1. Let’s try this again! WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary party

    Back in February, as you may remember, we announced an evening of celebration in London for WhatDoTheyKnow’s tenth anniversary.

    And then it snowed, public transport ground to a halt, and we made the tough decision to call the party off.

    But it was only ever a postponement. Now we’re in a more temperate season and we’re determined to get this milestone celebrated! We’ve rescheduled, and we’re looking forward to an evening of talks covering the project’s past, present and future, not to mention chat, drinks, nibbles and the best FOI-based playlist you’ve ever heard.

    If you’d like to come and join us for this event in London on the evening of July 3rd, please email Gemma with more about yourself and why you’d like to come. Spaces are limited so let us know asap if you’d like to attend.

    Image: Gaelle Marcel

  2. FOI: one part of the fight against the ‘lose-lose’ LOBO loans to local councils

    Controversial loans sold to councils by banks, known as LOBOs (Lender Option Borrower Option), are under investigation by the group Debt Resistance UK (DRUK).

    These loans have unfavourable terms, according to a landmark legal case may be untenable, and are resulting in absurd levels of debt repayment: DRUK have found, for example, that in the borough of Newham, the equivalent of 77% of council tax income goes directly into interest payments alone.

    DRUK’s campaign, #NoLOBOs, aims to both expose the truth and make the case that such loans are illegitimate — and we were interested to see that they’ve made use of our Freedom of Information site, WhatDoTheyKnow, to do so.

    We’re always interested to hear how people and organisations are using our services, so we caught up with DRUK’s Vica Rogers, who gave us the whole history.

    What are LOBOs? Can you explain a bit about them for the completely uninitiated?

    Vica: LOBO stands for “Lender Option Borrower Option” and the name indicates the terms of the loan: on predefined dates, the lender (the bank) has the option to raise the interest rate; if the bank decides to do so, the borrower (the council) can either accept the new interest rate or repay the loan in full; if the bank doesn’t decide to use the option, then the council is locked into the loan and can only exit it by paying an exorbitant exit fee — sometimes 90% of the loan’s principal. With this mechanism some councils are locked into paying up to 11%, which is very expensive in the current climate where interest rates are low.

    LOBO loans have been described as a “lose-lose bet for councils” because no matter what happens to interest rates, the one-sided terms of the loans ensure the banks always win. In this way banks are making huge profits and are extracting resources from local government that should instead be going to cover the cost of services for its residents.

    How are you using Freedom of Information requests in the campaign?

    Vica: FOI was crucial for the development of the #NoLOBOs campaign. We started from the “borrowing and investment tables” for local government published by the then Department for Communities and Local Government. We sent FOI requests to more than 240 councils who from the tables appeared to be borrowing from banks.

    We asked each council to provide, for each LOBO loan they had, the original contract and a spreadsheet containing the principal, maturity date, interest rate, etc.

    The spreadsheet was easier to obtain, while the contracts were often withheld.

    We link any data and documents back to WhatdoTheyKnow so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it. This is very useful when dealing with journalists.

    We therefore had to go all the way to the Information Commissioner’s Office for them to rule that the public interest in providing the loan contracts overwrote the commercial confidentiality exemption that councils were relying on.

    Once we managed to obtain the contracts from some of the councils it was much easier to argue for the others to release them. This is one of the values of using batch requests.

    In a second batch of requests we asked the council to identify the financial intermediaries — the brokers and the Treasury Management Advisors (TMAs) — involved in recommending and arranging the loans so that we could expose their conflict of interests. We also asked for the fees paid to the brokers and any invoices and contracts.

    We obtained most of the information related to the companies involved and the fees paid, but most of the original documents requested were missing. This was due to the age of the documents, as councils are not required to keep them for more than a decade.

    We have now published on our website most of the information we gathered. On our website we link any data and documents back to the WhatDoTheyKnow site so that anyone can see the source and the process that we went through to obtain it.

    This is very useful when dealing with journalists, but it also provides local citizens the opportunity to challenge their council on LOBO loans without having to relate specifically to our campaign.

    Our approach to the campaign has been from the start to encourage local residents to take action autonomously, both because we are supporters of decentralised forms of organising, but also because being such a small organisation we did not have the resources to develop a national campaign.

    What gave you the idea to use FOI requests, and why did you decide to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make them?

    By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.

