1. Well what do you know? It’s a new look for WhatDoTheyKnow

    Our FOI site WhatDoTheyKnow has a fancy new frontage.

    Coming hot on the heels of TheyWorkforYou’s new homepage, the fresh look is part of our rolling process of design improvements. Out goes the rather sober grey and burgundy colour scheme, and in comes a fetching cobalt blue paired with banana yellow.

    As you might have guessed, though, there’s more to this than a new palette. Yes, in the fast-changing world of web design, fashions change and dated sites can run the risk of looking irrelevant—but we are also keen to ensure that any new design works for its keep.

    Not just a pretty face

    It’s important, when we invest time and resources into a redesign, that there are tangible improvements. So, like almost everything we do these days, the changes will be subjected to scrutiny from our Research team.

    They’ll be checking that we’ve:

    • Improved the site’s usability, making it more obvious how to browse or file FOI requests;
    • Encouraged users to take the step of making an FOI request, even if the concept is a new one for them;
    • Enabled people to understand what the FOI Act is, and what rights it confers.

    That’s a lot to expect from a simple redesign, so let’s take a look at how we hope to achieve it.

    The title

    Of course, the first thing visitors see is the title text. It may seem pretty simple, but, as anyone who writes will know, the shorter the sentence, the harder it is to get right.

    Take it from us, this deceptively simple piece of copy represents quite a bit of anguished brainstorming:

    title

    It tries to distill a complex idea into something that absolutely everyone can understand, even if they’ve never heard of FOI before. Meanwhile, the subtitle highlights your legal right to information.

    The count

    Alaveteli, the software this and many other FOI sites around the world are built on, has always included two figures on its sites’ homepages: the number of requests that have been made through the site, and how many public authorities it has contact details for. The image below displays WhatDoTheyKnow’s stats at the time of writing:

    count

    It’s a nice way of showing that the site is both useful and used, but there’s something else, too: when users see that other people have taken an action online, they’re more likely to take the plunge themselves. It’s the same thinking that informed our byline on WriteToThem: “Over 200,000 messages sent last year.”

    How it works

    The homepage now includes a simple graphic to show the path you can expect to take if you go ahead and file an FOI request on the site:

    howitworks with link

    Breaking the process down into just three steps makes it look manageable, and there’s a link deeper into our help pages for people who want to understand the FOI Act better.

    For those who prefer to browse

    Some content remains the same. We’ve still included links to the latest successful requests—albeit lower down the page, so as not to distract from the page’s main message, that you can make a request. These show, more graphically than any piece of copy could, that you can get results:

    successfulrequests

    They’re also a great way into the site for people who just want to browse: they are a random assortment of requests that have recently been marked as successful, and can often throw up some surprising and interesting subject matter.

    Sharing the benefits

    Provided that we discover that the design has been effective in the areas mentioned above, we hope to roll it out as an option on the wider Alaveteli codebase, so it can be implemented by anyone running an Alaveteli site.

    Meanwhile, the open source code can be accessed on Github by anyone who would like to use it.

  2. FixMyStreet for Councils cuts call handling times, makes savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils delivers cost savings—and that’s a fact.

    Oxfordshire County Council installed FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system in March 2013. Like every council, they were keen to see reductions in their expenditure, and were hopeful that FixMyStreet would help them in their aim to shift problem-reporting online.

    We’re delighted to hear that, two years on, those benefits are tangible. Not only can they demonstrate a cut in call handling times, but they can also put a figure on just how much they have saved.

    Tim White, Oxfordshire’s Service Improvement Lead in the Customer Service centre, says:

    FixMyStreet has reduced the average handling time of our calls from nearly four minutes to around two minutes.

    Robert Hill, Oxfordshire’s Web Services Manager, puts a figure on the savings, reckoning that the reduced time logging faults equates to £16,047.60 a year in staff costs.

    But that’s just a small proportion of the reductions they could be looking at. Oxfordshire chose not to opt for full back-end integration at the time of install, but it is something they are now considering:

    “By moving to an end to end system provided by FixMyStreet we would be able to remove additional cost by eliminating the need to inspect reports that meet certain criteria and passing them straight through for repair.”

    mySociety’s agile approach has worked well for Oxfordshire. Tim White continued:

    “Working with My Society has been a refreshing experience.

