1. Empowering residents of tower blocks

    An estimated 100,000 people in the UK live in tower blocks. If you’re one of them, mySociety’s current project will be of particular interest — and please read on to the end of the post, where you’ll find out how you might get involved.

    mySociety has been working with the campaign group Tower Blocks UK to explore how residents across the country could have more input into the management of their buildings.

    Back in June 2017, when the news of the Grenfell disaster broke, we expressed our desire to help. This partnership with Tower Blocks UK provides a tangible way for us to do just that, empowering tower block residents to understand their rights, and leverage those rights to increase the safety of their own homes.

    Since Grenfell, fire has, understandably, been at the top of the nation’s consciousness. It’s not the only risk in tower blocks, however: by their nature, they’re subject to a range of distinct safety and maintenance issues which, if not identified and dealt with properly and at an early stage, can be at best a nuisance and at worst, life-threatening.

    We were approached by Tower Blocks UK to provide a digital tool that would help address these issues. Beyond that, we didn’t want to make any assumptions about what was needed, so we began with a completely blank canvas.

    Well, perhaps that’s not entirely true. We had a few ideas about what sort of service we might build. A kind of ‘FixMyStreet for buildings’ was was talked about, but we know that it’s never a great idea to simply start creating the service you assume will be useful, without speaking to the people who would actually be using the finished thing.

    So, we agreed our aim in fairly loose terms: to research and develop a pilot service that demonstrates the potential for tower block residents in a few select areas to have a greater say over the safety and maintenance of their blocks. 

    If judged successful, the service could be scaled up and made available for residents in tower blocks all across the UK.

    Where we are now

    At the time of writing, we’ve completed the discovery phase. We’ve asked residents how they currently report and track safety issues in their buildings; and with the additional help of sector experts, we’ve examined how legal pathways and housing provider case management processes affect the outcomes.

    We wrote this stage up in a report which you can read here, identifying four key areas where we feel we have the opportunity to make a difference to how safe and happy residents feel in their homes.

    Once we’d gathered and processed this knowledge, we were able to start building some simple digital prototypes and test our theories with residents in user design workshops. Here we’re thankful to Phil Murphy and Stuart Hodkinson, the London Tenants Federation, and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, for helping us reach a selection of tenants with different background and experiences.

    Resident feedback at these sessions has helped us uncover real needs in this space, including the desire to make maintenance reports that have real impact, the value of tried and tested “next steps” during the complaints process, and a need amongst tenant organisers to see the bigger picture across multiple blocks in their area.

    TBUK workshop with mySociety's Martin

    mySociety’s Designer, Martin, with some residents. Image: London Tenants’ Federation

    Our prototypes so far have included: a tool that helps tenants report problems in their flat by giving prompts and generating a letter of complaint based on best legal practice; a personal case log to aid with follow-up complaints and potential escalations to the housing ombudsman or the courts; and a reporting dashboard for tenant organisers to spot patterns and help their fellow residents make effective reports.

    Over the next few weeks, we’re hoping to test the prototypes further, including through a simple, online survey.

    If you’re a resident of a tower block in the UK and can spare us ten minutes to use a website and answer some questions about your experience, we’d be more than grateful. Get in touch with Jen or Zarino on fixmyblock@mysociety.org.

    Top image: Jimmy Chang

  2. FixMyStreet Pro for Westminster

    London’s best known and most-visited neighbourhood is now covered by FixMyStreet Pro. If you’re living, working or sightseeing in the borough of Westminster, your reports will drop directly into the council’s own systems.

    In this first phase, the following categories are covered, with potholes, street signs and lights to follow soon:

    • Bins
    • Drains
    • Fly tipping
    • Graffiti
    • Flyposting
    • Street cleaning
    • Vehicles

    So, visitors to Hyde Park can report overflowing dog poo bins. Commuters coming through Victoria Station can let the authorities know about graffiti.

    And may we suggest that Westminster’s best known residents are welcome to report, should the view from the palace ever be marred by an unswept Mall.

    Everyone — royalty, the political ruling class, the humble citizen and even tourists from far flung places — can make a report either via fixmystreet.com or on the Westminster website, and in either case they’ll go directly into the council systems to be dealt with. There’s also the option to log in through the council’s My Westminster portal.

    Especially for Westminster

    As with all FixMyStreet Pro installs, this one has its own distinct features, and the integration with the My Westminster log-in, a pre-existing service where users can keep track of their reports, planning applications and so on, was a vital requirement.

    mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams

    The two systems working together like this means that for those already signed up to My Westminster, only a single log-in is required: ideal for the local resident who may be completing several community-based tasks in short order.

    Councillor Paul Swaddle, Cabinet Member for Customer Services and Digital, Westminster City Council, says: “mySociety have been professional, from the point of contracting all the way through to deployment of our new ‘Report it’ application.

