— mysociety (@mysociety) June 27, 2016
That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.
And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.
This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.
In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.
Information is key
Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):
Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.
And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.
Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:
And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:
Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Oh, and about that data:
All these resignations- will nobody think of the people who maintain parliamentary monitoring websites?
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) June 27, 2016
Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.
That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.
We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.
So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:
At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:
Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:
We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.
Videos from TICTeC — our Impacts of Civic Technologies Conference — are now available for viewing.
So, whether you were there and you want to experience it all over again, or you just want to see what you missed out on, settle down and enjoy accounts from some of the most interesting civic tech projects around the world right now.
What is TICTeC?
Here’s mySociety CEO Mark Cridge explaining what TICTeC is, and why we run it:
And if that’s left you hungry for more, make sure you visit our YouTube channel to watch the other TICTeC videos.
You might also enjoy the slides, photos and other media that have all been collected together on the TICTeC 2016 page.
We recently made some changes to our Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, that makes it twice as easy for partners to change the look and feel of their site. This post goes quite in-depth, so it’s probably best suited for designers, developers and other technically-minded readers
This year we embarked on a ground-up redesign of Alaveteli’s theming capabilities to make customising Alaveteli easier and faster. We used a mixture of techniques to try to achieve this and since releasing the update we’re happy to have seen a decrease in the complexity of our themes, and the time we spend making them.
Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform is one of our most deployed software packages and each deployment requires some customisation, from simple branding changes to complex functionality to support a country’s FOI process. This is either done internally by our own developers, or our partners take this on themselves.
An Alaveteli deployment consists of two things, the core: the guts of Alaveteli with no customisations, and the theme: the aesthetic and functional customisations made to each site. We ship Alaveteli with a fully-featured base theme that gives partners a good starting point to work from, but they can also start their own theme from scratch.
After talking to our partners and the Alaveteli team we felt that the process of theming was too complicated and involved. It required a lot of knowledge of Alaveteli’s inner workings, was coded in a way that made it hard to understand, and almost always required the intervention of a front-end expert, even to make trivial changes.
Our vision for how Alaveteli’s theming should work was:
- Intuitive Front-end developers and designers should be able to follow and understand the templates without needing expert knowledge about Alaveteli’s inner-workings.
- Flexible Overriding Alaveteli’s core code should be easy, so a theme should use low-specificity, componentised code to enable this.
- Supportive Should a partner decide to only change a few colours, or embark on a large-scale redesign Alaveteli, the theming process should never get in the way.
How we did it
Using the tools we have
Alaveteli is built on Ruby on Rails, so our first goal was to make better use of Ruby on Rail’s template inheritance.
Firstly, we split all of the Sass files into logical components.
Each component has two associated Sass files, a layout.scss and a style.scss. layout.scss describes only layout of a component, e.g. the physical dimensions and position on a page. style.scss describes the styles, for example typefaces, colours, borders and other presentational properties.
Should a partner wish to totally redesign or replace a component, they can replace both files with their own. Alternatively they can just choose to replace one part of the component, for example keeping the layout, but replacing the styles.
Ensuring the lowest possible specificity
When customising Alaveteli we want to be sure that a partner never has to fight with the base theme to achieve their goals. The most important part of this is to ensure CSS styles are easy to override.
Firstly we removed all ID selector’s from Alaveteli’s stylesheets and replaced them with class selectors, giving us a good jumping off point as class selectors have much lower specificity than IDs. We then rewrote and refactored Alaveteli’s CSS using the Block Element Modifier methodology (BEM).
BEM helped us in two ways: it’s written in a way that makes CSS self-describing, for example the code snippet
.header__navigation__listtells us that this list is a child of the navigation element and a grandchild of the header element.
As well as this, using a single class to define the styles for this element means that using BEM gives our styles the lowest possible specificity, so partners can override them with little resistance.
Using a settings partial
All of our theme’s styles use the variables defined in _settings.scss when referencing colours, typefaces, spacing, and even logo files so the bulk of Alaveteli’s customisation can be done in our base theme’s settings partial _settings.scss.
This allows partners to make simple changes which have a huge impact on the look and feel of the site. We’ve found that the large majority of our theme customisation can be done by just changing the variables in this file and it has sped up the theming process markedly.
We’ve quietly rolled out these updates to Alaveteli over the past 12 months and the impact of the changes has been encouraging.
Internally, we’ve found our theming projects are faster and more efficient. We conservatively estimate that it takes half the time to make a new theme than it used to.
Thanks to the self-documenting nature of BEM and the styles encapsulated in our settings partial, Alaveteli theming requires a lot less understanding of the platform’s inner workings. Our partners are able to be more self-sufficient and rarely require our intervention to assist with simple customisations.