    Vica: Through previous work by one of our members on council reserves it became obvious that some of the most financialised councils were also some of the most secretive — and a protracted FOI campaign would be necessary to unearth relevant practices.

    We used WhatDoTheyKnow partially due to the experience of working in small, poorly funded NGOs, where once an organisation closed down, the information was lost unless it was published somewhere on a third party website.

    By using WhatDoTheyKnow the information was provided with open access by default, could be linked and referenced in articles, and would have a longevity that does not always exist with small websites and organisations.

    DRUK believes LOBOs to be illegal: what’s the basis of that?

    Vica: There was a ruling in the 80s called the Hammersmith and Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case. At that time, councils had entered into hundreds of swap contracts presenting significant risk to local government finances across the country. The judge then ruled that it was ultra-vires (‘beyond their powers’) for councils to be gambling with taxpayers’ money and all the contracts were cancelled.

    Debt Resistance UK is also making the case that such debt is illegitimate. In the current years where local authorities are facing huge cuts with a 40% reduction in grants from central government, interest payments to banks are ring-fenced while funds to essential services are being cut. Debt Resistance UK questions if it is legitimate that human rights of local residents are being put second to the interests of the banks.

    There are also other basis on which such loans could be considered illegal:

    • In many cases LOBO loans were taken out on advice from Treasury Management Advisors, who should be independent, but in the case of LOBO loans were receiving undeclared commissions from the brokers who were providing the deals. This is a clear conflict of interest that council’s can use to challenge the loans.
    • LOBO loans are instruments that were created to engineer around the Hammersmith & Fulham vs Goldman Sachs case by embedding the derivatives in the loan. The banks should be held to account for deliberately creating a loophole to extract public resources.
    • The value of LOBO loans is pegged to LIBOR. Since some of the banks and brokers who sold LOBO loans to councils were also involved in rigging LIBOR, there is a case for councils to challenge the banks on the base of this manipulation and the information asymmetry it created.

    What’s next for the campaign?

    Vica: We designed the #NoLOBOs website so people could understand the overall campaign and then search for the details of their own council. The website also offers suggestions on how people can take action.

    We have been collaborating with  the cooperative Research for Action to develop two strands of the NoLOBOs campaign:

    Objections to LOBO loans across the UK

    We are using the 2014 Audit and Accountability Act which provides local citizens with the right to inspect, ask a question about and object to items in their council’s financial accounts.

    This right can be exercised once a year during the summer once the draft accounts have been published. Debt Resistance UK, in collaboration with the cooperative Research for Action, has supported more than 50 residents in the use of the Act to either gather more information on the loans, or to challenge their lawfulness through the objection process. All objections link back to WhatDoTheyKnow as evidence of LOBO loan borrowing. We are now starting to receive the responses to these actions.

    A citizen debt audit in Newham

    Newham, best known for hosting the 2012 Olympics, is one of the poorest local authorities in the country. It is also the largest borrower of LOBO loans and is paying the equivalent of 77% of council tax income only on interest payments. We have therefore decided to focus on the borough and develop an in-depth citizen debt audit. The aim of the audit is to evaluate the social and economic sustainability of the council’s debt, the legality of it’s LOBO loans portfolio and who should be held to account for it. Through the process we hope to improve the accountability of the council in managing funds in the public interest.

    How can people get involved?

    Vica: We welcome all contributions to the NoLOBOs project, and are open for people contributing in different ways without feeling they have to become a member of Debt Resistance UK.

    If you are a local resident the best way to take action is to submit an objection to the council’s accounts. For most councils, the period to object to the accounts this year runs from the start of June to mid July. If you would like to object to your council’s accounts, do get in touch with Debt Resistance UK and we can support you through the process. You can find a guide on how the process works here.

    The #NoLOBOs campaign has been made possible thanks to a network of people with various expertise who have kindly offered their time to unravelling different aspects of the LOBO story. If you would like to contribute based on your expertise, please get in touch. Some of the expertise that we would find useful are: financial analysts, accountants, lawyers, local government finance officers, journalists, developers, data analysts, data visualisers and graphic designers.

    To gain further insight, we are also very interested in talking to people who have been aware of LOBO loans while working within organisations involved in the mis-selling, be it a council, a bank, a brokerage company or a Treasury Management Advisory company. We’d also like to collaborate with officers and councillors who want to take action in their own council.

    NOTE: Debt Resistance UK is unaffiliated with mySociety, so if you would like to get involved in the NoLOBOS campaign, please contact them directly.

