1. FixMyDemocracy

    I’m Emily, a newer addition to the team here at mySociety. My current project is researching the effects of civic technology on US cities. mySociety is driven by a mission to develop useful tools for increasing people’s power, but we’re also increasingly seeking to understand what elements or conditions make these tools useful and effective — and our project in the US is an example of this work.

    This particular project, supported by Microsoft, will focus on the impact of government-led civic tech projects in cities. By studying five of these implementations in cities across the US, we’ll be able to provide some answers to the questions: What kinds of effects can government-led civic tech projects have? How do they affect their communities? How do they affect their own governance? The answers we get will inform our own work, and may also affect the work of other people who are asking similar questions.

    This project is fairly specific in the way that it operationalizes the concept of effects from civic technology, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about the methodology in a future post. At a deeper level, and what ties this project to the overall mission of mySociety, is that it also asks the central question: What is it that makes civic technology effective?

    In my own mind, there’s a question even more fundamental than that: What is the intended effect of all of this work?

    This question brings us back to a very interesting conversation kicked off (on this very blog) by mySociety founder Tom Steinberg in the spring of 2013. Tom asked what we should call the sector of which mySociety is part. The ensuing posts naturally circled around the identification of like purposes across organizations–taxonomies of purpose–that would clarify the labelling of our sector. As Tom also pointed out, the label “civic tech” won. Although that was the clear winning answer to the question of “what are we?”, it did not fully satisfy the next-level question, which is “why are we?”

    That question is still in active debate. This weekend, I added another log on the campfire with a piece I published on Medium called “Debugging Democracy.” I invite you to go take a look, and respond with your own take on what it is we’re all doing here.

    Because just like a democracy can’t function without your participation, what’s the point of this conversation if you don’t add your two cents?

     

    Image: Stephen Melkisethian (CC)

     

  2. When MPs are absent: the difference between the UK and Ghana

    At TheyWorkForYou, we recently received an email from a novelist who was researching a historical work. She wanted to know whether a certain MP would have been present in the House of Commons on a specific date in 1953.

    We had to reply that the only way to be sure was if he had spoken or voted on the date in question.

    Perhaps strangely, Parliament does not keep official records of MPs’ attendance — nor are there lower limits on how many times an MP must be present in order to keep their position, although their own party will have strong feelings about their attendance.

    So, in terms of an official record, the only way to be sure that an MP was in the House on a specific date is if they spoke, or voted, both of which actions are of course reflected in Hansard and on TheyWorkForYou.

    Things are, it seems, quite different in Ghana, where the TheyWorkForYou equivalent, Odekro, has recently drawn attention to its country’s non-attending MPs. Odekro runs on our parliamentary-monitoring platform, Pombola.

    In a letter to the Speaker of Parliament, they point out that 125 MPs, or 45.2% of the house, failed to meet the constitution’s requirement for attendance, having been absent for more than 15 days of proceedings. If the MPs are unable to give reasonable explanations for their absence, Odekro is calling for their seats to be declared absent:

    If the court order is granted and/or the Speaker declares these seats vacant, the practical result would be that many of the MPs who were recently re-elected by the NDC and NPP as Parliamentary candidates will have to contest by-elections to retain their seats, before the general election in November 2016. Source: Modern Ghana

    It’s a fascinating situation, and one we’ll be watching with interest – even if the data that would allow for a similar campaign doesn’t exist here in the UK.

    Edited to add: Here’s Odekro’s more in-depth blog post on the matter.

    Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

  3. An online Freedom of Information service – for offline users

    Next time you sit down at your computer to find out some information, remember that things aren’t quite so simple everywhere.

    A new Freedom of Information website launches in Liberia today, hoping for success despite the fact that many in the country have little or no access to the internet. If the idea of running an email-based requesting system under such circumstances sounds slightly ambitious, read on to see just how iLab Liberia will make it work, in collaboration with the Liberia Freedom of Information Coalition, and funded by the Making All Voices Count project.