    “They are very open to making changes to the way that the product works in order to improve both the customer experience and the experience for council employees.

    “Using an agile approach to development means that we are able to get changes made quickly and incrementally, making the council more responsive to the demands of our residents.”

    If you’d like to see a drop in your own call-handling times, and the associated cost benefits, take a look at FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: David Howard (CC)

  3. Using FOI to uncover the truth about the living wage

    WhatDoTheyKnow is our Freedom of Information website, through which you can send an FOI request to UK publicly-funded bodies. It is used in many different ways, by many different users.

    Here’s a recent blog post by Doug Paulley which we think is worth highlighting. It uses a series of FOI requests across every council with social services responsibilities in England, Wales and Scotland, and every health and social care trust in Northern Ireland, to get to the truth of a simple question: whether or not a particular disability organisation, Leonard Cheshire, was honest when stating that they wanted to pay their carers a living wage.

    We wanted to draw your attention to it because, as well as being a good read, it really highlights the innovative uses that can be made of the rights we enjoy under the FOI Act. It also shows that you don’t have to be a journalist to dig into a story like this. Perhaps it gives you ideas for something you’d like to investigate?

     

    Image: Alexander Ridler (CC)

  4. FixMyStreet for Councils: ticking all the boxes

    FixMyStreet for Councils is great for citizens, but there are plenty of reasons why it’s also great for councils.

    Here are six ways in which FixMyStreet for Councils can help you save money and meet internal targets.

    1. Proven cost savings

    FixMyStreet for Councils’ highly usable interface has been proven to deliver channel shift, with shorter call times and resulting cost savings on staff FTE.

    Read our recent figures from Oxfordshire County Council, or take a look at our case studies from Barnet Borough Councilpdf and the city of Zurichpdf to see just what benefits these authorities saw with their FixMyStreet for Councils installations.

    2. We take the risks

    In these times of budgetary cuts, it helps to know there won’t be any unforeseen costs in maintenance or hosting. We manage all of that, and as it’s all included as standard, that counts as real added value.

    Worried about the loss of data? No need: because FixMyStreet is all ‘in the cloud’, there’s no risk of it ever going missing.

    3. Sustainable contracts

    We know you’re looking for partners you can rely on. With twelve years in the business, we’re a solid, reliable organisation that can offer long-term contracts with no worries about sustainability.

    4. Meet your Social Values Act quota

    As a not-for-profit charity, mySociety ticks all the right boxes when it comes to your Social Values Act quota. Every penny we make goes towards our charitable projects, empowering people and giving better access to democracy.

    mySociety also employs volunteers and runs various forms of outreach in the civic technology area, aided by profits from our commercial services—your money does good.

    5. Accessible—for all your residents

    FixMyStreet has a WCAG 2.0 accessibility level AA, opening it up to the blind, partially-sighted and any other users who rely on screen readers.

    6. Open and transparent

    If your council has an overall remit towards transparency and accountability, FixMyStreet offers a great step forward. Publishing all reports online, it provides a platform for you to show exactly what’s being fixed and what the persistent issues might be in each area.

    FixMyStreet also provides a continually-updating source of data which can be invaluable in analysing common problems, report hotspots, response times and seasonal cycles.

     

    Get in touch

    if you’d like to know more about any of these points, or have further questions then please do drop us a line. We’ll be happy to talk.

  5. Heads up, nonprofits: Google Ad Grants is allowing multiple domains again

    This is a public service announcement for any organisations that have been making use of Google Ad Grants to run Adwords for free.

    We’re the grateful recipient of a Google Ad Grant ourselves, which is why you might see our ads appearing on some Google searches. We find that Google Ads are a great channel to bring our sites to the attention of people who might not already know about them, but who are searching for phrases like “Who is my MP?”, “How did my MP vote?”, or “How can I report a pothole?”. Every year they bring us thousands of new visitors.

    The single-domain rule

    A couple of years ago, the rules around Google Ad Grants changed, stipulating that recipients must only link to a single domain, and that that should be the domain of the grantee organisation. For us, with our multiple sites, that meant making some changes. Our ads currently point at a series of landing pages here on the mySociety.org site, each of which acts as a springboard to one of our other domains.

