1. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 5

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been opened up to the public thanks to Freedom of Information requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two, part three and part four.

    This edition features examples from New Zealand site fyi.org.nz, Hungarian site KiMiTud and UK site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Auckland residents can now visualise future development in their community

    Sometimes data released via FOI requests can be pretty incomprehensible, and frankly quite dull. That is, until someone makes a handy visualisation tool that makes the data come alive and easier to understand.

    That’s exactly what happened with this request made on the New Zealand Alaveteli fyi.org.nz. The data released was picked up by the New Zealand Herald, who have used it to make an interactive map (see screenshot below) of Auckland Council’s proposed neighbourhood development plan.

    Now Auckland residents can see at a glance how their council plans to change their local neighbourhood.

    Insights The New Zealand Herald

    A similar use of data released via FOI laws occurred a few years ago in the UK after this request on WhatDoTheyKnow. The request asked for the location of every post box in the UK. The data released has been used to create useful tools like this one (developed by our very own Matthew Somerville), which helps citizens easily locate the nearest place to post their letters:

    Find Your Nearest Postbox

    Hungarian utility provider consciously allows pollution of major river

    Another great way to help people visualise the real-life effects of the data they see in an FOI response is to video it, like investigative journalists at Atlatszo did. Their short clip graphically shows a river clogged up with four times as much sewage as the treatment plant has the capability to process.

    Sewage

    Atlatszo used KiMiTud to obtain local government audit reports of a sewage works company.

    The documents reveal that five audits have been carried out in the last few years, and serious deficiencies were found each time: harmful untreated sewage was being pumped into the nearby river Tisza.

    These findings led to the company being fined by the regulator. It is claimed that the company would rather pay these fines than spend the money updating their equipment.

    According to Atlatszo’s investigation, the company could not and did not refute that the quality of water leaving their plant is often more polluted than legally allowed, and admitted that their equipment is not up to date. Let’s hope Atlatszo’s pressure on them will make them change their practices.

    In a recent similar case in Australia, the use of FOI revealed evidence of neglect at a landfill site, with the potential for environmental harm and drinking water contamination.  

    The above examples yet again show the real diversity of information you can obtain via FOI requests, and highlight what an amazing tool FOI is for both data journalists, and investigative journalists.  

    In fact, we’re so passionate about journalists taking full advantage of FOI laws, that we’re about to launch a project that will develop a set of tools to help journalists (and others) to use FOI more easily in their work.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Header image: KOMUnews, CC

  2. How 350 FOI requests will increase the chance of success for start-ups

    Gavin Chait hates walking past empty shops.

    We’re talking about shops where the only person inside is a bored cashier, waiting for customers. Gavin sees it as a sign that the business should never have been set up in that location, and, more importantly, as something that’s completely avoidable.

    With his company Whythawk, he’s on a mission to get that changed — and he’s using Freedom of Information to do so. It’s a very interesting case study that shows just how WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information platform, can be used for the social good.

    So, if you have a few minutes, sit back and watch Gavin explain what led him to make 350 FOI requests, one to each local authority in England and Wales — and what he did when many of them were turned down.

    You can read more about the whole project at Pikhaya.com.

    Thanks very much to Gavin for taking the time to talk to us.

    Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve used one of mySociety’s sites? We’d love to hear from you: just drop us a line on communications@mysociety.org.


    Image: Dan Thompson (CC)

  3. MapIt: creating a more flexible service for our customers

    If you’ve visited the MapIt site this week, you might have noticed a change: we’ve introduced key-based authentication for API users.

    This enables us to be more flexible about how we provide our service, which means you can be more flexible about how you serve your users.

    MapIt is both an open source application and, via https://mapit.mysociety.org, a web service. Use of the API is free for low-volume, charitable use, while all other uses require a licence.

    For the moment API keys are optional. We’ll always offer a free level of service to support independent developers and charities.

    We’ll have more details soon about the increased flexibility this change will bring.

    Image: Clare Black (CC)

  4. 12 new topics for TheyWorkForYou: how did your MP vote?

    Today we’ve added twelve new topics to the voting pages for every MP on TheyWorkForYou. Covering important areas such as membership of the EU, mass surveillance of data, and military action against Daesh/ISIL, these voting lines will help give an even better at-a-glance picture of what your MP stands for, and how that was reflected in Parliament.