    “Their team worked in partnership with council staff to integrate FixMyStreet into our systems including CRM against challenging timescales. They also supported us in delivering several successful resident engagement sessions, and quickly reflecting user feedback in the WCC branded version of the site.

    “mySociety’s knowledge and experience helped us deliver this project smoothly to further improve the efficiency and transparency of our City Management teams.

    Testing with the people that matter

    Westminster have been a shining example of best practice when it comes to implementing a new service. They did something that ideally all authorities would do when introducing a new online system, inviting potential users in to have a go, and feed back their thoughts.

    Residents testing FixMyStreet prototypes

    Once they had had a chance to enjoy that amazing view from the council offices, local residents tried out the report making interface. mySociety designer Martin was there to take notes, and users’ feedback was added directly into our development roadmap.

    We hope that they, and all residents of Westminster, will be happy with their new service.


    Top image: Dean Molyneaux (CC by-sa 2.0)

  3. FOI and the Irish border issue

    At the time of writing, a No Deal Brexit seems ever more likely. What exactly will that mean for the UK?

    Attempts to answer this question have filled many column inches, hours of broadcast and endless tweets. There is certainly no lack of opinions.

    But opinions are best based on facts, and it was in this spirit that WhatDoTheyKnow user Jon Rush set out to request vital information about the key Brexit sticking point, and the main reason that a deal is so hard to agree — the Irish border.

    Brexit and the border

    As Jon explains, “Brexit creates serious problems for the current arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement  because they depend heavily on both the UK and RoI being in the EU”.

    He wanted to gain access to the results of a mapping exercise, referred to in a joint report from the EU and UK negotiators but not available to the public at that time, which assessed the level to which co-operation between the North and the South depends on the EU frameworks currently in place.

    Crucial information, you might think, for the general public who will be so affected at every level by whatever type of Brexit we enter into. Jon certainly thought so — but getting hold of it would set him on a long journey.

    A hard-won result

    Jon’s initial request, to the department for Exiting the EU (DEXEU) was in December 2017. You can follow its long and complicated journey on that page, thanks to Jon’s detailed annotations.

    FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously.

    Simultaneously he was requesting the same information via our partner AccessInfo’s site, AskTheEU.com, which covers EU authorities — and meanwhile, MPs in the UK’s Exiting the EU Select Committee requested the same information on numerous occasions throughout 2018, but were repeatedly rebuffed by government.

    Pursuing his right to information would take Jon via the ICO, the European Ombudsman and to the brink of a tribunal, but in the end, the report was indeed released into the public domain.

    What was revealed

    What did it tell us?

    “It contains a description of each area relevant to North-South cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement together with an assessment of how far it is underpinned by EU legal and policy frameworks.

    “The focus in the media has tended to be on trade/customs arrangements, but if you go through the mapping exercise, you find that many other areas of cooperation are underpinned by the EU membership, including transport links, water, waste management, energy, Irish language broadcasting, mobile roaming, invasive species, disease control and cross-border police cooperation.

    “Overall, 96 out of 142 different areas covered by the mapping exercise were found to be supported by EU legal or policy frameworks (with well over a third being “directly underpinned or linked”, ie EU membership is particularly significant).

    “This shows that any workable solution is likely to involve the UK committing to quite a close relationship with the EU, at least in the areas identified as crucial to North-South cooperation”.

    Approaching the UK border on Newtown Road for J0719 The houses beyond the sheugh which here marks the Border are in Co Armagh. The gate in the foreground are those of disused ROI Border facilities. The road sign is a reminder of the Republic's 80kmph speed limit on back roads.

    Disused ROI border facilities in Co Armagh. Image by Eric Jones (CC by-sa/2.0)

    A lack of transparency

    The release of this information was a positive result — but Jon believes that the government has been far from open during the whole Brexit process.

    “To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government. It would be very difficult for an organisation outside government to produce something like the mapping exercise because it requires input from numerous experts across different areas and in some cases, access to information that only government is likely to have.

    “Government is therefore uniquely well placed to provide this information – but if government refuses to share it, it’s impossible to get the full picture.

    “In my view, the government’s approach to its own documents concerning Brexit has been to release as little as humanly possible, arguing that disclosure would undermine its negotiating position with the EU.

    “I accept that occasionally, information may need to be withheld for this reason. But it is equally if not more important that people can understand what Brexit will mean for them —  and I don’t think the government has paid anywhere near enough attention to that issue”.

    Evading scrutiny

    This was not Jon’s first experience using FOI: in fact, he had recently exercised his rights to information on another Brexit matter.

    I asked DEXEU for details of the scope and timetable of their consultation on leaving the EU. This was after David Davis (who was then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) had told Parliament in September 2016 that the government would be consulting widely on the options for leaving the EU.

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.

