1. Introducing QueremosDatos: making access to information easier in Colombia

    Access to information is a particularly powerful tool in countries like Colombia, where corruption is high and vital peace treaties are underway.

    To make accessing information easier for citizens and public authorities alike, a group of journalists in Bogotá including DataSketch, have recently set up the Freedom of Information request platform QueremosDatos (the name of which translates as “We want data/information”).

    The platform uses our Alaveteli software, and we thoroughly enjoyed working with the Colombian team to set the site up with them.

    We asked María Isabel Magaña, who is coordinating the QueremosDatos project, about the site and its impacts so far:

    Why did you decide to set up QueremosDatos?

    I first learned about Alaveteli in Spain while I was doing my Masters in Investigative Journalism. There I was introduced to the platform TuDerechoASaber.es and to the power that FOIA and transparency had. I just knew Colombia needed something like that, especially since the Congress had just approved the first law regarding this matter.

    What made you choose to use Alaveteli software for your platform?

    What I love about Alaveteli is how easy it is to use for both users and admins. Designing the platform and making it useful for any type of person was the most attractive feature Alaveteli had. But also, because of the people behind it. Gemma, Gareth, and so many more people were ready to help me achieve this goal despite the different time zones and how much time it took to get it up and running.

    What impact do you hope the site has?

    It has been almost six months since we launched the site. The impact has been great! We have helped people make 274 requests to more than 6,000 authorities. The Government has been interested in the project and has helped us get in touch with different authorities to help them learn about FOIA and the Colombian law and how to work with people through the platform. Users love it, especially journalists.

    Which responses on the site have you been most excited about seeing?

    My favourite response so far has been one regarding victims of the Colombian conflict. It was very exciting to get the information because of what it meant for the person who was requesting it, and because of the historical context my country is going through. I also enjoyed seeing the transformation the police had when giving their answers: at first they always sent a response asking the user to call them. After a few explanations, they’re now sending complete answers to the requests via the site.

    Do you know of examples where information obtained through the site has been used?

    Yes! Journalists have used it mostly in ongoing investigations regarding medicines, drug trafficking, and abortion. Students have used it for journalism classes and homework too.

    What are your future plans for QueremosDatos?

    We are confirming an alliance with the government to promote the site in public offices and to teach public servants about what the Right to Know is, and their responsibilities with it. This pedagogy will be replicated in universities to teach different users about their power to request information.


    Many thanks to María for answering our questions. It’s been great to see the impact the site has already had on authorities and citizens alike, especially the change in behaviour by certain public authorities.

    We’re really looking forward to following the project’s continuing work, and wish the team the utmost success in their quest to make Colombia a much more transparent society!

  2. Training an AI to generate FixMyStreet reports

    Artificial intelligence and machine learning seem to be everywhere at the moment – every day there’s a new story about the latest smart assistant, self-driving car or the impending take over of the world by robots. With FixMyStreet having recently reached one million reports, I started wondering what kind of fun things could be done with that dataset.

    Inspired by a recent post that generated UK place names using a neural network, I thought I’d dip my toes in the deep learning sea and apply the same technique to FixMyStreet reports. Predictably enough the results are a bit weird.

    I took the titles from all the public reports on fixmystreet.com as the training data, and left the training process to run overnight. The number crunching was pretty slow and the calculations had barely reached 5% in the morning. I suspect the training set was a bit too large, at over 1M entries, but end result still gives enough to work with.

    The training process produces checkpoints along the way, which you can use to see how the learning is progressing. After 1000 iterations the model was starting to be aware that it should use words, but didn’t really know how to spell them:

    Mertricolbes
    Ice does thrown campryings
    Sunky riking proper, badger verwappefing cars off uping is!
    Finst Knmp
    Lyghimes Jn fence
    Moadle bridge is one descemjop
    

    After 15000 iterations it’s starting to get the hang of real words, though still struggling to form coherent sentences.

