1. TICTeC 2020 keynote: Hollie Russon Gilman

    Hollie Russon GilmanLast week we announced one must-see TICTeC keynote — now we’re happy to confirm the second, the equally unmissable Hollie Russon Gilman.

    Hollie is a political scientist, civic strategist and fellow at New America’s Political Reform Program, Georgetown’s Beeck Center, and teaches at Columbia University. She has a zest for revitalising the American democracy and exploring how digital technologies can best be deployed toward this aim.

    Her first book Democracy Reinvented: Participatory Budgeting and Civic Innovation and America is one of the most prominent studies of participatory budgeting in the US, and in 2019 she co-authored, with Sabeel Rahman, the excellent Civic Power: Rebuilding American Democracy in an Era of Crisis.

    And just like her companion TICTeC keynote Nanjala Nyabola, Hollie will place the beguiling promises of civic tech within a wider, more sober context: she is equally keen to outline that technology can only reach its potential when combined with the strategic understanding of geopolitics and institutional structures.

    Hollie brings highly relevant hands-on experience to her academic work, having served in the Obama White House as the Open Government and Innovation Advisor helping to implement the international Open Government Partnership and as a field organiser in New Hampshire.

    She has published in numerous academic and popular audience publications; and been a researcher and adviser for many organisations and foundations including the Case Foundation; Center for Global Development, Gates Foundation, Knight Foundation, Google.org, and the World Bank.

    Hollie’s work will be of huge interest to the TICTeC community — and you can be there to hear it in person, by booking to join us at TICTeC in Reykjavik this March.

    Be a part of TICTeC 2020

    TICTeC tickets are available at early bird prices until 14 February, and at regular prices until 20 March.

    Want to be on the same speaker line-up as Hollie? You still have time to apply to present or host a workshop related to the conference theme, as applications close on 17 January: more information here.

    We’ll be announcing more TICTeC 2020 speakers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

    Top image: Harpa conference centre in Reykjavik, by Clark Van Der Beken

  2. Climate Crisis – the one thing we’ll be talking about this year

    If you’ve had a look at our annual report for 2019 you’ll know that we’re a busy bunch at mySociety, keeping lots of useful civic services running and talking about our work on an almost daily basis.

    In 2020 we’re going to be doing something a bit different.

    You’ll still hear from us regularly through our blogs and research and conference, but we’re going to be talking about one thing above all else – the climate crisis.

    We’ll still talk about democracy; but more than likely we’ll be considering how participatory and deliberative approaches can be useful in finding consensus on the difficult decisions we’ll all need to take to avoid the worst climate impacts. And thanks to your contributions towards the successful crowdfunder for TheyWorkForYou, we’ll be able — along with other much-needed improvements and updates — to help you hold the new parliament to account on how they respond to the climate emergency.

    You’ll still hear from us on transparency; we’ll be helping people make the most of WhatDoTheyKnow to request information from public bodies on how they are responding to the crisis, and we’ll be looking at how we might apply our long experience of improving access to public information to similar private sector services in areas like pensions and investments – where divestment from fossil fuels is urgently needed.

    When we refer to community, and especially our work with FixMyStreet, we’ll be underlining how important it will be to support local democracy and help create resilient flourishing communities if we’re to mitigate how our changing climate will hit the least well off in society.

    One focus, one reason

    We are doing this for one simple reason – there really is not a more important issue facing our society today.

    We can’t address the climate crisis without also addressing the parallel democratic crisis we face in many countries around the world, where lies, deceit and fake news have become normal paths to power.

    We can’t solve issues like climate change without also addressing the lack of equality and fairness in society, where those with the least power and influence will be affected the most.

    And we can’t avoid the worst impacts without building and living with strong and resilient communities where every citizen can play their part.

    So we’ll be exploring what small role we might be able to play at mySociety — both improving our environmental impacts internally, and examining how we align our current and future work with the need to tackle the climate crisis. And alongside this you’ll still be able to report a pothole on FixMyStreet, or follow your MP on TheyWorkForYou on every other topic beyond the climate as usual.

    We’d encourage all our friends and colleagues in civil society, government and the private sector to consider what role they might play themselves both as individuals and through their organisations – and we hope you’ll also share your plans and we can learn more from each other in the year ahead.

