Next week Gareth and I will be heading to Tunis to attend the 8th edition of RightsCon. RightsCon is the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age, so we’re thrilled to be hosting a session at the conference about digital Access to Information platforms with our awesome friends at MuckRock.
If you’ll also be there we’d love to talk to you about your campaigns or investigations and how using access to information platforms could help.
As Jen said in her recent blog post, we’ll be spending time this year developing our software platform Alaveteli Pro so more people across the world have access to its digital tools that help with the sending and management of information requests.
We’d love to get feedback on this work and would love to meet organisations who are interested in setting up Alaveteli Pro instances, in order to make access to information easier for citizens in their countries. We’re also very keen to talk to individuals and organisations who are interested in collaborating on cross-border public-interest investigations and campaigns using FOI-generated data.
We’d also love to talk to RightsCon attendees who might be interested in attending our AlaveteliCon event in Oslo on 23 and 24 September, where activists, journalists, technologists and campaigners from across the world will come together to discuss Freedom of Information technologies for creating public-interest investigations and campaigns.
And of course, our Call for Proposals is currently open for our TICTeC Local conference so it’d be great to chat to people interested in presenting their work using digital innovations to help local communities and/or public authorities to foster citizen engagement, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems.
Using WhatdoTheyKnow Pro, this project pieced together a nationwide dataset, and generated important stories at both national and local levels.
Sold from Under You, a project from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, revealed how much publicly-owned property has been sold off across England, as a response to austerity measures. In all, TBIJ discovered that over 12,000 buildings and pieces of land have been disposed of, bringing councils revenue of £9.1 billion — some of which has been spent on staff redundancies.
In collaboration with HuffPost, the findings were presented in the form of an interactive map which allows users to explore sales in their own area.
The investigation required a significant amount of data collection via FOI requests to 353 councils, work which was aided by WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. More than 150 people across the UK, including local journalists, took part in the collaborative investigation. As well as HuffPost’s coverage, stories were run in regional news outlets across the country. The project has now been shortlisted for the Data Journalism awards.
We spoke to Gareth Davies from TBIJ to understand how the organisation approached this ambitious project, and what part WhatDoTheyKnow Pro played in it. Here’s what he told us:
“The Bureau has been investigating the local government funding crisis in the UK for the last 18 months. The initial part of this particular investigation focused on the overall financial health of local authorities and used data to determine which were under the most pressure. We then wanted to look at the impact of the funding crisis so teamed up with Hazel Sheffield and her Far Nearer project to look at the public spaces that were being lost as a result.
“At the start of the investigation we undertook a research period to determine what local authorities are required to publish about the buildings and land they own, and how many of them were adhering to those rules.
“We discovered that while councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid.
“Also, two thirds of councils update the same spreadsheet each year, meaning change over time is lost. As a result it became apparent that FOI would be required to obtain the information we were interested in. FOI is a tool we have used for a number of stories, particularly those produced by our Bureau Local team.
“The information we wanted could be divided into two groups: what assets councils were buying and selling, and what they were doing with the money raised when an asset is sold. The research period showed we would need FOI to obtain this data.”
More than 700 FOI requests
“To reduce the risk of requests being refused for exceeding the cost/time limit, we needed to submit two separate requests to each of the 353 local authorities in England.
“Previously I had submitted and managed bulk FOI requests via email. However, staying on top of more than 700 requests would have proven very challenging. I was aware of the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro platform but hadn’t used it before, so thought this would be the ideal opportunity to test it out.
I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
“It was useful to have up-to-date contact details for each authority and to be able to send the FOI requests in one go. But probably the most useful feature was the way in which WhatDoTheyKnow Pro tracks the status of each request and shows you when the public body in question has exceeded the statutory time limit. This made it a lot easier to stay on top of which councils needed to be chased and when I needed to do it.
“Managing so many FOI requests was still challenging and very time consuming but it would have been much harder by email. The first batch of requests had a success rate of more than 95% and the other (which was more detailed) was around 85%.