    Untaxed cacistance.
    Broken Surface in ARRUIGARDUR. Widdy movering
    Cracked already nail some house height avenue.
    Light not worky
    I large pot hole
    Dumped shood road nod at street.
    Grim
    Dog man
    Ongorently obstructing sofas. This birgs.
    Serious Dirches
    

    After 68000 iterations there seems to be enough confusion in the training data that things start to go south again with the default parameters:

    Urgely councille at jnc swept arobley men.
    They whention to public bend to street? For traffic light not working
    

    Tweaking the ‘temperature’ of the sampling process produces increasingly sensible results:

    Large crumbling on pavement
    Potholes all overgrown for deep pothole
    Very van causing the road
    Very deep potholes on pavement
    Weeds on the pavement
    Several potholes in the road
    Rubbish Dumped on the road markings
    Potholes on three away surface blocking my peride garden of the pavement
    Potholes and rubbish bags on pavement
    Poor road sign damaged
    Poor street lights not working
    Dog mess in can on road bollard on pavement
    A large potholes and street light post in middle of road
    

    As well as plenty of variations on the most popular titles:

    Pot hole
    Pot hole on pavement
    Pot holes and pavement around
    Pot holes needings to path
    Pothole
    Pothole dark
    Pothole in road
    Pothole/Damaged to to weeks
    Potholes
    Potholes all overgrown for deep pothole
    Potholes in Cavation Close
    Potholes in lamp post Out
    Potholes in right stop lines sign
    Potholes on Knothendabout
    Street Light
    Street Lighting
    Street light
    Street light fence the entranch to Parver close
    Street light not working
    Street light not working develter
    Street light out opposite 82/00 Tood
    Street lights
    Street lights not working in manham wall post
    Street lights on path
    Street lights out
    

    It also seems to do quite well at making up road names that don’t exist in any of the original reports (or in reality):

    Street Light Out - 605 Ridington Road
    Signs left on qualing Road, Leave SE2234
    4 Phiphest Park Road Hasnyleys Rd
    Apton flytipping on Willour Lane
    The road U6!
    

    Here are a few of my favourites for their sheer absurdity:

    Huge pothole signs
    Lack of rubbish
    Wheelie car
    Keep Potholes
    Mattress left on cars
    Ant flat in the middle of road
    Flytipping goon!
    Pothole on the trees
    Abandoned rubbish in lane approaching badger toward Way ockgatton trees
    Overgrown bush Is broken - life of the road.
    Poo car
    Road missing
    Missing dog fouling - under traffic lights
    

    Aside from perhaps generating realistic-looking reports for demo/development sites I don’t know if this has any practical application for FixMyStreet, but it was fun to see what kind of thing is possible with not much work.


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    Image: Scott Lynch (CC by/2.0)

  3. The big one million: celebrating FixMyStreet

    This month, FixMyStreet.com sent one more report off to a council. There was nothing to distinguish it from all the other reports of fly-tipping, potholes and graffiti… except that it was the one millionth to be sent since the site began.

    Back in 2007, when mySociety first launched FixMyStreet, we had a feeling it’d be useful — but we couldn’t have foreseen the take-up it’s had not only here in the UK, but across the world and in many forms. One million seems like a real milestone, so in celebration, here’s a whistle-stop tour of FixMyStreet’s life so far.

    First through the doors

    The first report ever sent to a council through FixMyStreet was this one, concerning a broken streetlight.

    It was created by a mySociety staff member during beta testing of the site, and sent off to Oxford City Council — who fixed the streetlight. Proof of concept, and we were off.

    Official launch

    Once it was clear that everything was working smoothly, FixMyStreet had its official launch that March.

    Those who know and love FixMyStreet may be surprised to hear that in this first incarnation, it was given the slightly less snappy title of Neighbourhood Fix-It.

    Some might suggest that names have never been mySociety’s strong point. Personally I think we got much better at that later.

    Early take-up

    Just a week after launch, users had already filed over 1,000 reports — a sign that there really was a need for this site.

    The reasons for its popularity? After all, all councils these days provide a fault-reporting system themselves, so why the enthusiastic take-up of a site that duplicates this functionality? We think the reasons are twofold:

    • You don’t have to worry about which council is responsible for an issue: FixMyStreet just automatically sends it off to the right one. There are lots of reasons why you may not know where to send a street report, not least the UK’s two-tiered system of local authorities.
    • We make the reporting process as simple as possible. It’s that whole ‘swans looking graceful but paddling like crazy under the waterline’ thing: we put in an awful amount of work to make sure that you don’t even notice the issues FixMyStreet has to deal with to make the user experience super-smooth. Back in 2012 we blogged about some of the thinking behind the site; for example here’s why FixMyStreet begins by asking just one simple question.

    Name change

    By June we’d realised that Neighbourhood Fix-It wasn’t the snappiest of names, and thus was born FixMyStreet as we know and love it.