    The Liberia Freedom of Information Request Platform – InfoLib – is the latest site to use our Alaveteli software. Like all Alaveteli sites, it will send requests for information to public authorities by email, while publishing both the requests and the responses online. In time, responses build into a public archive of information.

    Online services, offline

    So how do you run a site like this in a country with low internet penetration? With a little ingenuity and a knowledge of which effective networks already exist, it seems.

    The project will make use of an existing network of regional offices and training centres, set up by the Carter Centre and LFIC. In these hubs, staff have been trained up to submit and receive requests on behalf of citizens, and citizens have attended workshops on how FOI can benefit them. There’s no need for users to have access to a computer, or an understanding of how to use a website — there will be staff who can do it on their behalf.

    And they’ve also spent time training the Public Information Officers, or PIOs, on the use of technology to make responding to requests easier. iLab are also providing a similar service within Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, where they already run successful computer and ICT training programmes for interested citizens.

    We’ve seen this offline-to-online approach with other projects. At the AlaveteliCon conference we heard from people running Alaveteli sites in Rwanda and Uganda, also areas with low internet access, and we’ve experimented in the past with a similar system to allow people to make FixMyStreet reports via SMS texts to a central office.

    Radio outreach

    In Liberia, almost everyone has access to a radio. Community radio stations are a part of daily life, and the main source of news for many.

    iLab Liberia will be putting out regular radio segments, explaining what FOI is and how you can use your rights under Liberian law to access information. They’ll also highlight the most interesting information that’s been released through the site. This approach should see FOI become an increasingly familiar topic, a right that everyone understands and knows that they have access to.

    We wish InfoLib the best of luck — and we’ll be keeping a close eye on how these initiatives work out.

     

    Image: Cameron Zohoori (CC)

     

  4. Have our sites helped you? Then please help us

    Can you donate a few pounds toward the running of our UK sites?

    FixMyStreet, WhatDoTheyKnow, WriteToThem and TheyWorkForYou all provide an easy way for you, the public, to hold our elected representatives to account. They give you the power to get things changed.

    You are the lifeblood of these sites: you make the reports that go off to the council; pen the letters to your representatives, request the information that our public authorities hold.

    Today, we’re asking for a little more. When you visit one of our UK sites, you may notice a banner asking for a donation.

    That’s because, as well as relying on your usage, these sites rely on your contributions to keep them running. In fact, our overheads are substantial: your donations help fund servers, maintenance, development, user support and all the other costs that come with running popular services and large archives.

    If you’ve benefited from one of our sites, or you are glad that they are around for others, please consider setting up a regular contribution of a few pounds a month, or making a one-off donation. It will be very much appreciated.

    Donate now


    Image: Dominic Alves (CC)

  5. Photo upload and progressive enhancement for FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet has been around for nearly nine years, letting people report things and optionally include a photo; the upshot of which is we currently have a 143GB collection of photographs of potholes, graffiti, dog poo, and much more. :)

    For almost all that time, attaching a photo has been through HTML’s standard file input form; it works, but that’s about all you can say for it – it’s quite ugly and unfriendly.

    We have always wanted to improve this situation – we have a ticket in our ticketing system, Display thumbnail of photo before submitting it, that says it dates from 2012, and it was probably in our previous system even before that – but it never quite made it above other priorities, or when it was looked at, browser support just made it too tricky to consider.

    Here’s a short animation of FixMyStreet’s new photo upload, which also allows you to upload multiple photos:

    For the user, the only difference from the current interface is that the photo field has been moved higher up the form, so that photos can be uploading while you are filling out the rest of the form.

    Personally, I think this benefit is the largest one, above the ability to add multiple photos at once, or the preview function. Some of our users are on slow connections – looking at the logs I see some uploads taking nearly a minute – so being able to put that process into the background hopefully speeds up the submission and makes the whole thing much nicer to use.

