1. Tweet if you’d like to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya

    We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.

    So with Article 19 East Africa, we’ve applied to innovateAFRICA, which is seeking disruptive digital ideas to improve the way that news is collected and disseminated.

    As of this year, Kenyan citizens are enjoying a new right to know, thanks to their Freedom Of Information Act, pending since 2007 and finally passed this year.

    Alaveteli Professional will provide Kenyan journalists with a toolset and training to help them make full use of FOI legislation, so they can raise, manage and interpret requests more easily, in order to generate high-impact public interest stories.

    But the project will also bring benefits to all Kenyans. By helping journalists and citizen reporters to make full use of the Act, it will ultimately make it easier for everyone to hold power to account.

    How you can help

    Now here’s the bit you need to know about: please tweet using the hashtag #innovateAFRICA explaining why you think Alaveteli Professional in Kenya is an important digital solution.

    This will demonstrate that you agree that Alaveteli Professional is worthy of innovateAFRICA’s support — every tweet helps to give our application more traction.

    Tweets from everyone are welcome, but yours will have extra leverage if you’re a mySociety partner, a Kenyan journalist or activist who would use the project, a funder or a digital innovator yourself.

    Please use your 140 characters to help us bring better FOI capabilities to Kenya! And don’t forget that hashtag: #innovateAFRICA.

    Thank you.

     

    Image: Innovate Africa

     

  2. Freedom of Information and asbestos in schools

    Lucie Stephens has sent Freedom of Information requests to every Local Education Authority in the country — over 200 of them.

    She’s requesting information about asbestos in schools, and for a reason that’s very close to her heart. Earlier this year, Lucie’s mother, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, a cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to that substance.

    Now Lucie is acting on the promise she made before her mum passed away: “To do my best to make sure no-one else has to suffer like she has.”

    We were really interested to hear how Lucie came to use Freedom of Information as tool in her campaign, so we got in touch to ask her a few questions.

    Your WhatDoTheyKnow profile page and your petition make the reason for your campaign clear – at what point did you realise that Freedom of Information would be a useful tool?

    After Mum’s diagnosis I wanted to know how safe my daughter’s school was. I wrote to them and got a positive response: her school does contain asbestos and they were willing to share this information with me.

    I then wrote to my local council to request the same information for my borough. This took a lot longer, and involved frequently having to chase and remind them of deadlines missed.

    I thought all parents and teachers should know if their school contains asbestos. I didn’t want them to have to struggle to access the information from their local council in the way that I did.

    A friend suggested that FOI would be a good way of getting hold of consistent information, and at this point it also became clear that it would be a useful way to analyse how well asbestos is being managed in our schools.

    Had you heard of the Freedom of Information Act, or used it previously?

    I had heard about FOI before but hadn’t used it. It had always seemed a complicated and challenging process, so I was nervous of it. I knew what questions to ask but was still worried about getting the format right.

    I had made contact with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), as they are also campaigning to get asbestos removed from schools. I asked them to advise on the best wording to use in order to get the information that I required, and they were really helpful.

    Once you have all the data for every school in the country, what will you do with it?

    Every parent and teacher should know if their school contains asbestos.

    I am planning to use the data collected to produce an easy-to-access national map that parents and teachers can use to find out if their school is affected. By telling parents which schools have asbestos we are enabling them to hold their school, local education authority and ultimately (we hope) the Department for Education to account. The map will also be useful for campaigners and journalists concerned with the issue of asbestos in schools.

    What would be the ideal outcome of your campaign?

    I want policy on asbestos in schools to change.

    Each school should be expected to produce an annual report on the extent of asbestos and how it is being managed. This will increase transparency and accountability until we get to the point where all asbestos in schools has been removed.

    At the same time the Department for Education needs to change its approach. It needs to commit to the phased removal from all schools by 2028.

