1. Protecting Assets of Community Value

    A couple of years ago we started discussing a collaboration with the Plunkett Foundation to create a searchable and maintainable public register of Assets of Community Value in England & Wales.

    After a few delays I’m glad to say that this project, thanks to the generous support of Power To Change, is now taking place and we’re already well under way with initial prototyping and development work.

    Now, what’s an Asset of Community Value I hear you ask? According to Locality, who are pretty good source of information on these sort of things, Assets of Community Value (ACVs) are places and spaces in your community that are important to local people and if they come up for sale, the community has the opportunity to bid for them.

    ACVs can be anything from your local pub, to a sports pitch or community hall, churches or even the local cinema. Whatever is of most importance to you and your community; and especially what you might want to protect should it change hands or come up for sale.

    The Localism Act 2011 requires district and unitary councils to publish a list of nominated, approved and rejected community assets, which can be viewed by the public.

    The vast majority of councils publish this information online, but formats and levels of information vary widely, from very basic information to more comprehensive details and support. As a result knowledge and awareness of the community right to bid is very low and take up is equally patchy, so with this project we’d like to help change that.

    Building off the back of our FixMyStreet Platform we’re creating a single register that will gather together all of the currently listed ACVs — including those that were rejected or are currently going through the process of nomination. Just as FixMyStreet publishes its reports, these assets will be displayed on the map for anyone to view, share and discuss.

    With the help of the DCLG we’ll work with local councils and provide them with support to list and manage ACVs in their area, as well as embed their own listings on their website. The service will provide help and guidance for organisations that are eligible to nominate an asset for consideration and we’ll standardise this submission process.

    As the service develops, local community members will also be able to highlight assets they believe should be put forward for consideration, as well as add additional detail such as pictures and notes to registered ACVs on the site.

    What we need help with

    At this stage we’re looking for more collaborators who are already active in this space to come forward and get involved. We’re already in touch with CAMRA, Sport England, the Woodland Trust, and the Land Registry, but if you would like to offer some help or support please do get in touch.

    We’re particularly keen to connect with Local Councils who are already actively making use of ACVs, so if you’re an officer responsible for managing the ACV process for your council we’d love to hear from you.

    We know from Locality that there were at least 5,000 registered ACVs this time last year, but that list was already a little out of date and there will be more to add. Keeping everything up to date from the usual mix of web pages, spreadsheets and PDFs is going to make things challenging as well.

    This is a particularly interesting extension of the FixMyStreet Platform and it’s a useful way for us to explore how to best extend the citizen engagement features of FixMyStreet beyond issue reporting and into celebrating what makes each local community unique and valuable.

    Image: Garry Knight (CC BY 2.0)

     

  2. GLOW is calling: help increase the world’s knowledge of politicians

    If you know your way around Wikidata, we’d love you to join in with the global string of events taking place for GLOW next week.

    We’re very keen to get as many people as possible helping to improve the quality of Wikidata’s information on politicians. Why? Well, let’s take a quick look at a recent story that hit the news.

    A new Bundestag

    With Germany’s new parliament gathering for the first time on October 24, der Spiegel took the opportunity to examine their male-to-female balance, in the context of legislatures across the world. At around 31% female, they noted, the Bundestag now sits at the better end of the scale: parliaments almost everywhere are male-dominated.

    How were they able to make such an assessment? As they note at the foot of their article, they used data on politicians’ gender from our EveryPolitician project.

    A further exploration looked at age — they discovered that on average their parliamentarians were very slightly younger than in previous years — and they note as an aside that here in the UK, we have in Dennis Skinner the oldest MP in Europe, while Mhairi Black is the second-youngest by a whisker.

    These are the kind of insights we seek to increase through our work with Wikidata as we help to boost the quality of their politician data: we consider such analysis not only interesting, but important. Whether or not countries wish to encourage fair representation across age groups and gender — not to mention many other categories — their decisions should at least be based on facts.

    As things stand, there are only a handful of countries where data is good enough to be able to make such comparisons: in our vision, journalists, researchers — and anyone else — will be able to turn to Wikidata to find what they need. The forthcoming Global Legislative Openness Week (GLOW) gives us all an opportunity to put a rocket under the quality and quantity of data that’s available to people making analyses like these, that stand to benefit us all.

    How to get involved

    GLOW runs from next Monday until the 30th November, and we’re encouraging people — wherever you live in the world — to get together and improve the data on national-level politicians for your country.

    We’re already expecting a good number of groups to run events. Get-togethers are confirmed in Slovenia, Bulgaria, Italy, Greece, Spain and more — once final details are firmed up, we think there’ll be action in other countries across the globe. Now how about you? As we said in our post last month, a concentrated effort from a small group of people can really make a difference.