    Check your own MP’s votes on these topics by inputting your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage:

    Where to input your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage

    and then clicking on the ‘voting record’ tab:

    Voting tab on TheyWorkForYou's MP pages

    You’ll see all your MP’s voting lines laid out in several topic areas on a single page:

    selection of voting lines on TheyWorkForYou

    From there, it’s easier to explore further by clicking ‘show votes’, which will take you to a page listing every vote taken into consideration when calculating the MP’s stance.

    For a full explanation on the methodology behind these pages — a combination of manual and automated inputs — see our previous blog post.

    How do we choose which topics to include? It’s all driven by what MPs have voted on in Parliament, and consequently how much data there is to draw from in any specific subject area (there are also a few ‘topics in waiting’: areas we know we want to cover, but where there need to be some more votes before we have sufficient data to present meaningful stances).

    New topics in full

    The new voting lines we’ve added are:

    • In Constitutional Reform
      • Reducing the voting age
    • In Home Affairs
      • Mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities
      • Merging police and fire services under Police and Crime Commissioners
    • In Transport (a new topic area)
      • High speed rail network
      • Greater public control of bus services
      • Publicly-owned railways
    • In Foreign Policy & Defence
      • UK membership of the EU
      • The right to remain for EU nationals
      • Military action against the group known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh
    • In Taxation & Employment
      • The reduction of Capital Gains Tax
    • In Housing (a new topic area)
      • Secure tenancies for life
      • Charging a market rent to high earners renting a council home

    We hope this helps you see, even more clearly, the effect your MP has had on a broad range of national and international issues.

    Don’t forget that we also offer the chance to discuss these votes (or any other issue) with your MP. Just click the ‘send a message’ button at the top of the page to go to WriteToThem.com, where you can compose a message to your representatives quickly and easily.

    Image: © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

  5. InfoLib’s Impact

    Researching in an unstable environment

    It’s been nearly two years since the InfoLib Liberia project with iLab Liberia started. In that time the project has faced many hurdles, some predicted, and some completely unforeseen.

    The iLab team have seen their country devastated by Ebola, only 11 years after the end of their second civil war, bringing tragedy and instability along with it. As you can probably imagine, the impact of curfews, fear and death in communities has made it difficult for people to continue with their daily lives. The social impact of such a disease is wide-reaching. Distrust, marginalisation and exclusion can be directed at those who show symptoms, or even who suffered and survived.

    These are challenges that our local partners have had to contend with every day, both when holding training sessions and more crucially when researching the impact of the project on people’s lives.

    However, by far the largest hurdle for this particular project has been a mixture of low internet penetration and lack of government will to release information. The team on the ground have been working tirelessly to create an ecosystem of requesting and training Public Information Officers (PIOs) to reply – even providing them with tablets to scan documents without needing electricity, let alone a computer. But if those officers have no access to the information that has been requested, their jobs become virtually impossible.

    The project is now drawing to a close and we’re undertaking our final research survey. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what we’ve learnt about the impact of our joint Freedom of Information project in Liberia.

    Results

    When designing the project we decided that impact could best be measured in terms of whether or not the project increased confidence in government transparency.

    We carried out surveys in January 2016 and April 2016, to provide a baseline picture and then an assessment of impact at midline. The final survey is being conducted in August 2016 just as the project ends.

    The first survey – the baseline – was carried out mainly in the rural areas. iLab Liberia teamed up with LFIC to survey 152 participants who had been involved in the FOI workshops that LFIC had held in the counties.

    We had to attempt the second survey twice, as it turned out to be more challenging than we’d expected. We needed the participants from the first questionnaire to answer the same questions we’d asked them initially, in order to measure change — but it proved hard to locate all of them.

    There were many factors which caused this, but the main one was economic drivers, forcing people to move to where the opportunities are. It’s a problem many researchers must run into working in the field.

    Carter, the project lead at iLab Liberia told us:

    “There are several reasons why this happens […]. People migrate a lot between markets, farms. Several persons who participated in the baseline could not be reached as they [had] travelled to other cities/counties. [Or] the job that allowed them to reside in that city/county is no longer available so they might have left seeking after another job.”