    “By late October, nothing had been published, so I made an FOI request through WhatDoTheyKnow.

    “Initially, DEXEU told me it had this information but refused my request, saying that it planned to publish the information at a later date. I didn’t see why the information couldn’t be published sooner and complained to the ICO.

    “Their investigation showed that DEXEU did not have a formal plan or any formal process for the consultation — which explained their somewhat evasive response.

    “DEXEU should probably have told me that it didn’t hold the information I had requested – but to do so would have involved effectively admitting that it didn’t have a plan or any formal process for consultation. You can make up your own mind by reading what the ICO had to say here”.

    Pursuing a refused response

    But back to the Irish border request. When Jon didn’t receive a response from DEXEU, and after requesting a similarly fruitless internal review, he took the next step and referred the matter to the ICO. They ruled against disclosure in a decision that Jon believes was ill-founded:

    “The ICO decision was based on section 35 of the FOI Act, which relates to information produced for the purposes of policy formulation.

    To be properly informed about Brexit, we need access to information which is often available only from government.

    “It is certainly true that the mapping exercise was produced to inform the government’s thinking about Brexit and Northern Ireland. However, it was a summary of the current arrangements, not a discussion of what the future policy options should be; as such, it was essentially background information, which is usually regarded as less sensitive. Section 35(4) makes it clear that there is a particular public interest in the disclosure of background of information – and case law makes it clear that such disclosure can take place before the final policy has been formulated, as I was requesting here.

    “The ICO also argued that disclosure of the mapping exercise would have a “negative effect on discussions” with the EU and “create a distraction to discussions” — but its decision did not explain how this would occur, especially given that the mapping exercise had been shared with the EU.

    “When I put these points to the ICO as part of my appeal to the tribunal, it accepted that the mapping exercise was background information but argued that it should be treated in the same way as discussion of policy options. It was unable or unwilling to provide any further explanation of the supposed negative effects of disclosure and suggested that this was a matter for DEXEU to explain. I was (and remain) very concerned by this because the ICO is supposed to be an independent regulator; it should not simply be taking what government says at face value but should be questioning it and satisfying itself that what government says is actually correct”.

    And so Jon referred the matter to tribunal.

    But in June of this year, two of the key documents he was requesting were finally  released by the government, and he decided to drop his appeal to tribunal, for reasons which you can read in his annotation of the time.

    Motivation

    While many WhatDoTheyKnow users are determined and driven, it’s also true that others would be easily defeated by an initial refusal, not to mention the further rulings. So what gave Jon the will and tenacity to carry on?

    I would encourage people to use FOI … if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want.

    “I knew that appealing to the tribunal would involve quite a lot of time and effort on my part, but I wasn’t prepared to just let this go for two reasons. Firstly, FOI depends on having an effective regulator which is prepared to question government robustly — and if people like me just shrug our shoulders when that doesn’t seem to have happened, then nothing will ever improve.

    “Secondly, Brexit is going to take many years to sort out and there will be many more occasions where people want to use FOI to get information out of government; unless challenged, government will just continue to refuse to disclose information whenever it suits it to do so.

    “Appealing to the tribunal was a new experience for me. I am a lawyer by profession, which probably helped, but I am not an expert in FOI, nor am I a litigator — and I did feel at times that my lack of familiarity with those areas was a handicap. So I have a lot of respect for people who are not lawyers and take cases to the tribunal on their own.

    “I would encourage people to use FOI and I think that what happened with this request shows that, if you are prepared to persevere and be patient, you can get what you want — even in a situation like this where MPs had asked repeatedly for exactly the same information and hadn’t received it.

    “FOI is one of the few tools that individuals can use to hold government to account and it’s important to use it — otherwise government will never take transparency seriously. WhatDoTheyKnow.com has made the process quite easy to initiate and it also means that others who might be interested in the same information can find your request.”

    Jon is also planning to submit a complaint to the ICO about its handling of this case, including the time taken to deal with it:

    “Although it was expedited, it still took over six months, whereas my complaint to the European Ombudsman (which concerned essentially the same material) was dealt with in about half that time.”

    He intends to post a link to the complaint in a further annotation on the FOI request page on WhatDoTheyKnow – so watch this space!

    Many thanks to Jon for taking the time to talk to us about his long and involved pursuit of information, which despite the delays will still help to inform the UK public at this critical time in our country’s history.


    Top image: the Irish border by Andrein (CC by-sa/3.0)

  4. Speedy integration for Hounslow

    Hounslow is the latest borough to adopt FixMyStreet Pro, adding to the ever-growing share of Greater London councils who have chosen the service as their main street reporting interface.

    As with other Pro integrations, citizens can now make reports via the Hounslow website or on FixMyStreet.com; either way they’ll display on both sites, and will drop directly into the council’s case management system — in this case, Confirm.