Maintenance and support of our themes is greatly simplified, as the structure is consistent across projects, we’re able to roll out further changes and fixes in a more predictable way.
Overall, we’re really happy with how the changes worked out and the things we’ve learnt from this project we’ll be carrying into our others too, so look out for changes like across our work in the future.
If you’ve used WriteToThem, you’ll know that two weeks after you submit a message to your MP, we send a follow-up questionnaire to check whether you received a response.
Each year, we collate that data to see how MPs are doing at responding to constituents’ mails*, and we publish the results. (This year, we waited a bit longer than usual so that we could cover a full year since the general election.)
They’re now live, so you can go and check exactly how your own MP did — just enter your postcode.
Some interesting stats
- Because we’ve been running these figures since 2005 (with a gap between 2008-13), we can make some comparisons. We’re disappointed to see that the responsiveness rate of MPs has been steadily declining. In 2005, 63% of respondents indicated that they’d had a reply; this year, that’s down to 50%.
- Before we analysed the data, we thought that new MPs, elected in 2015, would perhaps perform better than the jaded incumbents. Not so: on average ‘old’ MPs responded to 53.07% of constituents’ messages, while the newly-elected managed only 46.10%. One new MP, Marcus Fysh, MP for Yeovil, came in at 635 out of the 642 MPs eligible for inclusion.
- Receiving more mail doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll perform poorly. Notable in this respect is Gerald Kaufman, who managed a 79% responsiveness rate despite having the second largest postbag.
- And being in the public eye doesn’t necessarily impact an MP’s responsiveness: Sadiq Khan and Jeremy Corbyn performed poorly, but have done so in prior years, too. Equally, we suppose it follows that a poor responsiveness level doesn’t necessarily impact on electoral success.
- We were curious to know whether there’s a gender divide when it comes to responsiveness. There is, but it’s very slight: on average male MPs responded to 52% of correspondence; female MPs to 50%.
- And another thing we’ve been asked about, sometimes by MPs themselves. There is no significant relationship between parliamentary constituency size and responsiveness. In other words, having more people in a constituency does not automatically mean that the MP is a poor responder.
Anyway, enough of this — go and check how your MP did, and then tell everyone else to do the same.
*This needs a caveat. Our data only covers messages sent via WriteToThem, and, furthermore, only those messages where users completed the questionnaire. You can see the full methodology on the rankings page.
We held our second TICTeC conference in Barcelona at the end of May. The feedback has been generally very positive, and there are many aspects that we were very pleased with: the quality and diversity of the speakers, the smooth running of the event, the opening up of debates that will continue to resonate in the civic tech world.
But, nothing’s ever perfect, and on reflection there are some aspects, some large, most small, which we can improve for our next big event.
These are conversations that often happen behind the scenes, but we thought it might be useful for anyone else planning a big event or conference, if we share some of the things that didn’t work so well, and our plans for making things better next time.
Please do feel free to join in the discussion in the comments below, whether you were there or not.
It was obvious from the number of hands up, and disappointed faces, that we hadn’t allowed enough time for questions or discussion about the presentations. We’d allocated twenty minutes’ speaking time to each speaker, intending that slot to include questions and discussion. But most speakers filled, or almost filled, their time with their presentation.
Next year we propose formally splitting the slot into 10 minutes of presentation time and 10 minutes of discussion time for each speaker. Oh, and although we were sitting in the front row waving ‘five minutes left’ cards in the speakers’ faces, we appreciate that there are improvements to be made here, too. We’ll use countdown clocks to make it very easy for the speakers to see how much time there is left.
mySociety cares so much about gender balance that we even built an app around it. And yet we could have done better when it came to the gender balance of the panels.
Speakers were chosen on the quality of their submission, and while we don’t believe we have any internal biases we’d be interested to see what happened if we introduced an entirely name- and gender-blind selection process.
For 2016, there were no all-male panels, but overall the gender-split of speakers was 60% male to 40% female (incidentally, the same gender split as made up the delegates as a whole).
Also, there was a strong European and US bias among our speakers, with only 8 out of 62 coming from outside North America or Europe. So we could be criticised for giving a voice to those who already speak quite loudly enough in the civic tech world.
We’ll definitely aim for more equal balances next year.
No-one likes lugging their heavy bags around, and this especially becomes an issue on the final day of an international conference, when people may have checked out of their hotel and have their luggage with them, too.
Yet in our chosen venue, there was nowhere for people to put coats and bags. This is a pretty simple fix — we’ll make sure that there’s a secure cloakroom next year.
Coffee was only available during breaks, and wasn’t self-service.