    Thanks very much to Vica for taking the time to explain the campaign, and its use of WhatDoTheyKnow. We’re glad to have been one part of this many-pronged approach.

    Image: Raw Pixel

  3. How local newspapers uncover council spending using FOI

    The Freedom of Information Act allows us to keep check on authorities — not least, how they are spending public money.

    These sorts of requests can be of particular interest to regional press, who perform a vital function in keeping citizens informed about where their taxes go. Journalists might be applauding good spending; equally they could be uncovering waste or corruption — both narratives are highly relevant in times of budget cuts and austerity.

    Here are examples of stories arising from council expenditure requests, covering the length and breadth of the UK.

    Spending on administration

    It’s often worth scrutinising council expenditure on day to day items like office supplies, furniture or computer hardware.

    While stories here may be quite mundane on the face of it, they become more interesting when the question arises of how much is reasonable to spend on these overheads.

    In North Warwickshire, the Birmingham Mail reported that over £5,000 went on tea, coffee & biscuits (to be fair, over a period of five years). The story goes as far as to detail each brand of teabag. It’s important, said the council, to offer visitors a decent spread.

    That’s as may be, but how about the same region’s County Council splashing out £13,700 on furniture for their leader’s new office — and not from Ikea, by the sounds of it. This story was run by the Rugby Advertiser, and just as with the tea and biscuits, the defence was that it’s important to make visitors comfortable.

    But how far does such comfort extend? Let’s consider social functions and parties. Dundee was highlighted in the Courier for its awards bashes, into which a round £266,000 was sunk. Perhaps easier to defend was the same authority’s £150,000 expenditure on tablets and computers.

    Spending on infrastructure and services

    Fixed penalty notices for littering, often farmed out to third party fine collectors, can be highly contentious. Citizens might be somewhat mollified when they see a boost to their councils’ coffers and some expenditure that directly relates to the misdemeanours in question. In Wirral, for example, the Globe tells how £176,000 from littering fines has been spent on CCTV surveillance, anti-rubbish and fly-tipping campaigns, research and clean-ups.

    In Borehamwood, money gleaned from developers within the town paid for £1.7M worth of school expansions, crossroad junctions and traffic calming measures, as reported in the Borehamwood Times.

    And then there are the oddities, anomalies or outliers of spending that always make a good story, too. The Scotsman found that fees for taxis to take children to schools that offer subjects they can’t study in their own schools added up to £1M across Scotland.

    Spending on staff… and disputes

    Of course, every council has staffing costs — it’s how they’re distributed that can make a gripping story for a regional publication like Wokingham Today.  When does expenditure on temporary employees, for example, start indicating that permanent staff might have been a better bet? We don’t know the full circumstances, but Wokingham’s £7.8M does seem like an awful lot.

    In Norfolk and Suffolk, £200,000’s worth of ‘golden hellos’ to welcome new staff to the area were under scrutiny by the Eastern Daily Press. But that kind of expenditure seems perfectly wholesome when contrasted with Wiltshire’s £275,000 on gagging orders and compromise agreements.

    The picture can sometimes be a little more complex than first viewing might suggest. In South Gloucestershire for example, the Bristol Post reports that £15M worth of redundancy payments is expected to save the council money in the long run.

    In Birmingham, the Mail had a fine old time trying to get their FOI request responded to, and were finally successful in revealing that overtime paid to binmen in the run-up to a strike amounted to over £1M.

    Spending on compensation

    We mentioned that expenditure stories can be timely in the current age of austerity — well, not only that, but there’s a particular irony to be found in expenditure that’s potentially caused by austerity measures.

    Two recent stories looked at the compensation councils were paying out for damage caused by potholes. Authorities everywhere are making cutbacks to their expenditure on roads, but if this results in payouts that are bigger than the savings involved, there’s obviously a false economy at play.

    In Lancashire, the Telegraph discovered that the council had paid over £1M in pothole compensation in one financial year, while in Cambridge the local paper went back as far as 1992 to break down the expenditure year by year.

    Have we sparked ideas?

    If you are a journalist and you’d like to use Freedom of Information to uncover this kind of story —  while keeping your research under wraps until it has been published — check out our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service. It provides all the tools that you need to pursue your investigations, large or small.

    As a regional journalist, you might also find it useful to follow your local council on WhatDoTheyKnow, so you know what information our users are asking for. We’ll send you an email when requests are made  to your chosen authority — just click the grey ‘follow’ button on any council’s page.

