It’s official: TICTeC 2017, our third conference on the Impacts of Civic Technology, will be in Florence, Italy, at the beautiful Firenze Fiera.
Please block out the dates in your calendars now: 25th and 26th April 2017. And watch this space, as we’ll be putting out the call for papers soon, with plenty more details to follow.
We’re looking forward to seeing you in April! Meanwhile, if you’d like to see what TICTeC is all about, you can browse last year’s highlights here.
Today we hear from Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s Freedom of Information specialist.
Since 2005 I and my colleagues in the BBC have used FOI as the foundation for certainly hundreds and hundreds, possibly thousands, of news stories and investigations at national and regional levels, across a wide range of topics — health, education, policing, environment, transport, foreign policy, and so on.
This has included revelations on important issues from staff shortages in A&E departments to how officials wrongly dismissed predictions about levels of Eastern European immigration, from which makes of cars are most likely to fail MOT tests to the numbers of parents withdrawing their children from schools, from the cost of policing football games to the identities of individuals who have turned down honours.
Journalism is based on asking people questions, but of course much of the time there’s no guarantee you will actually get them answered.
Freedom of information is a rare and valuable tool because it provides a legal right to some information — a right that can be enforced when necessary by independent bodies, the Information Commissioner and the Information Rights Tribunal. And that means FOI provides the power to obtain certain material in the public interest that otherwise could not be squeezed out of reluctant public authorities.
FOI has made a crucial difference to what the media can find out and what the public knows about what central and local government and the public sector is doing.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
Here in the UK, two names are particularly linked to FOI: Professor Heather Brooke, the investigative journalist who is responsible for the publication of MPs’ expenses, and Martin Rosenbaum, the BBC’s FOI correspondent.
Today we hear from Heather about the importance of FOI and how she’s used it, and tomorrow you can read Martin’s views.
I took two important FOI cases through the legal appeals process: one seeking the minutes to a BBC Board of Governors Meeting after the Hutton Inquiry1, and my notable legal victory against the House of Commons for details of MPs’ expenses2.
This victory in the UK High Court fundamentally changed law and policy, and for the first time in its history Parliament had to account to an outside body over how MPs’ claimed expenses. The court ruling and subsequent leak of the data led to a number of high-level political resignations as well as full-scale reform of the parliamentary expense regime and passage of the Recall of MPs Act 2015. A new government was elected in May 2010 on a mandate of transparency in part due to the scandal
I made extensive use of the UK’s Freedom of Information Act, filing about 500 FOIs and writing some 60 newspaper and magazine articles about the law and its impact on democracy from 2005-2010. I used the law to map and monitor public bodies for the first time in a citizen-friendly way in Your Right to Know. Through FOI I was able to flag up current and future problems such as secrecy in food safety regulation, the postcode lottery for criminal justice, the amounts police spend on public liability claims and propaganda.
Freedom of Information, rooted in Enlightenment values, contains within it a key principle of democracy that there must be access to information (and knowledge) for all equally. My approach in my 25-year journalistic career has been to use FOI as a means of testing the promise and practice of democracy. By their responses to FOI requests, we see how agencies truly think about citizens’ rights to access and participate in the political system.
Read the next installment to learn how Martin Rosenbaum’s use of FOI has underpinned hundreds, if not thousands, of news stories at the BBC.
If you’re a journalist yourself, you might be interested in our latest project.
But don’t forget, FOI isn’t just for journalists: you can make your own requests for information at WhatDoTheyKnow.com.
1Guardian Newspapers Ltd and Heather Brooke v IC and the BBC (2007) EA/2006/0011; EA/2006/0013
2Corporate Officer of the House of Commons v Information Commissioner & Heather Brooke, Ben Leapman, Jonathan Michael Ungoed-Thomas  EWHC 1084 (Admin) (16 May 2008)
Think Freedom of Information is a bit of a dry topic? Not when you mix it with some exuberant inky comic art, it’s not!
Two Finnish cartoonists, Siiri Viljakka and Lauri Tuomi-Nikula, are visiting the UK to speak about their comic book Last Words. This graphic novella imagines one of the founding fathers of Freedom of Information, Anders Chydenius, returning from the grave to see how his ideas are surviving in the modern world.
Siiri and Lauri will be speaking at four informal meet-ups in London, Brighton and Hastings — entry is free.
If you’d like to hear Siiri and Lauri speaking about comics, FOI, and how the two can interact, you can register now at no cost.
- October 24 (Monday): Cartoon County in Brighton. Register via Eventbrite or Facebook
- October 25 (Tuesday): Citizen Beta in London. Register on Citizen Beta’s own site.