    Early app-dopters

    In June 2008, Apple launched their app store.

    Our developers saw the future, it seems: by December that year, we’d launched a FixMyStreet app (NB, the links in that 2008 post don’t work any more: if you’d like current versions of the app, you’ll find them here for Apple and here for Android).

    The FixMyStreet apps have been downloaded more than 40,000 times, and we’re seeing a real growth in those who use it to make their reports: in the last year it accounted for 27% of reports. This reflects a general increase in the use of mobile (you can also use your mobile’s browser to access www.fixmystreet.com) — 55% of our visitors came via a phone or tablet in the last year.

    Open for re-use

    Like most mySociety software, the code that FixMyStreet runs on is Open Source: that means that anyone can pick it up for free, and run their own site on it.

    In March 2011, a group of coders in Norway were the very first to do this, with their version FiksGataMi (it means FixMyStreet in Norwegian. They could have gone for Nabolaget Fikser Det, which means Neighbourhood Fix-It, but, well, you know…).

    Since then, we’ve made real efforts to make the code easier for others to deploy, and ensured that the improvements we add to our own FixMyStreet are also available for all the others: just recently we rolled out version 2.1 of the codebase.

    Taking a peek to see what’s being reported around the world is one of our favourite, if non-standard, means of armchair travelling.

    For example:

    FMS around the world

    A Norwegian puddle-prone footbridge gets in the way of christenings, confirmations and school meetings; meanwhile in Spanish city Alcalá de Henares, a resident complains about the smell created by rubbish lorries while allowing us a splendid view across the rooftops; and in Malaysia, a pack of stray dogs is causing problems for one reporter.

    FixMyStreet Professional

    We’d wanted to provide a reporting system that bettered those offered by local councils: in June 2012 that goal was seemingly affirmed when some councils purchased the system to place on their own websites.

    We officially launched FixMyStreet for Councils, with Bromley and Barnet being the very first local authorities to implement it. Since then, we’ve been in a continual process of improvement, driven by input and collaboration with many councils around the country. Several more have become clients, too. We’ll have more news on the latest developments soon (and meanwhile, if you are from a council, you can learn more here).

    Diverse uses

    One of the nicest things about a codebase like FixMyStreet is that it can be deployed in many — sometimes surprising — ways. If you’ve followed our blog over the years, you’ll have seen the Channel 4 collaboration Empty Homes Spotter; the bicycle incident-reporting platform Collideoscope; and a project fighting corruption in Malaysia.

    Bringing out the poetry in potholes

    There’s something about FixMyStreet that inspires some users to exercise their powers of descriptive prose: we celebrated many of them in this 2014 post.

    Then there are the reports which attract comments from other users. Lots of them, year in, year out. This one about seagulls in Brighton, for example, has become a one-stop forum for people all around the country to come together in their mutual despair of and/or love for our coastal avian friends.

    Ever more reports

    stats page fms

    You can track the progress as we head towards the next million reports on our new stats page; where you might also be interested to see which councils are currently responding to issues most quickly, and what categories of problem are most-reported at any given time.

    As you can see, at the moment the site is handling around 4,000 reports a week: but you can expect that to rise when the weather gets colder — we always get a lot more pothole reports in the winter.

    And, are you wondering just what that millionth report was about? Nothing is ever simple: because some reports are made and then subsequently deleted at the user’s request, or because they contravene FixMyStreet’s house rules, we can’t just identify report number 1000000 as the millionth. Those deleted reports retain their original numbers, even though they’re not live.

    But doing a quick bit of calculation, we suspect that the rightful millionth report might be this utterly unremarkable one in Knowsley. Long live the unsensational reports that simply get things fixed.


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    Image: Alison Benbow (CC by/2.0)

  4. TICTeC@Taipei: Agenda now online, early bird tickets still available

    As we shared back in April, this September we’ll be hosting an extra edition of our TICTeC research conference, in Taipei.

    TICTeC, or The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference, is the Civic Tech sector’s only conference that’s dedicated to promoting and sharing research into the impacts of online technologies and digital democracy around the world, to share what works and (crucially) what doesn’t.

    TICTeC@Taipei will be the headline event at the Open Culture Foundation’s Civic Tech Fest,  a week-long festival featuring a series of conferences, workshops and hackathons related to open data and open government. And Civic Tech Fest itself is an official parallel event of the World Congress on Information Technology (WCIT), one of the world’s largest gatherings of the IT industry.

