1. Democratic Commons update: November

    What do you want? An update on Democratic Commons!  When do you want it? As regularly as possible!

    …well, that’s what you’re getting, anyway. Whether or not you know that’s what you wanted is another matter — because you could be forgiven for having completely missed the Democratic Commons,  the ambitious project that mySociety is helping to develop right now.  

    Even more than that — you might think the issues that the project is addressing were all done and dusted years ago. Not having open access to basic data on elected representatives? That sounds like a 2005  issue, especially somewhere like the UK with its thriving Civic Tech sector and a government that’s declared its commitment to open data. And by ‘basic data’, we mean the fundamentals — stuff as simple as the representatives’ names,  the positions they hold and the areas they represent… not exactly rocket science, is it?

    But, here we are,  it is almost 2019, and the information on who our elected representatives are is still not easily available as structured, consistent and reusable public data.

    And so, we have been busy working closely with Wikidata to support a change. Here’s a rundown of everything we’ve been doing:

    • Supporting the gathering of lots of data on politicians internationally — including detailed electoral boundary data

    We’ve been working with partners around the world to get the basic data on political systems, and who is currently elected into positions, into Wikidata.  And we have the electoral boundary data to match the areas they represent.
    From the national, down to the city and local level within these cities, this data is now openly available through Wikidata and our GitHub repositories (we’re just writing the documentation for the latter, so watch this space). If you’d like to know more, contact: democracy@mysociety.org

    The countries where efforts have been focused to model and/or gather data so far are:
    Australia, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Hong Kong, Italy, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Paraguay, Peru, South Africa, Taiwan and the UK!

    Our partners include Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), Fundación Conocimiento Abierto, Distintas Latitudes, g0v, Code for Pakistan, OpenUp, Open Knowledge Bangladesh and Factly.  

    • Building a tool to help you visualise Wikidata and discover what data on politicians exist for any country

    Specifically, a visualisation tool that helps you explore what data exists that fits the Wikidata every politician data model (see this blog post). mySociety Developer, Alex Dutton, has been fiddling about in his spare time to create this tool, that runs off SPARQL queries.  Take a look to see what structured data currently exists for any given country – and tell us what you think!

    Or, if it shows you that there ’s data missing,  get on Wikidata, and make edits. You’re welcome to ask us for help on this and we’ll be very glad to give it, but you should also know that the Wikidata Facebook group is a great place to ask questions if you’re a newbie.

    • Talking to lots of people about their need for structured, consistent and reusable data on elected representatives
      It’s all very well having all this data, but it doesn’t count for much if people aren’t using it.
      Over the past few months, I’ve been connecting with people and asking how they currently access and maintain data on politicians, and, the implications this has on their work (you may have seen a recent post asking for more examples: this still stands!).
      I’ve also been exploring how people think they could contribute and benefit from being part of a collaborative effort. Here’s a rundown of a few choice conversations:

      • We’ve spent time with Democracy Club, Open Data Manchester and Open Council Data talking about possible approaches to making UK councillor data more accessible. Sym has nicely summarised where we’re at here. I recommend joining the Democracy Club slack channel #councillors if this is something that interests you.
      • Talking to UK focused organisations such as campaign organisation 38Degrees, the brain injury association Headway and the creator of the iparl campaigning tool from Organic Campaigns about how they currently gather and maintain data on elected politicians (ways range from paying for detailed data to supporting political students to maintain spreadsheets); and exploring what they need from data for it to be useful in their work, and the implications of not having this data up to date (small charities struggle to run e-campaigns, for example, that ensure their supporters can connect to representatives).
      • Talking to international organisations who build software for nonprofits and campaigners — like New/Mode, Engaging Networks and The Action Network  — about their data needs, the struggles of candidate data, and whether any of the new data we’ve been collecting can be helpful to them (it can!). In particular, it was great to hear how useful our EveryPolitician data is for New/Mode.
      • Checking what support we can offer to our partners (as listed above) to increase reuse and maintenance of the data in the regions where they work. Also: if you know any further groups interested in reusing data on politicians for their work, please tell them about us.
      • We met with staff at Global Witness and heard how they’re using EveryPolitician data on politicians to uncover potential corruption.
      • And we checked in with the University of Colorado for an update on their project to model the biographies of members of Congress  and see if a politician’s background affects voting behaviour.  
      • We’re also supporting editathon events to improve political data, being delivered by SMEX in Lebanon (read about their event here), France based F0rk and Wikimedia España.
      • And last but very much not least: I attended the Code for All conference. It was really inspiring to meet people from our previous collaborations through Poplus such as Kharil from the Sinar Project, hear some amazing speakers and meet lots of new friends, who we hope to see more as mySociety is now a Code for All affiliate organisation. Also, I surprised myself with my enthusiasm for talking about unique identifiers over a glass of wine…!