- October 26 (Wednesday): Gosh Comics in London. Register via Eventbrite or Facebook
- October 27 (Thursday): Wow and Flutter in Hastings. Register via Eventbrite or Facebook
At the Monday, Wednesday and Thursday events, the talk will focus mainly on comics with a side order of FOI.
At Citizen Beta on Tuesday, it will be the other way around, with Siiri and Lauri fitting in among other speakers on the topic of FOI and civic technologies – full details here. So take your pick, depending on how you prefer your arts/civic rights balance!
The trip has been made possible by generous donations from several people via a crowdfunder. Thanks to everyone who donated, but special thanks to Dan Berry’s Make It Then Tell Everybody podcast, the Hastings 1066 Country Cartoon Festival, and my dad 🙂
If you’ve used a mySociety website and made a difference, large or small, we’d love to interview you.
A few weeks ago, we heard how Open Data Consultant Gavin Chait used WhatDoTheyKnow to help people setting up businesses .
But you don’t need to be a professional to have achieved something with our sites. We want to know what you’re doing with WhatDoTheyKnow, FixMyStreet, TheyWorkForYou, WriteToThem — or any of our other web tools.
Have you managed to solve a persistent problem in your community by reporting it via FixMyStreet? Used data from TheyWorkForYou to inform a campaign? Or maybe you’ve put WriteToThem on your website and rallied people to contact their MP about something important.
Whatever it is, big or small, we want to hear about it. Please do let us — and the world — know what you’ve achieved with mySociety’s sites.
Ready? Click here to send us a couple of sentences about what you’ve achieved, and if we think we can feature your story, we’ll follow up with an email interview.
Is there anything you’d like to know from the Spanish authorities?
In advance of International Right To Know Day, three organisations are collaborating to make the process of submitting an FOI request in Spain a little bit easier.
Access Info Europe, Civio Foundation and the Transparency Council of Spain are calling it “an access to information requests marathon”, and their aim is to help people navigate the tedious process of requesting information from Spanish public authorities.
As explained in this article by Access Info Europe, the Spanish Government has established a very complicated system for filing access to information requests. This includes the requirement to log in to a government-run portal using an electronic certificate or digital identification in order to request information. These certificates and IDs are not easy to obtain.
This, and the unwillingness of Spanish authorities to accept information requests via email, led to Civio Foundation and Access Info Europe shutting down their Alaveteli request site, TuDerechoASaber (YourRightToKnow) in December 2015 in protest. You can read more about why they did this here.
But they still believe that citizens everywhere should be able to request the information they require. In order to help people who don’t have the required electronic certificate or digital identification, Access Info Europe, Civio and the Transparency Council of Spain will use their own electronic certificates to file requests on users’ behalf.
From now until 28th September (International Right To Know Day) anyone wanting to obtain information from Spanish authorities can send requests to them via:
- This Google form (in Spanish – but you can fill it in in English if you wish), or
- The hashtag #derechoasaber16 on Twitter, or
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org (Council of Transparency and Good Governance) or email@example.com (Access info Europe and Civio Foundation).
Do let us know what you ask — we’d love to hear.
When Mark, mySociety’s CEO, put out our recent request for new board members, he mentioned a specific goal:
There’s no getting past the fact that our current boards are entirely male. So for both roles we’d like to use this as an opportunity to redress the balance on each board, as well as add more diversity to better reflect the users of our services both in the UK and internationally.
You’ll have seen from his follow-up blog post announcing the appointments exactly how well we did in this aim.
But I wanted to explore this subject more deeply. When you explicitly state that you would welcome applications from women, what effect does it have on the gender split of those who come forward?
What difference does it make to the range of backgrounds that applicants come from, when you say that you’re hoping for more diversity?
And just what are mySociety actively doing about this aim, beyond sticking what could look very much like a token sentence into a job advert?
Well, it started off as a short blog post crunching the numbers. And then it got long.
When posts are too big for a quick skim, we put them on our Medium blog, so that’s where it ended up. Do go and have a look.
We know we haven’t cracked this one yet — indeed, we know that we barely even have the right vocabulary to talk about it — so comments are welcome.
Image: Dustin Oliver (cc-by-2.0)
28 September is International Right To Know Day, and this year it’s a particularly important milestone. 2016 marks the 250th anniversary of Freedom of Information as a concept.
If you’re a teacher of Citizenship or even subjects like Law, History, PSHE or English, you may be interested to know that we have free lesson plans available.