    It’s a really unique opportunity to bring together researchers and practitioners from across the globe in Asia’s Civic Tech hub, and to showcase our sector’s initiatives to the wider IT industry.

    We’re delighted to announce that the TICTeC@Taipei agenda is now online. The conference will feature speakers from the Omidyar Network, UNICEF, the Web Foundation, government ministries of France and Taiwan, leading universities, and many more.

    Early bird tickets are still available until 21st July and registration includes entry to all Civic Tech Fest and WCIT events. We’ll even be having the TICTeC after party in the Taipei 101 building (the tallest building in the photo above), at Google’s Taipei offices. Pretty cool huh?

    Don’t miss out on this unique opportunity — book now!

    Image: sama093 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

     

  5. EveryPolitician: the road ahead

    This post is by Tony Bowden and Lucy Chambers from the EveryPolitician team. Today we officially launch our collaboration with Wikidata – here’s what to expect…  

    The story so far

    You might have been following the progress: since 2015, through our project EveryPolitician, we’ve been gathering data for every national legislature in the world, from thousands of sources, and sharing it.

    Now, two years on, we’ve started to see some great results. For example:

    • It’s much easier to build simple Parliament Tracking sites (as mySociety partner organisations have in Zimbabwe and Nigeria). Those running the sites can work on providing information and context to hold politicians accountable — and don’t have to worry about wrangling data and software.
    • Tools that allow citizens to write to their representatives (like Majlis Nameh in Iran,  based on the WriteInPublic software, or Oxfam’s UK and Australia Campaigning Tool) can now be deployed in days rather than weeks, allowing groups to focus on local customisation.
    • Vote-tracking sites like TheyVoteForYou in Australia can be more easily adapted to other countries — such as Ukraine, again without worrying about the major task of sourcing the politician data.
    • Projects that highlight politicians’ activity can be augmented to show extra information against those politicians — so for example, Politwoops can show party affiliation next to politicians’ tweets.
    • Investigative journalists can cross-match our lists of politicians to other sources (e.g. investigating shell companies for a recent Private Eye article or with the Panama Papers).
    • mySociety’s collaboration with Facebook makes it easy for people to connect with their newly elected representatives.

    All of this is possible because of two main tenets of EveryPolitician: having gathered the data, we structure it consistently, and we share it freely.

    Not just current data

    We’ve also discovered that there is a huge value for everyone in retaining historic information, too:

    • Old data tends to disappear from many official sites, for example, when a new government comes into power and / or when parliaments decide to remodel their websites.
    • Sometimes even the official sources no longer exist: for example, in Burkina Faso the Parliament building was burned down by protesters in 2014 and many crucial documents were lost.
    • Research projects and sites run by civil society organisations sometimes run out of funding and have to shut down — meaning that the data people were relying on can vanish overnight.

    The future: going one step further

    So that’s all great, but we think EveryPolitician can do still more to help the worldwide community of Civic Tech coders and activists.

    In particular, we want to go beyond data showing who the politicians are, and also provide information on what they do. That’s because we can see real value in the ability to answer questions like:

    • When we look at politicians who vote on issues such as gay marriage, smoking bans, tax on sugary drinks, etc, anywhere in the world — are there any broad correlations like age or gender?
    • As countries elect more women MPs, do those women also gain equivalent representation in committees? Does this affect attendance and participation rates?
    • Are there standard political career paths that can be observed anywhere in the world? So for example, do certain Cabinet positions limit future progression; and if so, would it be feasible to spot politicians who are on the way up, or on their way out?
    • Do politicians who move from the lower to upper house act, and vote, differently?
    • Do politicians change their voting activity after certain types of intervention, for example after receiving funding from oil companies?

    … and there are undoubtedly millions more questions, each one just as interesting and with answers that could enrich our understanding of the world. We are aiming for a future in which each should be answerable within minutes, rather than form the basis of a multi-year post-graduate research project.

    How we plan to get there

    You may remember our recent proposal to integrate more deeply with Wikidata. We’re delighted to say that our proposal was accepted, and that makes EveryPolitician’s path very clear.

    Wikipedia is fast becoming one of the best sources of political information in many countries: it’s often updated more quickly than major news outlets or official parliamentary sites are.

