1. Recycling Collideoscope

    In 2014, along with Integrated Transport Planning (ITP), we created Collideoscope — a service based on our FixMyStreet Platform to map collisions and near misses between motor vehicles and cyclists.

    Through a mix of imported Department of Transport Data and user submitted reports, the service highlighted potential dangerous hotspots before cyclists were killed or seriously injured.

    Since the launch of Collideoscope, cycling has seen even more of an increase in popularity, and we suspect that there have been numerous new initiatives and campaigns developed to highlight and tackle the dangers faced by cyclists through insufficient provision of safe cycling infrastructure and dangerous driving.

    So a recent approach from the Merseyside Road Safety Partnership (MRSP) was of great interest: they wanted to explore how we might revisit this task and determine if Collideoscope still has a role to play — or whether some other approach might be more beneficial.

    Over the next three months, with the help of funding from MRSP, we plan to carry out a fresh discovery exercise to identify up to date user needs around collision prevention, and also determine how well served these issues are already by other similar initiatives around the country.

    In addition to speaking to cyclists, campaign groups and safety experts, we’ll also be working with MRSP and in particular the Cycling Safety team within Merseyside Police to better understand how submission of reports can actually contribute to the development of actionable policy.

    We’d also like to better understand the process of evidence submission, especially video evidence, in cases of near misses and collisions, and improve how that might lead to appropriate enforcement action.

    For the moment we’re approaching all of this with a very open mind. We’re not going to assume that Collideoscope as it currently exists is necessarily the correct approach, and even if it does have a role to play we suspect it may need to be substantially altered to cater to any newly identified user needs.

    Whilst this exploratory part of the project is going to be centred on Merseyside, we’re keen to hear from groups across the country and if you’d like to be consulted or participate in the research we would be keen to hear from you.

    In the meantime, ride safe and we’ll update with progress reports over the next few weeks.

    Photo by Roman Koester on Unsplash

  2. Truth & justice for haemophiliacs: WhatDoTheyKnow and the contaminated blood scandal

    Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.

    Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.


    I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.

    In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).

    It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.

    To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.

    After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.

    In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.

    Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.

    Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.

    Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.

    This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.

    In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.

    Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.

    When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.

    It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.

    In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.

    The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.

    Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).

    I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.

    I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.

    The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.

    Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.

    Image: Raw Pixel (Unsplash)

  3. Taxis, wheelchairs and local authorities: an update

    Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.

    As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.

    New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.

    A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:

    As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.

    No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.

    As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.

    Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.

    I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.

    You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.

    Image: Tam Le (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  4. Zero tolerance for bullying and abusive behaviour in the Civic Tech community

    Like many others we were shocked to read the allegations of attempted rape, and physical and verbal abuse leveled at Clay Johnson, a former senior staff member at Sunlight Foundation – our fellow Civic Tech organisation in the USA.

    Our thoughts are with the women affected and the staff of Sunlight and the other organisations involved.

    It was brought to my attention that Johnson attended a mySociety meeting in 2008 and retreat in 2011; so I’ll take this opportunity now to condemn the behaviour described – it has no place in our community.

    No field or sector is immune from the potential for abuse – just because we happen to be in the business of ‘tech for good’, that doesn’t mean as a sector we’re automatically any more or less likely to allow abuse to take place.

    Whilst these higher profile and serious revelations are the ones that make the headlines, there can often exist a spectrum of abuse, bullying, and inexcusable behaviour that is tolerated, apologised for, or just plain accepted as part of the culture.

    It’s the job of all of us in positions of responsibility in all organisations to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying or discriminatory behaviour which is the soil that allows these abuses to flourish.

    We extend our support to the new team at Sunlight, and we are committed helping identify and call out — and ultimately stamp out — elements of the wider culture that allowed this to take place.

     

    Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

  5. mySociety Data Portal

    mySociety services produce a lot of useful (and interesting!) data. Over the years we’ve often made components or the results of mySociety services available through APIs (like our MapIt service) or as open data to download (such as our EveryPolitician data).

    What we haven’t been good at is showing you the full breadth of what we have available, or how component parts can be used together. Sometimes we find users of one aspect of mySociety data being unaware of other relevant datasets.

    To fix this problem, we’ve created a new data portal – data.mysociety.org –  to bring all the data we publish into one place. From the politicians of Albania to data about all ministerial and parliamentary roles UK MPs have held, everything can be found on one site.

    Our research team will also use this site to publish supplementary materials to papers and blog posts that might be of use to others (such as a lookup table for the different codes used for UK Local Authorities). So we plan to keep adding data whenever we can!