    Photo by NASA on Unsplash

  3. TICTeC 2020 keynote: Nanjala Nyabola

    We’re delighted to announce our first confirmed keynote speaker for TICTeC 2020: esteemed writer, activist and political analyst Nanjala Nyabola.

    Nanjala has published a substantial body of work spanning academic research, books and articles. A key theme is the effect that technology is having upon politics  — in her home country of Kenya, but also across Africa and indeed globally, with a look at the recent electoral and political upheaval in the UK and US.

    Many millions of words have been written on Trump and Brexit, but what perhaps makes Nanjala’s analysis different is that it comes from a Kenyan perspective. She’s uniquely well-placed to achieve her stated aim, to “upend the flawed logic that technology trends only impact the West”.

    Nanjala argues that digital technologies can’t solve embedded issues such as the social divide, and that in fact technology may be amplifying societal ills such as hate speech and echo chambers. Her book Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya was hailed as “one of the few studies of social media that goes beyond the digital sphere to provide in-depth social, political, and historic context”.

    Meanwhile, her articles have informed international debate across the Financial Times, the Guardian, the New Internationalist, the BBC World Service, Al Jazeera and many more.

    Now Nanjala will also be informing the delegates at TICTeC 2020 in Reykjavik in a keynote that is set to be inspiring and provocative. If you’d like to have your horizons expanded, and understand more about the effects technology is wreaking upon politics, come and hear it directly from one who has devoted her work to just that.

    Be a part of TICTeC 2020

    TICTeC tickets are available at early bird prices until 14 February, and at regular prices until 20 March.

    Want to be on the same speaker line-up as Nanjala? You still have time to apply to present or host a workshop related to the conference theme, as applications close on 17 January: more information here.

    We’ll be announcing more TICTeC 2020 speakers in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.

    Image credits: Nanjala Nyabola: Jan Michalko (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Harpa conference centre: Michael Held

  4. WhatDoTheyKnow as fact-checker, part 2

    A lie, as the saying goes, can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.

    That’s all the more so in the age of social media. Whether it starts as a misunderstanding, or a deliberate attempt to mislead, before you know it an untruth can be swept up to make a political point, used in arguments and believed by many — and never mind that there’s no factual basis to it.

    In 2016, we pointed out a meme spreading false allegations about immigrants, and that the response to an FOI request on WhatDoTheyKnow was providing a way for people to challenge the post with facts.

    Back then, the false rumour being spread was that immigrants were entitled to benefits payments far in excess of the reality. It came to our attention when we realised that the FOI request proving it wrong had become one of the most-visited pages on WhatDoTheyKnow that month.

    And now, almost exactly the same thing has happened again.

    One of the pages with the highest number of visitors in November was this request asking if people (specifically muslims) using their homes as places of worship are exempt from paying council tax.

    On further investigation as to what might have prompted the surge in traffic, we came across Full Fact’s refutation of the claim, which, as proof, links to the official government guidance.

    The FOI response says “Such an exemption does not exist”.

    A quick search reveals that this isn’t the first FOI request on this subject made on WhatDoTheyKnow. In fact, there are several, dating back to 2009, made by different users to a range of different councils.

    In 2010 Leeds City Council responded to a request that said, “I heard an alarming rumour that newly built houses in Dewsbury in the million pound price bracket were claiming a large reduction in their council tax because one room was deemed a place of worship”.

    The council said: “There is no provision within council tax legislation for discounts or exemptions from Council Tax for residential properties which have a place of worship”.

    And in 2009, Cornwall Council responded to a similar request, “There is not an exemption from Council Tax for houses classed as a place of worship”.

    We don’t know whether the people making these FOI requests were doing so as a way to challenge the meme’s false claims, or because they saw it and sensibly decided to reserve judgement until they knew the facts. Either way, it’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and these responses will stand as a permanent reference point for anyone who wants to check the facts around this matter in the future.

    UPDATE: After tweeting this story, we had a response from Andrew White who gave some further background from his experience on the Parliament petitions service:

    In a terrifying example of how misinformation can be spread in the most unexpected of ways, as you can see in the Facebook video linked to in the tweet, a petition that led with the words Muslims who use their living area’s within their homes as a place of Worship, are exempt from paying Council Tax [sic] was identified by the Amazon virtual assistant Alexa as the most suitable information source for the question “Do Muslims have to pay council tax if they pray in their own homes?”.