    This is permitted behaviour and in many cases it resulted in a pretty good user experience, allowing us to focus on exactly what the user was searching for, and deliver them there.

    For example, if someone searches for ‘report a pothole’ and clicks on our ad, they’ll land on this page.

    Inputting their postcode takes them directly to the second page of FixMyStreet, with no extra clicks than if they had gone through the homepage, plus there’s the opportunity for us to talk a bit about what the site does and why it exists at all.

    Linking to additional domains

    However, we recently discovered that Google Ad Grants’ rules have been relaxed a little (at least, they have here in the UK. As terms and conditions vary from territory to territory, you should check your own region’s Google Ad Grants terms and conditions). Here’s what they look like in the UK:

    In certain cases, you may be able to promote multiple domains in a Google Ad Grants account after your original Grants application has been approved.

    To request adding new domains to your account, fill out the Additional Website Domain Request form. Your request should be reviewed within 5 business days.

    Reasons you can request an exception

    You can request an exception to the website policy if you have other websites that:

    • Promote ongoing projects with similar content owned by your organization
    • Contain the same information as your main domain but for a different language
    • Replace your original website because you’ve changed your domain since applying for Ad Grants

    We applied and within just a couple of hours, we were authorised to link directly to our own websites.

    This is brilliant for us because it means we can really maximise the value we get from the grant. We can now point searchers directly to deep content such as MPs’ voting records on TheyWorkForYou, and specific public authorities on WhatDoTheyKnow. We’ll probably also keep our landing pages, at least for the time being, because we think they are a good user path for the relevant search terms.

    So, if this is a ruling that was causing you headaches, it is worth revisiting the terms and conditions and seeing whether you are now eligible to do the same. Let us know how you get on!

     

    Image: Martin Deutsch (cc)

  6. Join the Poplus Show & Tell

    The Poplus community is spread all over the world—but that doesn’t stop us getting together whenever we can.

    Poplus is a worldwide federation of people and organisations with an interest in civic tech. This Friday, we will be holding a virtual Show and Tell, hearing from two very different projects:

    • Andrew Mandelbaum from SimSim in Morocco will be speaking about Nouabook. This is an application which enables anyone to contact their politicians in public, through Facebook. It uses the Poplus Component WriteIt.
    • Matthew Landauer from OpenAustralia Foundation will be speaking about Cuttlefish, one of the latest pieces of software to be certified as a Poplus Component.

    As well as hearing all about these projects, there’ll be a chance to catch up and have a chat about all things Poplus/civic tech. Everyone is welcome.

    Where?

    We’ll be using an online platform called QiqoChat to host this call: sign up here.

    You can create a free account using Facebook/Google/LinkedIn/Meetup/Twitter or a regular email address. Instructions for connecting by phone or computer microphone are available when you sign in and click “Participate”.

    When?

    This Friday, 12 June. Times are as follows:


    • 5 AM – US Pacific
    • 7 AM – US Eastern
    • 8 AM – Chile/Argentina
    • 12 PM – UK
    • 7 PM – Taiwan and Malaysia
    • 9 PM – Sydney
    • 11 PM- New Zealand

    Image: David Sim (CC)

     

     

  7. Learnings from AlaveteliCon (2): the challenges are the same

    The Freedom of Information technologies conference, AlaveteliCon, provided an excellent chance to share experiences and advice.

    We heard from people who run Alaveteli sites all over the world, and we learned that many of the challenges in running FOI sites are similar, no matter where they are. That’s great, because it means that we can combine our knowledge and share our experience to overcome them.

    Alaveteli is designed to work anywhere. The ideal is of a website which shows users how to make an FOI request, and sends it off to the right recipient to get it answered, then publishes the reply, ensuring that the information becomes truly open. But in many places, local circumstances interrupt that process at various stages.

    Here are some of the sticking points that were brought up. We may not have immediate solutions for all of them, but there were plenty of ideas mooted at the conference.

    If you’d like to add some more, please do comment on the Alaveteli mailing list. It would be great to see further discussion and ideas.