    It’s part of a dual contract with contractors Ringway that operates the highways contract on behalf of the London Borough of Hounslow: watch this space for the other council implementation going live soon on the Isle of Wight.

    In fact, this installation has involved a seamless transfer which minimised the impact on council staff; everything was handled through Ringway, including user testing via their network of volunteer ‘Lay Assessors’.

    Thanks to a lot of previous experience with Confirm, it’s all proven very straightforward from our point of view. The whole system was up and running in just two weeks, something of a record for FixMyStreet Pro implementation — and a great illustration of just how quickly councils can get going and start to see real change in their customer interface with FixMyStreet Pro if everything is in place.

    Rob Gillespie, Ringway’s Regional Director, agrees: “I have been impressed with the level of engagement and simplicity of this change. The team behind FixMyStreet has supported our team to develop a service that I believe will be a real game-changer for the industry. Our aim was to improve the accessibility of our highway services, and improve the connectivity between customers and our operational teams. This partnership has really delivered on these expectations.”

     

    Image: Nigel Thompson (CC by-sa/2.0)

  5. What’s a neighbourhood?

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    The FixMyStreet section of the Explorer mini-site helps explore the relationship between demographic features and FixMyStreet reports.

    In one use case, it maps the location a report was made to a ‘neighbourhood’ sized area, and then in turn to sets of statistics measured against those areas — most importantly, the indices of multiple deprivation.  These areas are Lower Super Output Areas (LSOAs) in England and Wales, Data Zones (DZ) in Scotland and Lower Output Areas (LOA) in Northern Ireland (although NI is not covered separately in the Explorer site due a relative lack of data). These can be seen as equivalent to census tracts in the US and each LSOA has a population of around 1,500 people, while Data Zones have around 500-1000 people.

    While this statistical unit feels neighbourhood-sized and so is used to examine data for effects that may result from being in the same neighbourhood, the approach has the significant problem that what people on the ground perceive as their “neighbourhood” is unlikely to exactly overlap onto the statistical unit. On the edge of a LSOA, even a 50m radius around a home will cross into another statistical area.

    Making the problem worse is that the idea of a neighbourhood is very variable. People can disagree with each other about the boundaries of their area. Claudia Coluton, Jill Korbin, Tsui Chan, Marilyn Su (2001) found that when citizens were asked to draw the boundaries of their neighbourhood these very rarely aligned with US census tracts. As the gif in this tweet shows a set of citizen-drawn boundaries for Stoke Newington in East London, and while there is a clear core, there is substantial disagreement between residents about the size of this area.

    Laura Macdonald, Ade Kearns and Anne Ellaway (2013)  found that residents in West Central Scotland had a different perception of how well placed they were for ‘local’ amenities compared to the geographic distance. This reflects that what was viewed as local from the outside might not be viewed the same way by locals: there is a context gap that just cannot be bridged at this scale of analysis.

    Understanding of neighbourhood effects is often positioned in terms of guardianship of a home area, and this means that certain kinds of reports might be more apparent in areas where these boundaries are less clear — leading to conflict. Joscha Legewie and Merlin Shaeffer (2016) used New York 311 calls to demonstrate that complaints about blocked driveways, noise from neighbours and drinking in public were more frequent on the boundaries of areas with differing demographics. This can also be seen in the idea that complaints about dog fouling are used for score-settling between neighbours in Chicago. Complaints can be about conflicts as well as actual problems reported.

    In a related problem, Alasdair Rae and Elvis Nyanzu show in some areas the most deprived 10% of areas and the least deprived 10% are not far from each other. This means that relationships between reports and the features of deprivation might be harder to detect. The less homogenous the area, the greater the chance that features affecting how likely a person is to report will result in reports in a LSOA that is substantially different from their ‘home’ area.

    This blog post is exploring a potential problem with the explorer minisite methodology. A big part of what the explorer site is doing is trying to show how much different kinds of reports are “explained” by different local features — but because of various forms of fuzziness the differences it detects may be less sharp than actually exists. In general, however, not detecting things that are there is a better problem to have than the opposite.

  6. Super contributors and power laws

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here

    A common feature in websites and services where users generate data is that a small amount of users are responsible for a large percent of the activity. For instance, 77% of Wikipedia is written by 1% of editors (with most of that being done by an even smaller fraction) and for OpenStreetMap 0.01% of users contribute a majority of the information.

    This also applies to plenty of offline activities — for instance, half of the 25,000 noise complaints about Heathrow Airport were made by 10 people. People who dedicate significant time to an activity can quickly outpace a much larger group who only use the service once.