    Which is great, but there’s an issue when it comes to using that information for projects like the ones we’ve mentioned above: Wikipedia contains largely unstructured information (that is to say, information that comes in a wide variety of different formats) — as you’d expect from any project with multiple contributors and, often, a free-text input.

    There are also a lot of differences between Wikipedias in different countries. Some countries’ data (particularly countries where the Wikipedia community is larger) gets updated very quickly. Smaller language Wikipedias can’t rely on such a large pool of editors, and it tends to be longer before they are updated.

    Additionally, and as you might expect, Wikipedia content will appear fastest in the countries most directly affected by the change being documented, so for example when there are elections in Estonia, the Estonian Wikipedia may show the results almost immediately, but it can take a while for those changes to trickle into all languages.

    The solution to all this? We believe it’s Wikidata: the structured sibling of Wikipedia. If Wikidata is new to you, there’s an easy introduction here and you can also take a tour to learn more.

    But of course, nothing’s ever quite that simple. While Wikipedia has a wealth of unstructured political information, on Wikidata there’s still an awful lot of data missing. You may recall that we recently ran a drive to ensure that every country at least had its head of government entered, but that’s just the beginning: in order to answer the kinds of questions we mention above, we really need to ensure there’s consistently-structured information for all legislators, all elections… and much more.

    What you’ll see in the coming months

    While we plan for EveryPolitician to retain its own identity and keep its own front end, we’re excited to say that over the next few months, we’ll be teaming up with Wikidata communities across the world.

    Our first objective is see if we can bring Wikidata up to the same level as EveryPolitician for as many countries as possible.

    And once we hit that target, we plan to go much further. The beauty of Wikidata is that you can add pretty much any information you want to add to politicians (indeed, to anything!), so local communities can decide for themselves which information is most pertinent and make sure that it’s included.

    To help us make all of this happen, we’re expanding. If you’ve read this far and you’re still finding the project interesting, the chances are you’d be a great addition to the team! We’re looking for a new community co-ordinator, working from anywhere in the world (compatible timezones allowing): you can see all the details here.

    How you can get involved

    There are plenty of ways that you can help with this drive to improve the structured information on Wikidata. Here are the obvious ones:

    • Would you be interested in organising a push to Improve Wikidata for your country? Get in touch on team@everypolitician.org and we’ll do what we can to help.
    • If this all sounds interesting, but you’re not sure where to start, or you’re unfamiliar with Wikidata – drop us an email and tell us what you’re interested in. We’re more than happy to help you get started.

    Image: Aftab Uzzaman (CC by-nc/2.0)

  6. The Welsh Government and Aston Martin: the timeline of a delayed response

    In February 2016, Tom Gallard made a simple request to the Welsh Government through our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.com. He wanted to know the exact sum paid to Aston Martin in a much-publicised deal which would bring its luxury car-making facilities to St Athan.

    15 months later, in June 2017, he received the answer.

    Now clearly, this is not an example of an efficient and prompt release of information on request — so let’s look at exactly what happened.

    Tom’s request was not complex, but it appeared to ask for something that the Welsh Government were reluctant to disclose, and as a result, it encountered several obstacles.

    February 24, 2016: request made

    Tom made his one-line request: “Please provide details of the financial support agreed with Aston Martin to create 750 jobs at St Athan.”

    Was there anything in particular that spurred you to make this request?

    “I read a lot of the news reports around the deal to bring Aston Martin to Wales, and I got more and more frustrated as it became clear that no-one was disclosing how much this would cost. I didn’t feel I could judge whether it was a good use of money or not, without knowing how much was being spent”.

    March 23, 2016: reminder sent

    Under the FOI Act, authorities are supposed to respond to request for information promptly, and at most within 20 working days. WhatDoTheyKnow sends its users a reminder when this date has passed, so you can chase your request if needs be.

    According to this official timeline, Tom’s response was due by March 24 at the latest, but in their acknowledgement, the Welsh Government had said that they would reply by March 14, so his reminder wasn’t necessarily premature.

    March 24, 2016: refusal received

    The Welsh Government did reply within the time-limit, albeit on the last possible day.

    Their response confirmed that they did have the information Tom had requested, but stated that it was exempt from disclosure under Section 43 of the Freedom of Information Act, which relates to commercial interests. Use of this clause requires the authority to show that the public interest in withholding the information is greater than the public interest in releasing it.

    Same day: review requested

    When you receive a refusal in response to your FOI request, you might think that there’s nothing more you can do — but, as WhatDoTheyKnow’s automated advice explains to users in this situation, you have the right to request an internal review.