    Bureaucracy

    Alaveteli, in its basic form, doesn’t cater for certain FOI processes. We heard of cases where:

    • A small fee is payable for each FOI request;
    • Making a request requires an electronic ID or digital signature, which most people don’t have and which is not trivial to apply for;
    • Responses are only provided by post, on paper, thus circumventing publication online;
    • Requests are not accepted by email (although this ruling has also been turned around successfully in at least one country—Uruguay—and indeed it is an issue that WhatDoTheyKnow faced in the UK);
    • Authorities will not reply to the email addresses that FOI sites generate, because they are not “real” (ie they are not attached to the requester’s own personal email account);
    • The requester must give their name, phone number and address. This is already a potential disincentive to making a request, but then the response often includes them and they must be manually redacted by the site administrator.

    Here are a few of the solutions which were mentioned:

    • Where digital signatures are required, site admins are sending off requests on behalf of users: it’s not ideal and it takes a lot of time, but it is doable.
    • Similarly, the (non-Alaveteli) Russian FOI site RosOtvet passes users’ requests by a panel of lawyers, who make sure they are correctly worded in order that they stand the best chance of being considered.
    • Frag Den Staat, which is a German non-Alaveteli FOI site, includes a function where users can scan and upload their responses, where they’ve been provided on paper. It also allows users to redact any parts they’d like to keep private.
    • Additionally, in response to authorities complaining that their email addresses weren’t ‘real’, Frag Den Staat set up their own email provider called Echtemail (which translates as ‘real email’) and started sending requests from there instead. It hasn’t changed things yet, but they are continuing to campaign.
    • In Australia, this same “not a real email address” policy was challenged—and overcome—by a volunteer at RightToKnow.org.au, who got a new ruling put in place.
    • In places where any type of email has been refused as a legitimate channel for an FOI request, that should be challenged. There are examples elsewhere (for example, in the UK) of requests being accepted via Twitter! Uruguay and Australia have shown that rulings can be overturned; let’s share experiences and see if we can do the same in other places.
    • Keep highlighting the barriers and absurdities as you come across them, on your blog, in press releases, in whatever interviews you can get. There may be a general, unquestioned belief that your country has a functional FOI law: if your experience says otherwise, that narrative should be challenged. If you can position yourself as an expert on the niceties of FOI, the press will keep returning to you—and the better known you become, the more weight your campaigning will carry.
    • …Other ideas? Let the  Alaveteli mailing list know.

    And some solutions we don’t recommend:

    While it might be possible to add, say, a payment facility through a bolt-on service like PayPal, it tends to be our policy not to recommend this kind of adaptation.

    Why? Because our general advice is to run the site as if we lived in an ideal world—in other words, run your Alaveteli site as though Freedom of Information were truly open to all, at no cost and with no barriers.

    It’s the same philosophy that leads us to advocate for an ‘applicant blind’ FOI system, where it doesn’t matter who’s making a request because everyone has an equal right to information under the law.

    In a more extreme example, it’s also why we advise people to set up Alaveteli sites even if there is no legal right to information in their country.

    Non-compliance

    In some places, there’s no law in place obliging authorities to respond to requests. In others, the law exists, but it’s not very well adhered to. The result is the same: requests get sent, but for some, no reply ever arrives.

    Clearly this is a fundamental problem in itself, but it also has a knock-on effect for the site as a whole: people lose faith in the system if they can see that it’s not getting results.

    This is a harder nut to crack, but here are some thoughts:

    In countries such as the UK, Croatia, and Czech Republic, there is a system in place to pre-empt non-compliance. In our view, this is the sign of an FOI law that is treated seriously by the authorities.

    In these countries, the right to Freedom of Information is backed up by an independent ombudsman. Additionally, anyone who doesn’t get a response within the statutory amount of time is entitled to seek an internal review: that process is automatically embedded in Alaveteli, with a reminder going out to the user if they haven’t received a reply in time.

    If you do not have such a system in your own country, the advice was to campaign and highlight poor practices: again, this is an area where successful campaigners should be able to share knowledge with those who need it.

    Data about the percentage of requests that are going unanswered can make a compelling story for the press, and also help with campaigning and advocacy. Highlight success stories, and show the public value of FOI.

    For a great example of this, see this report from TuDerechoASaber in Spain. Need a quick way to get at your site’s statistics? Foie-Graphs will do just that for any Alaveteli instance.

    If you have additional ideas, let everyone know on the Alaveteli mailing list.