    We’re especially keen to encourage folk who have some experience of contributing to Wikidata: we reckon that, for this particular drive, you need to already know your way around a bit. So if that’s you, do come forward!

    Start by having a look at this page, which outlines what we hope to achieve; we’ll be adding more detail this week too.  You can add your country to the list if you’d like to, or explore what’s missing in the data of those countries already listed.

    Or, if Wikidata’s all new to you, why not put out some feelers and see if there’s anyone who can show you the ropes while you work together? One good way is to see if there’s a Wikimedia User Group local to you.

    What exactly will you be doing?

    Here’s a bit more detail on what a workshop will look like.

    The idea is to improve information in Wikidata about members of your country’s legislature. The ‘Progress Indicators’ on this page will give you guidance: typically you’ll be working through tasks like adding any missing “position held” statements and biographical data. We’re asking folk to prioritise current politicians, with information for historic members an added bonus if time permits.

    Once sufficient data is available in Wikidata, the real fun begins! Your workshop attendees will be able to query the data to answer questions such as:

    1) Can the gender breakdown and average age of members of the current legislature be calculated?
    2) Can that be broken down per political party/group, or (where appropriate) by region?
    3) Can you compare those figures for the legislature vs. the cabinet?
    4) How far back can you generate those for?

    And if the ideas start to flow, building queries and visualisations to answer other questions will also be very useful.

    Let us know if you have any questions before the week begins — we’re going to be very busy during GLOW, but we’ll do our absolute best to help.


    Image: Alex Iby (Unsplash)

  3. Explore FOI Information

    How many Freedom of Information requests are sent through WhatDoTheyKnow as compared to those made directly to public bodies? Our new mini-site lets you explore Cabinet Office statistics in comparison to numbers from WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Every quarter, the Cabinet Office releases Freedom of Information stats for a collection of central government ministries, departments and agencies. This provides a good benchmark for understanding how requests made from WhatDoTheyKnow relate to requests made through other routes. Back in 2010 we ran several blog posts about this, though we haven’t released any comparisons in recent years — and we’re now making up for lost time.

    In 2016, WhatDoTheyKnow was the source of 17.14% of requests to audited public bodies. On the other hand, most WhatDoTheyKnow requests (88.51%) went to public bodies that the Cabinet Office figures don’t cover.

    One interesting conclusion from this is that most FOI activity in the UK is not immediately visible from the official statistics. You can read more about what we learned from the numbers, or explore the data for yourself on the mini-site.


    Image: Jerry Kiesewetter (Unsplash)

  4. Join us in Lisbon for TICTeC 2018

    It’s official: TICTeC 2018, our fourth conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Lisbon, Portugal, on 18 and 19 April 2018.

    Stick that in your diaries now, we’d love for you to join us.

    TICTeC is known for its unique focus on the impacts of Civic Technologies: it’s a safe place to examine what works, what doesn’t, and how best to measure that. And the culture of TICTeC — where funders mix with practitioners, activists converse with researchers, small NGOs get as much attention as the big players — tends to create new sparks: partnerships, ideas, synergies and friendships.

    Call for Papers now open

    If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop, please submit your proposals now. You have until 2nd February 2018.

    Register

    For the last two years TICTeC has sold out – so make sure you get tickets early. Early bird tickets provide a 50% discount, so it’s well worth registering before they run out!

    Sponsor

    If you’d like to support TICTeC to bring together the world’s best Civic Technology researchers and practitioners, there are many different sponsorship opportunities available. Please visit our sponsorship page for more details, or contact gemma@mysociety.org for more information.

    Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    We look forward to seeing you in April! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse highlights from TICTeC 2017 and from our recent special TICTeC event in Taipei.

  5. A successful first year – how Transparencia launched with a splash

    A year ago, we helped Belgian group Anticor launch the Alaveteli site for Belgium, Transparencia.be, and so far it’s been an incredible success. Since launch, the site’s had almost 60,000 visitors and over 375,000 page views— that’s unusually high for an FOI site in its infancy — and they’ve even brought about a change in local FOI law. So how exactly have Anticor achieved so much in such a short time?

    We chatted to Claude, a key member of the Transparencia team, to learn more, and the first thing we discovered was that the stellar visitor numbers were actually news to him. That might give us a clue as to one factor in their success: they’ve been far too busy to check their site analytics!

    Fortunately we keep track of traffic on all our partners’ sites (where we have permission to do so), and we were glad to be able to pass on the good news. That done, we were keen to ask what exactly brought so many people to the site — and to see what tips other Alaveteli sites might be able to pick up so that they can enjoy the same level of success. (more…)

  6. Citizenship & Civic Engagement Committee: mySociety’s written evidence

    In June this year, a Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement was appointed. Submissions of written evidence were invited, and of course, this being very much our area, we felt the need to contribute.