These cover a wide variety of topics, including a half hour lesson on Freedom of Information, aimed at years 10-13 — there are also lessons on concepts such as democracy and having a voice in society. Developed last year in collaboration with the Citizenship Foundation, the lesson plans were created and tested by teachers and have been downloaded by hundreds of schools since their launch.
You might also be interested to see this entertaining article from the US Freedom of Information website Muckrock, aimed directly at high school students. It is, of course, American oriented, but it’s a very good introduction to the opportunities FOI affords younger people.
So, why not mark International Right To Know Day by introducing your students to the concept of FOI, and showing them what they can do with it in the areas they care about?
Census data: there’s lots of it. It contains fascinating insights.
But as with many huge datasets, those insights are not always easy to find at first glance — nor is it easy for the untrained observer to see which parts are relevant to their own lives.
Wazimap in South Africa takes the country’s census data and turns it into something the user can explore interactively. Originally conceived as a tool for journalists, it turned out to be so accessible that it’s used by a much wider range of the population, from school children to researchers. It’s a great example of how you can transform dry data into something meaningful online, and it’s all done using free and open source tools.
Our points-to-boundaries mapping software MapIt is part of that mix, putting the data in context and ensuring that visitors can browse the data relevant to specific provinces, municipalities or wards.
We asked Greg Kempe of Code for South Africa, to fill us in on a bit more.
What exactly is Wazimap?
Wazimap helps South Africans understand where they live, through the eyes of the data from our 2011 Census. It’s a research and exploration tool that describes who lives in South Africa, from a country level right down to a ward, including demographics such as age and gender, language and citizenship, level of education, access to basic services, household goods, employment and income.
It has helped people understand not just where they work and live, but also that data can be presented in a way that’s accessible and understandable.
Users can explore the profile of a province, city or ward and compare them side-by-side. They can focus on a particular dataset to view just that data for any place in the country, look for outliers and interesting patterns in the distribution of an indicator, or draw an indicator on a map.
Of course Wazimap can’t do everything, so you can also download data into Excel or Google Earth to run your own analysis.
Wazimap is built on the open source software that powers censusreporter.org, which was built under a Knight News Challenge grant, and is a collaboration between Media Monitoring Africa and Code for South Africa.
Due to demand from other groups, we’ve now made Wazimap a standalone project that anyone can re-use to build their own instance: details are here.
How did it all begin?
Media Monitoring Africa approached Code for South Africa to build a tool to help journalists get factual background data on anywhere in South Africa, to help encourage accurate and informed reporting.
Code for South Africa is a nonprofit that promotes informed decision-making for positive social change, so we were very excited about collaborating on the tool.
Could MapIt be useful for your project? Find out more here
How exactly does MapIt fit into the project?
Mapit powers all the shape boundaries in Wazimap. When we plot a province, municipality or ward boundary on a map in Wazimap, or provide a boundary in a Google Earth or GeoJSON download, MapIt is giving Wazimap that data.
We had originally built a home-grown solution, but when we met mySociety’s Tony Bowden at a Code Camp in Italy, we learned about MapIt. It turned out to offer better functionality.
What level of upkeep is involved?
Wazimap requires only intermittent maintenance. We had municipal elections in August 2016 which has meant a number of municipal boundaries have changed. We’re waiting on Statistics South Africa to provide us with the census data mapped to these new boundaries so that we can update it. Other than that, once the site is up and running it needs very little maintenance.
What’s the impact of Wazimap?
We know that Wazimap is used by a wide range of people, including journalists, high school geography teachers, political party researchers and academics.
Code for South Africa has been approached a number of times, by people asking if they might reuse the Wazimap platform in different contexts with different data. Most recently, youthexplorer.org.za used it to power an interactive web tool providing a range of information on young people, helping policy makers understand youth-critical issues in the Western Cape.
We also know that it’s been used as a research tool for books and numerous news articles.
The success of the South African Wazimap has driven the development of similar projects elsewhere in Africa which will be launching soon, though MapIt won’t be used for those because their geography requirements are simpler.
What does the future hold?
As we’re building out Wazimap for different datasets, we’re seeing a need for taking it beyond just census data. We’re making improvements to how Wazimap works with data to make this possible and make it simpler for others to build on it.
Each new site gives us ideas for improvements to the larger Wazimap product. The great thing is that these improvements roll out and benefit anyone who uses it across every install.
Thanks very much to Greg for talking us through the Wazimap project and its use of MapIt. It’s great to hear how MapIt is contributing to a tool that, in itself, aids so many other users and organisations.
Need to map boundaries? Find out more about MapIt here
In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.
Why are we doing this project?
Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?
Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.
Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.
That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.
What we’re doing
The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.
We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.
The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.
There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.
At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.