    Presumably the fact that the petition was located on an official government website gave it, in Alexa’s view, the credibility needed to cite it as a source.

    Image: Climate Reality

  5. FixMyStreet Pro: 2019 in review

    What a year it’s been for FixMyStreet Pro, now the official street reporting system for 21 authorities across the country.

    Growth…

    During 2019 we’ve welcomed Bexley, Cheshire East, Hackney, Northamptonshire, Hounslow Highways, Westminster, Island Roads (Isle of Wight), Peterborough, and now Transport for London to the list of Pro clients.

    In all, that adds up to 6.5 million residents who can now report problems such as potholes, faulty street lights or vandalism, either on FixMyStreet.com or on their councils’ own websites.

    And if you consider that TfL covers all of Greater London, a further 7.5 million residents and countless commuters, tourists and visitors to the city are also covered for reporting on overground and underground stations, red routes, bus stops, etc.

    In all cases, reports pass directly into the authorities’ internal systems, making for swift resolution and the ability to keep the report-maker informed of progress at every step.

    …and improvement 

    It hasn’t been all about expansion, though. This year, we’ve also been adding further features for councils to the FixMyStreet Pro offering. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that improvements for councils always translate into improvements for residents too, either in terms of quicker report processing, better status updates, or public money saved — and often all three.

    Here’s a rundown of the new features we’ve introduced this year:

    Getting out and about

    We attended Highways UK in Brum and the LGA conference in Bournemouth — it was good to meet so many of our clients and those considering whether FixMyStreet Pro might be a good fit for their needs.

    And we were delighted to meet up with residents in Westminster and let them put the FixMyStreet to test while we watched and learned.

    Residents testing FixMyStreet prototypes

     

    Looking forward to 2020

    We’ve already been carrying out some research with client authorities, and we’ll be continuing this work into the new year. We also have some development planned.

    • Conducting user testing to see how people use the input forms, what might be confusing and how this can be addressed…
    • …and further user testing to observe how people use FixMyStreet on mobile devices.
    • We’ll be talking to District Councils to see how their needs differ from other authorities, and how we can meet those needs.
    • Meanwhile we’ll be giving the FixMyStreet app a much-needed update.
    • We’ll make it easier for staff to add the email address of someone who requests updates on an existing report.
    • And lots more!

    We’re really looking forward to getting our teeth into these features and then rolling them out to our client councils in 2020.

    The FixmyStreet Pro team


    Image: Nadine Shaabana

  6. Keep on top of the new Parliament

    Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.

    Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?

    But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.

    Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:

    Alerts

    Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.

    You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.

    What to do

    First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.

    Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.

    Already signed up?

    One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.

    And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.

    Useful for everyone

    Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.

    It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.

    Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities

    Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.

    If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.

    Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.

    Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)

  7. FixMyStreet for TfL — now live

    Back in November, we announced our new partnership with Transport for London. We’re now pleased to say that the new Street Care service is live.

    FixMyStreet interface for TfL

    If you’re a seasoned user of FixMyStreet, there’s no learning curve required: you can proceed exactly as normal. If you prefer, you can carry on making reports through the national website at FixMyStreet.com or via the FixMyStreet app.

    The only difference is that now, if the issue is the responsibility of TfL, that’s where your report will be routed, and that’s where updates will come from to let you know when the fix is in progress or completed.

    The new service covers potholes, roadworks, bus shelters and traffic lights on the capital’s busiest roads — the ‘red routes’, which make up only 5% of the city’s highways, but account for a whopping 30% of traffic. Users can also report graffiti and flyposting, problems with hoardings, scaffolding and mobile cranes, street lights and damaged trees.

    As ever, the underlying FixMyStreet platform means that you don’t need to think about who is responsible for your issue. If a problem is reported and it’s nothing to do with TfL, it’ll be automatically routed to the relevant borough or authority.

    Glynn Barton, TfL’s Director of Network Management, said: “The TfL Street Care service will give people more information about the work we are doing on London’s road network and at bus stops and reassure Londoners that we really care about getting things fixed.”