    Our written evidence is a fairly quick readpdf. Nonetheless we hope that it gets the essential points across, drawing on our experience in what works and what doesn’t in technology for civic engagement.

    You can view all the submissions the inquiry received on the Parliament website. The committee will report their findings by the end of March next year.


    Image: Daniel Funes Fuentes (Unsplash)

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  7. WhatDoTheyKnow used for research on FOI refusals

    When you send a Freedom of Information request through WhatDoTheyKnow.com, every part of the exchange is published online. Those who have browsed the site will know that you can read the correspondence around each request from beginning to end, including the initial enquiry, auto-replies, any holding letters, messages seeking clarification, and finally, the response — or refusal.

    We built the site so that, when information was released, that information would be available for everyone. The result is the massive online archive, all searchable, that you can find on WhatDoTheyKnow today. That being the case, why do we bother publishing out all the rest of the correspondence? Why not simply publish the end result, that is, the actual information?

    Well, we believe there’s value even in what you might consider the ephemera of everything else, not least that it helps demystify the various steps of the FOI process.

    This week, an article by ‘FOIMan’ Paul Gibbons showed that the publication of this material can also help with research. He was able to look at 250 ‘refusal notices’ — that is, times when authorities had turned down requests for information — and pull out examples of best and worst practice.

    The result will benefit us all, from those requesting information to those who process the requests: for the former, it sets out what to expect from a refusal, and for the latter, it highlights how to ensure that you are sticking to the law as well as ensuring a good experience for the public.

    A refusal, as Gibbons points out, does not have to be a shutting of the gates in the face of the requester: it can help educate, point people towards a better means of obtaining the information they need, or even clarify for the FOI officer where withholding the information may in fact be inappropriate. We’re very glad to have seen our data being used in this way.


    Image: Gemma Evans (Unsplash)

  8. mySociety in… Bristol, Belfast, Berlin, Oslo, York, Albania

    There are multiple opportunities to see mySociety people speaking in the coming weeks. From Wikidata to web design — and plenty more — they cover a broad spectrum. So if any of these events interest you, we hope you’ll come along!

    17 October, Bristol

    Rebecca Rumbul, our Head of Research, will be giving an overview of our work on the impact of Civic Technologies. It’s part of the Venturefest Smart Cities Thought Leadership conference at the Watershed in Bristol. Register for attendance here.

    21-22 October, Belfast

    Tony Bowden who’s been leading on EveryPolitician, and Head of Product Matt Jukes will both be attending Open Data Camp. It’s an unconference, meaning sessions have not yet been set, but if enough people are interested you may well hear all about mySociety’s hopes for the Democratic Commons and how our EveryPolitician project fits into that. Otherwise, grab Matt and Tony for a chat! More details here.

    28-29 October, Berlin

    WikidataCon is a must-visit for us, given the collaboration between our own EveryPolitician project and the Wikidata community. We’ll be running a couple of sessions: one on whether structured politician data for the whole world is an impossible utopia and one informal meet-up to share experiences in gathering politician data.

    And of course the conference info takes the form of a Wiki!

    2 November, Bristol again

    More from Matt Jukes, who this time will be speaking at the Agile in the City. What lessons has he learned from working in very different organisations, all of which implemented ‘agile’ very differently? More details here.

    4 November, Oslo

    That Matt Jukes again! He gets about. This time he’s speaking at The Free Society Conference and Nordic Summit (FSCONS), “a meeting place for social change, focused on the intersection between technology, culture and society.” He’ll be discussing ‘the importance of being open’ in his 6pm session. All the information you need is here.

    9 November, York

    Poor connectivity, low bandwidth, different platforms and cultural no-nos: mySociety designer Zarino Zappia runs through some of the considerations when designing websites for international usage at DotYork. We have a limited number of discounted tickets we can give out, so if you’re interested drop Zarino a line.

    17 November, Tirana, Albania

    Rebecca is a keynote speaker at an event jointly-organised by the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe) and the ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights), “Leveraging New Technologies to Transform Youth Political Participation” — something we’ve been thinking about rather a lot recently. Details will be added here.


    Well, that’s certainly enough to be getting on with. We hope we’ll see you at one or more of these events.

    Image: The Climate Reality Project (Unsplash)

  9. Join the GLOW: run a Wikidata workshop in your country

    Global Legislative Openness Week (GLOW) celebrates open, participatory legislative processes across the globe.

    Back in 2015 we marked GLOW by setting up a challenge: could we get politician data for 200 countries up on EveryPolitician within the week, with the help of the global community? The answer was a resounding yes, and the challenge was a massive success. We ended up with data for 201 countries in the end, thanks to help from awesome people from all over the world.