  4. Introducing Keep It In The Community

    You might remember that we shared a post in November announcing the start of a new project, funded by Power To Change, to help communities protect Assets of Community Value.

    So we’re pleased to announce the (quiet) beta launch of our latest little site, Keep It In The Community, which we hope will become an England-wide register of Assets of Community Value (ACVs).

    Improving legislation

    The Localism Act 2011 was introduced with a great hope. Its provision for giving groups the right to bid on buildings or land that contribute to community life would allow the protection these assets, potentially taking them into direct community control should they come up for sale.

    Sadly, as currently implemented, the law hasn’t yet delivered on that promise.

    In Scotland, the legislation comes with an actual right to buy, but in England, that’s not the case, and with developers finding ways around the legislation more often than not, often the best the Act can bring about is the delay of an inevitable change of control. For the moment we’re not expecting the legislation to be given any more teeth.

    With Keep It In The Community we intend to at least help support a greater takeup of registration by local communities.

    Keep It In The Community Logo

    In yet another project built on the flexible FixMyStreet Platform, Keep It In The Community has three main roles:

    1. We’re gathering together existing asset listings from the 300+ English councils who hold them, to provide a single synchronised and complete record of all listed and nominated ACVs.

    2. We’re providing a straightforward route for established community groups to nominate new ACVs in their community.

    3. We’ll allow community members to provide more details, photographs, and useful anecdotes about each registered asset, beyond that required by the legal listing process.

    Plans for the summer

    So far we have data from around 20 local authorities on the live service, with another 50 or so due to be added over the next few weeks. The remaining councils will be added over the summer. All the data is drawn directly from each local authority and as new assets are nominated or their status changes we’ll update their status on Keep It In The Community.

    Keep It In The Community Screen Shot

    Whilst we complete final testing we’re restricting the ability of community groups to nominate assets, but hope to fully switch that on shortly, once more of the existing assets are displayed on the site.

    The initial process for connecting each council listing is fairly low tech, relying on the scraping of a commonly formatted spreadsheet hosted on each council website.

    So for the moment. there will still be a fair amount of manual tweaking to keep things in sync. This is one of those important elements that will be fine to manage when the service is starting out, but may start to creak further down the line if it becomes well used – a classic ‘known known’ issue we’ll need to keep on top of.

    Over the summer we’ll be working with a representative set of community groups to extend the features of Keep It In The Community to improve how to submit assets for nomination, and how best to celebrate the listed assets by adding all sorts of local detail and background.

    Have a look and let us know what you think so far.

    In addition to the initial grant from Power To Change, this project has been implemented with the support of the Plunkett Foundation and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

    Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

  5. FixMyStreet Pro meets Salesforce: integrated street reporting for Rutland

    A big welcome to Rutland, the latest local authority to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their street fault reporting platform. If you’re a resident of what has been described as the UK’s prettiest county, we hope that you’ll enjoy using FixMyStreet to keep it that way.

    You can make your reports on the council’s site here, or if you’re already used to the main FixMyStreet. com website or via our mobile app, you’ll find that all reports go into the same central database, and can be seen in all three places.

    As a resident, all you need to know is that it all works, but councils — especially those using the Salesforce CRM — will be interested to know that behind the scenes there have been some interesting tweaks.

    How it looks in Salesforce

    Salesforce is a very common CRM, in use across many councils as well as countless other businesses and organisations, so this integration stands as a useful proof of concept when it comes to FixMyStreet integration.

    For Rutland, FixMyStreet reports now drop directly into Salesforce, from where they can be allocated to the Highways team. Click on any of the images below to see them at a larger size.

    Here’s what the list of all reports looks like in Salesforce. In theory, if the council want, this could also include reports from other sources such as residents’ phone calls or direct emails.

     

    Staff may filter the reports by category: here we can see just those within the ‘roads and highways’ category.

    Each report is listed within Salesforce as a ‘case’, listed in a queue.

    And this is what it looks like when a report comes in that has a photo attached to it  — that’s also accessible within Salesforce.

    Staff now have the choice of updating reports within Salesforce, or, if they prefer (as many do), through the FixMyStreet admin interface.

    This is our first Salesforce integration, and it was made possible through the use of an API, developed by Rutland’s own tech team. At our end, all we had to do was write the code to integrate with it, and boom, two-way communication.

