mySociety’s Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow is run by a team of highly dedicated, unpaid volunteers. Between them, they have a great understanding of the FOI law in this country, as well as a unique insight into the type of information that it has brought into the public domain.
In the light of the current threat to FOI, the WhatDoTheyKnow team will be submitting a formal response to the cross-party commission on Freedom of Information. Below are some of the reasons why they oppose the proposed restrictions to the UK’s FOI Act.
If you agree with them (or perhaps you are a WhatDoTheyKnow user and you feel that these statements ring true in your own case), see our previous blog post which outlines four easy ways in which you can help protest against these restrictions.
On the need to cut costs: “Information released via Freedom of Information responses is used to inform debate and scrutiny at all levels from local community meetings, through local council chambers, to the House of Commons. Our democratic system does cost money: elections, councils, Parliament are all expensive. Freedom of Information helps ensure we get value for that money, and helps our democracy function, by enabling deliberations and decisions to be well informed.”
“Money spent responding to Freedom of Information requests needs to be considered in the context of wider public spending. In 2012 it was reported that Staffordshire County Council had spent £38,000 in a year responding to Freedom of Information requests. The then Director of mySociety, Tom Steinberg, commented: From this I can see that oversight by citizens and journalists cost only £38,000 from a yearly total budget of £1.3bn. I think it is fantastic that Staffordshire County Council can provide such information for only 0.002 per cent of its operating budget.”
On reducing the burden for public authorities: “We would be happy to see public bodies engaging with requestors, proactively offering advice and assistance, and suggesting ways a requestor can be satisfied while minimising effort required by a public body. Public bodies assisting requesters by explaining how they hold information and how a request could best be formulated in the interests of both requester and public body is all too rare. There appears to be a significant opportunity to improve the functioning of our access to information regime though a change in culture and mindset in this area.”
Proposed changes, currently under discussion by a cross-party government commission, could make it much harder for you to access information.
This is what the proposed restrictions would mean for you:
- You’d be charged for making a request
- Your request could be turned down on the grounds of cost, even more easily than it can be now
- You’d find it more difficult (or even impossible) to obtain details of public authorities’ internal discussions
- The release of government information could be easily blocked by ministers
- The newspapers that you read would be less able to uncover stories of corruption, malpractice or cover-ups.
You have until 20 November if you’d like to voice your opposition to these restraints.
Here are four easy ways you can take action right now—you’ll find more details about all of them on the Campaign For Freedom of Information’s website.
What you can do
1. If you have 60 seconds: sign a petition
Sign the 38 Degrees petition to Protect FOI laws.
If you’re a journalist, you can sign the Hands Off FOI petition, too.
2. If you have 5 minutes, write to your MP
3. If you have 10 minutes, submit an FOI story
SaveFOI are collecting stories of how Freedom of Information has made a difference to individuals and organisations. Here’s how to contribute.
4. If you have a little more time, respond directly to the consultation
Why these restrictions matter
Freedom of Information is for everyone, not just those who can afford it
If you charge for making a Freedom of Information request, you automatically exclude a sector of society from the right to know.
It’s not just that a limited income will discourage some people from making requests (though it will, and our research has already shown that engaging with our democratic system is largely the preserve of the well-educated and well-off, a situation which needs to be rectified).
It’s also that the added complexity will discourage those who already consider the FOI process daunting—something we’ve always striven hard to overcome with WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
The right to information should be available to everyone. Not just those with money to spare, and the bureaucratic skills to navigate its complexities.
We’ve seen the results of restrictions in other countries
Our Alaveteli software helps people run FOI sites all over the world. At our recent conference, we heard of the struggles those people face, from the charging of fees, to bodies’ refusal to release information, to complex red tape.
In every case, the result was impeded access to information, a lowering of public’s engagement with their right to know, and increased disenfranchisement.
In Ireland, for example, where similar constraints were put in place in 2003, overall usage of the FOI Act fell by over 50%, and requests by the media by over 83%*.
Note that many important UK news stories in recent times have come from FOI requests: the imposition of fees and restrictions will have a stifling effect on journalists.
The current consultation threatens to put the UK in the same boat.
Government ministers could pick and choose what they release
Running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’re already aware that many requests are turned down—requests which we’d consider quite reasonable.
If these new restrictions take hold, it will be much easier for ministers to use the power of veto to withhold any information they choose.
The “safe space” argument as in the Commission’s call for evidence stresses the importance of collective cabinet responsibility and not revealing private splits within the cabinet.
We believe that such splits are in fact vital for the public to know about, in the interests of democracy. We’d also say it’s likely, human nature being what it is, that should a veto be made available, information will also be withheld when it is inconvenient or detrimental to the ministers’ party line.