    To achieve this they need to earmark funds specifically for asbestos removal and set annual targets for the number of schools that will be asbestos free. The phased removal should start with the most dangerous schools first but seek to remove all asbestos by 2028.

    By revealing which schools contain asbestos, the campaign will make it easier for parents to hold the DFE to account over their plans for the removal of asbestos.  

    Have any of your FOI requests been turned down?

    I made my requests to local authorities, asking them to provide the figures for every school in their jurisdiction. Most have not provided information for academies and free schools as they do not have a statutory responsibility for them.

    There were various refusals and partial responses, from authorities which just issued generic statements that ‘all local schools built before 2000 contain asbestos’ with a link to their online schools directory, to those claiming that the information sought would take too long to collect, and so refusing to issue it, or requesting payment before the information could be released.* 

    Some areas withheld data on the number of claims that they had received from teachers, school staff and ex-pupils, stating that the figures were low enough to make it possible to identify the individuals concerned. Some areas refused to release details of the amount of money paid out in claims, stating that this would breach data protection. This rule was not applied consistently, though, as some areas did release figures relating to only one claim and settlement.

    I was very irritated to find some authorities who, because they claimed to be unable to answer one of my seven questions, then refused to answer any of them. To date we only have data from 135 local councils of 152 approached. Some are very overdue in providing the data.

    In gathering the data it was clear that there is huge variety in the ways in which asbestos is being managed in schools. It was also apparent that there is a wide range of ways in which FOI requests are handled.

    What benefits did you get from using WhatDoTheyKnow?

    Without WhatDoTheyKnow I wouldn’t have been able to collect the data.

    The site was really easy to use. It was very helpful in managing the data as it appeared, and in reminding me when authorities were overdue in providing information.

    In some cases I used my right to a review to challenge the handling of a request, and this led to further information being released. I definitely wouldn’t have made a challenge without the site making the process straightforward in the way it does. 

    It has also been great to have the data held on a public site like this, so that I’ve been able to direct journalists and campaigners to the source of the data directly.

    The only challenge with the site was that the number of requests was capped. I can totally appreciate why this was, and in fact when I did contact the team and ask for this cap to be removed so that I could complete the requests in a shorter timeframe, they were very helpful. Having ascertained that I was sending bulk requests for a valid reason, they acted quickly to remove the cap.

     

    You can read more about Lucie’s campaign, and lend your support, on her petition page.

    * Note: Making an FOI request is almost always free, but authorities can charge under certain circumstances, and they can refuse to respond to a request outright if it will cost more than a certain amount — currently £450 — to do so.

    Image: Webercw (CC by-nc/2.0)

  3. mySociety at OGP in Paris

    This week, the 2016 Open Government Partnership summit is being held in Paris, France.

    The OGP was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Its goals are, therefore, pretty much in line with the objectives of civic tech — the field we at mySociety been ploughing in for over a decade. So we’ve been supporters of the OGP since it started, as have many of our partners and collaborators.

    Today, there are 70 participating countries. Inevitably, some member countries have governments whose enthusiasm for the OGP goals is, perhaps, greater than their willingness to actually implement the changes that attaining such goals require. But even where that is the case, the OGP is a catalyst for getting accountability and transparency onto their agenda, and we’re all for that.

    All of mySociety’s projects fall somewhere within the remit of the OGP. For example, our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli encourages citizens to make requests, and our work with parliamentary monitoring organisations is all about opening up the activity of parliaments in a way that OGP very much promotes.

    This year, mySociety will be represented at OGP by Bec (from our research team), Jen (who manages our international partners) and Dave (who works on the EveryPolitician project). If you’re in Paris for the OGP, please do seek us out. We’re around for the main events, but also:

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  4. Multi-selectin’ fun on FixMyStreet

    You might already be enjoying one of the usability improvements that FixMyStreet version 2.0 has brought, though it’s possible that you haven’t given it much thought.

    multi-selectIn these days of eBay and department store shopping, we’re all quite used to refining results through the use of multiple checkboxes.