“I don’t think I would have achieved that without WhatDoTheyKnow Pro and, as a result, the investigation and interactive map we created would not have been as comprehensive.”
Refining the requests
While councils have to publish annual lists of the assets they own, this does not include vital information such as who assets were bought from or sold to and the prices paid
“I sent requests to one of each type of local authority (London borough, metropolitan borough, unitary, county and district) to test what, if any, information councils would provide. The fact that all of those requests were successful meant I had confidence when submitting the batch requests.
“It also allowed me to include additional information in the bulk requests, because some of the test councils erroneously withheld, under Section 40, the identities of companies. As a result I added a note to the request highlighting that this would not be a correct application of that exemption.
“As each response came in I recorded them in two separate spreadsheets — one showing what assets had been bought/sold and another containing information about how the money raised from asset sales had been used. Gradually we built a comprehensive picture of what was happening with public spaces, and that was crucial for our story.”
Bringing about change
There have been tangible results from this investigation.
“The government launched an investigation into the sale of assets by Peterborough Council as a result of this particular story, focusing on that area.
“We submitted our findings to an inquiry currently being held by the Communities and Local Government select committee and were mentioned by name during the first day of oral hearings.
“And last month the Public Accounts Committee announced it would hold a similar inquiry into the sale of public land. Several councils halted their property investment policies after our coverage revealed how much they had borrowed to fund the purchases.”
Thank you very much to Gareth Davies for talking to us about the Sold From Under You project.
Image: Daniel von Appen
WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, mySociety’s subscription service offering extra tools for journalists and other professional users of FOI, has been running in the UK for just about two years.
During that time we’ve launched, worked closely with users to refine the service, and — happily — watched it play a vital part in the making of several important data-driven news stories, on topics as diverse as Brexit campaign funding and the results of austerity cuts on councils. Journalists, in particular, have appreciated tools such as the ability to send and manage bulk requests to multiple authorities; and the embargo tool that keeps requests and responses hidden until the story has been published.
Now, thanks to support from Adessium Foundation, we are able to bring the same benefits to countries across Europe, and — we hope — some additional synergies that will be borne of organisations working across boundaries. The same functionality that extends WhatDoTheyKnow into the Pro version will be available to FOI sites run on the Alaveteli platform, under the name Alaveteli Pro.
The ultimate aim is to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information; and in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that will hold power to account.
We’ll be focusing on three areas in order to achieve this aim:
- We’ll give selected existing Alaveteli sites in Europe the technical help they need to upgrade to the Pro version;
- We’ll be helping organisations in three new European jurisdictions to launch brand new Alaveteli sites, making access to information easier for citizens in these countries. The first site will be launched by VVOJ from the Netherlands.
- We’ll encourage cross-border collaborations between journalists and organisations using the sites (both the existing ones and the new ones) to investigate stories that span more than one EU country.
So watch this space: we’ll be sure to keep you posted as the work progresses. The planned start date is next month, and the project is set to run for three years.
We’re looking forward to sharing stories resulting from this initiative once they start rolling out, and supporting the incredible work that journalists do in putting them together.
Image: Emiliano Vittoriosi
‘Sold From Under You’ project used WhatDoTheyKnow Pro
Not long ago, we let you know about the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s project to map and quantify the scale of properties being sold by councils up and down the country as they try to manage with reduced budgets under austerity.
The investigation, which made use of our WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service to send and manage hundreds of Freedom of Information requests, has now been shortlisted for a Data Journalism Award in the Open Data category.
We’re delighted that our platform for professional users of FOI could be of help; this is just the sort of broad data-driven investigation, requiring FOI requests to multiple authorities, that it was conceived for.
You can read BIJ’s interesting account of their methodology and the impact that the project has had here. We wish them the very best of luck for the award finals next month.
It’s a more common problem than you might think: given a list of postcodes, how can you match them to the administrative and electoral areas, such as wards or constituencies, that they sit within?
MapIt’s data mapping tool gives a quick, easy and cheap solution: just upload your spreadsheet of postcodes, tell it which type of area you want them matched to, and the data is returned to you — complete with a new column containing the information you need.