    Tom did just that, quoting ICO guidance on commercial interests, noting that the Welsh Government had previously published information on grant funding given to other companies, and particularly, pointing out an apparent misreading of the meaning of ‘public interest’ on behalf of the Welsh Government: “The public interest here means the public good, not what is of interest to the public”.

    “What frustrated me was a refusal in the Welsh Government’s response to engage with the specific case. I had seen them produce a lot of very similarly worded replies to a range of FOI requests. I spent a lot of time reading previous judgements by the Information Commissioner, and felt I had a strong case.”

    Why do you think the Welsh Government might have been so reluctant to release this figure? As you mention, figures for similar deals had been released in the past.

    “A lot of people have found this reluctance odd. It has also been suggested to me, by a couple of well-placed sources, that the figure they have now released is just one part of the support the Welsh Government has agreed to provide to Aston Martin.”

    April 26, 2016: review reminder, response, referral to the ICO

    Tom knew his rights and as he mentioned in this follow-up — two days after he should have received a response — “ICO guidance suggests that if the 20 day limit is to be breached, I should have received an email telling me this, and the reasons for the delay”.

    Whether because of this reminder or not, he received his response that same day. The Welsh Government’s own internal review concluded that they had been within their rights to withhold the information under Section 43 of the FOI Act.

    Again, this is a point at which many requesters might give up, and again it’s one where WhatDoTheyKnow can inform you of your options. If you believe that an authority is withholding information which it should have released, and you have been through the internal review process, you can refer the case to the ICO.

    As this part of the process happened outside WhatDoTheyKnow, Tom helpfully left an annotation on his request page.

    December 6, 2016: amendments from the Welsh Government

    While the case was with the ICO, the Welsh Government sent a further response to indicate that they were changing their reason for exemption: they were now relying on two different sections of the FOI Act: 29(1)(b), the economy, and 36(2)(c), the effective conduct of public affairs, details of which you can see in this response.

    Tom left an annotation to say he’d alerted the ICO to the change in defence, along with some counter-arguments.

    May 31, 2017 ICO ruling

    ICO decisions do not generally come quickly, but it can certainly be worth lodging your complaint with them.

    In this case, they found that the information was incorrectly withheld and ordered that the information be released.

    June 2, 2017, information received

    Two days later, the sum was finally disclosed, and can be seen here.

    – Now that you have the information you requested, will you be using it any way, or are you simply content that it’s now in the public domain?

    “I’m happy it’s out there now. But I’m definitely considering whether I can squeeze out some more details about how else the Welsh Government is supporting Aston Martin.”

    And of course, that path is also open to anyone else who’s interested in this deal. There’s lots more that could be requested through FOI, from what the exact wording of the contract is, to how the outcomes will be monitored, or how the money is to be paid (the ICO decision notes that no payments had been made as of April 2017; if they are made in the future, they might be pro-actively published on the Welsh Government site — or, if not, someone might need to make another FOI request in order to obtain them).

    If you do make a related request, please do mention it in an annotation on Tom’s request so that others can easily find it.

    This was a long story

    As you might expect, at mySociety we are strongly in favour of the citizen’s right to information under the FOI Act.

    Naturally, we prefer it when information is released without a hitch. But those aren’t always the best stories: we hope that by highlighting examples like this, where WhatDoTheyKnow users have shown tenacity and determination, we can show that if you have a valid request, it’s worth sticking to your guns.


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    Image: Adam Court (CC by/2.0)

  7. TICTeC 2017 in Florence: videos and slides

    How can we counter Fake News — and should we even try? Do big corporations have a moral duty to share their data for the betterment of the world? Why do petitions created by women get more signatures than those created by men?

    These are just a few of the questions posed — and answered — at TICTeC 2017.

    If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), you’ll be glad to know that you can now access videos of the key presentations, as well as interviews where delegates share their insights and specialist expertise. Where available, we’ve also shared speakers’ slides.

    You can see the whole lot on the TICTeC website, and as a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:

    And don’t forget: you can join us for a special extra TICTeC conference in September this year. We’ll be hosting TICTeC@Taipei as part of Asia’s first Civic Tech Fest, an official side event of the World Congress on Information Technology. More details and how to register can be found at civictechfest.org.