    But for FixMyStreet, we hadn’t given much thought to letting you filter reports by more than one dimension, until Oxfordshire County Council suggested that it would be a useful feature.

    For quite some time, you’d been able to filter by category and status (“Show me all pothole reports” or “Show me all ‘unfixed’ reports”), but this new functionality is more flexible.

    You can now select multiple categories and multiple statuses simultaneously (“show me all pothole and graffiti reports that are unfixed or in progress”) — and all through the power of tickboxes.

    If you’re a non-technical person, that’s all you need to know: just enjoy the additional flexibility next time you visit FixMyStreet. But if you are a coder, you might like to read more about how we achieved this feature: for you, Matthew has written about it over on the FixMyStreet Platform blog.

  5. Follow the Supreme Court appeal on Brexit & Article 50

    Today, and for the next three days, a landmark appeal takes place. The UK’s most senior judges are in the Supreme Court, deciding whether Parliament or the government has the authority to trigger Brexit via Article 50.

    If you’d like to read along (or search for a specific term), you can now do so on this site, quickly put together by mySociety senior developer Matthew, today. For apparently this is what he likes to do in his free time.

    Like most Supreme Court hearings, this one is being broadcast live, and daily digital transcripts are available. It was this last fact, perhaps, that prompted a friendly tweet:

    That was enough to send Matthew scurrying to see whether the scrapers we’d put in place for the Leveson Inquiry would also work in this instance. In large part they did, although there is still a small bit of polishing up of the final product to do.

    Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy the show. That is, as the Guardian puts it, if you have an appetite for “intricate legal argument, arcane vocabulary and historical precedents”. Well, come on, who doesn’t?

  6. Better-looking emails for FixMyStreet

    If you’ve used FixMyStreet recently — either to make a report, or as a member of a council who receives the reports — you might have noticed that the site’s automated emails are looking a lot more swish.

    Where previously those emails were plain text, we’ve now upgraded to HTML, with all the design possibilities that this implies.

    It’s all part of the improvements ushered in by FixMyStreet Version 2.0, which we listed, in full, in our recent blog post. If you’d like a little more technical detail about some of the thought and solutions that went into this switch to HTML, Matthew has obliged with in a blog post over on FixMyStreet.org.

  7. FixMyStreet: Why do some areas report more than others?

    I’m just a few weeks into my position of Research Associate at mySociety and one of the things I’m really enjoying is the really, really interesting datasets I get to play with.

    Take FixMyStreet, the site that allows you to report street issues anywhere in the UK. Councils themselves will only hold data for the issues reported within their own boundaries, but FixMyStreet covers all local authorities, so we’ve ended up with probably the most comprehensive database in the country. We have 20,000 reports about dog poop alone.

    Now if you’re me, what to do with all that data? Obviously, you’d want to do something with the dog poop data. But you’d try something a bit more worthy first: that way people won’t ask too many questions about your fascination there. Misdirection.

    How does it compare?

    So, starting with worthy uses for that massive pile of data, I’ve tried to see how the number of reports in an area compares against other statistics we know about the UK. Grouping reports into ONS-defined areas of around 1,500 people, we can match the number of reports within an area each year against other datasets.

    To start with I’m just looking at English data (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have slightly different sets of official statistics that can’t be combined) for the years 2011-2015. I used population density information, how many companies registered in the area, if there’s a railway station, OFCOM stats on broadband and mobile-internet speeds, and components from the indices of multiple deprivation (various measures of how ‘deprived’ an area is, such as poor health, poor education prospects, poor air quality, etc) to try and build a model that predicts how many reports an area will get.

    The good news: statistically we can definitely say that some of those things have an effect! Some measures of deprivation make reports go up, others make it go down. Broadband and mobile access makes them go up! Population density and health deprivation makes them go down.