The tool can match your postcodes to every type of data that MapIt offers in its API, including council areas, Westminster constituencies, parish wards and even NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).
If that doesn’t sound like something you can imagine being useful, let’s look at a few hypothetical use cases (and if you have an actual case that you’d like to tell us about, please do let us know — we’re always keen to hear how our tools are being used).
Organisations, charities and campaigns sometimes need to match postcodes to administrative areas
Membership organisations, charities and campaigns usually collect the addresses of supporters, but don’t commonly ask them who their MP is (even if they did ask, most people in the UK don’t actually know the name of their MP).
But when a campaign asks followers to contact their MPs, it’s helpful to be able to suggest an angle based on whether the MP is known to be sympathetic to their cause, or not — indeed, there’s arguably no point in contacting MPs who are already known to be firmly on board.
So: input a spreadsheet of supporters’ postcodes, and get them matched to the associated Westminster constituencies.
For more advanced usages, organisations might match the MapIt tool’s output of postcodes with other datasets to discover the answers to questions like:
- Which members in a disability group have fewest GPs in their area, and might be finding it difficult to get help for their condition?
- Which supporters of a transport charity live in regions less served by public transport, and would be likely to take action to campaign for improved bus and train services?
- Which people affiliated to an ecological organisation live in predominantly rural areas and could help with a wildlife count?
Researchers sometimes need to match postcodes to administrative areas
Researchers often need to correlate people, institutions or locations with the boundaries they fall within.
They might have a list of postcodes for, say, underperforming schools, and want to find out whether they are clustered within authorities that have similar characteristics, like cuts to their funding or an administration that has a political majority one way or the other.
Teamed with other datasets, MapIt can help towards answering important questions like the number of people each CCG serves, how unemployment rates vary in different European regions, or average house prices within parliamentary constituencies.
Journalists sometimes need to match postcodes to administrative areas
Investigative or data journalists may obtain long spreadsheets full of postcodes in the course of their work, perhaps as a result of having submitted Freedom of Information requests to one or more authorities.
Perhaps they have the address of every university in the country, and there’s an election coming up — during the summer holidays. Knowing that students will mostly be in their home constituencies, they might be able to make informed predictions about how votes in the university towns will be affected.
Or let’s say that a journalist has gathered, from local councils, an address for every library scheduled to close. This could be compared with another dataset — perhaps literacy or crime rates — to draw conclusions over what impact the closures would have.
Part of a wider service
The one-off data mapping tool is just one service from mySociety’s MapIt, which is best known for its API.
This provides an ongoing service, typically for those running websites that ask users to input geographical points such as postcodes or lat/longs, and return tailored results depending on the boundaries those points fall within.
MapIt powers most mySociety sites, for example:
- When you drop a pin on the map while using FixMyStreet, MapIt provides the site with the administrative boundaries it falls within, so that the site can then match your report with the authority responsible for fixing it.
- When you type your postcode into WriteToThem, Mapit gives the site the information it needs to to display a list of every representative, from local councillor up to MEP, who represents your area.
- If you search for your postcode on TheyWorkForYou, MapIt tells the site what your Westminster constituency is and the site matches that to your MP. You can then be taken to their page with a record of how they have voted and everything they’ve said in Parliament.
Give it a try
Image: Thor Alvis
We’re delighted to be hosting the third AlaveteliCon, our Freedom of Information (FOI) technologies conference, on 23 and 24 September 2019 in Oslo, Norway.
A few days ahead of International Right to Know Day (28 September), AlaveteliCon will bring together activists, journalists, technologists and campaigners from across the world who use Freedom of Information laws, data and technologies to create public-interest investigations and campaigns.
This time we’ll be including a focus on catalysing collaborations on cross-border European public interest investigations and campaigns, in order to strengthen the use of FOI across the region. This focus is in part due to our latest Transparency project, funded by Adessium Foundation. This Transparency project seeks to enable journalists, campaigners and citizens in Europe to make greater and more effective use of their right to access information, in particular to generate public interest stories and campaigns that hold power to account.