    Image: Ash Edmonds (Unsplash)

  6. Seeing spots with FixMyStreet Pro

    If you visit FixMyStreet and suddenly start seeing spots, don’t rush to your optician: it’s just another feature to help you, and the council, when you make a report.

    In our last two blog posts we announced Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset councils’ adoption of FixMyStreet Pro, and looked at how this integrated with existing council software. It’s the latter which has brought on this sudden rash.

    At the moment, you’ll only see such dots in areas where the council has adopted FixMyStreet Pro, and gone for the ‘asset locations’ option: take a look at the Bath & NE Somerset installation to see them in action.

    What is an asset?

    mySociety developer Struan explains all.

    Councils refer to ‘assets’; in layman’s language these are things like roads, streetlights, grit bins, dog poo bins and trees. These assets are normally stored in an asset management system that tracks problems, and once hooked up, FixMyStreet Pro can deposit users’ reports directly into that system.

    Most asset management systems will have an entry for each asset and probably some location data for them too. This means that we can plot them on a map, and we can also include details about the asset.

    When you make a report, for example a broken streetlight, you’ll be able to quickly and easily specify that precise light on the map, making things a faster for you. And there’s no need for the average citizen to ever know this, but we can then include the council’s internal ID for the streetlight in the report, which then also speeds things up for the council.

    Map layers

    So, how do we get these assets on to the map? Here’s the technical part:

    The council will either have a map server with a set of asset layers on it that we can use, or they’ll provide us with files containing details of the assets and we’ll host them on our own map server.

    The map server then lets you ask for all the streetlights in an area and sends back some XML with a location for each streetlight and any associated data, such as the lamppost number. Each collection of objects is called a layer, mostly because that’s how mapping software uses them. It has a layer for the map and then adds any other features on top of this in layers.

    Will these dots clutter up the map for users who are trying to make a report about something else?

    Not at all.

    With a bit of configuration in FixMyStreet, we associate report categories with asset layers so we only show the assets on the map when the relevant category is selected.

    We can also snap problem reports to any nearby asset which is handy for things like street lights as it doesn’t make sense to send a report about a broken street light with no associated light.

    Watch this space

    And what’s coming up?

    We’re working to add data from roadworks.org, so that when a user clicks on a road we’ll be able to tell them if roadworks are happening in the near future, which might have a bearing on whether they want to report the problem — for example there’s no point in reporting a pothole if the whole road is due to be resurfaced the next week.

    Then we’ll also be looking at roads overseen by TfL. The issue with these is that while they are always within a council area, the council doesn’t have the responsibility of maintaining them, so we want to change where the report is going rather than just adding in more data. There’s also the added complication of things like “what if the issue is being reported on a council-maintained bridge that goes over a TFL road”.

    There’s always something to keep the FixMyStreet developers busy… we’ll make sure we keep you updated as these new innovations are added.

    From a council and interested in knowing more? Visit the FixMyStreet Pro website

  7. Confirming the benefits: how FixMyStreet Pro integrates with the Confirm Asset Management System

    We often talk about how FixMyStreet Pro can integrate directly with council’s existing systems, and how doing so can help councils be more efficient — but what exactly does that mean in practice?

    Let’s take a look at our two most recent FixMyStreet Pro installations. Both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils use the same asset management system, Confirm, and it gives us a great example of how FixMyStreet Pro’s ability to ‘communicate’ with such systems will make everything a whole lot easier for residents and for council staff, even with two very different types of local authority.

    Saving time and effort

    FixMyStreet has always provided the resident with an easy interface through which to file a street report. For many councils, however, such reports arrive in an email inbox and then have to be forwarded to the right location or typed into the council’s CRM, all adding to the sum total of time and effort dedicated to each report.

    Now, using the Confirm API, Bucks and B&NES councils can access and work on FixMyStreet reports through Confirm’s standard ‘inspector module’, removing any need for this extra step.

    Two-way information

    Optionally, the information flow can go both ways, and indeed this is the case for both B&NES and Buckinghamshire councils. What this means is that for example, when an issue has been inspected and council staff change its status (perhaps from ‘report received’ to ‘repair underway’), this status change will be passed back to FixMyStreet, automatically syncing with the site, and notifying the report-maker with the update — again removing another mundane task from customer services staff.

    If a highways inspector should come across a new issue while they are out and about on their rounds, they can raise an issue in Confirm just as they always would have. But now, that will also create a report on FixMyStreet which residents can view, keeping everyone up to date and ensuring that reports aren’t made about issues that the council already know about.