    What next?

    Through November and December, we will be focusing on:

    • Delivering changes to the EveryPolitican.org site to reflect our desire to source the data from Wikidata (not the current arrangement of 11,000 scrapers that keep breaking!) and offer more guidance on how to contribute political data to Wikidata.
    • Working with Wikimedia UK to create some engaging ‘how to get started on Wikidata’ and ‘editing political data’ resources to share with you all.
    • Making sure lots of people know this data exists, so they can use it (and hopefully maintain it). Got any ideas?
    • Finding out what support is needed to continue this work internationally and keep gathering people who also think this work is important — and putting together funding bids so that we can keep supporting this work


    Want to get involved? Here’s how

    • Contribute to the Wikidata community: if you are Wikidata user, or keen to learn, the first step is to visit the Wikidata project page on political data. If you need guidance on tasks, do feel free to add to the Talk page to ask the community.
    • Join the conversation on the Code for All Slack channel #democratic-commons: https://codeforall.org/ (scroll down and find the ‘Chat with us’ button).
    • Tell us (and others) how you think you would use the data: this project can’t just be about collecting data for its own sake: it’s about it being used in a way that benefits us all. How would the Democratic Commons help your community? We’d love people to share any ideas, data visualisations, or theories, ideally in an open medium such as blog posts.  Please connect with Georgie to share.
    • Something missing from this list? Tell us! We’re @mySociety on Twitter or you can email democracy@mysociety.org.

    Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

  2. TICTeC Local: wrap-up report

    The Federation, opposite the birthplace of the Co-operative movement in Manchester, was an appropriate venue for TICTeC Local. After all, we were all there to discuss big, transformative ideas that could improve society.

    Yesterday’s event — the first of its kind — brought together representatives from the worlds of Civic Tech, local authorities, and social impact organisations to discuss, in myriad ways, how citizens and local government can work better together.

    Whether you were there or not, this post will hopefully act as a useful jumping-off point, with links to where you can find out more about each of the speakers and the organisations they represent.

    We’ll also share photos and the presentations themselves, soon — watch this space.

    Civic Tech and Local Gov: the evidence base

    Dr Rebecca Rumbul is mySociety’s own Head of Research; she stressed the need for research into the impacts of technology, citing examples where projects have been used in ways that were totally different from what had been planned. Our research to date can be found here.

    Opening keynote: Fixing the plumbing

    Paul Maltby, Chief Digital Officer, Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG), presented the several joined-up initiatives that his department has introduced, with a basic belief that we need to ‘get the plumbing right’ before we can build more complex tech for the future. From training senior managers in tech, to the Local Digital Fund, they’re already seeing tangible results. Paul also encouraged all who work within the sector to sign up to the localgovdigital Slack channel.

    Introducing Public Square

    Michelle Brook of the Democratic Society announced their collaboration with us, mySociety, in a two-year action research project that will examine how to increase citizen participation at the local government level: Public Square.

    If you work within this sphere and are interested in getting involved, you should:

    – Sign up for the kick-off event on Nov 19th in Manchester (and share it with others who might like to come);

    – Sign up for the mailing list;

    – and get in touch for a talk on team@thepublicsquare.org.uk, especially if you are from a local council and would be interested in helping shape the research.

