1. New grant, new commercial services

    Undertaking client work through our commercial subsidiary mySociety Services has been a vital part of our identity, and it provides an important source of additional revenue to complement our core grant funding.

    We’ve worked with numerous organisations that share our principles and focus on impact such as Médecins Sans Frontières, The Financial Conduct Authority, the NHS, and notably we produced the UK Parliamentary Digital Report which led to the establishment of the Parliamentary Digital Service.

    This is good work, but it’s meant we’ve had to support two teams, two marketing efforts and often had to juggle priorities with our charitable work.

    Our overall aim is to create impactful services that benefit as many people as possible. So rather than continue to spread ourselves too thinly, from now on we’re going to concentrate primarily on appropriate commercial services that sit alongside our three thematic areas of focus: Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities.

    We’re taking the first step today with the announcement of a new grant from the Google Digital News Initiative, for which we’re extremely grateful. We’ll be making use of the grant to develop a new toolset for journalists using Freedom of Information.

    In the next few weeks we’ll share more details on what for the moment we’ve codenamed Alaveteli Professional. Our intention is that this toolset will sit alongside as a companion service to our free FOI platform Alaveteli.org, and should it become viable we may offer a version as a commercial service through mySociety Ltd.

    In the interim we’ll be speaking to lots of users, especially journalists and campaigning organisations on their use of FOI. If you’re are interested in helping us shape this product, please get in touch with us at hello@mysociety.org and we’ll keep you up to date.

    This new approach will mean we can better develop complementary commercial services that fully realise their potential and better support our charitable aims and objectives.

  2. Just who is this Stephen Crabb?

    Well, it certainly all happened over the weekend: the resignation of one Secretary of State on Friday and the quick appointment of another by Saturday.

    It all left a lot of people wondering just who this Stephen Crabb fellow was, and what he stood for.

    Fortunately, there’s a very handy website where you can look up the details, debates and voting records of every MP — we refer, of course, to our very own TheyWorkForYou. Over the weekend, we saw the link to Crabb’s voting record shared across social media (and even good old traditional media; we were also mentioned on Radio 4’s Any Answers). Naturally, most interest was around Crabb’s voting habits when it comes to welfare and benefits.

    The upshot of this was that TheyWorkForYou saw almost three times our normal traffic for a Saturday. Over the weekend, 30% of all page views were for Crabb’s profile or voting records. In contrast, just 1.83% thought to check out his predecessor’s record: yesterday’s news already, it seems.

    So Stephen Crabb’s the new guy, and you may want to keep up to date with his contributions to Parliament. Sign up here and we’ll send you an email every time he speaks.

     

    Image: Number 10 (CC)

     

     

     

  3. Alaveteli Release 0.24

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.24! Here are some of the highlights.

    Admin Tools

    We’ve added better management for censor rules in the admin interface. Previously, only request and user censor rules could be managed; now you can manage rules for authorities and global rules that get applied to everything.

    Censor rules management

    We’ve added support deleting incoming messages in bulk on a request page. This is useful if you’re experiencing spam to the holding pen. You can zap them all in a couple of clicks.

    Deleting incoming spam in bulk

    Design

    Facebook is a big driver of traffic to Alavetelis. We’ve added support for a specific opengraph image for pages when shared on Facebook. You’ll need to add a custom version for your site in your theme. Take a look at the upgrade notes for more info.

    Alaveteli OpenGraph Logo

    As Zarino has already mentioned, we’ve improved handling of long translations in the banner.

    Handling long translations

    Long Term Support

    Alaveteli 0.24 adds support for the most current versions of Debian and Ruby. Jessie has security support until May 2018 and Long Term Support until May 2020.

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

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

  4. Patent Oppositions: re-igniting a campaign for fairer access to drugs

    Last year, we blogged about the work we did for Médecins Sans Frontiers, suggesting improvements for their Patents Oppositions Database.

    Need a quick recap? Two things you should know:

    1. When medicines are re-patented, it prevents the development of generic versions. One company retains the monopoly, and costs remain high, where otherwise the generics would have provided a cheaper option.
    2. Médecins Sans Frontiers support those who challenge patents in court by providing resources, such as arguments which have previously succeeded in similar cases, via their Patents Oppositions Database site.

    As we explained in our last post, it was clear to MSF that while the idea of the Patents Opposition Database was sound, it relied on active take-up from community members — members who were often too busy to engage in a site that was anything less than simple and inviting.

    That’s when they came to us, first for consultation, and then to put our suggestions into action. It’s exactly the sort of work we enjoy: it potentially changes lives, and it involves using good design and coding to do so.

    Getting to the bottom of things

    MSF had a good idea of why their site wasn’t enjoying the kind of take-up they’d hoped for, and in that initial phase we were able to confirm this through research.