    Slippery authorities

    Henare from OpenAustralia Foundation told the story of Detention Logs, a campaign to bring transparency and accountability to the detention of immigrants by publishing data on conditions and events inside detention centres.

    While the authorities did not simply refuse to respond to requests for information, they found a way to evade their duties, deciding that 85 varied requests (pertaining to different events and detention centres all across the country) could be counted as one. Then, having rolled them into a single request, they were able to declare that it fell under the banner of ‘an unreasonable amount of effort’ required to respond.

    Henare stated that one of Alaveteli’s great strengths is the fact that it publishes out requests even if they go unanswered. That means that they stand testament to the facts that authorities don’t want to release, as well as those that they do. Detention Logs will persist as an archive for the future, and maybe the situation will be turned around in more enlightened times.

    Official government sites

    We heard that in Uruguay, the government are planning to start their own online FOI website. As it happens, mySociety has also been involved with setting up an FOI site for the government in Panama. So it’s interesting to ask whether there is a place for independent Alaveteli sites to exist in tandem with the official sites.

    One thing to note is that Alaveteli was built with the user, the citizen, always in mind. Sites built on Alaveteli make it easy and safe to file an FOI request, while government sites are more likely to have government needs in mind.

    For example, we don’t yet know whether the Uruguayan government site also intends to publish requests and responses. If not, the ‘added value’ of Uruguay’s Alaveteli site would be obvious.

    But! Together we’re stronger

    Any one of these sticking points can seem like a real problem. But as well as a software platform, Alaveteli is a community, and we can work together to get results.

    If you need help or advice, you can always ask on the Alaveteli mailing list, where you will find people just waiting to share their support. There are now 20 Alaveteli installs, each representing a learning curve and a wealth of experience for their implementers. Together, we have more global knowledge on FOI than perhaps any other organisation—let’s use it!

     

     

    Image: Particlem (CC)

  8. Foie gras, Turkish baths and machine guns: the strange world of local government procurement

    Local government has a need for all kinds of services, from taxis to stationery. And to ensure that they get the best deals, they acquire them through a procurement process—one that, as suppliers of software to councils, we’ve become very familiar with ourselves.

    It’s quite simple: every category of goods or services has its own ID number. You identify the ones that are closest to what you provide—so in our case, it might be software development, software consultancy, and the provision of software packages.

    Then you sign up to receive notifications every time a council puts out a request for tenders that fall within one of those categories.

    Our newest team member, Camilla, has been spending a lot of time signing up for these notifications across all the various platforms in the UK (buy her a drink if you see her: procurement websites might just be amongst the most infuriating and clunky known to man), and as a result, she’s noticed that as well as all the categories you’d expect, there are also plenty more that you wouldn’t.

    For example, who knew that councils had such a regular need for

    15112310 Foie gras

    or indeed

    18318000 Nightwear
    98331000 Turkish bath services
    18511100 Diamonds
    14523400 Platinum
    16710000 Pedestrian-controlled agricultural tractors

    Then there’s

    35321100 Hand guns

    and as if that’s not enough…

    35321300 Machine guns

    There are plenty more categories that might make you go ‘hmm’ – take a look for yourself.

    Oh, and here’s a thought – if you’d like to ask your own local council what their expenditure is on nightwear, foie gras or machine guns, you can do so very easily at our own WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    Image: Dynamosquito (CC)

  9. YourNextMP was huge – and it ain’t over yet

    As you’ll know if you’re a regular reader of this blog, YourNextMP crowd-sourced details of every candidate who stood in the UK general election.

    But, just because our own election is over, doesn’t mean we’ll be letting YourNextMP gather dust. On the contrary—we want to see it being re-used wherever there are elections being held, and citizens needing information! We’re already seeing the first re-use case, and we’d love to see more.

    Opening up data

    YourNextMP’s main purpose was to provide a free, open database of candidates, so that anyone who wanted to could build their own tools on top of it, and it was very successful with that aim.

    We heard of more than twenty projects which used the data, some small scale operations built by a single developer, some big names such as Google, and national newspapers like the Guardian.

    The traditional source of candidate data for such projects has been through expensive private providers, not least because the official candidate lists are published just a few days before the election.

    Thanks to YourNextMP’s wonderful crowd-sourcing and triple-checking volunteers, we reckon that we had the most complete, most accurate data, the earliest. And it was free.