Conferences run on coffee (and tea) — we know that — but it was whisked away at the end of the breaks and people had to wait to be served when it was there. Next year there will be limitless, self-serve coffee available the whole time. Because it’s important.
Somewhere to network
There was no real networking/seating area. Other than in the auditoria, there wasn’t a space where people could sit and catch up between sessions. That’s partly because Barcelona didn’t pony up the stunning sunny weather we thought we could rely on, so no-one felt inclined to linger in the outdoor space, but still. Something to allow for next time.
Time to mingle
There wasn’t enough time for networking/breaks. We crammed an awful lot into the one and half days, but it meant for a pretty packed programme. Next year we’ll run the event for two full days and allow more break/networking time.
The venue map should have been printed on the main programme, rather than being a separate insert in the bag. That was confusing and yet another piece of paper for people to wrangle.
All hands on deck
We needed more mySociety people on hand. We ran the whole event (including note-taking and session chairing) with a team of seven. With more people, we could have ensured that, for example, the reception desk was always manned. Raising the numbers would also make things a little less stressful for our team.
The usual wifi issue
The wifi wasn’t great. This is a perennial issue, we know. It’s hard to know how a venue is going to perform when there are 140 people with multiple devices each trying to get online.
Next year we’ll try and contact those who ran previous events at the shortlisted venues to find out how things were for them.
Something we all got right
At the last moment, we decided to introduce a Code of Conduct, setting down in black and white what kind of behaviour was not acceptable at the conference, and providing an anonymous route via which to report any contraventions.
We’re glad to say that this wasn’t used — we hope we’re right in surmising that this is because it wasn’t needed — but more than one delegate thanked us for putting it in place, and it’s something we’ll be replicating and refining for future events.
This is Part Two in a blog post series to highlight interesting and impactful requests that have been made through the 25 websites running our Alaveteli FOI software across the world. You can see Part One here.
The European Commission really doesn’t want us to know about their correspondence with tobacco lobbyists
Last year, the research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) sent a request for documents relating to all correspondence/meetings between DG Trade officials and tobacco lobbyists from January 2014 to March 2015 on AsktheEU.org.
Following this, the European Commission ‘released’ very heavily redacted documents concerning their contacts with the tobacco industry on EU trade negotiations, including the ongoing EU-Japan and EU-US trade talks (TTIP).
In all four documents (correspondence with and minutes of meetings with tobacco lobbyists) virtually all the content is blacked out, including the names of all tobacco lobbyists and Commission officials involved. Only around 5% of the text is visible.
As CEO points out, the Commission’s secrecy around its relations with tobacco industry lobbyists and its international trade negotiations causes great concern and highlights the lack of transparency within the Commission.
To read the full story, see this article on CEO’s website.
There are now Freedom of Information websites running on our Alaveteli software in 25 jurisdictions worldwide, which between them have processed more than 330,000 FOI requests.
But what sort of information is being revealed through these sites? And what impact has this information had? In our new series of posts, we’ll be giving you a roundup of some of the most interesting and impactful requests made on Alaveteli sites from across the world.
mySociety’s flagship Freedom of Information (FOI) request portal WhatDoTheyKnow.com, operating in the UK since 2008, has amassed a whopping 330,000 FOI requests (and counting) from citizens over its eight year life-span.
That equates to approximately 15-20% of all FOI requests made in the UK. It also represents the largest database of FOI requests in the country, having provided a platform for requests and responses to over 17,000 UK public authorities to be published publicly online.
Those are some impressive numbers: however, until now we haven’t known much more about what requests are being made, whether there are trends, or indeed, whether the responses that people are receiving are satisfactory.
We thought it was about time that we took a look under the bonnet of WhatDoTheyKnow to find out the answers to some of these bigger questions.
We decided first to look at what themes and policy areas people were most interested in when making an FOI request. We chose this area because we suspected that many people would be asking for similar things from similar authorities. If this is the case, then this would be a clear evidence-based argument for authorities to increase pro-active publication of certain information.
The task itself was not an easy prospect. WhatDoTheyKnow does not have a tagging or categorising system, so there are over 330,000 requests that we had no quick or easy way of comparing. The volume of data was also so high that we couldn’t reasonably extract every request and analyse which policy area(s) it was relevant to.
To solve this issue, we decided to focus on the 20 authorities receiving the highest volume of FOI requests between 2008-2016. This way we could rely on a large sample of requests for both both local authorities and government departments. The list of authorities is below.