    For FixMyStreet (where people report issues like littering and potholes to local authorities), the top 0.1% of users made 16% of the reports and 10% of users account for 62% of reports. Starting from the most prolific users, increasing the number of users by a factor of 10 roughly doubles the number of reports:

    • 418 users (0.1%) account for 224,775 reports (16%)
    • 4,181 users (1%) account for 470,384 reports (33%)
    • 41,814 users (10%) account for 881,481 reports (62%)

    This reflects that at any scale in the data, around half the activity is happening in the top 10%. Overall, two-thirds of users made only one report — but the reports made by this large set of users only makes up 20% of the total number of reports.

    This means that different questions can lead you to very different conclusions about the service. If you’re interested in the people who are using FixMyStreet, that two-thirds is where most of the action is. If you’re interested in the outcomes of the service, this is mostly due to a much smaller group of people.

    Reka Solymosi (2018) investigated the behaviour of the top 1% of reporters and found that they tended to report a wide range of categories: only “16 of the 415 contributors reported only one type of issue. The other 399 reported issues in more than one category” with an average of six categories. These also tended to cover a wide area and “there were only six people who reported in only one neighborhood [LSOA], fewer than the number of people who reported in only one category. The other 409 contributors all reported in at least two neighborhoods”. Solymosi finds four clusters of these super-contributors:

    • Traditional guardians – these report in a small number of neighbourhoods covered but represent the largest number of users.
    • Large-neighbourhood guardians – Report in a larger number of connected neighbourhoods.
    • Super-neighbourhood guardians – People who report in a high number of connected neighbourhoods; this is the largest group.
    • Neighbourhood agnostic guardians – reports are made in disconnected areas.

    Collectively, this can have a wide impact — 18% of LSOAs in England have at least one report from a user who has made more than 100 reports (which is only around 900 people).

    Looking at the general picture through the Explorer minisite, it’s not just that serial reporters report widely; certain kinds of reports are more likely to be made by users who are reporting more issues:

    Incivilities, rubbish, road safety and bus stop damage are all categories more likely to be reported by users who have made 50+ reports. While users who make lots of reports tend to make reports across a few categories, they are often specialised in their output.

    59% reports of flyposting, 57% of graffiti, 52% of litter problems are made by users who have reported more than 50 times.

    It’s important to remember that these aren’t hard divides. Single report users are less likely to report potholes than serial reporters, but it is also true that one in five people who only report one issue report a pothole.

    For the bundle model of understanding FixMyStreet, thinking about this group of super contributors is important, because they represent a minority of users, yet generate most of the value and impact of the site.

    But this comes with a cost. People living in the same area as super contributors benefit from their efforts – but where these super contributors have different concerns or priorities from the area as a while this might shift the outcomes of the service.

    As Muki Haklay argues:

    The specific background and interests of high contributors will, by necessity, impact on the type of data that is recorded. This is especially important in VGI [volunteered geographic information] projects where the details of what to record are left to the participants.

    Where resources are allocated on the basis of data generated by a service, the behaviour of this small group can have an outsized effect. Future blog posts in this series will explore what this looks like in practice.

  7. Service bundles: exploring the many uses of mySociety services

    This blog post is part of a series investigating different demographics and uses of mySociety services. You can read more about this series here.

    A key question when looking at the role of the internet in civic life is whether it changes the demographics of who participates; or whether it simply changes the methods by which already engaged citizens participate. The two sides in this argument can be described as mobilisation and reinforcement.

    The mobilisation argument says that the internet reduces the cost of communication and action, which means that more people can be involved and access becomes more broad.

    The reinforcement argument says that the reduced costs of connectivity will mostly reinforce existing participation divides, making it cheaper for people already engaged to participate, but not necessarily reaching disengaged people.

    This is a fundamental question for civic tech: how are these online tools used? Are they mobilising everyone or just providing more efficient processes for people who are already engaged?

    This is explored in mySociety’s 2015 report Who benefits from Civic Technology?, and is a recurring question in much of our research since, such as our work on FixMyStreet, and digital technologies in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Two themes we are currently investigating in this area are proxies and bundles.

    Proxies are where services are used by intermediaries, on behalf of — and bringing benefits to — others: for instance, where charities engage in more effective lobbying as a result of free access to TheyWorkForYou, or where case workers find it easier to identify and write to a client’s local councillor using WriteToThem.

    Bundles are about exploring how different groups of users use a service in different ways, to such an extent that one service can in fact be understood as a bundle of services serving different kinds of users.

    This is the first in a series of blog posts investigating  bundles.

    A common finding across mySociety services is that most people only use “transactional” services (like WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet or WriteToThem) once, to do one thing. Repeat users make up a minority of users (even if they account for the majority of actual usage).

    From a technology point of view or an organisational point of view, it makes sense to understand that there is a website called FixMyStreet.com run by mySociety. But from the point of view of the majority of users, it makes sense to think of a website like FixMyStreet as dozens of different services, most of which they will never use. For one user,  FixMyStreet is a tool for reporting potholes, for another it is for reporting littering. Similarly, WriteToThem is most often used as a tool to write to MPs — but the profile of people who use it to write to their local councillors is very different.

