation committee were seemingly in accord with those views, and all the bodies consulted on will become subject to the Scottish FOI Act from 1 September 2016 (subject to Scottish parliamentary process). In their response, which can be viewed on the consultation page, WhatDoTheyKnow were mentioned in relation to private prison contractors:

    We also note the response from WhatDoTheyKnow (…) who strongly supported extension to private prison contractors given their view that the detention of individuals in custody under order or sentence of the courts was undoubtedly a public function.

    Meanwhile, we await developments on the UK Freedom of Information consultation, which we also submitted to. Apparently they are analysing feedback and will be hearing oral evidence from some parties next week, with an intention ‘to report as soon as possible after these sessions’. So, not long now.


    Image: Angela Mudge (CC)

  9. Do a friend a favour: point them towards the Donald Trump debate

    In case you hadn’t heard, yesterday Parliament debated whether Donald Trump should be barred entry to the UK.

    This is a bit of an occasion, because the first petition has been signed by more people than any other in this Parliament. It has 573,971 signatures, and its title is “Block Donald J Trump from UK entry”. The second petition is titled “Don’t ban Trump from the United Kingdom”. That petition is curious. It has 42,898 signatures, but 30,000 signatures were removed because they were thought to be suspect and coming from one source.

    Now, regular TheyWorkForYou readers know that parliamentary debates are often interesting, sometimes thought-provoking, and occasionally amusing. The Trump debate is a great example of all of those things.

    But most people see the goings-on in Parliament as very dull. Today, you might want to do someone a favour, and point them towards this particular debate, which you can see in full here.

    As always with TheyWorkForYou content, it’s easy to search, share or link to any individual section. And as if that’s not enough, this debate contains the only use of the word wazzock yet recorded in Parliament. Now that’s got to be worth a share.

     

    Image: Michael Vadon (CC)

  10. Apply for support and development: closing soon

    Are you thinking of setting up a site using one of these codebases?

    If so, you should know that you can apply for our help with development, hosting, and support. Hurry, though: the cut-off date for the next round of applications is 31 January.

    Due to our own limited resources, we can’t offer help to every potential project — but if you can show that your planned project will be useful, viable, and resourced for the long term, you’ll stand a very good chance.

    Start by reading more about what partnership with mySociety means, and then, if that sounds right for you, you can fill in the application form here.

     

    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)