    Directly informing over a million citizens

    YourNextMP also came into its own as a direct source of information for the UK’s electorate. This hadn’t been the priority when the project was launched, but it was helped greatly by the fact that constituency and candidate pages ranked very highly in search engines from early on, so anyone searching for their local candidates found the site easily.

    Once they did so, they found a list of everyone standing in their constituency, together with contact details, links to their online profiles such as web pages, social media and party websites, and feeds from spin-off projects (themselves built on YourNextMP data) such as electionleaflets.org and electionmentions.com.

    YourNextMP had more than a million unique users. In the weeks just prior to the UK general election, it was attracting approximately 20,000 visitors per day, and on the day before the election, May 6th, there was suddenly a massive surge: that day the site was visited by nearly 160,000 people.

    So, in a nutshell: YourNextMP has not only enabled a bunch of projects which helped people become more informed before our election—it also directly informed over a million citizens.

    A reusable codebase

    YourNextMP was built on Poplus Components as a Democracy Club project: PopIt (for storing the candidates’ names) and MapIt (for matching users’ postcodes with their constituencies).

    And, in the spirit of Poplus, the codebase is open for anyone to re-use in any country.

    It’s already being pressed into use for the upcoming elections in Argentina, and we hope that developers in many other countries will use it to inform citizens, and inspire great web tools for the electorate, when their own elections come around.

    If that’s something that interests you, please come and talk, ask questions and find out what’s involved, over on the Democracy Club mailing list.

    Image: KayVee (CC)

  10. Ten ways to promote Alaveteli sites

    No matter where you are in the world, if you run a Freedom of Information site, you’ll come up against one common issue: how to get people to use it.

    It’s not just the usual hurdle that any new website faces, of getting publicity. There’s often a lack of knowledge among the general population about the whole concept of Freedom of Information, and the rights that come with it. Not only do users have to know about the site, but they have to understand why it might be useful for them.

    The Freedom of Information conference, AlaveteliCon, was a great place to share ideas on how best to counter that. Here are ten strategies you can put into place right now.

    1. Make FOI concrete

    Freedom of Information can be rather an abstract concept to the average person, so your tweets, blog posts and press releases might not be getting through to them.

    Instead of asking people ‘what would you ask under the FOI act?’ or ‘Isn’t freedom of information a valuable right?’, try asking more concrete questions like ‘what would you like to know about government spending?’ or ‘if you could ask one question about nuclear defence, what would it be?’

    You might make a cheap, fun and informative video by going out onto the street and asking such pre-prepared questions to passers-by.

    2. Use SEO to your advantage

    Alaveteli is built so that it naturally performs well in search engines: the title of any request also becomes the title of the page, one of the main things that Google will consider when deciding how to rank a page for any given search term. And when useful or interesting material is released as a result of a request, that will attract inbound links and again, will be reflected in Google rankings.

    The net result of this is that many users will come to your Alaveteli site because they’re interested in a specific topic, rather than because they want to make an FOI request. They may never even have heard of FOI, but they surely want to know about hospital mortality rates or cycling accidents in their local area.

    A request on WhatDoTheyKnow, about the faulty brakes on a VW Passat, is one of the consistently most visited pages on the site. Even though the request itself remains unanswered, the page has become a place for Passat drivers to exchange knowledge and experiences.

    Pages such as these may even be more frequently visited than your site’s homepage. Look at request pages as a first-time viewer would, and ask yourself if it’s clear exactly what site they have landed on, and what it is for.

    Also: once you have created a community of people with a common interest (like the faults in the VW Passat), what could you do with them? Maybe post on the page yourself, offering to show how they could take a similar request to the next stage?

    3. Make passive users into active users

    The previous point leads to a further question: how can we turn users who land on our sites into active requesters (if indeed that’s a desirable aim)?

    One answer might be to explain the concept of FOI somewhere within the request page template, so it’s seen by every visitor.

    Another would be to build a user path that encourages readers to make their own request or—perhaps more likely to bear fruit, since making an FOI request tends not to be an impulsive action—include a newsletter sign-up button for people who want to know more.

    Alaveteli already includes some actions in the right-hand menu on every request page, but so far they have concentrated on asking the reader to tweet, or to browse similar requests.