    Even better, any reports made through other means can be pulled from Salesforce and into the FixMyStreet system: so a council staff member inputting reports from, say, an email report or phone call can input it into the interface they’ve always used.

    We’re delighted to add Salesforce to the list of CRMs FixMyStreet Pro has integrated with. If you’re from a council and would like to find out more, pop over to the FixMyStreet Pro website where you’ll find case studies, pricing, an interactive demo and the chance to join one of our regular online chats.

  6. Why do representatives write back? Using WriteToThem to understand more

    Two weeks after you write to a representative on WriteToThem we send you a survey asking if they wrote back. We’ve traditionally used the data from these surveys to compare the responsiveness of individual MPs – but something we’re interested in at the moment is understanding more about systematic drivers of responsiveness. What features of a representative’s position or background makes them more or less likely to respond to messages?

    The first fruit of that research is a paper in Parliamentary Affairs talking about using WriteToThem data to explore differences in responsiveness between representatives elected from constituencies and those elected from party lists in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and the London Assembly.

    We understand that most readers will not have journal access, so we’ve also written a summary for Democratic Audit that everyone can read here.

    We’re actively investigating other factors that affect responsiveness (especially at the Westminster Parliament) and will write more in the coming months. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss our findings, you can sign up to the research mailing list here.


    Image: Chris Flexen (Unsplash

  7. Why we posted a whole manual online

    Against conventional wisdom, we’ve just published the staff manual for FixMyStreet Pro online, where it’s easy for anyone to access.

    When we were putting this manual together, we thought we’d have a quick google round for other council SAAS documentation, to see if anyone was doing it particularly well.

    We didn’t get very far, though — it seems there’s a culture of corporate secrecy amongst other suppliers, and a fear of publishing such materials in case of imitation.

    It seems that our decision to publish our entire manual online, along with a handy print version, freely available with no password, is perhaps a little unusual.

    Why so open?

    We’ve gone our own way on this one for a few reasons.

    First, because it helps our clients. We know that it’s far easier for customers to look online for materials than it is to remember where they’ve put a physical handbook.

    We know we could have put it behind a password, but that just adds an impediment for our existing customers, as well as for anyone hoping to understand the service a little better before making a purchasing decision. Plus, who remembers passwords for something they might only be accessing a couple of times a year? It’s just extra faff.

    This way, staff only need bookmark the documentation page, and they’ll always be able to find the most up to date version of the manual.

    There’s another reason as well, though. Most mySociety codebases — including FixMyStreet — are Open Source, meaning that anyone who wants to can inspect or use the code for their own purposes. If anyone really wanted to know our ‘secrets’… well, they’re already out in the public domain.

    We reckon there’s more to gain by publishing our instruction manual than there is to lose. Sure, competitors might see what features we offer, and they might even copy them. We’re confident, though, that our customer service, company culture, and our insistence on making our products as user friendly as possible, all give us an advantage that imitators are unlikely to be able to match.

    So, if you’re from a council yourself (or if you’re just curious) please do go ahead and read the manual. We hope you’ll find it of interest, and that it might cast some light on what makes FixMyStreet Pro different from other offerings in the field.

     

    Image: Alexandre Godreau (Unsplash)

  8. TICTeC 2018 in Lisbon: Conference resources now online

    Back in April, we hosted the fourth edition of our research conference The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Lisbon, Portugal.

    We were thrilled to bring together 150 leaders in the field from 29 countries to take stock of the civic technology research landscape and to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using technology for social good.

    62 speakers from 19 countries covered topics such as: responsible technology; accountability keywords; blockchain; fact-checking; service delivery; bridging the civic tech research divide; working with governments; impact measurement; open contracting; amongst many, many others. Thank you to everyone involved for sharing your experiences and research.

    If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), do check out the TICTeC website to see videos of all conference sessions, interviews with delegates, photos, and slides where available.

    As a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:

    Thank you again to Google and the MacArthur Foundation for sponsoring TICTeC. We’ll keep you all posted on next year’s event over on the research mailing list and on the TICTeC Google Group.

  9. Democratic Commons: an update

    It’s been a few months since we first announced our Democratic Commons project under the banner of “shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit” — but if we’ve been silent since then, it’s certainly not for a lack of activity.

    Quite the reverse, in fact: we’ve been busy bringing new team members on board and getting stuck in with the time-consuming and often fiddly process of data gathering and sharing.