  8. Grenfell Tower: how mySociety can help

    Just like many others, we at mySociety have been appalled and shocked at the Grenfell Tower fire which struck last week. That shock has only deepened over the weekend as the confirmed death toll has risen and more facts have emerged.

    As both the public and the media search for the ‘why’ behind the story, strands are emerging which point to political mismanagement, inequality, long-term neglect and deprivation, shortsighted cost-cutting, rule bending, and following the letter, rather than the spirit, of the law.

    Residents of the tower had raised multiple concerns about the risk of fire, only to have their requests dismissed. As our CEO Mark Cridge says, ‘Simply put, this is a totemic example of what happens when citizens fail to have influence over those with power.’

    Everything mySociety does is about giving citizens more influence over those with power, so that puts Grenfell very much within our purview.

    We recognise that there are deep, intractable issues around this terrible incident. We’ll be thinking more deeply about what we can do in the long term, and we’ll be returning with further thoughts once we’ve had a chance to discuss the best way forward.

    But for the moment, we have services which you might wish to make use of right away.

    If you want to help campaign

    The first instinct of many, after an event like this, is to campaign for change or justice.

    Gather information

    At this stage, facts are still emerging. If there’s information that you think might help, but which hasn’t yet been covered, you can use Freedom of Information to lodge a request with a relevant public body, on our site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Note that this is not necessarily a speedy process (while authorities must provide the information if they hold it, in most cases*, the process can take up to 20 working days); if you have personal concerns, see below for our advice on getting quick answers — but if there is information which you think should be in the public domain and which does not yet appear to have been requested, you may wish to lodge your own FOI request. It’s very easy, and WhatDoTheyKnow also publishes the whole correspondence online, meaning the information is then available to all.

    In fact, over the last few days, many have already used this avenue to request information:

    If any of these requests are of particular interest, you can use the ‘follow’ button to receive an email when they are updated, e.g. when a response comes in.

    Or if you would like to make your own request (remembering that you shouldn’t replicate anything that’s already been requested — just follow those requests if you want the answers) here are some relevant authorities:

    Also: while only publicly-funded organisations are covered by the FOI Act, note that you can ask any council for, say, contracts, minutes of meetings or sums paid to contractors or housing associations, which may cover much of what you need.

    Lobby for change

    Another way to campaign is to contact your MP and make it clear what action you would like them to take, whether that is a question asked in Parliament or to push for new legislation. You can see who your MP is and send them an email on our site WriteToThem.

    If you want quick answers

    Your local representatives are there to offer help and answer questions.

    If you live in a towerblock yourself, and especially one that has been recently retrofitted with cladding, you may, understandably, be worried. In fact, some of the requests on WhatDoTheyKnow reflect just that concern:

    But like we’ve already said, FOI requests can take time. If your block is council-owned, you’ll get the quickest information — and hopefully, assurances — via your council, and you can get support from your local councillors. Even if your block is privately-run, you may find that they can help, with information about local legislation or suggestions for the best contacts to follow up.

    WriteToThem also covers councillors. You don’t need to know who they are — just input your postcode and the site will guide you through the process of sending them an email.

    What we will be doing

    We’re still discussing the best way that mySociety can help, and we’ll be following up with a more considered response once we’ve come to some decisions.

    Some ideas have already been suggested, from a FixMyTowerblock version of FixMyStreet, allowing residents to lodge concerns which would then be in the public domain (as well as being sent to the block’s management), to a site co-ordinating the needs of victims.

    Whatever we do, we want to make sure it’s genuinely useful — whether that means using our own resources, or supporting others who use our Open Source code to power their own projects. So watch this space and we’ll let you know how our discussions go.

     


    *Unless covered by an exemption.

    Image: Chiral Jon (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  9. Increasing political engagement with Facebook

    Millions of people reached for their phone on June 9, and checked Facebook for the result of the UK General Election.

    Now, you may or may not be one of those people yourself, but there’s no disputing that many of us turn to social media as our primary source for big news. Through the night, Facebook was a place where we could express feelings about the results as they came in, share news stories and ask questions: it gives us a rounded view of an event like an election, quite unlike any you’ll receive from traditional media.

    And the morning after, those logging in to Facebook may have seen something like this — an invitation to follow your newly-elected or re-elected MP and other elected representatives, from local councillors to MEPs:

    Facebook notification

    Facebook notification

    representatives shown on Facebook

    Representatives shown on Facebook

     

    We’re glad to say that mySociety has been working alongside Facebook to help make this happen.