    The bad news: my model only explains 10% of the actual reports we received, and most of this isn’t explained by the social factors above but aspects of the platform itself. Just telling the model that the platform has got more successful over time, which councils use FixMyStreet for Councils for their official reporting platform (and so gather more reports) and where our most active users are (who submit a disproportionate amount of the total reports) accounts for 7-8% of what the model explains.

    What that means is that most reasons people are and aren’t making reports is unexplained by those factors. So for the moment this model is useful for building a theory, but is far from a comprehensive account of why people report problems.

    Here’s my rough model for understanding what drives areas to submit a significantly higher number of reports to FixMyStreet:

    • An area must have a problem

    Measures of deprivation like the ‘wider barriers to housing deprivation’ metric (this includes indicators on overcrowding and homelessness) as well as crime are associated with an increase in the number of reports. The more problems there are, the more likely a report is — so deprivation indicators we’d imagine would go alongside other problems are a good proxy for this.

    • A citizen must be willing or able to report the problem

    Areas with worse levels of health deprivation and adult skills deprivation are correlated with lower levels of reports. These indicators might suggest citizens less able to engage with official structures, hence fewer reports in these areas.

    People also need to be aware of a problem. The number of companies in an area, or the presence of a railway station both increase the number of reports. I use these as a proxy for foot-traffic – where more people might encounter a problem and report it.

    Population density is correlated with decreased reports which might suggest a “someone else’s problem” effect – a slightly decreased willingness to report in built-up areas where you think someone else might well make a report.

    • A citizen must be able to use the website

    As an online platform, FixMyStreet requires people to have access to the website before they can make a report. The less friction in this experience makes it more likely a report will be made.

    This is consistent with the fact that an increased number of slow and fast home broadband connections (and fast more than slow ones) increases reports. This is also consistent with the fact that increased 3G signal in premises is correlated with increased requests.

    Reporting problems on mobile will sometimes be easier than turning on the computer, and we’d expect areas where people more habitually use mobiles for internet access to have a higher number of reports than broadband access alone would suggest. If it’s slightly easier, we’d expect slightly more – which is what this weak correlation suggests.

    Other factors

    Not all variables my model includes are significant or fit neatly into this model. These are likely working as proxy indicators for currently unaccounted for, but related factors.

    I struggle, for instance, to come up with a good theory why measures of education deprivation for young people are associated with an increase in reports. I looked to see if there was a connection between an area having a school and having more reports on the basis of foot-traffic and parents feeling protective over an area – but I didn’t find an effect for schools like I did for registered companies.

    So at the moment, these results are a mix of “a-hah, that makes sense” and “hmm, that doesn’t”. But given that we started with a dataset of people reporting dog poop, that’s not a terrible ratio at this point. Expanding the analysis into Scotland and Wales, analysing larger areas, or focusing on specific categories of reports might produce models that explain a bit more about what’s going on when people report what’s going wrong.

    I’ll let you know how that goes.

    Image: Dave_S (CC-by/2.0)

  8. Workfare: what happens when the government doesn’t want to release information?

    You might have seen it in the Daily Mirror: the full extent of the Department of Work and Pensions’ legal costs, incurred while fighting the obligation to name the companies who participated in the Workfare scheme.

    Workfare is a government program which required the unemployed to work for one of the participating organisations, in exchange for no pay other than their existing benefits — working out lower than the minimum wage.

    It’s a story in which our site WhatDoTheyKnow is strongly involved. The original request for the list of companies participating in the Workfare scheme was made on the site back in January 2012 by user Frank Zola.

    That request was refused, noting that the information was “being withheld under Section 43 of the FOI Act which relates to the commercial interests of both the Department and those delivering services on our behalf”.

    As any WhatDoTheyKnow user is given the means to do, Zola referred the request to the Information Commissioner. They ruled in favour of the release.