    When we’re in the midst of all this hard work, it’s sometimes hard to remember to talk about how everything’s going;  but it’s always interesting, so here’s a snapshot of where we are now.

    Partnering up

    Those of us working on Democratic Commons are only a small team within the smallish organisation mySociety. Gathering in-depth data on politicians all around the world takes more time and more local knowledge than we have ourselves, so we’re working with partners located within our target countries.

    Distintas Latitudes have been handling Latin America – they’ve been great at gathering data and explaining the various differences between the political systems in each country we’ve worked together on.

    In India, Factly and Gender And Politics have done the most amazing job in gathering a full national and state level dataset for politicians right across the country. We were astounded, as that is a LOT of data (over 3,500 records and counting so far).

    And in South East Asia we’re working with OCF, with whom we’ve had a long association (you may remember TICTeC Taiwan, for example). OCF have helped us with data for Taiwan and South Korea so far, and are set to work with us on seven more countries before December 2018.

    Finally, a special mention goes to OpenLeb of Lebanon, who are working hard to start finding data in a country where data is not usually open. We genuinely could not do this work without our partners and we are eternally grateful for their help.

    Creating community

    As is probably clear from the above, we often select which countries to work on by our ability to find a community or organisation that will extend help. A nice side effect of this is that we’re strengthening the connections and bonds between mySociety and organisations with similar missions in many different places.

    Growing the community of such organisations across the world is going to be the primary focus of our new Community Manager Georgie, whom you will no doubt hear a lot from over the next few months.

    She’s going to be finding out who’s already using data like this, who’s maintaining it, who’s interested in running projects with it or doing research — and seeing if there’s also an appetite there to keep the data up to date. This is because the data will really only be useful to people if it’s well maintained and current!

    Working with Wikidata

    Early on, we recognised that improving the political data available in Wikidata, rather than ringfencing it all within EveryPolitician, was going to be an efficient way to maximise the benefits of the Democratic Commons project.

    What does this mean in practice? Well, in our first phase we’ve targeted 13 places in which to locate the data and load it into Wikidata: Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Canada, Italy, Estonia, Lebanon, India, S Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

    Ultimately, we want to help make any and all information about politicians at every level freely and openly available via the Commons; but for now, our initial scope looks at representatives at national, regional, and city legislatures.

    Now that a lot of this work is being done on or in Wikidata, we’re creating tools to make processes smoother and faster. The main ones of these are around verifying data and creating statements in Wikidata; we hope that when we’ve completed these they’ll be valuable to the whole Wikidata community beyond just the Democratic Commons project.

    Step by step

    We’re focusing on getting what we’re terming ‘Outline Data’ for each place loaded into Wikidata first. This type of data helps us model the political system, as it tells us what the legislature looks like — for example, whether it is unicameral, bicameral or different to those; what it calls members of the legislature; what term the legislature is on and how long that lasts; and often how many seats that legislature contains.

    Once we have that outline data, we then need some information about people holding seats in those legislatures. We try and start with five examples of each type of role at each level, then we can send this ‘Seed Data’ off to hopefully crowdsource the rest of the data: more on that in a bit!

    Meanwhile, our GIS expert Will is working on boundaries. Boundary data is hard — like, really hard! This is one of the most challenging areas of the project but it’s also one of the most important. Without electoral boundaries we don’t know what area a politician is representing and a lot of the tools we think this data would be useful for just won’t work.

    However, boundaries aren’t always released openly or completely, especially when it comes to local level constituencies, and even when we do find them, understanding whether we have all the data we need to represent politicians correctly can be really tricky.

    Because we like to keep really busy, we’ve also been starting to collaborate with other organisations such as Open Knowledge and CLEA on how to raise the visibility of the availability (or lack, more likely) of open sources of official boundary data.

    Working with Facebook

    You may remember our ongoing work to connect Facebook users with their politicians after an election, in countries around the world.

    We’re also working with Facebook to run some crowdsourcing experiments that will gather more data on politicians. I mentioned ‘Seed Data’ above. For each country, this gets fed to Facebook, and allows them to create questions which they can send to users to ask them who their representatives are at different levels of government.

    We then get this data back and our partners help us verify it and put it into Wikidata so the it becomes open and available for anyone to use. Facebook has a reach we would never be able to manage on our own.