    Progressive enhancement

    When creating a new report, it can sometimes happen that you fill in the form, include a photo, and submit, only for the server to reject your report for some reason not caught client-side. When that happens, the form needs to be shown again, with everything the user has already entered prefilled.

    There are various reasons why this might happen; perhaps your browser doesn’t support the HTML5 required attribute (thanks Safari, though actually we do work around that); perhaps you’ve provided an incorrect password.

    However, browsers don’t remember file inputs, and as we’ve seen, photo upload can take some time. From FixMyStreet’s beginnings, we recognised that re-uploading is a pain, so we’ve always had a mechanism whereby an uploaded photo would be stored server side, even if the form had errors, and only an ID for the photo was passed back to the browser so that the user could hopefully resubmit much more quickly.

    This also helped with reports coming in from external sources like mobile phone apps or Flickr, which might come with a photo already attached but still need other information, such as location.

    Back in 2011, I wrote about how FixMyStreet maps are progressively enhanced, starting with a base of HTML image maps and layering on the normal slippy map experience on top. This has always been the way I have worked, and adding a snazzy JavaScript photo upload was no different.

    mySociety designer Zarino used dropzonejs to supply the “pop”™, and this works in a nicely easy-to-progressively-enhance way, hiding existing file input(s) and providing fallbacks. And with the behaviour the site has had since 2007, adding the server side element of this new photo upload was actually very straightforward – receive a photo and return its ID for a snippet of JavaScript to insert into the hidden form field of photo ID that has always been there in case of form error. No need to worry about how to match up the out-of-band photos with the main form submission, it’s all already taken care of. If the JavaScript doesn’t or can’t work for whatever reason, the old behaviour is still there, using the same mechanisms.

    Of course there were edge cases and things to tidy up along the way, but if the form hadn’t taken into account the user experience of error edge cases from the start, or worse, had assumed all client checks were enough, then nine years down the line my job would have been a lot harder.

    Anyway, long story short, adding photos to your FixMyStreet reports is now a smoother process, and you should try it out.

  6. New year, new job? Come and join mySociety

    If the idea of getting up and going to the same old job in 2016 is beginning to seem like an unappealing prospect, then you should know that we are looking for a Systems Administrator.

    Working at mySociety is a bit different from your average job, as we tried to convey in this video. We work mainly from home (or the workspace of your choice), meeting up at regular intervals across the UK. Hours are very flexible. We’re a small, super-friendly bunch of people who like talking tech.

    And then there’s the actual work. It does good in the world. That certainly gets us out of bed in the mornings.

    You can see all the details of the position here. You’ll need experience of Linux server administration, scripting, Puppet and Nagios, and your main duties will be ensuring security and integrity of our servers, maintaining our infrastructure, and basically keeping all the plates spinning nicely.

    If that sounds up your street, everything you need for your application is here.

    And if not, do us a favour, and pass it on.

     

    Image: DonkerDink (CC)

  7. Stats, technology and at least one really bad joke about tapirs: the mySociety year in review

    If you’re wondering what a year in Civic Tech looks like, well, here’s the answer:
    plenty of coding, video calls with partners around the world, the occasional conference, and tea. Lots of tea.

    Oh, and then there’s the annual treat of posing for the team photo on a windy winter’s day. That’s us, above. Damp. Cold. Still believing in the transformative power of digital technologies.

    We bundled it all together, with plenty of stats, a couple of jokes, and tweets from some of our happy users.

    Here’s the result. Sit back and enjoy the mySociety Year in Review, 2015.

     

    Read the 2015 mySociety Annual Report

  8. Big Bang Data exhibition

    How is the data explosion transforming our world?

    That’s the question that inspires the Big Bang Data exhibition, running from today until February 28 at Somerset House in London.

    Alongside all kinds of data displays, data-inspired artwork and data-based innovations, the exhibition features our very own FixMyStreet and TheyWorkForYou as examples of websites that are using data for the common good.