    As we talked directly to a number of the site’s users, and gave the site a rigorous analysis ourselves, we found some recurring frustrations:

    • It was difficult to find content
    • While there was patent information from a variety of sources, linking it together was a chore
    • People weren’t contributing to the site because it took too long to do so
    • There was no feeling of community, so users didn’t feel a strong compulsion to help one another

    And that pretty much brings you up to speed with where we were last time we blogged this project. Since then, we’ve been beavering away on making improvements.

    How do you encourage community?

    People tend to look at community as a nebulous concept: all the more so with online communities, where success is often seen as a coincidental factor rather than one that you can foster.

    But for this project, it was clear what to do. And the site has the odds stacked in its favour: visitors have a very strong motivation to contribute, so we just needed to make that as simple as possible.

    We worked on two broad areas: the site’s design, and some new core functionality.

    New design that removes barriers

    • The first thing to do was to ensure the site met modern standards, breaking down any impediments to participation. It’s now responsive (ie it displays well on any size of screen), clear, and accessible.
    • Then we made sure that, when visiting the homepage, it was obvious what to do next. This was achieved with a prominent search function, and some clearly signposted ‘next steps’.
    Patent Oppositions Database homepage: before (left) and after (right)

    Homepage: before (left) and after (right)

    • We wanted to reward people and organisations for playing an active part, so we created profile pages which highlight their activity.
    • Documents are the mainstay of the site, so they’re now highlighted as the main resource on any pages where they’re relevant. We also tidied up the way they were being stored, so they’re consistent across the board.
    • We tackled that user frustration and made sure that patent data from sources such as WIPO and EPO were cross-referenced and brought together.

    New functionality that fosters participation

    • Users can now view and mark up documents right on the site, and then share what they’ve discovered with other users, thanks to the ‘add an annotation’ function.
    What an annotation looks like on the Patent Oppositions Database

    Making annotations is really simple

    • We created an email alerts service, drawing on our experience running TheyWorkForYou, which sends out thousands of alerts to people tracking topics in Parliament. This kind of alerting system is great for bringing people back to the site at their own convenience. So now, when there’s a new case concerning a specific drug, anyone with an interest in that drug will receive an email. If someone leaves a note on one of your annotations, you’ll know about it too.
    • Search is absolutely crucial to the site, so we implemented a powerful new search facility which can look through not just the site’s own pages, but the documents it hosts, too. We added filtering tools to give the user more control over what they see.
    Patents Opposition Database search before and after

    Search, before (left) and after (right)

    • Advanced users can also obtain search results in a standardised csv format for download, so they can be used for their own reporting, or even as a data source for other sites.
    • We created a new ‘call for help’ service, so users can ask the community to contribute to a patent opposition. These become touchpoints across the site, where users are urged to help if they can.
    A call for help on the Patent Opposition Database

    Need some help? Put the call out.

     

    What’s next?

    Our improvements were presented at the AIPPI (International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property) World Congress, and the new site is now live at www.patentoppositions.org.

    Of course, we’ll be keeping an eye on its performance, and until April we’ll be refining and tweaking until we know that the much-needed community is up and running happily.

    Image: Taiyo Fujii (CC)

     

  5. Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement

    mySociety’s Head of Research, Rebecca Rumbul, gives an overview of our research work in the latest publication from the World Bank’s Open Knowledge Repository. Also featured is an experiment in citizen engagement from Mzalendo in Kenya, that was first shared at TICTeC.

    Evaluating Digital Citizen Engagement: A Practical Guide is a handy collection of examples and lessons from practitioners in Brazil, Uganda, Cameroon and Kenya, on how to measure the impact of civic technologies.

    Rebecca explains the methods we’re currently using to answer questions like, “are institutions equally responsive to citizens?” and, crucially, “are our tools genuinely making a difference?”.

    Meanwhile, Lily L. Tsai and Leah Rosenzweig, who contributed last year to our Impacts of Civic Technologies conference TICTeC, give an overview of how they used Facebook ads to draw conclusions about what makes people take concrete political actions online.

    You can download the guide for free here — and don’t forget, if you’d like to hear more about the ways in which civic tech’s impact is being tested by projects around the world, there are still a few tickets available for TICTeC 2016.

     

    Image: Alistair Nicol (CC)

  6. Publishing responses to FOI requests ‘should be the norm’, says government commission on Freedom of Information

    Answers to requests already are published where they are made through public websites like WhatDoTheyKnow.com, but we think that this should be the norm.

    For us, of course, this was the stand-out line from the independent commission on the Freedom of Information’s reportpdf, published today. It’s great to have an official endorsement of WhatDoTheyKnow’s core premise. But there is plenty more to take in.