    FixMyStreet Pro: Better street reporting for citizens and councils

    Andrea Bowes from Lincolnshire County Council told such a positive story of the council’s experience in installing FixMystreet Pro that our ears were burning! It was great to hear how happy they were, though, all summed up by her final statement: “Since it’s been installed, no-one’s asked me a single question, which is the dream”.

    Family Story: How technology can better support Children’s Services

    Elle Tweedy of Futuregov presented the software they’ve developed so that social workers can collaborate with families, giving  everyone input into a totally transparent plan. Their hope is to free social workers from the process-led software that sees them stuck in front of a computer for 60% of their time, and to allow families to regain ownership of their own story.

    Council as a platform: Supporting the civics

    Sarah Drummond of Snook showed how powerful first-person stories can be, when she told of reclaiming a patch of land in front of her own block of flats as a garden. Threatened with litigation by a faceless authority, she set about trying to find out who owned the land… only to discover a seriously unjoined-up system.

    Revealing the hidden patterns in local democracy

    An infographic which combines data on deprivation with the political party in overall control for each authority was the focus of the presentation by Julian Tait and Jamie Whyte of Open Data Manchester. It shows that more deprived areas are overwhelmingly Labour-controlled, while those under Conservative councils are more affluent.

    Cloud – is it just pie in the sky?

    Helen Gerling from Shaping Cloud made the case for cloud technologies and how they can benefit local councils (and us all) by preventing the enclosure of data within centralised platforms. The challenge for authorities, she said, is to respond to the changing demands and behaviours of citizens: but it’s an opportunity, too.

    Using tech and data to provide better support for new parents

    Tayo Medupin of Shift presented Tip, which launched yesterday in closed beta and is a system to help people through the first 1,000 days of parenthood. It’s based around a principle of removing judgement, as that, they say, is one significant factor that prevents parents from accessing services.

    The citizen shift

    Jon Alexander from New Citizenship Project argued that, through time, we’ve moved from being subjects to consumers. He reckons the time is ripe for moving that on, so that we’re all citizens, and suggests that the language we use will help shape the beliefs and actions of the next generation.

    Panel discussion: Reaching the furthest first

    This discussion saw Eddie Copeland (Nesta) chairing a panel with Beatrice Karol Burks (Futuregov), Dr Eloise Elliott-Taysom (IF), Nick Stanhope (Shift), and Steve Skelton (Stockport Council) to explore the ethical dimensions of what we do. Perhaps the most incisive comment was that while we talk about the people that are ‘hardest to reach’, those people may well see their governments as the ones that are far away.

    The Consul project for citizen participation

    Dramatic entrance of the day saw poor Jose Maria Becerra missing a flight but still managing to make it on time! Thus we got to see his explanation of the Consul software for citizen participation, developed by Madrid City Council, which allows residents to come up with ideas for transforming their own communities.

    “Have you heard of Boaty McBoatFace?” was one question from the audience. “There’s no moderation of the proposals and we’ve found that citizens always vote for reasonable ones”, replied Jose.

    Panel discussion: Citizens or customers

    Another insightful group took to the stage, this time to discuss the words we use when talking about the people who use our services. Miranda Marcus (The Open Data Institute) chaired the session, with Jose Maria Becerra (Consul Project), Jon Alexander (New Citizenship Project), Carl Whistlecraft (Kirklees Council) and Sarah Drummond (Snook).

    If we refer to people as consumers, they’ll behave as such; if we want genuine dialogue and engagement, we have to invite it. Language can be the first step, but it has, of course, to be backed up with action.

    Closing keynote: The Deal

    Alison McKenzie-Folan from Wigan Council explained ‘The Deal’, a social contract in which the council has made various promises in return for citizens doing their bit. They’ve already saved millions of pounds. As illustration, we all got to enjoy video clips of Ember encouraging folk to recycle, and Mary & Lily meeting rugby players.