    Our second attempt was more successful. We managed to contact a large percentage of the original participants in the survey: 112 of the 152.

    internetaccessliberiaWe’ve found out some interesting things from doing this research. We saw that 74% of people who use the internet daily say it’s their main source of information, though it is still only a small percentage of the population who have access to the internet.

    So the next biggest source of information? Radio! 85% of people with with no access to the internet give radio as their main source of information. Thinking of the migration of workers between cities and counties – you suddenly appreciate why Radio is such an important medium for getting hold of information. Thankfully, as you’ll remember from our original blog post, we’re covering both of these media in the InfoLib project.

    In the months since we began studying the impact of this project we also learned that fear of making a request has dropped by 5% in the individuals surveyed . The amount of people who reported that they didn’t know how to ask for information dropped from 24% to 21%. This is pretty great news to us as it shows that our training and our encouragement is working – albeit slowly.

    govtransparencylibFinally we saw the percentage of people who believe government would be more transparent if citizens could see the information they hold rise by 3% to 93% of the surveyed respondents. Even if this figure hadn’t risen, this demonstrates a clear existing demand from the citizens of Liberia for the Government to release more information about its activities which is great news overall!

    Challenges

    No project is without its challenges, and as you’ve seen above one of the big ones is ensuring that the same people respond from survey to survey. Not being able to pin down precisely the same set of people means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that we have a true measure in the difference in attitude.

    As a result of the economic and social drivers mentioned above, the workforce in Liberia is very transient. This makes disseminating information through radio and internet mediums even more important. This research has shown that these are the primary sources of news and official information for the majority of Liberians, and continuing to improve knowledge about, and access to, information via these sources will empower the population further.

    Finally, it can be challenging to demonstrate impact in projects like these, simply because research is not the main focus for our local partners. We partner with local groups because they are passionate, capable, and able to engage and mobilise citizens around a certain issue. We cannot expect small grassroots groups to have the resources or experience to conduct academic surveying, sampling or interviewing that could detect and definitively isolate the short term impact of a small project. This piece of research has provided some encouraging interim results, but most of all, it has provided valuable lessons to us at mySociety in trying to conduct this kind of impact research remotely and in partnership.

    While we wait for the outcome of the final survey we can feel cautiously hopeful that this project has caused a small change in the way access to information operates in Liberia. infoLib will continue to run after the project officially ends, and mySociety will continue to support the work that iLab does in this area . However it may take longer than we had expected or hoped, to see the governmental shift towards releasing information.

  6. Stories of Alaveteli: what has been revealed through FOI sites around the world? Part 4

    Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been unveiled thanks to FOI requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two and part three.

    This time, we’re featuring stories from EU-wide site AsktheEU, German site FragDenStaat (Ask the State), Ukrainian site Dostup do Pravdy (Access to Truth) and Australian site RightToKnow.

    Emissions test cheating: European Commission warned five years before VW scandal

    Responses to FOI requests on AsktheEU reveal that back in 2010 the Commission’s own experts told it that they suspected a car maker was cheating emissions tests. This was five years before last year’s scandal that revealed Volkswagen had cheated in emission tests by using ‘defeat devices’, which made its cars appear far less polluting than they are.

    The documents revealed on AsktheEU were shared with the Guardian, which has published this article.

    This new information contradicts the Commission’s claim that no concrete evidence on the use of defeat devices was ever brought to their attention.

    It is yet to be seen how these latest revelations will affect Commission officials involved.

    What’s 10,000 euros between friends?

    FragDenStaat is the FOI platform run by Open Knowledge Foundation Germany. It doesn’t run with Alaveteli code, but was originally inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow.

    One response received via FragDenStaat revealed that Joachim Sauer, the husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been paid 10,000 euros annually since 2011 to sit on the board of billionaire Friede Springer’s charitable Foundation. Merkel and Springer are close friends.

    This raised eyebrows in the German media (see this Spiegel article). Merkel has been criticised for her close relationship with Springer, whose company, Axel Springer AG, controls the largest share of Germany’s market for daily newspapers and runs Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper.