    The government were unforthcoming, however, and the matter was taken to tribunal and through the court of appeal. Zola continued to pursue the case doggedly as the government repeatedly questioned the ruling that the information must be released into the public domain. Their defence was that the companies and charities listed as participating in the Workfare scheme might suffer negative effects to their reputation and commercial viability, given the strong swell of public opinion against the scheme.

    In July 2016, four and a half years after the request had first been made, the full list was finally disclosed, and can be seen on WhatDoTheyKnow here.

    But the story doesn’t end there. More than one person, including the Mirror’s own reporters, wondered just how much had been spent by defendants on both sides of the legal tussle. In August another user lodged this request with the DWP and discovered that their costs amounted to £92,250.

    Meanwhile, a similar request to the ICO reveals that their costs in defending the case used a further £7,931 from the public purse.

    We highlight this story partly because it shows the value of persistence. WhatDoTheyKnow is designed to help users to understand their rights. If your request is refused, it makes it clear that you have the right to request an internal review, making that route less intimidating to those who don’t know the ropes. If you go on to the appeals process, we hope that having all previous correspondence online helps with that. Other users can also offer help and support via the annotations system.

    In this case though, we think many would have been deterred once the matter had been referred to the higher courts, and we congratulate everyone concerned for sticking to their guns and getting this information out into the public domain.

    In a further twist, it’s perhaps worth relating that a few weeks ago, the supermarket Sainsbury’s contacted the WhatDoTheyKnow admin team and asked us to remove their name from the list of organisations who took part in Workfare, since “a small number of our stores did participate in the government’s Work Experience programme but this was not company policy”. We decided not to comply with this request.

    Image: Andrew Writer (CC-by/2.0)

  9. Something in the middle: how Bristol connects

    This year, Bristol Council did something unusual and admirable. As far as we’re aware, they’re the first UK council to have taken such a step.

    Working with mySociety on custom Open311 ‘middleware’ while adopting FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, they now enjoy full flexibility, no matter what the future holds.

    Thanks to this open approach, Bristol will extract more value from their existing systems and lower operating costs. With integrated, open solutions, and the raised quality of report formatting that Open311 brings, everyone will benefit.

    Improving flexibility

    Councils are increasingly understanding the value of flexibility when it comes to service providers.

    Contracts that lock them into a single provider for many years mean that, often, there’s no opportunity to benefit when technology advances, and disproportionate costs can be charged for implementing the slightest changes.

    This desire for flexibility was a strong factor in Bristol City Council’s decision to adopt FixMyStreet for Councils — and that opened the door for a conversation about Open311.

    We’ve always advocated integration via Open311, to the extent that we offer free hook-up with FixMyStreet to any councils who support it.

    Because Open311 is an open standard, it supports the entire landscape of providers like FixMyStreet. Right now, Bristol can accept street fault reports not just from us, but from a full range of services — in other words, any site or app that cares to connect with them can do so. No-one knows what the future will hold: if a game-changing system emerges in the future, it makes sense that you’d be able to accept its reports.

    All well and good: but when Bristol City Council implemented FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, the concept was taken a little bit further. With our collaboration, Bristol created their own Open311 ‘middleware’, sitting between the two systems and talking to both.

    Via this method, their existing CMS, Confirm, can hook up to reports coming through from FixMyStreet. That all works smoothly — but, just as importantly, if Bristol ever decide to replace their CRM provider, they’ll be able to do so with no knock-on effect to FixMyStreet reports. And if they ever decide to replace FixMyStreet with a different provider, or indeed to accept reports from a range of providers, they can do that too.

    Bristol found us via the GCloud procurement system, and are the first metropolitan unitary authority to install FixMyStreet.

    Future plans

    Bristol launched its FixMyStreet service to the public in the summer of 2016.

    This autumn, they added asset-based reporting, meaning that known council properties such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies are all marked on FixMyStreet’s maps. Residents can pinpoint and report the location of faults with these assets far more accurately as a result.

    There’ll be a phased rollout across departments, starting with Highways and moving across departments as Bristol extend their own middleware. We’ll be watching with great interest.