    Some services in a bundle are used by a different demographic to other uses of the same website. Understanding how to encourage FixMyStreet use in underrepresented groups requires an understanding of how there are already differences in usage across all the “services” in the FixMyStreet bundle.

    To get more information about these different uses of a website, we’ve built a mini-site that helps to explore basic demographic information about each use type. Starting with FixMyStreet, personal information (names) have been anonymised and converted to gender (approximately), while coordinates are grouped into Lower Super Output Areas (LSOA) — geographic areas commonly used for statistical purposes. This means that we can look at a general, anonymised set of data representing people making FixMyStreet reports, and match this grouped data against various measures of deprivation.

    Understanding more about these different patterns of users suggests possible ways a service can be used and helps sharpen new research questions.

    When examining uses of one element of a bundle, the key question is whether the pattern observed reflects just the individual, or the overall pattern of the bundle. To answer this, a chi-square test is used to tell if the distribution of a sub-use of the site is different to a statistically significant extent to all other uses of the site (this method was inspired by an analysis of gender of reporters in Reka Solymosi, Kate Bowers and Taku Fujiyama’s 2018 paper on FixMyStreet). The groupings of categories in FixMyStreet use Elvis Nyanzu’s meta categories.  The mini-site highlights in red and green areas where a distribution differs from how patterns on the site as a whole respond.

    We’ll be writing a number of blog posts over the next few months covering things we’ve learned from the mini-site. The first two are already up (and linked below):

    Blog posts:

  8. Legal Information Institutes online – making the law free to access

    mySociety’s latest research looks into the impacts of Legal Information Institutes in sub-Saharan Africa. You can read the full paper here.


    If you wanted to find out what a specific law covered, how would you do it? Google what you thought the law was and hope that it came up in an internet search? Go to the local public library and look for law books? Ask a friend? In many cases around the world, especially in developing countries, it is almost impossible to get access to the law through these channels. Many sub-Saharan African countries do not routinely publish their legislation online, and fewer still publish the case-law judgments made by the courts.

    So where is this information? Does it exist?

    The answer is, that it does mostly exist, but much of it is either held in hard copy format within expensive and rare legal textbooks (the kind that can only be found in shiny law offices or prestigious university libraries), or, it is held behind an electronic paywall by a private, profit-making organisation, which requires often eye-watering subscription fees to access.

    How, then, can individuals working in the legal field without significant financial backing, access and use the law? Online Legal Information Institutes are the primary answer.

    In more than 60 countries around the world, Legal Information Institutes make significant volumes of legal information — legislation, case law, judgements etc — freely available on the internet. They can provide valuable resources to legal students, practitioners and stakeholders.

    Despite the fact that a substantial movement exists promoting the principles of free access to law, these services have received relatively little charitable or philanthropic funding  — particularly when compared to services that provide information relating to political or fiscal transparency.  Is it the case that LIIs are primarily used by comparatively well-paid professionals, and hence deliver little true, positive, impact? Or do LIIs in developing countries, where domestic case law and legislation is already difficult to access, and where social mobility within the professions remains low, perform a greater societal service?

    As a financial supporter of a number of African LIIs since 2013, the Indigo Trust, a UK-based philanthropic foundation, commissioned a report to examine the impacts of the LIIs, and whether those impacts could reasonably be amplified with greater investment.

    The research identified clear, positive impacts resulting from the existence and use of the LIIs, most notably in South Africa, where the LII proved to be a key tool in increasing access to the legal profession for economically disadvantaged groups. Across the countries studied, the LIIs were also benefiting the development of high quality domestic case law, which had been underdeveloped prior to digitisation; and were considered to be useful tools for citizens in developing a more meaningful understanding of the law.

    The publication of this research serves to demonstrate this positive work, and the further development work that can strengthen the LIIs.

    Image: Gemma Moulder

  9. After Exploitation: using FOI to understand what happens to victims of modern slavery

    In 2016, Theresa May described modern slavery as “the great human rights issue of our time”. “These crimes must be stopped,” she said, “and the victims of modern slavery must go free”.

    But words alone do not ensure results, it seems. The data mapping project After Exploitation has discovered that a sizable number of vulnerable victims of human trafficking and modern slavery are — far from ‘going free’ — actually being held in UK detention centres with a view to deportation.

    Our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow played a vital part in the project’s research, both in helping identify what data was available, and in bringing about its release.

    In 2016 and in a follow-up report in 2018, Sir Stephen Shaw reviewed this country’s immigration detention practices, with a focus on the welfare of vulnerable detainees.

    One result of his many recommendations was the employment of ‘Detention Gatekeepers’ — independent overseers who check the status of detainees, and that they are legitimately held. If they are found to be in this country as a result of human trafficking or modern slavery, they should be offered help via the National Referral Mechanism.