    This has sparked allegations of cronyism. Does Sauer’s position grant Springer unfair influence on German governmental affairs? Some would say so.

    Say it with flowers

    A response by Ukrainian State Administration to a request on Dostup do Pravdy has revealed that the President’s office has spent $1.85 million USD of taxpayers’ money on flowers since 2014.

    Flowers certainly are lovely, but with poverty rates nearly doubling in the last year, it can be argued that they really aren’t a high priority right now.

    61 agencies want Australians’ personal data

    In 2015 the Australian government passed controversial laws that vastly increased the amount of citizens’ personal phone and web data that telecommunications companies were required to hold.

    The government also restricted the number of agencies who could freely access this data, but allowed rejected agencies to re-apply for access. An FOI request on RightToKnow revealed that over 60 have done just that. This discovery was reported by most major news organisations in Australia, including the Guardian.

    You can read the full story, as told by RightToKnow, here.

    The above examples show the diversity of information that is revealed thanks to Freedom of Information around the world, and the types of information that get picked up by mainstream media organisations.

    So next time you have a question about a public body that you can’t find the answer to publicly already, why not consider using an Alaveteli site to ask – and that way, the response you get will then be publicly available for others to see too. You may even unearth the latest political scandal too.

    If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.

    Image: IceNineJon, (CC).

  7. Lasa’s simplifying Universal Credit, with MapIt

    The Universal Credits system is replacing many other welfare benefits… but slowly. Its roll-out won’t be complete until 2022, meaning that many are, understandably, confused about just what applies within their own local area.

    Now Lasa, in collaboration with the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG), have launched a tool to help with that problem. Just input a postcode, and it displays information about which benefits apply — and, crucially, where to go for advice in your area.

    Lasa's Universal Credit tool

    Like Lasa’s previous tools (we wrote about their SocialCareInfo tool previously), UniversalCreditInfo uses MapIt to match postcodes to services.

    It’s part of a suite of offerings, also available as widgets that can be placed onto any website. All fall within Lasa’s remit to support organisations in the delivery of social welfare law advice to the disadvantaged communities they serve.

    Lasa's tools as widgets

    We’re always glad to see MapIt used in other people’s projects, especially those that make a complex system easier to understand.

    Apparently advice workers are already expressing their gratitude for the fact that they can have this information at their fingertips — so hats off to Lasa.


    Image: Russell Davies (CC)

  8. The small symbol that tells you all is well

    When you send a Freedom of Information request, a clock starts ticking. Here in the UK, public authorities have 20 working days in which to respond — but of course they can only do so if they’ve received the request.

    And, while email is generally reliable, we’re all familiar with the occasional mishaps it can bring: mailboxes that are full, accounts that have been closed down, or messages being returned because they look too much like spam.

    As Liz’s post yesterday mentioned, our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli now includes a new feature which verifies that your message actually has been delivered.

    Sign here please

    Email works a bit like signed-for physical mail. When a letter is delivered to a recipient they either sign to say they’ve received the letter, or the mail company records that there was no-one available to accept the delivery. This lets the mail company keep the sender up to date with where their letter is. Mail servers do the same — the recipient server sends a confirmation that a particular email has been received, or an error code is reported by your mail server if there’s a problem delivering the email.

    Like physical mail, we can only verify that the message has been accepted at the destination address. It’s then under the recipient’s control to get it to the right person at that address, a bit like a receptionist receiving a letter for an employee 10 floors above. We think that if an authority’s mail server confirms that one of our emails has been delivered, it’s their responsibility to ensure it reaches the correct people to be able to answer your FOI request.

    Proof of receipt

    Look at the header of any request on WhatDoTheyKnow, and within 24 hours, in most cases you’ll now see a small green ‘delivered’ confirmation:

    Example of the green 'verified' tick on WhatDoTheyKnow

     

    Most users can click on this to see further confirmation:

    Your request has been delivered - example from whatDoTheyKnow

    But if you’re the owner of the request, when you click on the green ‘delivered’ link, you’ll see information from the mail logs as the message passed through our server. If there’s ever a query about whether or not a message was delivered, you can hand these on to the authority to help them analyse any issues.