    If you have ideas on how to encourage users to make requests, you could discuss them on the Alaveteli mailing list, or, if you’re a coder yourself, you could make the changes on your own branch and then submit it to be merged so that everyone can benefit.

    4. Contextualise FOI

    In the UK we are fortunate that when a news story is based on an FOI request, that’s usually mentioned within the story. It leads to a certain level of understanding of the concept of FOI within the general population.

    Whether or not that’s not the case in your country, you could keep an eye out for stories that were clearly researched via an FOI request. Where FOI is commonly mentioned, setting up a Google alert may help.

    You can then highlight these stories on a regular basis: for example, on a Facebook page, or on your blog. There was also talk of feeding a Facebook stream onto the homepage of one Alaveteli site.

    5. Create a community

    Sharing stories is one thing, but communities are a two-way endeavour. Facebook pages, blogs and Twitter accounts all need regular attention.

    Post often, reply to users’ comments and queries, and soon you may find that you have a responsive community, and can even ask your followers to do a bit of advocacy for you.

    A newsletter is also a useful way of getting your message directly into your supporters’ inboxes.

    6. Write about interesting requests

    Some requests just appeal more to human interest than others do, and they’re obvious candidates to be blogged/tweeted/Facebooked about. You might also consider putting out a press release.

    There was a bit of discussion at the conference about the unfortunate phenomenon of ‘comedy’ requests which are of great interest to the press, but could actually harm the case for FOI. Examples given were:

    In the UK we’ve generally taken the decision not to run these kinds of stories, though the press sometimes pick them up on their own anyway.

    Such publicity can lead to ‘FOI is a waste of public money’ campaigns, and it was suggested that it is useful to have a list of the good things that have come from FOI that you can provide in return: here’s one that @FOIMonkey produced in 2012.

    A middle ground between publicising ‘silly’ requests and trying to promote dry ones is to identify the stories that are in the middle ground: of great human interest, but with a serious point. Make the relevant requests yourself, if necessary.

    As an example, a request such as the menus for food served in prisons can have an underlying political point if framed correctly.

    7. Conduct outreach

    NGOs and campaigning groups can find FOI a useful tool, and the fact that Alaveteli publishes out the responses can also help them with getting their cause known. A mail-out to likely organisations, or even face-to-face visits, may help.

    Muckrock shared that they get users educated early, by conducting ‘FOIA for kids’ outreach (and FOI is also a subject in our own lesson plans).

    Here in the UK, we have visited colleges to talk to trainee journalists. While most are aware of the FOI act, many do not know about WhatDotheyKnow and how it can be used not only to make requests, but to subscribe to keywords or authorities of interest.

    However, such visits are fairly inefficient: they take time and only reach 50 or 60 students at a time. A better way may be to create and promote materials that colleges can use for themselves.

    8. Paid ads

    Although Alaveteli sites perform well in organic search, paid ads can give them an extra swathe of visitors.

    Both Facebook and Google are potential platforms for ads, and you may be eligible to receive a Google Grant if you are a not-for-profit: these give you Google Ads for free.

    mySociety are happy to share our experience in this area, and we will possibly put materials together if there’s enough interest.

    9. Friends in high places

    Some Alaveteli practitioners found it useful to partner up with a newspaper or online news source. The benefit runs two ways, since Alaveteli can be such a useful tool for journalists.

    Dostup Pravda in Ukraine is a part of the country’s most popular news site, and perhaps one of the most expert Alaveteli sites at getting publicity. Pre-launch they ran a sophisticated campaign with celebrities hinting, but not saying explicitly what the forthcoming project would be. Their t-shirt was even worn by an MP on national TV.

    For the solo activist, such promotional activity seems almost impossible, but news outlets have the contacts and resources in place to make it almost a routine task for them.

    10. Create your own buzz

    The press love lists and awards. One FOI site puts out an annual award for the best, the worst, and the most ridiculous  requests made in the previous year.

    This is a great idea for publicity, because as well as bringing the name of the site into the public consciousness, it also encapsulates a little lesson about how to use—and not abuse—FOI.

    Now go and do it

    So there you are: ten ideas to promote your site. Do feel free to add more in the comments below. And good luck!

    Image: Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.