    Find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: Adam Heath (CC by-sa/2.0)

  10. Catching up with Collideoscope

    It’s been a while since we looked in on Collideoscope, our project for reporting and collating data on cycling collisions and near misses, developed in collaboration with ITP. But what better time than now, when days are short and accidents have unfortunately, as always at this time of year, taken a sharp upturn.

    So, let’s have a catch-up, and a reminder that you should use the service. Of course, we hope you won’t experience any problems, but remember that Collideoscope is there if you do.

    Previously on Collideoscope…

    As you may recall, Collideoscope is a site for reporting cycling incidents, collisions and near misses. Because it’s built on the FixMyStreet platform, it offers all the same functionality for the user: it’ll help you to pinpoint the precise location of the incident you’re reporting, and then send the details off to the relevant authorities.

    When cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.

    While FixMyStreet sends reports off to councils, Collideoscope sends reports to local authorities’ highways departments, with the aim of highlighting potential accident blackspots.

    The data, after going through an anonymisation process, is also shared with campaign groups.

    Finally, the anonymised data is also available for anyone to download via Socrata, to be used for any purpose. One potential project we’d love to see, for example, would be route-planning applications to help cyclists avoid going through areas with a high density of incidents.

    Image by Rob. A road sign showing a cyclist being thrown off his bike because of an uneven road surfaceThe data is also available to researchers, town planners and the police: when cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.

    So, that’s the model. Let’s have a look at how well it has stood up.

    Data quantity

    Collideoscope launched in October 2014 and users have thus far made a total of 1,195 reports.

    In order to provide a more complete dataset with the clearest possible indicators of accident hotspots, we also imported STATS19 data from the annually-updated open police database of accidents, meaning that Collideoscope now contains data points on over 20,000 incidents across the UK.

    Here’s what we’ve learned

    Steering a project from concept to reality is always a learning process. Here are some of the key lessons that emerged:

    • Collideoscope sends each report to authorities as it is submitted. It became clear that a bulk dataset would be easier for highways authorities to handle and to draw conclusions from, and this is now available.
    • Originally, we’d believed that it would be useful if Collideoscope could forward reports to local police forces, so that they could be actioned where suitable. However, this proved impractical, because the Road Traffic Act states that collisions must be reported to a police officer in person. Collideoscope’s data would not be sufficient for police to take action on those cases which merited it.
    • There was some concern that reports made via Collideoscope would replicate, rather than complement, the police force’s official STATS19 data. Happily, once enough reports had come into Collideoscope, a comparison was run and found that there is very little overlap between the two datasets.

    While STATS19 data tends to cover serious incidents, it doesn’t hold much on the near miss or minor incidents that Collideoscope encourages users to also report  — and which make up 90% of the Collideoscope database. One of the underlying beliefs behind Collideoscope has always been that near miss data can tell us a lot about accident prevention.

    Changes afoot

    ITP have now stepped away from Collideoscope: we’re extremely grateful for their collaboration and support with the development and running of Collideoscope in its first couple of years. This move will mean that we can pursue funding from charitable grant foundations.

    As you may recall from prior updates, the site was also supported by the Barts Bespoke campaign, a multi-pronged initiative to reduce accidents for cyclists. This support, and a further research grant from the Department for Transport, came to an end last month. As a result, we’ll no longer be asking people about injuries sustained when they file a Collideoscope report.

    Collideoscope will keep on rolling: we’re open to potential partners and have plenty of ideas for further development, including the possibility of a public API, or incident-reporting forms that could be placed on any website.

    If you’re from a local government, third sector or private company, and you’re interested in using Collideoscope data to enable better decision making on cycle safety, this’d be a great time to get in touch.


    Images:
    This hill is dangerous by John Kennedy (CC by-nc/2.0)
    Falling off bike sign by Rob (CC by-nc-sa/2.0)