    Exmple of a user's view of the mailpath on WhatDoTheyKnow

    On the rare occasions that something goes wrong, here’s what users will see instead:

    What requesters see when something goes wrong on WhatDoTheyKnow

    – and if it’s your own request, again, you’ll have access to the mail logs.

    Small but mighty

    This feature might look small, but there’s a lot of thinking behind it — just check the length of the trail on Github, our ticketing system. Anyone will be able to understand the amount of discussion and problem-solving that went into the addition of this small green tick, while the more technically-minded may also find it interesting to see the coding solutions as they unfolded.

    This small green tick also gives users something rather powerful: proof that their request was received by the authority’s mail server at a specific time, should that be disputed.

    The suggestion for this feature came initially from one of the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers. It took some time to implement, but we’re pleased to say that it has now been made available for all Alaveteli sites in release 0.25.0.0.


    Image: Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (CC)

  9. Alaveteli Release 0.25

    We’ve released Alaveteli 0.25! Here are some of the highlights.

    Visible delivery status

    Gareth and Zarino have added a delivery status feature that shows whether a message has been received by the authority’s mailserver. This should provide reassurance for site users that messages are getting through and makes it difficult for an authority to successfully claim that they didn’t receive the request.

    New delivery status feature

    Clicking on the delivery status indicator reveals a bit more detail about the status itself. Admins are shown more detail here including relevant mail logs to diagnose problems or provide proof to the authority if required.

    Analytics

    We’ve upgraded from the so-called “Legacy” (ga.js) version of Google Analytics to Universal Analytics. For most Google Analytics users there’s nothing to do here except sit back and enjoy continued technical support and new feature rollouts from Google but if your Alaveteli theme has custom analytics scripting, you should check Google’s upgrade guide as well as our upgrade notes to see if you need to make changes. If you’re not ready to move to this release yet, don’t panic – you may not get any shiny new features from Google but they haven’t published an end date for support yet.

    Profile spam

    In addition to spam email, there’s been an increase in the number of accounts that create profiles containing spam links – presumably to boost their search engine ranking score rather than to trick people into clicking through from the site. Having spent some time going through accounts on WhatDoTheyKnow to look for patterns, we’ve added some tools to this release to try to discourage this use of Alaveteli and to make it easier for admins to discover and ban offending user accounts.

    you can't update your profile

    (We also looked at extending our reCAPTCHA use for new account signups but this didn’t seem to help so we are not offering it to reusers.)

    Design

    Martin has been working away on improving page load times and accessibility compliance to make the pages faster to load and easier to navigate. (A process we’re continuing into the next release.) We’ve also updated the help template code so that the examples are in the example theme rather than the core code and added a rake task to help check whether your theme implements the help pages correctly.

    The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

    Image: Miika Mehtälä (CC)

  10. In memory of Peter

    We were shocked and saddened to learn that Peter Williams, one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers passed away earlier this week.

    Peter only joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a volunteer in March of this year, however in that short time he had become a valued member of the team.

    No stranger to Freedom of Information, he had been using the rights provided for in the FOI Act since shortly after it came into force here in the UK, and had been a user of WhatDoTheyKnow since 2012.

    Education and senior executive pay and benefits were some of his particular areas of interest, and Peter was researching the reasons why some public bodies sometimes fail to respond to requests.

    As a consequence, Peter had helpfully been collecting information on specialist colleges and schools, and proposing additions and edits to the site. Following the same route that has led to several of our keenest users becoming volunteer administrators, he was invited to join the team so that he could make the changes he was proposing himself.

    By all accounts he made a strong impression during his short time on the team, both with his fellow volunteers and across the mySociety team.

    “Many aspects of the site’s operation, including dealing with correspondence from users, considering requests to remove material from the site, and discussing our policies and the future development of the service, benefited from Peter’s input”, says one.

    Others say: “He was a valued volunteer and a great person”; and “he was a funny, thoughtful and committed guy”.

    We were saddened to learn of death of someone who shared our beliefs in the value of making information held by public bodies accessible, and who shared our passion for activism.

    All are feeling the loss of a colleague who approached his role with such enthusiasm and diligence, and our team will be the poorer for his absence. On behalf of mySociety, our Trustees and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers our thoughts are with Peter’s family and friends.

     

    Image: Sodanie Chea (CC)