    It’s one more bit of joined-up thinking for the capital, that will make reporting easier for residents, commuters, and visitors, while also bringing increased efficiency at every stage of the process. We’re delighted to see it up and running.

    See TfL’s press release here.

    Image: Giammarco Boscaro

  8. TheyWorkForYou — helping you hold the new parliament to account

    When you woke up this morning to check the election results, you may have visited TheyWorkForYou.

    And you’d have found it bang up to date, thanks to the new MP data that was added through the night, as the election results came in. More than a fifth of you have a new MP, and whether you voted for them or not we know you’ll want to keep them accountable.

    Donate to help us keep this service going.

    We’ve just now added one final MP — for St Ives, since weather conditions prevented ballot boxes coming over from the Isles of Scilly earlier.

    We’ll be helping you hold all MPs, new and returning, to account over the next few years, as we publish their debates and votes, expenses, interests and contact details.

    We make it as simple as possible for everyone to understand what’s going on in Parliament, and how you can play a part in your own democracy.

    Right now, you can get a headstart:

    If you’re a developer, researcher or just a good old data junkie, you might additionally like to:

    Now we need you to help us

    We’re determined to carry on providing these services, but we still need your help to do so.

    There are seven days left to run on our crowdfunder. Thanks to the generosity of hundreds of donors, we’ve already raised almost £10,000, for which we are enormously grateful.

    But we still need to raise another £15,000 so that we can continue providing these services, as well as adding new features that will improve the site and make Parliament easier for everyone to follow.

    Please donate now.

    TheyWorkForYou crowdfunder

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)

  9. Moving on up: a tool for tower blocks

    You may remember our post back in September, on the research we were carrying out into how a digital tool might help residents of tower blocks.

    At that stage, with invaluable input from residents, lawyers, health and safety professionals and especially the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisation, we’d just finished the discovery phase and published a report on our research and prototyping.

    We’ve now had the great news that the Legal Education Foundation are funding us to build a beta version of the tool we’d prototyped. It’ll be a simple way for residents of tower blocks to get the information they need to fix a range of problems in their accommodation, from structural and maintenance issues to legal ones.

    As we start development, we’ll again be working with Tower Blocks UK, tireless champions of tower block residents and very much experts in this field.

    We’ll make sure to keep updating as we progress. The hope is to formally launch the new tool in September next year — so watch this space for further news.

    Image: Nirmal Rajendharkumar

  10. When the response doesn’t come: dealing with FOI requests that haven’t received an answer

    We’ve previously written about how best to proceed when an FOI request has been refused, but when there isn’t a response at all   that’s a slightly different problem. However, up until now, we’ve treated both in the same way. We’ve now made some changes to reflect the difference.

    If you do receive a response, but feel it’s inadequate or that your request has been wrongly refused, there are two ways of contesting the outcome. The first is to ask for an internal review, where the request is reassessed inside the same authority (by a different team or person). The second is to appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

    To reflect this, our approach when providing prompts to WhatDoTheyKnow users has been an escalation ladder — suggesting people request an internal review, and then appeal to the ICO if still dissatisfied. However,  as we learned when talking to the ICO earlier in the year, that this isn’t always the fastest route to getting a response.

    An internal review is useful when disagreeing with a decision, but when the issue is that the statutory deadline for a response has passed, and follow-up messages haven’t been answered — a situation our colleagues at Access Info aptly refer to as ‘administrative silence’ — it can be better to complain directly to the ICO.

    According to the statutory code of practice, a public body may take up to 20 working days to undertake a review, and so this route is likely to result in further delay, whereas an intervention by the ICO may have a faster result.

    So when a request is overdue, our email prompt will no longer suggest that users might want to seek an internal review, but instead we suggest sending a follow-up message to the authority and note that they can appeal directly to the ICO.

    However, if you have an issue with the actual decision of a request (for instance, disputing an exemption applied), internal review is the correct first port of call — and in a surprising amount of cases can be very successful. While we don’t have figures covering all kinds of authorities, for requests made to central government, 22% of internal reviews resulted in some change to the original decision (and 9% were completely overturned) and for local government this figure is between 36-49%.

    Both internal reviews and appeals to the ICO can be effective methods at redressing disputes around Freedom of Information requests, but it is important to consider which is the right tool for the situation.

    Image: Ümit Bulut