    This year, we’re running another challenge: to get as many Wikidata workshops focusing on political data to happen during GLOW as possible.

    Fancy helping with this challenge? Read on…

    Why?

    This is all part of our Wikidata/EveryPolitician project.

    The project aims to improve political data in Wikidata, so that it can be used more easily for projects, research or investigations that hold politicians to account. Examples of where good political data is vital include in parliament-tracking websites (like in Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Ukraine) and in cross-border journalistic investigations (like the Panama Papers).

    Providing this data in consistent and structured formats across countries means the people running these accountability projects spend less of their time gathering the data and more on actually using and interpreting it, to keep tabs on those in power. This project is all part of our mission to contribute to the Democratic Commons.

    One of the best ways to improve and use political data on Wikidata is to get people together in person to work on their country’s data. So, that’s the aim with this latest GLOW challenge, and we’d love for as many groups around the world to host Wikidata workshops as possible!

    The aim of these Wikidata workshops is to:

    • Improve political information in Wikidata so that developers, researchers and journalists (or anyone!) can use the data in their investigations and accountability projects.
    • Use and query existing political data in Wikidata to see what interesting questions can be answered when data is available in consistent and structured formats.

    Workshop attendees will go away with:

    • Increased knowledge of how Wikidata works and how to contribute to it
    • A better understanding of why good political data is so vital and how it can be used
    • New connections to the global community of people who care about accountability issues
    • A warm, fuzzy feeling of satisfaction that they’ve helped with the global accountability movement 😉 (We hope so anyway!)

    Not sure what such an event might look like? Read up on our recent Wikifying Westminster workshop: it really showed us how much can be done when a few people get together in a room.

    Funding and support available

    Thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re able to offer some support to individuals/groups who are interested in running Wikidata workshops like these during GLOW. This will differ on a case by case basis but includes:

    • A small amount of funding to help cover event costs
    • A review of your country’s existing political information in Wikidata and some pointers about possible next steps
    • Ideas for how you and your attendees can:
      a) Use the data for interesting research and projects, and
      b) Improve the data for future research queries/projects
    • In-person support during your event – if you’d like one of our EveryPolicitian/Wikidata team to come to your event to present and participate, we can do this (if our budget allows!)
    • Access to a dedicated Slack channel which connects you with other groups around the world who are also running events during GLOW.

    Workshops can take place at any time within GLOW week, which is from 20th-30th November 2017 (yes, that is a long week!).

    Get involved!

    So, if you’d like to be part of this global challenge to improve and use political information in Wikidata, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please do get in touch: gemma@mysociety.org

  10. Croatia gets creative with Alaveteli

    Code for Croatia are one of many groups around the world who have used our software Alaveteli to set up a Freedom of Information site — ImamoPravoZnati (“We have the right to know”) was launched in 2015 and has processed more than 4,000 requests.

    Many organisations might count that a success and leave it there, but Code for Croatia are clearly a little more ambitious. We’ve been interested to hear about their two latest projects.

    A platform for consumer complaints

    http://reklamacije.net/

    The Alaveteli code was written to send FOI requests to public authorities. But in essence, it’s little more than a system for sending emails to a predetermined list of recipients, and publishing the whole thread of correspondence online.

    Change that list of recipients, and you can create a whole new type of site. Reklamacije (“Complaints”) puts the process of making consumer complaints online. It’s early days as yet — the site’s still in the beta phase, during which testers are putting it through its paces. There have been messages about bank closures, insurance policies… and even the inconsistent quality of the quesadillas at a Mexican food chain.

    As we’ve often mentioned here on this blog, our FixMyStreet codebase has been put to many different purposes that require map-based reporting, but as far as we’re aware this is the first non-FOI use of Alaveteli so we’ll be watching with interest. Perhaps it might give you ideas about setting up a similar service elsewhere?

    Probing travel expenses

    Code for Croatia have also launched a campaign asking users to request details of ministers’ travel expenses.

    If that sounds familiar, you’ll be remembering that back in January, AccessInfo did much the same with EU Commissioners and their expenses on the European Union FOI site AskTheEU. We can tentatively say that they were successful, too: it’s been announced that the EU expenses will be proactively published every two months. AskTheEU say they welcome the move ‘cautiously’, so let’s see how it all pans out.

    The key to both these campaigns is pre-filled requests that make it really simple for supporters to make a request to a specific politician, while ensuring that the requests aren’t duplicated.

    That’s something that Gemma explained how to do in this blog post — it’s a massive benefit of the friendly global Alaveteli community that we can all share insights like this, and especially that other groups can try out initiatives that have proved successful.