    We spoke to Maya Esslemont, founder of After Exploitation, to learn how the use of WhatDoTheyKnow has helped uncover the true numbers of those who have been let down by this system, information which the government had previously denied that they held.

    She told us:

    “Through FOI requests, we uncovered the number of potential and recognised victims of human trafficking who have been deported since 2016 or detained in 2018.

    “The figures revealed that 507 potential victims and 29 recognised victims of trafficking were held in detention, despite a low rate of eventual deportation.

    “This completely needless and unjustifiable use of detention on vulnerable people, for whom there was never any realistic chance of removal, demonstrated huge failures in Detention Gatekeeping, the process meant to prevent vulnerable people from being detained.”

    Maya explained that, prior to these findings, a gap in the publicly-available data impeded any understanding of the number of vulnerable detainees:

    “Although the Government releases quarterly statistics outlining the number of ‘potential’ victims of trafficking, very little is known about the number of recognised victims who are later deported, detained, or left at risk of re-trafficking due to a lack of safehousing. Our project hoped to demonstrate the scale of these issues”.

    FOI seemed like the obvious route to uncovering these figures, says Maya, in part because it was clear where the information must be held, if it existed:

    “The Home Office oversees both immigration enforcement and victim support and recognition. This is a clear conflict of interest, but it did mean that we knew all the outcome information must be held in the same place.”

    The group found that by checking the archive of previous FOI requests published on WhatDoTheyKnow, they could discern exactly what data existed, and more importantly, could cite prior responses as proof of its existence.

    As suspected, but denied until now, the Home Office holds highly specific, readily available information on immigration, detention and deportation outcomes of trafficking victims.

    “We knew from Parliamentary correspondence that some trafficking victims’ asylum outcome data was held as far back as 2015, but nobody had any idea that such readily available data on the actual detention existed.

    “When we trawled through Home Office FOI requests submitted by others on WhatDoTheyKnow, it was clear that information on detainees’ vulnerability was held — and it was after we referenced these previous request outcomes, dated since 2016, that the Home Office started providing data on trafficking specifically.”

    We were most interested to hear this, as it further justifies one of WhatDoTheyKnow’s key features – that all requests and responses are published online. We talk a lot about how this can make the information accessible to wider numbers of people, but here is an example of that archive going on to inform a further set of requests, bringing about important results.

    And visibility wasn’t just useful in helping the campaign discover the existence of the vital data, but also, Maya believes, provided an extra incentive for the Home Office to release the information in accordance with the FOI Act:

    “I submitted a fair few FOI requests privately, but most received a rejection. However, since moving the same requests to a public platform, we’ve found that a majority have been fulfilled.

    “Many charities and journalists may be tempted to submit FOI requests privately so that the responses can be ‘saved’ for exclusive research or stories, but this exercise seemed to prove that it can be more effective to ask for information as publicly as possible.”

    (We should mention that our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service does allow for the private submission of requests which are then published at a later date — although there’s no requirement to submit privately. Pro users can enjoy the best of both worlds, using the organisational features and the batch request functionality, and making requests in private or in public according to which strategy they find most effective.)

    Having uncovered this crucial data, After Exploitation has worked with other organisations to get their findings more widely known:

    “The charity Women for Refugee Women managed to secure a debate in Westminster Hall on the detention of trafficking victims. As part of this debate, MPs discussed research by their organisation and by After Exploitation.

    “Political interest in this issue should be commended, but the Immigration Ministers’ response was very concerning. Caroline Nokes MP claimed that the use of detention on 507 potential trafficking victims was justified, as many were recognised during the time they were in detention.

    “However, we believe the fact that hundreds of vulnerable people were deemed suitable for detention in the first place is deeply worrying.”

    The research gained wider attention, too:

    MPs and journalists at the Guardian, Sky News, Independent Online and Thompson Reuters picked up our research paper Supported or Deported?.

    “In response to the findings, 23 NGOs signed our open letter asking for greater data transparency on human trafficking support outcomes, and for an end to Home Office involvement in vulnerability screening and trafficking decision-making. A week later, Diane Abbott MP tabled an urgent question in Parliament asking the government about the detention of exploited people.

    “However, the Government response showed how much work is left to do. The Immigration Minister dismissed the Government’s own data as not robust enough to provoke change, whilst also using this same data to clear its reputation on the length of detention.

    “This response shows how much harder we have to work before the Government will commit to data transparency, and the way victims are treated.”

    We asked Maya what she hoped others would take from the experience of After Exploitation.

    “I hope journalists, activists and academics will submit their own FOI requests to contribute to public understanding of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other forms of exploitation such as forced marriage.