    Panel discussion: Making it happen

    Before we all headed home, it was time for a hard-hearted look at how to actually implement all the fine ideas we’d heard about during the day. Emer Coleman (the Federation) held to account Paul Maltby (MHCLG), Alison McKenzie-Folan (Wigan Council), Theo Blackwell (Chief Digital Officer for London), and Phil Swan (Greater Manchester Combined Authority).

    That the first step is data and data sharing, for the good of all, seemed to be one consensus.

    Finally, Linda O’Halloran of MHCLG wrapped up the day with an overview of everything we’d heard and some actions for those wanting to get involved with the department’s work around local digital.

    Many thanks to all who spoke, and listened, at TICTeC Local, making the event a truly meaningful one.

    This was a brief rundown with just a few of the headline points. If you were there, and we’ve missed any moment or statement that particularly inspired, moved or provoked you, please do feel free to share it in the comments below.

    And if you want more, check the #TICTeCLocal hashtag, where delegates and speakers tweeted a wealth of ideas and links.

    And remember, we’re hosting our global TICTeC (The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference) event in Paris on 19th and 20th March and are accepting session proposals until 11th January. Attendees from 29 different countries joined us this year, so it’s a truly global affair.

     

  3. Hit the Highway with FixMyStreet

    It’s something we’ve been wanting for a long time, and it’ll very soon be a reality: FixMyStreet reports will, where appropriate, be channeled to Highways England. Look out for this functionality in the coming week.

    My way or the highway

    Previously, if you reported a problem on one of the country’s motorways or major A roads, we had no way of identifying whether it was the responsibility of the government department rather than the council. We had to rely on whichever council the report fell within, and hope that they would forward it on.

    But now, we can send reports off to just the right authority. What’s changed to make this improvement possible?

    Well, FixMyStreet uses our MapIt software, which matches points (in this case, the pin you put in the map when you make a report) with the boundaries they fall within (mainly, until now, council boundaries). That’s how it knows which council to send your issue to, even if you have no idea yourself when you make the report.

    Motorways and A roads have boundaries too, of course, but that data wasn’t previously available under an open licence that would allow us to use it on the site. That all changed with GOV.UK’s release of the Highways England Pavement Management System Network Layer — just what we needed!

    So now, if you make a report that falls within a small distance from one of the relevant roads, FixMyStreet will use MapIt in combination with this data layer. You’ll see a message asking for confirmation that your report actually does pertain to the highway: where roads cross a motorway, for example, a pin could relate to the road on a bridge, or the motorway below.

    Confirm either way and boom: off it goes to either Highways England or to the council, as appropriate.

    So that’s a big thumbs up for open data: thanks, GOV.UK! It’s also a good example of how our commercial work, providing FixMyStreet Pro to councils as their default street reporting system, has a knock-on benefit across the open source FixMyStreet codebase that runs not only FixMyStreet.com, but sites run by other folk around the world.

    As you may remember, we recently added red routes to Bromley for FixMyStreet Pro, and it was this bit of coding that paved the way for the highways work. We can only prioritise not-for-profit development if we have the funding for it; but being able to improve FixMyStreet for everyone on the back of work done for commercial clients is a win for everyone.

    Or, as our developer Struan says, in a metaphor perhaps better suited to shipping routes than highways, “a rising tide raises all boats”.

     

    Image: Alex Kalinin

     

     

  4. Are you spending too much time looking for data on UK Politicians?

    Forgive me if the title of this post makes us sound like a price comparison site — it’s just that if you are, mySociety is interested to hear from you.

    We’re hoping to hear from people who spend a lot of energy collating data on UK politicians — where you have to go through a process of collecting basic info like politicians’ names, parties, and the areas they represent, before you can even get to the real work of your project.  Specifically, we are interested in learning more about the impact this additional effort has on your work; the staff time it is costing your organisation, or the issues it creates in connecting citizens to their representatives.

    Recently, mySociety met with Democracy Club and Open Data Manchester to discuss the lack of open data on UK councillors, what could or should be done about it, and by whom. Sym from Democracy Club has brilliantly covered the who, what and how background to our meeting in a series of posts and I really recommend reading these.