    So that’s where we are

    As I’ve hopefully demonstrated in this post, the work is extremely challenging. That’s why we’re sometimes a little slow in updating where we’ve got to — but we genuinely believe that that having this data out there in the open will pave the way for so many exciting new political data-based projects and research. And so, onwards!

    Image: Ben White (Unsplash)

  10. Investigating political communication in Sub-Saharan Africa

    Our recent research interests have taken myself and mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca to four Sub-Saharan countries over the last two months, where we’ve spoken to 65 individuals from 45 fascinating organisations.

    Our aim with this research is to investigate how political information around legislatures and government is produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.

    This information is of course particularly important for us to know as a lot of our work is helping organisations set up digital solutions to allow citizens to connect to their representatives and monitor/ask what they’re doing, as well as trying to simplify and display complex political information.

    Through this research we want to better understand political landscapes in the countries we work in to make sure the digital solutions we provide are actually of use. We hope the research will inform us, and others, about what does and doesn’t work when creating parliamentary monitoring and Right To Information websites and other Civic Technology solutions.

    We’re aiming to publish the full research report at the end of this year, but read on to hear about the research process, who we met along the way and some interesting highlights.

    So back in March Rebecca and I headed off to Abuja in Nigeria to commence the project. With help from our friends at EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) (who we’ve worked with on ShineYourEye) and through our existing contacts with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria programme we were lucky enough to meet with 20 individuals from a variety of different organisations.

    We met and interviewed representatives from: the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), The Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), The Freedom for Life Initiative, BudgIT, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Right To Know Nigeria (R2K), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and Connected Development (CODE).

    mySociety researchers outside Nigerian House of Representatives

    A particular highlight was meeting one of the members of the Nigerian House of Representatives at the National Assembly building, which for us politics nerds was very exciting (see said nerds here to the left)!

    From Abuja off we went to Kampala, Uganda. This time our friends at The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) generously helped us set up interviews with NGOs and media organisations. We work with AFIC on FOI request site AskYourGov (which uses our Alaveteli software).

    We interviewed representatives from: Parliament Watch, Galaxy FM, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), New Vision and HiveCoLab.

    One of the most interesting highlights was the discovery of the prevalence of WhatsApp Twitter Facebook (also known as WTF), or Snapchat WhatsApp Instagram Facebook Twitter (SWIFT) data bundles. These only allow users access to these social media channels, and don’t allow web browsing. These data bundles can be purchased for as little as £1 per month, and this is primarily the way that normal citizens experience the internet. Obviously this is highly relevant when we think about our partners’ sites, which might not be accessible to as wide an audience as intended.

    A quick selfie during the fireside chat we did at HiveCoLab, Kampala.

    After a brief interlude which included organising and hosting our annual research conference TICTeC (phew!), we were back on the road again. This time to Nairobi.

    We were lucky enough to have very interesting conversations with representatives from the following organisations: Kictanet, iHub, Sovereign Oversight, World Wide Web Foundation, Africa’s Voice Foundation, International Budget Partnership (IBP), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Mzalendo Trust, Katiba Institute, Local Development Research Institute (LDRI), The Elephant and The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA).

    A particular highlight was speaking to one of the lawyers who wrote Kenya’s 2010 constitution (again, hugely exciting for politics geeks!). And who knew that the maximum number of participants in a WhatsApp group is 256? Not us, but everyone we spoke to did! WhatsApp is a huge vector of information in Kenya, including news content and political discussions.

    A researcher’s life: waiting in cafés for the next interviewees 🙂

    Our final destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Our amazing partners at Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) very generously arranged a great mixture of interviews for us and even took us on a tour of the South African parliament.

    During our time in Cape Town we interviewed: a parliamentary researcher, journalists from The Daily Maverick, the Goedgedacht Forum, My Vote Counts, PMG, Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), OpenUp, Black Sash, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Dullah Omar Institute and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC).

    A few of the most interesting things we discovered: mobile data is super expensive in South Africa; the proportional party list system to select representatives makes it difficult to hold politicians to account; and Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not used anywhere near as much as they are in the rest of the African countries we’ve looked at.

    The V&A Waterfront, Cape Town

    We are incredibly grateful to all of the above organisations for helping us with this field work, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and helping us with arrangements.

    So now we’re back at our desks the real work putting the report together begins. If you have any recommendations of who else Rebecca and I should talk to as part of this research then please do get in touch.

    We look forward to sharing our full research findings in our report at the end of the year!

    Header image: Flying over Mount Kilimanjaro (author’s own photo)