    “When it comes to human trafficking victim support, there are still so many gaps in our understanding — such as health, wellbeing and legal outcomes. We’re already taking another request to the Information Commissioner’s Office after a rejection on cost grounds, but we hope the ongoing struggle to secure information on trafficking will encourage others to do the same.”

    We congratulate the project on what they’ve achieved to date and hope it will act as inspiration to others who seek to uncover injustice or malpractice within our systems.

    You can read more about After Exploitation’s work here, and find their WhatDoTheyKnow FOI requests here.

    Image: CC by-sa/4.0 via Wikipedia

  10. Working with playbooks

    As we undertake a lot of work based around knowledge-sharing and best practice, we’re looking into the concept of ‘playbooks’ as one proven way to share practical lessons. Our aim is to ensure that none of our learning is lost, and that it is shared with practitioners who face similar challenges in the future in as useful and accessible a way as possible.

    What is a playbook?

    ‘Playbook’ is a word that’s used a lot these days, by tech and management people. They’ve borrowed it from the world of sports, where the idea of a book telling you ‘how to play’ is a more straightforwardly obvious concept.

    If you find this terminology a bit too hipster, though, you can think of them by the less trendy terms of ‘manuals’ or ‘toolkits’ — though a playbook does have the advantage of sounding like a lot more fun than a workbook.

    Whatever the name, what they aim to give you is a collection of repeatable plans and tactics for responding to typical challenges. As such, they can be absolutely invaluable as an internal company tool; and we think they can also help in sharing knowledge between organisations.

    In either case, a well-managed playbook would be easily available to employees, widely used and regularly updated.

    Content

    Playbooks might be for one department (like sales, or design) or for the organisation as a whole. They typically contain several different kinds of content, such as:

    • Plays (or guides), detailing the steps that need to be taken to achieve a goal or cope with a scenario
    • Scenario or problem definitions, describing things that may happen, or go wrong; how they are caused and how they are identified
    • Ingredients: details of the resources needed and the costs associated with them
    • Case studies: Written summaries of real life projects that have come up against scenarios and utilised similar plays or guides to solve them
    • They also usually contain some signposting or navigation method, such as tags or categories — or one of our favourite methods, the questionnaire.

    Questionnaires as a content discovery method

    One great way to ensure that people are seeing the most relevant content in an often hefty playbook is to use a questionnaire that leads the user to the precise content they need at that particular time.

    By answering a series of questions, the visitor can provide some information on their own situation, and in return be delivered the most relevant content.

    For example, Atlassian’s health monitor, part of their playbook, asks you to rate how well you feel your team is doing on certain attributes, such as shared understanding, decision making, and dependencies.

    Once the questionnaire is completed it offers suggested plays and lets you assemble and share your own action plan.

    What goes into a useful playbook?

    Practical advice that is specific to your situation is often the most helpful, and this where playbooks really shine.

    A well thought-out playbook, with a questionnaire that asks the right questions, can make available clearly-defined, tailored content that is domain-specific. This means that the reader doesn’t need to work hard to apply generic advice to their situation, nor untangle clumsy metaphors.

    Playbooks often solve the problem of ‘how do you know what you don’t know?’, with tried and tested solutions to known problems.

    A playbook should be designed with the target audience in mind — and that audience can potentially be a narrow one, operating solely within one domain or department — offering rich advice based on experience. It should empower people to achieve their goals, solve their problems and, ultimately, shape the culture of their organisation.

    A well thought-out playbook will become invaluable to its users, and consequently they will want to keep it up to date and useful.

    For this reason many playbooks have a method of feedback to aid continual improvement, such as rating a page based on its utility, open feedback methods or collaborative wiki-style editing.

    Where we’re working with playbooks 

    Local Digital FOI

    One of the prototypes we pursued as a result of our research into how councils manage Freedom of Information requests was a playbook, fronted by a self assessment questionnaire.

    We identified a need where teams want to improve their service but don’t necessarily know where to make improvements (eg, should they invest in better software, train staff, or revamp their processes?).

    Our prototype playbook asked questions to determine the shape of the council’s FOI service, which then presented guides and descriptions of potential problems relevant to their case.

    We’re looking at developing this idea further in a future project. If you work in a local authority, and are interested in partnering with other local authorities in a Local Digital funded project to develop this prototype into a resource that could be used across the sector to improve services… please do get in touch!

    Public Square

    Our Public Square work focuses on citizen engagement in local democracy, and we think a playbook could form a key part of this project.

    We’re planning a series of guides, case studies and research presented in a clear and accessible playbook format, to be used by councils and other public sector organisations where greater citizen involvement in decision making is a goal.

    Our favourite playbooks

    There are hundreds of great examples, but here are the ones we’ve singled out as particularly strong:

    If you’ve been working on a playbook, or your organisation already has one that you think is doing interesting things, please do let us know.


    Image: Playability.de (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)