Here are some of the other things AlaveteliCon attendees will get up to this time:
- Exchanging insights and ideas on how to run and improve open-source Freedom of Information platforms such as WhatDoTheyKnow, MuckRock and FragDenStaat
- Hearing how journalists and campaigners around the world have used FOI to power high-profile investigations and campaigns
- Making connections with journalists and campaigners who would like to collaborate on cross-border investigations that hold governments to account
- Learning about data sources available on FOI platforms around the world, waiting to be analysed and turned into public-interest stories
- Hearing tips from FOI activists on getting governments to release information in their countries including going to court
- Contributing to the further development of mySociety’s open-source FOI toolkit for journalists, Alaveteli Pro, which helps journalists and campaigners to manage their FOI investigations
- Connecting to a global network of FOI experts and advocates
- Working together to plan potential joint activities to celebrate International Right to Know Day on 28th September 2019
Apply to attend
As spaces at AlaveteliCon are limited, we’re asking those wishing to come to fill out this application form to tell us what unique perspective they can bring that’s relevant to the above conference themes/topics.
Are you a journalist or campaigner who uses FOI for investigations/campaigns? Do you want to collaborate on FOI-generated investigations? Or interested in setting up an FOI platform in your country? Or want to learn how to use FOI to its fullest potential? Or interested in any of the above topics? If so, then please submit your application by 2nd September at the very latest.
We’ll let you know if you’ve been allocated a place by Friday 6th September at the latest. However, we will endeavour to reply to you sooner than this.
AlaveteliCon is free to attend, but delegates will be required to arrange their own travel, accommodation and costs in Oslo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo: low internet penetration, and low awareness about Freedom of Information. In short, not the most obvious place for an FOI site on our Alaveteli platform.
And yet, here’s tunabakonzi.org, brand new last month.
Henri Christin from Collectif24 is TuNa Bakonzi’s founder, and we were keen to talk to him about his reasons for launching a site when the prevailing conditions are apparently so adverse.
How did you find out about the Alaveteli platform?
“I discovered Alaveteli through AFIC, the Africa Freedom of Information Centre. When Collectif24 organised the National Symposium on Access to Information in Kinshasa, there was a presentation on askyourgov.ug [an FOI site for Uganda, also run on Alaveteli]; that’s what gave us the idea to do the same for the DRC. And that prompted me to get in touch with mySociety!”
Why does DRC need such a site?
“In DRC, everything is centralised on the capital city, Kinshasa. The country is very large, and while there’s been good efforts towards political decentralisation, there hasn’t been the same in terms of administration. So TuNa Bakonzi should help with that.
“It’ll facilitate the demand for easy information in a country where access to basic social services, access to authorities’ offices, is just not guaranteed to everyone.
“This service will promote accountability and give citizens control in the fight against corruption. In a country where there are no public policies on internet governance and journalists are regularly exposed to false information, it will also allow requests for information directly from the source.
“Finally, it’s a barometer for transparency. It will show whether a public institution is transparent, by way of the answers it gives — or does not give — to citizens’ requests.”
There’s not yet an FOI Act in DRC — can the site still have a purpose?
“Although there is not yet an Access to Information law, Collectif24 has published a collection of international, regional and national instruments on the right of Access to Information in the DRC.
“With regard to these instruments and the DRC’s Constitution, which guarantee the right of Access to Information for every person, the public administration is, in principle, supposed to give information to citizens.
“In addition, the Government of the Republic is committed to the principles of governance and transparency. As a result, we’ll be adding the public institutions of local, provincial and central governments to the site, as well as private institutions that have a public function. The site can also support the implementation of the law, once it’s actually been passed.”
Are you using the site to campaign for a change in the law?
“There’s a precedent when “the facts precede the law”. Through this site, we want to promote access to information in practice, and through this we’ll advocate for the vote to be passed in law.
What is awareness of FOI like in the DRC?