Public authorities are funded by us, the public
If you pay someone to do a job, you’re within your rights to examine their work when you need to.
We should never forget that public authorities—the bodies which are subject to the FOI Act—are funded by us, the taxpayer. We should have the right to hold them to account.
If the government is concerned about the costs of FOI, instead of imposing restrictions, it should promote more proactive disclosure of information held by public bodies, which would save everyone time and money.
How will you help?
These are just a few of the reasons we’ll be asking you to take action over the next ten days. Please do all you can—and then help spread the word.
*A Review of the Operation of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003: An Investigation into the Effects of the Amendment Act and the Introduction of Fees on Access Requests by Members of the Public. Ireland later reversed the decision to introduce fees “to restore the balance”.
In September, it was just over 491,000.
In August, nearly 495,000.
July, more like 480,000 and June, 470,000.
In May, we were just ELEVEN blinkin’ visitors off half a million.
But in October, finally, we saw half a million unique users accessing WhatDoTheyKnow.
Talk about edge-of-the-seat stuff.
It’s one of the figures that isn’t greatly talked about when it comes to WhatDoTheyKnow: people tend to focus on the number of requests being made, or answered.
But just as significant, in our view, is the number of people who access the information that comes from those requests. In fact, it’s the main reason that WhatDoTheyKnow publishes Freedom of Information requests, and their responses, online. It maximises the benefit, for everyone.
We reckon that, on average, 20 people view every request (some have many more viewers, others have fewer). That’s 20 people being informed for the price of one – a pretty good deal, we hope you’ll agree.
How do you pin down the intangible?
More specifically, how do we understand something as nebulous as why people visit our websites? For better or worse, Google Analytics can’t provide brain scans to show our users’ motivations, so the only solution is to ask them.
Between May and August of this year, if you visited TheyWorkForYou, you might have seen a pop-up inviting you to answer a few questions. Some users also gained new site features. It was all part of a concerted drive to understand more about why you use the site, and part of our wider research programme funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Many thanks if you were one of those who responded. In all, the survey generated a couple of a million data points, which has certainly given our resident data-cruncher, Nick, plenty to wade through.
Why do people use TheyWorkForYou?
We know why we run TheyWorkForYou: it aims to make Parliament—often perceived as ‘not for the likes of me’—more accessible for everyone. But what we don’t know is whether or not we are achieving that aim.
You see, with our other sites, WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet or WriteToThem, there is a set path that indicates a successful visit. The user lodges an FOI request, reports a problem, or writes to their representatives.
TheyWorkForYou, on the other hand, does not promote an action. There are actions you can take, like signing up for email alerts, or adding an annotation to a debate—but these are secondary to the site’s primary function, which is simply to present information. There’s no measurable metric that can tell us how informed people are after they’ve read one of our pages, nor what they do with that information. Hence the survey.
People hate pop-ups
One of our first findings came as no surprise: yes, we hate pop-ups too*! And yet, we wanted to keep users on the site while they answered our questions, so that’s the interface we used.
75.7% of people dismissed the pop-up when it appeared. We’d probably have done the same. We’d like to meet the remaining 24.3% of people and shake their hands.
The pop-up asked users what they would go on to do with the information they’d found on TheyWorkForYou. And most people gave the same answer they would if a shop assistant had asked: in fact, 75.2% said they were ‘just browsing’, with no further plans.
That makes us really curious as to what provoked that browsing: are they regular visitors, or were they sent to TheyWorkForYou via a tweet or Facebook reminder? Maybe one of our email alerts was the trigger. Google Analytics will allow us to see which site referred visitors to us, but of course we can’t match that data with individual motivations.
A further 10.9% of users had come with the intention of contacting their MP: TheyWorkForYou’s MP pages feature a prominent button inviting you to do that, and clicking on it takes you to our site WriteToThem.
6.6% of people were using the site for work purposes. Only 3.1% of people had plans to share content via social media, a statistic we’d like to increase if we can.
During the research period, some users (not necessarily those who had seen the pop-up) saw an addition to person pages and debate pages: a “where next” button, which led to some suggestions on how to use the information they’d found on the site.
This button was not widely used: just 0.1% of people clicked it. As so often with research findings, this result leads to more questions: did people already know what they wanted to do? Did they not want to do anything? Were they, perhaps, annoyed at the suggestion they might need guidance?
Or was the button just poorly positioned? We may run some further testing to find out if a more prominent placing leads to more clicks.