Department for Work and Pensions
Department for Education
Wirral Borough Council
UK Borders Agency
Birmingham City Council
Brighton & Hove City Council
Liverpool City Council
Transport for London
Westminster City Council
Ministry of Defence
Metropolitan Police Service
Bristol City Council
Ministry of Justice
Lambeth Borough Council
Camden Borough Council
Department of Health
Kent County Council
Taking all the requests made to these public bodies gave us a total of 49,500.
With the generous support of Thomson-Reuters, we were able to use OpenCalais, their automated tagging system, to assign one or more thematic tags to each FOI request made. Over 100,000 hyper-granular tags were automatically applied in this way.
Once that was complete, we went through each tag and the requests it was associated with. We grouped tags into policy areas and checked for any that had been incorrectly assigned. We then split the authorities into two groups: Local Authorities and Departmental Bodies, to compare the most requested information.
Among Local Authorities, the top requested information concerned:
- Housing Specifically, information on social housing stock/occupancy/waiting lists, facilities for homeless and at-risk individuals, and planning permission
- Social Care Information concerning care providers and their funding/operations, care in the community arrangements, social worker qualifications and staffing levels, and information concerning the operation and monitoring of social work departments
- Accounts and Budgets Citizens commonly request accounting and budgetary information at a far more granular level than authorities are currently publishing.
- Authority management Citizens also wish to know with greater detail how authorities are operating internally, requesting management and meeting information, emails about decision-making, and structural information concerning development, contracting and relationships with private companies
- Business rates Concerning long-term empty properties, the impact of rates on town centres, charitable or other discounts, and regeneration.
These are the top five of thousands of tags, but common themes were clear when comparing these authorities.
Generally, requesters have shown they want information in a more detailed form than authorities are currently providing, in particular in the expenditure of public funds and those services catering for complex cross-cutting social issues. Given the ongoing housing crisis in the UK, coupled with the ageing population, it is likely that information concerning these policy areas will be in increasing demand.
Conversely, among Departmental Bodies, the top requested information showed few common themes. This is primarily due to the differences in policy areas between the departments. There were, however, significant spikes in certain policy areas within departments, particularly around immigration, and this will be the focus of future investigation.
In conclusion, we understand that very few FOI requests are completely identical in subject matter, but broad trends are clearly evident.
If Local Authorities proactively publish more granular information about the policy areas we now know citizens are actively interested in, they may see a dip in formal FOI requests.
Publishing information and data in a machine-readable format may even enable other civic technologists like ourselves to build tools to assist councils in their delivery of vital services. Whilst this will not eradicate FOI requests completely, it would hopefully begin a shift in behaviour.
In short: wouldn’t it be great if, instead of authorities seeing FOI as an administrative burden, they began to see pro-active publication as an opportunity to harness the skills, initiative and flexibility of citizens.
If you’re a UK citizen, it probably won’t have escaped your notice that we have a rather important vote coming up.
On June 23, a referendum will decide whether or not we remain in the European Union. It’s a divisive subject, with strong advocates and emotional arguments on both sides. But here at mySociety, we know what we believe.
We believe in an informed vote.
That’s why we advise you to analyse the facts before making up your mind where to place your cross. And to help you do that, here’s a list of impartial resources, from us, from our partners, and from other organisations.
Check the facts
Just as they did for the UK general election, our friends at Full Fact will be setting out the truth behind the emotive speeches, claims and counterclaims around the referendum. Here’s where you can find all their EU analysis.
They started off with a good check of the government’s EU leaflet.
Ask some questions
Wondering about something specific? Or perhaps you’ve seen claims flying about on social media which you’d like to check for accuracy. In some cases, a Freedom of Information request will help you source the facts and figures you need to understand the truth.
But hurry: by law, requests to the EU can take up to 30 working days to process (20 in the UK) and in actuality they often take longer.
Know where to vote
Of course, for the referendum, there are no candidates — but you do need to know where to vote. Democracy Club’s Open Polling Stations project is attempting to make that information easier for everyone to locate: you can start by inputting your postcode on WhoCanIVoteFor. Where they don’t have the polling station data, you’ll see a phone number for your local council.
Many care worker positions require regular overnight shifts. Depending on the job, you might be there ‘just in case’, with an expectation that you’ll generally get a night of uninterrupted sleep; or you might be there specifically so that you can respond to regular calls for help from clients.
Either way, you’ve been contracted to be away from your home, ready for work if needed. That’s why the law states that the national minimum wage should apply to sleep-in shifts — but as this user discovered through a systematic series of Freedom of Information requests, many councils fail to meet this standard.
It’s always good to see WhatDoTheyKnow being used to uncover this kind of important data. You can read more, check how your own council fares, and see the conversation unfold via some interesting users’ comments on Reddit, or see the original requests on WhatDoTheyKnow here.