“Collectif24 has been working on the question of FOI in DRC since 2009. Previously there was a general perception that FOI really only applied to journalists; but thanks to our work we believe that DRC citizens now know that it’s a fundamental human right.
“It’s also worth noting that we’re the only organisation in DRC that works in this area, but we have no funding to develop awareness programs covering the whole country. We also need to publicise the site, but it’s a technical and financial challenge for us.”
How was the launch?
“We officially launched in partnership with the Catholic National Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO). Representatives of civil society organisations, parliamentarians, journalists, students and members of the public administration were invited to CENCO’s Saint Sylvestre Hall.
“After presenting the project and the importance of the site, the computer scientist who did all the site development made a presentation. Q&A was followed by a session to show how to use the site. All the participants appreciated the initiative and the service. The ceremony closed with thanks to OSISA [The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa] for the funding and to mySociety for the creation of the Alaveteli platform”.
Who do you think will use the site?
“Everyone can use it. Yes, we have to recognise that internet penetration and connection in the country is weak. So at first we expect users to be the groups that have more access to the Internet: we definitely expect actors in civil society, journalists, researchers, politicians, international organisations, professionals and administration staff to use it”.
What are your hopes for the project?
“My wishes and dreams for this innovative and unique site in the DRC are that it becomes the place of contact between the governors and the governed; that it is a tool of citizen control and accountability which contributes to the fight against corruption and improves the governance of the DRC.
“For that to happen, we must publicise it as much as possible, but we do face security, technical and financial constraints:
“In terms of security: Collectif24 is not yet able to protect the site in the case of cyber attack; technically, we need a permanent expert for maintenance. And then, financially: we need funding for increasing awareness, hosting, better storage space, and updating of the institutions’ details, and so it goes on!”
How’s it going so far?
“Right now, we’re seeing a start. People are asking the questions they want answers to.
“But the authorities are not responding because they have not yet been sensitised to the concept of FOI.
“Additionally, we need to increase the number of institutions available on the site — but most Congolese institutions do not have official or reliable email addresses. There’s no documentation in the DRC to provide information on institutions at all levels and their contacts.
“So this is the next piece of work that Collectif24 intends to do: we’ll produce a directory if we can get a sponsor to fund it, and this will of course facilitate adding institutions to the site.
“Collectif24 must work to raise awareness among the population and the administrative staff; organise training on the use of the site. We want to create online user manuals to help people understand how to use it; add public institutions on a regular basis.
“To do all of this, it’s important to develop a program of advocacy and lobbying to the authorities to get the site recognised. We must work to make this site the official FOI service for the DRC.”
Thanks so much to Henri for talking to us — as always it was fascinating to hear about the challenges Collectif24 are facing: some unique to the country, and some universal across all FOI sites the world over. We wish him the best of luck with this brave but clearly worthy and much needed project in the DRC.
Following on from the success of our first TICTeC Local conference in Manchester last year, we’re delighted to be hosting the second TICTeC Local on 1st November 2019.
Thanks to support from London’s Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, we’re thrilled to be hosting TICTeC Local 2019 at London City Hall, home to the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.
TICTeC Local is part of mySociety’s global The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) series, which has been examining Civic Tech at the local, national and global levels since 2015. TICTeC Local narrows the lens, focusing on where and how Civic Tech connects with and impacts local communities and local government.
What are the digital innovations that are helping local communities and local government to foster citizen engagement, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems? Join us at City Hall this November to find out.
Call for Papers now open
If you’d like to give a presentation or run a workshop at TICTeC Local 2019, please submit your proposals now. You have until Friday 6th September 2019.
We encourage presentation submissions to focus on specific digital innovations that are helping local communities and/or public authorities to foster citizen engagement/participation, drive efficiency, and combat social and environmental problems.
We welcome examples from across the UK and from around the world, but the focus must be the local level.
We will prioritise submissions that focus on the specific impacts of these digital innovations, rather than those that simply showcase new tools that are as yet untested.
Workshop proposals should be relevant to the conference theme. Submit your proposal now.