Of those few people who did click through for advice, the most popular options were to use WriteToThem to contact their MP about what they’d just read, or to contact the Parliamentary Ombudsman—it seems that on the few occasions when people do welcome a next step, they do want to take action.
Follow the news
Meanwhile, we were also taking a concentrated look at our site analytics. The test period coincided with the Labour party leadership contest and David Cameron’s cabinet announcements, and we saw very clearly how current affairs have an effect on which pages people visit.
John Whittingdale (the new Culture Secretary)’s voting record and Jeremy Corbyn’s profile page were far and away the most visited pages by several thousand (they’re responsible for the spike on the left of the graph that you see below). Also popular were the profile pages of the other Labour candidates, and Corbyn’s voting record.
But the other pages visited were very diverse: an extreme example of the long tail effect.
We reckon it takes more than a few seconds to take in a parliamentary debate, so one of the things we measure on Google Analytics is how many people stick around for more than 7 seconds, and again, for more than ten seconds.
Actually, we get pretty good results for the 7-second cut-off. Recent work we did on the design of the site’s debate pages had an effect that was a real cause for celebration: a massive 46% drop in the bounce rate (ie people who leave the site after viewing just one page)
But only 38% then stick around long enough for the second trigger, which doesn’t indicate as much involvement as we might have hoped for.
What have we learned?
At the end of this experiment, we reckon we’ve learned four main things:
- We need to carry on thinking about how to encourage more engagement with TheyWorkForYou’s content
- Current affairs are a huge driver to the site, and we can build on this via social media—and especially by encouraging our users to share the content they’ve found
- We need to conduct more experiments to see whether people genuinely don’t want advice about how to use the information they’ve found, or whether they would take it if it was more prominently flagged up
- There’s also a motivation to dig in deeper to motivations: what made people come to the site, if they are ‘just browsing’? What exactly are they doing ‘for work’? And if they want to contact their MP, what was the trigger for that?
If you have thoughts about any of these, as regards your own usage of TheyWorkForYou, please do feel free to comment below. And if you’d like to find out more about our research programme there’s plenty of information here, along with news of our annual research conference, TICTeC.
*And we know who to blame.
Image: The U.S. Printing Co., Russell-Morgan Print, Cincinnati & New York [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.
As this post goes live, mySociety Head of Research Rebecca Rumbul is out in Mexico, hosting a session at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit.
She’s presenting our latest paper, which seeks to provide a firm foundation for future impact research, by asking the most basic questions about who actually uses civic technology and why.
The headline findings
It’s not a difficult read, but if you’re looking for some easy takeaways, we got ’em. Try these for starters:
- Civic technology is used by a wide spectrum of individuals, but there are big differences between countries, especially when comparing developed countries to developing countries.
- Generally, more men than women use civic tech (although this isn’t the case in the USA).
- In the USA and UK, civic tech users tend to be above the age of 45 (over 70%) and well educated: to degree level or higher.
- In Kenya and South Africa, civic tech users tend to be under the age of 45, and more individuals without higher educational qualifications participate through these platforms.
- Comparative to population of each participating country, users from ethnic minorities are under-represented.
- Confidence in civic tech websites is very high. In each country surveyed, an overwhelming majority of individuals (over 85%) believed that these websites help them to hold the government to account, and believed that the government would behave differently if they were unable to see the information contained on these sites. On average 97% of users would use these sites again.
Now go and read
You can download the paper in full here: Who Benefits From Civic Technology? Demographic and public attitudes research into the users of civic technologies.
We’ve recently made a few small changes to FixMyStreet. Nothing new there; we’re often tweaking things to make FixMyStreet more usable. Except, these changes weren’t our own idea: they were based on feedback from a council.
Oxfordshire County Council, who use FixMyStreet for Councils as their main fault reporting system, requested these features, which are now available to all client councils (and which, in two cases, are now also benefiting users on our own FixMyStreet.com):
Much easier, especially in some of the very report-dense areas of the country.
Different coloured pins
But Oxfordshire spotted an opportunity to make things a little clearer. Where a council has opted for full integration, FixMyStreet can automatically update the status of reports as they go through the fix cycle.
So why not reflect these statuses on the colours of map pins? Red, green and grey pins now indicate problems that are fixed, unfixed or closed. See for yourself how this looks on the Oxfordshire website:
When you go to report your problem on FixMyStreet, you can zoom in and out of the map and pan it around until you find exactly the right spot in which to place your pin. There was just one thing, though: while the streets and other map features got bigger and smaller as you zoomed in or out, the pins remained the same size.