    Canned responses

    FixMyStreet Pro also allows for council administrators to create template responses — an invaluable timesaver when responding to one of the more common situations such as “issue identified and prioritised” or “issue now fixed and closed”. While Confirm also has its own template responses, FixMyStreet Pro offers more flexibility, as the same template can be reused across multiple report categories and status types. Buckinghamshire really saw the benefit of this: they were able to reduce the number of templates in use from around 450 to 46.

    Mapping assets

    Assets such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies can be pulled through from Confirm and overlaid on the map. This makes it significantly easier for both residents and staff to locate and report issue, speeding up the issue resolution time — we’ll be delving more deeply into this in our next blog post, with a few more technical details for those who are interested.

    Image: Highways England (CC by/2.0)

  8. Two new FixMyStreet Pro councils

    We’re delighted to welcome two new councils who are now using FixMyStreet Pro for their fault-reporting: Buckinghamshire and Bath & NE Somerset.

    Residents in these areas can make reports on the councils’ own websites, where they’ll find FixMyStreet as the street fault interface — or through the main FixMyStreet website and app. Whichever you choose, your reports will be published in all three places.

    So far, so convenient for residents — but behind the scenes, there’s lots more going on that improves the efficiency of the whole fault-fixing cycle.

    Both councils are users of the Confirm CRM system, with which FixMyStreet Pro can now be fully integrated. What that means in practice is that when you make a report, it drops directly into the council’s existing workflows, with no need for someone in the middle to retype or redirect your report.

    Council staff can use the best of both systems’ useful tools for shortlisting, inspecting and updating the status of your issues — and when a report has been progressed to the next stage of the fixing cycle, you’ll be automatically kept up to date both by email, and with messages posted directly to your report page.

    In another advance, both councils are now displaying assets such as bins, trees and adopted highways in context-sensitive areas of the report-making journey, so it’s easy to identify exactly which one you’re talking about when you make your report. That saves time for you, and for the council when they go out to fix it .

    If you’re interested in the technical details, we’ll have more about both Confirm integration and asset layers in future blog posts.

    Image: Kosala Bandara (CC by/2.0)

  9. A new call to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team

    We’re seeking people to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team, dealing with the day-to-day administration of the site.

    Over seven million people viewed our Freedom of Information website WhatDoTheyKnow last year; it now hosts almost 50,000 requests for information and has around 150,000 registered users. The site, which is managed on a day-to-day basis by volunteers, is continuing to grow.

    Last year we ran a successful call for volunteers which led to a new cohort of people joining the core volunteer team, and a number of others taking on associated roles.

    We have decided to make the call for volunteers an annual event, as it’s always useful to have more people involved in running and improving the service. The site’s growth isn’t the only factor: people move on, circumstances change, and there’s always a need to keep the pool of volunteers topped up.

    Volunteers, like mySociety staff, work remotely from home, and can pick the days or hours that suit them best. There is no set number of hours required.

    Administrator roles

    Would you be interested in joining the team as an administrator? Currently that role involves:

    • Considering, and acting on, requests to remove material from our site The material in question could be something big (like the accidentally released personal information of thousands of staff at a public body), something small (such as an individual’s phone number), or, to give a recent example, the address of a vice-chancellor’s official on-campus residence which the university doesn’t think should be published.
    • Assisting users with using our site, providing advice on requesting information and helping resolve basic issues with their accounts.
    • Managing the service by resending bounced emails, dealing with messages that public bodies have misdirected, and maintaining and extending the database of public bodies which the site relies upon.

    Other roles

    Due to the requirements attached to their grant funding, the efforts of mySociety’s paid staff are currently focused on developing the WhatDoTheyKnow Pro service and supporting deployments of our Alaveteli FOI software in other countries. To support the operation of WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK we’d also like to find volunteers could take on some additional roles. If your skills fit any of the descriptions below, you’d make a great addition to the team:

    • Team administrator  Could you help us keep track of legal deadlines, organise (and perhaps chair or minute) our regular team meetings and ensure we follow up on outstanding items?
    • Volunteer developer It would be useful if we had volunteers able to make tweaks to the site’s software to support the growth of the site and the work of the other volunteers. Tasks could include improvements to the administration interface, and making updates to the static pages on the site.  This role would provide an opportunity to get experience working with mySociety’s highly professional development team, or offer a chance for an experienced developer to help out a team working on an impactful civic project.
    • Strategic fundraiser Could you help us obtain the funds we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow.com running and ensure that the operation is sustainable as it grows? This would be an opportunity to work with volunteers, and you’d also work in tandem with mySociety staff, including the professional fundraiser we’re currently also seeking to recruit.
    • Documentation specialist The volunteer team, along with mySociety’s staff and trustees, have developed a substantial number of policies governing how the site is run. These are filed in the staff Wiki, and also, where possible, made public on the site. Tending to both these aspects of our documentation would be a great help to the team, and to users.
    • Public body database administrator Behind WhatDoTheyKnow is perhaps the largest database of public bodies in the UK — would you like to help maintain and improve it? There may be opportunities to support new WhatDoTheyKnow Pro features which are in development, for example by curating lists/groups of public bodies.
    • Regional, or sector, specialist Would you like to join us and help improve our service in a particular geographic or sector area? Perhaps you would like to help ensure we have full coverage of public bodies in, say, Manchester, and ensure they’re well described.
    • Journalistic / communications volunteers We would like to do more to promote and encourage high quality use of our site, for example though a regular blog post pointing to notable responses received each month.

    Requirements

    If you’d like to join us, and think you’ve got something to offer, then please do get in touch.

    There are no formal requirements for our volunteer roles, although due to the way we work the ability to write clear, professional, emails is essential; and when corresponding with our users we need excellent communicators who are able to provide to support to people from a broad range of backgrounds.

    A number of our current volunteers had not made significant of use of the service themselves before joining the team. You don’t need to be an avid Freedom of Information requestor, activist, campaigner or journalist to join us; but if you are, that’s great too.

    While we do need people who can regularly share the workload associated with dealing with incoming user support, and takedown requests, there are also opportunities to carry out self-contained projects, or help out on an occasional basis.

    What are the benefits?

    While these are unpaid positions, you may enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that you are supporting a service that is of help to the UK population, often empowering users to uncover information that would otherwise remain unknown.

    All at mySociety and WhatDoTheyKnow are immensely grateful for the work put in by volunteers: their contributions release mySociety staff and the rest of the team to focus on elements of the service where their skills are best used.

    But there are some fringe benefits, too:

    • You’ll gain experience in running a high traffic website processing a high level of user-generated content.
    • You’ll work as part of the team on often complex cases involving data protection law, defamation law, and sometimes requiring tricky journalistic and moral judgments.
    • You’ll take a vital role supporting a key part of the UK’s democratic and journalistic infrastructure, helping at the front line of tackling fake news, and helping inform public debate on a wide range of important matters from security and defence to benefits, health and care.

    WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers have gone on to careers in the law, and experience with the team may well be useful for those considering entering journalism, or roles in information management.

    Volunteers may be invited to mySociety events and meet-ups, providing a chance to take part in discussions about the future direction of the service and the organisation’s activities more generally. There have been a number of conferences held, where those running Freedom of Information sites around the world have got together to share experiences: one or more volunteers may be invited to join in, with travel expenses paid.

    While our volunteer roles are unpaid there are funds available to cover travel and training costs.

    Applying

    Please write to us by the 23rd of April 2018, introducing yourself, letting us know about any relevant experience and skills you have, and telling us how you think you may be able to help out. If you’ve made use of our service, or FOI, do tell us about that: we’re always interested in hearing users’ stories.

    Other ways to help

    If volunteering to join the WhatDoTheyKnow team isn’t for you, perhaps you could:


    Image: Clark Tibbs

  10. New insights for councils, on FixMyStreet

    FixMyStreet sends users’ street reports to councils across the UK.

    But if you’re one of the staff that receives these reports, you might sometimes wish for more insights: which issues are most commonly reported in your area? What’s a bigger problem, dog fouling or potholes? How quickly do reports get fixed, and how does this compare with other councils’ performance?

    To make it easy to discover the answers to all these questions, we’ve just rolled out a new stats dashboard on FixMyStreet — and it’s free to access if you work for a council.

    Council staff can now view and download information that answers questions such as:

    • How many FixMyStreet reports have been made in your area across various time periods?
    • How many reports have been made in each category?
    • What are the average times between reports being made and being marked as fixed, and how does this compare to other councils?
    • Which categories of report are most common within your area?
    • Which categories of report does FixMyStreet send to your council, and which email addresses does it use?

    From this exclusive area, you can gain a more in-depth understanding of how FixMyStreet is being used in your area, while also getting a taste of the fuller functionality available with FixMyStreet Pro.

    So, if you work for a council, head over to the dashboard page now, and start exploring.