Registration is now open. Tickets are free for the public sector. Early bird tickets provide a significant discount, so it’s well worth registering before early bird ticket sales end on 13th September 2019.
mySociety is a charity and relies on sponsorship and ticket sales to make events like TICTeC Local happen. If you’re interested in hearing about sponsorship opportunities at TICTeC Local or our global TICTeC events then please get in touch to discuss further.
We look forward to seeing you in London in November! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC Local is all about, you can browse all the resources from last year’s conference.
Last week, we shared research into the state of Freedom of Information in local councils. The standout finding? That the volume of FOI requests to local authorities has more than doubled in the past decade.
The resulting increase in transparency of our councils, along with the work many have done to ensure that they are providing more and better services to citizens, can only be welcomed. But of course, such an increase also brings challenges, which will be best met with robust systems and tools to maximise efficiency.
Fortunately, while mySociety’s Research team were crunching those figures, the Transparency team have been working in parallel on a project to explore and prototype around better case management of FOI and Subject Access Requests in local authorities.
In partnership with four councils, and funded by the Local Digital Fund, this project looked at user journeys for council staff who handle information requests, to determine whether the development of a new digital tool was likely to foster efficiencies.
The resulting reports are now available to read on the mySociety research portal. One early discovery was that most existing digital case management solutions are not ideal for the very specific needs of FOI handling in local councils, for various reasons that are outlined in the reports.
But problems with request handling are not due only to a lack of suitable digital tools. By observing and speaking to people dealing with information requests across the four councils, the team was able to identify the offline systems and qualities that are likely to lead to better case management, and to pin down the issues that prevent such outcomes.
Another major finding came while assessing the viability of designing a digital tool that would better serve councils’ needs. The team were made aware of an existing piece of Open Source software developed by the Ministry of Justice, and ascertained that one practical way forward would be to build on this tool to supplement it with the features identified as lacking elsewhere.
Along the way, the team amassed much information on the variations in the way that different councils handle requests, and considered metrics which any council would be wise to monitor in order to understand the efficacy of their services and where weak points exist.
Every council will benefit from reading these reports, and of course if the recommendations are put in place, the improvements that should follow will also benefit all citizens who seek information.
Meanwhile, we would very much like to take our own findings further, and develop a digital offering based on the MoJ tool: we think it could be genuinely transformative for councils, and, being Open Source, the outcome would be available to all. If you’re from a local authority who might be interested in exploring this with us, do get in touch; we’re also planning to add the potential project to G-Cloud so that a wider audience of councils see it as a potential option if they’re searching for request handling software.
Can you help the international FOI community?
mySociety helps people run Freedom of Information sites in 25 jurisdictions around the world, on our Alaveteli platform.
These partners are usually keeping their sites going with little resource or funding, and we want to upgrade everyone to the newest version of Alaveteli so that they won’t need to manage this substantial task for themselves.
There are improvements and new features in the updates, which is exciting for our partners and their users — but of course, with every new feature come new, small strings of text that help explain it to users, label the buttons, describe any errors that occur, etc, etc.
And although we’re good on coding languages, sadly we can’t say the same about most of the actual spoken languages that need translation. So if you are fluent (ideally as a native speaker or equivalent) in any of the languages listed below, and you would like to do something both interesting and extremely worthwhile, we would be very grateful!
Translation is done via a system called Transifex. Those who are able and keen to contribute to the global Freedom of Information movement should drop us a line on email@example.com with an idea of your availability and commitment, and we can get you set up.
We need translators fluent in:
- French (France and Rwanda versions)
- Spanish (Spain, Colombia and Nicaragua versions)
- German (Germany)
If you speak languages other than these, you can find the full list of languages here and we’re sure any of our partners running sites would be grateful for the translation help — but the above languages are our priorities as these are the sites we help by hosting ourselves.
We’re aiming to get things upgraded as soon as possible, and certainly in time for International Right To Information Day in September, so we’re looking for translators with availability over the coming three months (May, June and July 2019). If this sounds interesting and fun to you please do get in touch.
Image: Yogi Purnama