    You may remember our announcement last year, that a government commission was to consider restricting access to information, with possible outcomes being the introduction of fees for FOI requests and greater powers for authorities to turn down requests.

    Today’s report covers the commission’s findings, and is accompanied by a response on behalf of the government.

    That’s a lot of reading, so here’s what you need to know.

    No fees for FOI

    mySociety, as operators of WhatDoTheyKnow and developers of the international Freedom of Information software, Alaveteli, made a submission to the commission.

    Along with several other organisations and individuals, we campaigned against introducing charges for making Freedom of Information requests, and encouraged you to share your experiences and opinions in the public consultation.

    Many of you were among the 30,000 people who took the time to contribute. Opinion across the board was overwhelmingly against the introduction of fees — and that strength of feeling has been recognised.

    In our submission, we argued that introducing a fee for making a Freedom of Information request would have a significant negative impact on our users’ ability and willingness to obtain information from public bodies and would make it difficult, if not impossible, for us to continue to serve our users as well as we do now.

    The commission stated:

    We have not been persuaded that there are any convincing arguments in favour of charging fees for requests and therefore we make no proposals for change.

    And in turn, the government response came:

    The government agrees with the commission’s view that it is not appropriate to introduce fees for requests … the introduction of new fees would lead to a reduction in the ability of requesters, especially the media, to make use of the Act.

    Publishing responses, WhatDoTheyKnow style

    As we’ve already mentioned, the commission recommended the WhatDoTheyKnow practice of publishing responses, saying “we think that this should be the norm”, and adding:

    We consider that this will have a number of benefits, such as helping requestors to obtain information which has in fact already been released without needing to make a request, reducing unnecessary requests for information that has already been published, and allowing public authorities to avoid answering duplicate requests where they can simply point to information on their websites.

    Universities remain accountable

    We were also happy to see both the commission and the government reject lobbying from universities seeking to be excluded from Freedom of Information law. The commission wrote:

    It continues to be appropriate and important for universities to remain subject to the Act. They are highly important institutions that play a key public role.

    You can’t have everything

    All indications are that the FOI law will not be substantially weakened, and we’re delighted about that. But of course, we’d have liked the government to take the opportunity to extend and strengthen the FOI Act too.

    We and others argued for the extension of Freedom of Information law to cover more public bodies, including organisations that provide key public services, manage national infrastructure or carry out regulation on behalf of the state.

    The commission did not consider the extension of the coverage of the Act, but did recognise this as a key omission from its consideration and noted that it had received lots of responses on this subject — and that the Act’s scope ought be reviewed.

    We also made the case for time limits for internal reviews, and consideration of the public interest test. The commission agreed, but on these points the government decided not to make any changes to the law.

    Finally

    We are happy to see the government re-state its aspiration to be “the most transparent government in the world” and hope the new guidance to public bodies promised in the statement released today will help prompt them to operate more openly.

    We’ll continue to keep an eye on potential breaches to our rights under FOI. But for now, things look a lot better than we might have feared.

     

    Image: Tom Heinze (CC)

  7. Mzalendo: more reliable than the Kenyan government’s website

    For verified, reliable information, it’s usually best to go to the official source — but here’s an exception.

    Parliamentary monitoring website Mzalendo, which runs on mySociety’s Pombola platform, carries more accurate MP data than the official Kenyan Parliament site.

    Checking parliament.go.ke‘s list of MPs against Mzalendo’s, our developers discovered a large number of constituency mismatches. These, explained Jessica Musila from Mzalendo, came about because the official site has not reflected boundary changes made in 2013.

    Even more significantly, the official parliament site currently only holds details of 173 of the National Assembly’s 349 MPs.

    “The gaps in www.parliament.go.ke validate Mzalendo’s very existence,” said Jessica. We agree: it’s a great example of the sometimes unexpected needs filled by parliamentary monitoring websites.

    And of course, through EveryPolitician, we’re working to make sure that every parliamentary monitoring website can access a good, reliable source of data.

    Image: Richard Portsmouth (CC)

  8. People’s Assembly track the attendance records of South Africa’s MPs

    South African parliamentary monitoring website People’s Assembly have added an Attendance page, allowing citizens to see at a glance what percentage of committee meetings each MP has attended.

    A few weeks ago, we highlighted one major difference between the Ghanaian parliament and our own: in Ghana, they register MPs’ attendance.

    This week, we received news of another of our partners who are holding their representatives to account on the matter of attendance: People’s Assembly, whose website runs on our Pombola platform. The new page was contributed by Code4SA, who have been doing some really valuable work on the site lately.