    But first things first. We all recognised that before we travel too far down the road of planning something, we need to understand why.

    Why should there be open access to basic data on all of our elected representatives?

    Collectively, we agreed that the basic data on our elected representatives should be available as structured, consistent and reusable public information; who represents you at each level of government should be a public good and we believe that there is an obligation on authorities to ensure this information is made freely available in a structured way. The arts and sciences already recognise this concept of ‘commoning’; the same beliefs underpin mySociety advocating for a Democratic Commons. Plus, like Sym,  we agree that “access to good information is vital to a well-functioning democracy”.

    However, tangible examples are better than abstract beliefs, which is why we are interested in finding cases that demonstrate the potential social impact from opening up this data.

    We already know that:

    • Open Data Manchester spent a lot of time collating data on English Councillors so that they could match who local representatives with the most localised level of deprivation profile, a Lower Super Output area. ODM hope that “the dataset will add to the understanding of the local political landscape in England” and will allow for further enquiry where patterns of representation exist.
      Oh, here is Open Data Manchester’s beautiful visualisation of “The deprivation profile of each local authority (most deprived from the top left, down)  and the party with the most power”
    • We are aware of a number of charities that are independently gathering and maintaining basic data on politicians, a duplication of efforts and resource that could be better spent in other ways. And, that the cost of accessing Councillor Data is preventing some small charities running e-campaigns.
    • Organisations like Global Witness are using EveryPolitician data to spot potential corruption — but this data currently exists only at the national level, both for the UK and internationally.
    • And, we recognise that there are many commercial players in this space who provide complete and up to date data on politicians, which often includes more detailed biographical or political background. That’s not what we’re trying to replicate; instead, we all feel that there should be basic fundamental and up to date data on who our politicians are, freely available for anyone to use for any purpose.

    We would love to have more examples to add to this!  If you — or someone you know — has an idea for a piece of research or service that you could run if only this data existed, or spends time moaning about finding it, please get in touch with me, georgie@mysociety.org.

     

    P.S if you would like a copy of ODM data visualisation, it is available to buy/ download in A2 

    Photo by David Kennedy on Unsplash

  5. We’ll be at Highways UK

    Highways UK is a massive annual expo for those working on the UK’s road infrastructure — from local authorities to contractors and regional transport bodies.

    This year, for the first time, we’ll be heading to the NEC in Birmingham to demonstrate the benefits of our FixMyStreet Pro street fault reporting service for councils and other organisations.

    If you’re one of the thousands of industry folk who’ll also be attending this two-day highways extravaganza on 7-8 November, do make sure you drop by our stand to meet us and learn more about how FixMyStreet Pro is saving councils money and transforming their services. We’ll be at stand D02, near the entrance.

    Who’ll be there

    Come and have a chat with one of these friendly mySociety team members:

    Mark Cridge, Chief Exec Leading mySociety’s many strands of activity, Mark is an excellent person to ask about how FixMyStreet Pro sits within the current shift towards smart, digital solutions for councils. He’s also been instrumental in bringing several councils in on the planning phase of our products — and if you’re interested in contributing to that sort of input, do come and have a word.

     

    Louise Howells of mySociety Louise Howells, Delivery Manager Louise handles much of the liaison between our client councils and FixMyStreet’s developers, making sure that everyone’s happy on both sides. She’s the best person to talk about the practicalities of implementation, ongoing support and the roadmap for future innovations on FixMyStreet.

     

    David Eaton of mySociety David Eaton, Sales Director David can answer all your questions about integration, features and benefits — and because he’s talked to councils up and down the country, he’s very well-placed to discuss how other authorities are tackling their street reporting issues.

     

    Plus, on both days members of the the FixMyStreet development team will be on hand for any technical queries you may have.

    Events and presentations

    We’ll be happy to show you a demo version of FixMyStreet — you can even have a play with it to see how all the different features work, both for the report-maker, and for various levels of admin staff. Just drop by the stand at any time during the two days. We’ve got plenty of reading material for you to take away, too.