    Reaching people where they are

    mySociety has a mission to make democracy more accessible for everyone, and via our websites TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, we serve and inform more than 400,000 UK citizens per month.

    That figure has, as we’d expect, spiked in the last few weeks as people rush to check their MPs’ track records, all the better to cast an informed vote; but all the same, we’re well aware that 400,000 users is only a small proportion of the country’s electorate.

    What’s more, our research has consistently shown that our services don’t adequately reach the people that need them most: our typical user is male, reasonably affluent, well-educated, older and white — I mean, we’re glad to be there for everyone, but generally speaking this is a demographic that can inform itself quite readily without any extra help.

    That’s not a problem Facebook has, though, with their 32 million UK users. 75% of them log in on a daily basis, and almost half are under the age of 30*.

    That’s why we were so keen to join forces with the Facebook Civic Engagement team, to help this large online audience see who their representatives are today.

    Facebook for engagement

    You may not have been aware that Facebook has a dedicated political engagement team — unless you came to TICTeC this year, of course, in which case you’d have seen a walkthrough of the extensive research that’s gone into their election offerings globally — but if you use Facebook at all, and if you’re in a country that has recently had an election, you’ve probably seen some of their work.

    Over the last few weeks in the UK, people on Facebook were alerted to each stage of the electoral process. They were invited to check who their candidates were and what they stood for; offered a reminder to vote and provided information on where and how to do so; and finally, encouraged to share the fact that they had voted, tapping into the proven peer encouragement effect.

    facebook voter graphics

    Facebook voter graphics

    mySociety behind the scenes

    Thanks to our experience running TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem, plus the support we receive from Commercial Evaluations and their Locator Online service and our involvement with Democracy Club’s WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk, we have access to accurate and up-to-date data on candidates and representatives at every level, from local councillors up to MEPs, and including MPs — all linked to the relevant constituencies.

    In all, this totaled around 23,000 people. What we needed to discover was how many of them were on Facebook — and could we accurately link our records to their Facebook pages?

    Working together with Facebook, we built an admin tool that displayed likely pages to our team, on the basis of names, locations and the really giveaway information, such as ‘Councillor’, ‘MP’ or the constituency name in the page title. Some representatives didn’t have individual pages, but ran a party page; those counted too (and of course, a fair proportion of representatives have no Facebook presence at all).

    While our tool filtered the results reasonably well, it was still necessary to make a manual check of every record to ensure that we were linking to the correct representative, and not, say, someone who happened to have the same name and live in the same town. We needed to link, of course, only to ‘official’ pages; not representatives’ personal pages full of all those things we use Facebook for on a day-to-day basis. Those holiday snaps, Candy Crush results and cat memes won’t help constituents much: what we were looking for was the kind of page where constituents could message their reps, find out about surgery times, and get the latest news from their constituency.

    Now of course, until the results came in, no-one knew precisely which candidates would be MPs! So a small crack team of mySociety people worked through Thursday night to do the final matching. It was a very long night, but we hope that the result will be an awful lot more people following their representatives, and so quite effortlessly becoming more politically engaged, thanks to a platform which they already visit on a regular basis.

    *Figures based on this post.
    Image: Sarah R (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  10. Find FixMyStreet Pro on GCloud 9

    We are happy to confirm that FixMyStreet Professional (the service formerly known as FixMyStreet for Councils) has been accepted onto the GCloud9 procurement framework.

    Why is this important?

    Using GCloud9, which is overseen by the Crown Commercial Service, removes much of the admin burden from public sector teams who are seeking to procure cloud based software and makes it easier to get down to the question of who has the best product for their needs.

    What is FixMyStreet Pro?

    FixMyStreet Pro represents the outcome of our co-design project with Oxfordshire County Council to take our popular FixMyStreet platform and build in a new set of features that genuinely made it as useful as possible for their staff (and Council staff all over the UK).

    With a focus on retaining the user focused design and approach FixMyStreet was known for we have added or improved functionality for Council customer service staff and introduced a whole new set of tools to support Council inspectors including the ability to manage their tasks from within the app and to work offline when out and about.

    This project has also made some improvements to the wider user experience for citizens with new front-end features being added all the time based on user research and feedback.

    Want to learn more?

    You can find out more about the service over on the GCloud Digital Marketplace or check out our own product pages where you can also get in touch with us if you would like to see a demonstration of the service or learn more about how we might be able to help.