    According to South Africa’s Daily Maverick, in some cases MPs’ attendance is abysmally low. There’s also a history of those who “arrive, sign the register and leave a short while later”, a practice that may soon be on the decline thanks to People’s Assembly’s inclusion of data on late arrivals and early departures.

    With 57 representatives — or about 15% — floundering at a zero rate of attendance, it seems that this simple but powerful display is a much-needed resource for the citizens of South Africa. See it in action here.

     

    South African MPs' attendance at committee meetings on People's Assembly

    Top image: GovernmentZA (CC)

  9. Introducing TICTeC’s keynote speakers: Guy Grossman

    Guy GrossmanTICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies.

    This year, we’ll be in Barcelona, Spain, with a diverse programme of speakers from all over the world.

    Guy Grossman, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s political science department, will deliver one of two keynotes. See details of our other keynote speaker, Helen Milner OBE, here.

    Guy has had a long history in civic tech research, with a special focus on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa, and we are delighted that he will be sharing his insights to our audience of practitioners and researchers.

    Hi Guy! Tell us what you’ll be covering in your TICTeC keynote.

    The state of academic knowledge about the promises and pitfalls of ICT applications designed to increase voice and accountability in low-income countries. Specifically:

    • Under what conditions are citizens more likely to communicate with government officials using mobile-platforms? If we “build them – will they come”?
    • Do mobile platforms exacerbate inequalities in political access, privileging groups (men, urban, better-off) that are heavier users of ICTs?
    • What can be done to help increase the participation rates of marginalised populations (such as women and the poor)?

    Low-income countries have leapfrogged past the landline era and directly into the mobile era. Citizens can now connect with each other and with their public officials in unprecedented ways.

    Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited.

    The massive penetration of mobile technology, even to remote areas of the least developed countries, has great potential to reshape both the social and political landscapes.

    Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited. My goal at TICTeC is to help take stock of what we know and don’t know in this emerging field.

    What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?

    I’m hoping to interact with practitioners, policy makers, technologists and fellow academics to figure out where the overlap is between practical needs and academic research.

    I’m also hoping to get exposed to promising and innovative applications that I am unaware of.

    Your civic tech research focuses especially on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa. What led you down this path?

    I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries.

    I care deeply about poverty and social and gender inequality, so working and studying in Africa has been a natural choice.

    How did I get involved with civic tech? In the past decade I have witnessed an increasing number of mobile-based applications designed to enhance such things as agriculture productivity and financial transactions or match between buyers and sellers.

    On the other hand, I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries. I came to believe that this was a great void that needed to be filled.

    In fact, unfortunately, we are still quite far from saturation in the development of governance-related ICT applications.

    What do you think are the big unanswered questions when it comes to civic tech?

    Does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?

    Here’s a very partial list of some of the answered questions when it comes to civic tech in the global south:

    Can simple innovations in mobile technology be used to facilitate new meaningful forms of political participation?

    If so, what types of mobile-based political communication are most likely to be adopted by voters?

    What is the potential of ICTs to flatten political access to marginalised populations?

    What are some of the ways to increase the usage of mobile-based political communication in the face of clear collective action problems?

    How can ICT be used to overcome political economy constraints to growth (e.g. by resolving monitoring challenges in government bureaucracies, reducing the cost for citizens of tracking bureaucratic performance, or making it easier to detect corrupt practices in public-sector salary distribution)?

    And, does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?

    If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?

    Adopt a user perspective — make sure that the suggested application/platform addresses a real need that could not be addressed using a low-tech solution.

    You won’t want to miss what Guy has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now.

     

  10. WhatDoTheyKnow as fact-checker

    These past few weeks, one of the most-viewed pages on our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow has been this one, which asks the Department of Work and Pensions:

    A post has been circulating on Facebook, alleging that people are eligible to receive £26 a day/£182 a week in Tesco vouchers on the basis of being immigrants present in the UK. This is alleged to be in addition to the free housing and benefits for clothes, shoes, etc. Can you confirm whether the UK government does indeed provide vouchers of this amount to immigrants in the UK? 

    The DWP helpfully reply that, in fact, it’s the Home Office who deal with asylum support, while linking to the relevant page on their website which sets the true sum at a far more modest £36.95 per week.

    We all know how rumours like these can proliferate on social media such as Facebook, fueling indignation and spreading misinformation. We’re pretty sure that a large proportion of the visits to this page have come from people Googling to check the facts, before commenting on their friends’ Facebook posts, ‘Actually, no – here’s the truth’.

    That’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and another reason why the publication of FOI responses can be so useful. We won’t be taking over from Snopes any time soon, but we’re glad to have helped in this particular case.

     

    Image: __andrew (CC)