    The exhibits range from fun to thought-provoking to visually rather beautiful: we enjoyed Nicholas Felton‘s annual reports about himself, the Dear Data project, and innovative devices such as the fitness tracker for dogs. Most of all, of course, we enjoyed seeing our very own websites put into context and available for everyone to have a go with. :)

    We’re delighted to have been included in this event, and we recommend a visit if you’re in the area.  There’s plenty to keep you interested and informed for a good hour or two.

    Data for the common good - a sign at the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House
  9. Report those winter problems with FixMyStreet

    Who needs a calendar? If we want to see the seasons passing, we just check what’s being reported on FixMyStreet.

    In these dark winter days, issues like broken streetlights become a lot more of a concern. There’s an increase in potholes, as frost damage plays its part. And our users are quick to let councils know if road-gritting has been inadequate on icy days.

    It’s enough to make us nostalgic for spring and summer’s reports of overgrown footpaths, smelly bins, and barbecues left smouldering in parks.

    Over the last year, across the seasons, you’ve sent more than 160,000 FixMyStreet reports to councils across the UK. October was responsible for more than 12,000 of them — a 20% rise on the same month last year.

    We hope those numbers will keep rising — after all, each of them is potentially a problem solved. So, if you’ve spotted the beginnings of a pothole, or a streetlight that needs mending, don’t forget to let your council know, on FixMyStreet.

    Image: Phil Holker (CC)

     

     

  10. Alaveteli Release 0.23

    Earlier this week, we released Alaveteli 0.23, the latest version of our Freedom of Information software for usage anywhere in the world.

    This is another big release with lots of general improvements.

    Design

    Martin Wright, one of our enterprising designers, has been hard at work giving Alaveteli a new default homepage which explains how the site works. He’s also been improving the HTML to make the site easier to customise without needing to be a CSS guru.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.07.41

    Bugfixes

    Liz Conlan has joined the Alaveteli team, and we have been hazing welcoming her by getting her to tackle some of the annoying little bugs that have been around for a long time – so the site should now be smoother to use and more of a joy for admins to run. Petter Reinholdtsen also chipped in here with better handling of the graphs that show how much new installs are being used.

    Code Quality

    We’ve continued to refactor the code for simplicity, clarity and extensibility. We plan for Alaveteli to be around for many years to come – that means it needs to be easy for new developers to understand what it does, and why (nerd alert, our Code Climate score continues to inch its way up and test coverage is now over 90%). This isn’t glamorous work, but it is an important investment in the future of the code that mySociety developers are lucky enough to be in a position to consider. Its not just us though – Caleb Tutty and James McKinney both contributed substantial code refactorings to this release.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.14.43

    Localisation

    We’ve also been working to improve the process of translating Alaveteli into a new language – standardising the way phrases for translation appear to translators, and, thanks to Gareth Rees introducing support for language-specific sorting, ensuring that “Åfjord Municipality” will now appear after “Ytre Helgeland District Psychiatric Centre” in Mimesbronn, the Norweigian Alaveteli site, as it should.

    Security

    We’ve dipped our toes into the water of two-factor authentication to keep accounts secure. As Alaveteli runs all over the world, on all kinds of devices, we’ve kept it simple without introducing the need for apps or other technologies. Users now have the option of activating an extra one time passcode that they’ll need to supply if they ever want to change their password in the future.

    Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 11.18.25

    Spam spam spam spam

    We continue to fight the good fight against spam – in this release we introduce a configuration parameter that allows site admins to adjust the period in which requests remain open to responses – closing the window in which spammers can target them. We’ve also extended our use of reCAPTCHA to keep spambots at bay.

    Alaveteli, don’t phone home

    Thanks to Ian Chard, Alaveteli now uses a local GeoIP database by default to find the country for HTTP requests (and tell users if there is an Alaveteli in their country), rather than the mySociety Gaze service. This should improve performance and reliability.

    The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

    Image: Steve Smith (CC)