Not any more! Now, in one of those ‘you probably don’t notice it but it does make things easier’ moves, pins shrink and expand at the same rate as the map:
Expanded userbase = more insights
Several councils around the country use FixMyStreet as the main problem-reporting system on their own websites—so if you report a problem on the Stevenage, Oxfordshire, Bromley or Warwickshire council websites (among others) you may find the interface very familiar.
There are obvious benefits for us in supplying FixMyStreet as software for councils—not least that the revenue goes to support our charitable work! But cases like this highlight a more subtle benefit: with the increased userbase, and with the additional council administrators who are actually thinking about the FixMyStreet experience at any one time, we gain valuable insights into its usability.
Where we can, we’ll make the changes for our clients, and, if desirable, we can push the same code onto the main FixMyStreet.com site.
That benefit goes two ways: equally, improvements we make to FixMyStreet are generally available on FixMyStreet for Councils. So, those frequent tweaks we talked about at the beginning? They get rolled out for our clients, too.
The winner in all of this is the user, which is just as it should be.
If you’re from a council and would like to know more, please visit our FixMyStreet for Councils page.
Alaveteli is our software that makes it easy to set up and run an FOI website; with these two recent launches, it’s now powering 25 Freedom of Information sites all around the world.
Both countries’ constitutions enshrine their citizens’ right to information from public authorities, but, just as here in the UK, that right isn’t always widely known. So for both sites the aim is to help increase awareness of FOI among citizens.
In Nicaragua, Fundación Violeta B. de Chamorro set up their site with the aid of Hivos (and with hosting and development support from us). Paraguay’s TEDIC are the organisation behind QueremoSaber, and they’ve set it up with very little help from our side. Always good to know that can be done!
As a side note, take a glance at both sites to see how thoroughly Alaveteli can be ‘skinned’ to each organisation’s own design preferences. In fact, you only have to cast you eyes over all 25 deployments to see how each has its own very distinct character. Derecho A Preguntar actually took the foundation of its design from Spain’s TuDerechoASaber, which is one of the great benefits of the Alaveteli community: the chance to share, in this case, not just support and advice, but a design template.
We’re very glad to see these two sites up and running. Together with Alaveteli sites in Uruguay and Panama (where the government uses the platform for its official FOI provision), they’re helping bring better access to information to Latin America.
We’ll be at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit on October 27-29.
It’s one of the biggest events of the year within our sector, focusing on transparency, accountability, citizen participation and innovation, so we know it’ll be a great chance to spread the word about our work, and catch up with friends from all over the world.
We’re there with two main purposes.
Launching our latest research
On Wednesday 28th October at 4pm, Rebecca will be hosting a session titled Researching the Real-World Impact of Digital Democracy. The Open Knowledge Foundation will be joining us, to present recent research they’ve conducted into open data and data literacy.
We’ll also be launching our own report on the demographics of civic tech users, highlighting how the kind of tools we make are used by different groups around the world, and the opportunities and challenges that this presents to civic technologists and open government advocates.
Can’t make it to Mexico City? No problem: we’ll simultaneously be publishing the research here on the mySociety website. Yes, that’s right, we’re staging an international live link-up… in our own small way.
Showcasing our software
With so many people in one place, all with a very specific interest in our kind of work, we jumped at the chance to exhibit at the Open Fair. Paul and Gemma will be there, showcasing some of our projects and tools that promote transparency and help with parliamentary monitoring.
We’re really looking forward to the event. If you’re going too, we hope you’ll come and say hello.
Want to know who else is going?
It’s always useful to know who’ll be around, so you can see who you want to catch up with. We’ve started this crowd-sourced spreadsheet: do feel free to add yourself.
There are websites built on mySociety code in many countries across the world.
Whatever the site you’re planning, you’ll find it a lot easier with our support and development help.
Our quarterly call for applications closes on October 30, so make sure you have yours in soon. Want to know exactly what’s involved? Start here.
But there’s more: combined with other datasets, it can answer a wide variety of questions, be put to a wide variety of uses across many industries.
Most recently, we worked on a version for the Dolphin Square Foundation. Their remit requires them to find properties within a specific travel time from the centre of London, and with the best net yield—a perfect challenge for Mapumental. You can read what we did here.
You may see some similarities with our Mapumental Property, which combines house prices with transit time, so property hunters can see what’s available both within their budget and within a tolerable commute of their workplace.
We’ve used Mapumental for many a time-based travel conundrum, like our project with the Fire Protection Agency that drew on fire engine response times to calculate risk-based insurance premiums for any given postcode. Or the work we did for the Welsh Government, plotting accessibility of schools.
Like we said, Mapumental is flexible enough to work in all sorts of fields, for all sorts of purposes. Take a look at our Dolphin Square case study to find out more about its latest incarnation.