    But we’ll also have a couple of special presentations at our stand that you might want to put into your calendars:

    Integrating FixMyStreet Pro with your asset management system

    Wednesday 7th November 2.30pm

    Andrea Bowes from Lincolnshire County Council will describe how slick service from FixMyStreet Pro meant that they weren’t left high and dry when their previous fault reporting system failed them.

    How FixMyStreet Pro transformed the customer service experience

    Thursday 8th November 2.30pm

    Tracy Eaton (Customer Experience Account Manager – Digital Team) from Buckinghamshire County Council will be exploring the impact adopting FixMyStreet has made to their highways related fault-handling. Presentation followed by a live Q&A.

    Highways UK is a new venture for us, and we’re really looking forward to chatting face to face with people who share our interests. We’ll happily talk all day about effective digital solutions to the many challenges of roads maintenance! Hope to see you there.

    Image: N-allen (CC BY-SA 4.0), from Wikimedia Commons

  6. Parliaments, People and Digital Development seminar

    On 21st November we will host a seminar at the House of Lords exploring how digital tools are being used in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring parliaments and citizens closer together.

    During the seminar, we will be launching our Parliaments and the People: Digital Democracy in Sub-Saharan Africa report, which presents the findings from an extensive and in-depth research study into digital democracy across Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda. This research explores the use of digital channels and platforms in communicating political information in the region, and considers the implications for future development in digital and institution-building.

    The report analyses the breadth of digital political engagement in the countries studied, and identifies key structural and cultural considerations that influence whether digital solutions to improving democratic engagement, transparency and accountability in governing institutions will be successful.

    The findings of this report are more relevant than ever to those interested and involved in international development and institution-building, through which policy implementations digital solutions are being increasingly embedded.

    The seminar will bring together researchers, policy makers and practitioners to discuss how the insights from this and other work can be integrated into policy, engagement and future development work.

    Speakers:

    • Hosted by Lord Purvis of Tweed & Mark Cridge, CEO mySociety
    • Dr Rebecca Rumbul, Head of Research, mySociety (Report author)
    • Gemma Moulder, Partnership Development Manager, mySociety (Report author)
    • Paul Lenz, Trust Executive, Indigo Trust
    • Julia Keutgen, Parliamentary Development Advisor, Westminster Foundation for Democracy
    • Two further speakers will be announced soon.

    Date/time: 21st November 4pm – 6pm.

    As capacity is limited, attendance to the event is by invitation only. If you’re interested in attending please email  to request an invite and we’ll let you know full details.

     

     

  7. See you at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC)

    Next week, our Head of Research, Rebecca, will be heading to Copenhagen to participate in the 18th International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC).

    IACC is the world’s biggest global forum for bringing together heads of state, civil society, the private sector and more to tackle the increasingly sophisticated challenges posed by corruption. Established in 1983, the IACC takes place usually every two years in a different region of the world, and hosts from 800 to 2000 participants from over 135 countries worldwide.

    Rebecca will be a panellist in the DigiMeddle – Kidnapping Democracy in the New Digital Age session on 24th October 12:00pm – 2:00pm in Workshop Room 1. The session is intended to be a high-level dynamic panel discussion on the misuse of digital tools and social media to try and sway public opinion and skew elections.

    Keep up with Rebecca on social media for updates throughout the conference — and you can find official conference happenings via @IACCseries and the #18IACC hashtag.

     

  8. Help keep WhatDoTheyKnow running, with your time or expertise

    In our previous post, we identified WhatDoTheyKnow’s current need for sources of funding.

    But WhatDoTheyKnow also needs more volunteers to join the team. Since the site’s launch, it’s always depended on a highly-motivated, active group of administrators who work to keep it running.

    At mySociety, we’re very grateful for the work the volunteers do; for their part, they tell us that they find the work rewarding and interesting — but we’re always aware that we can’t, and shouldn’t, demand too much from them. The more volunteers we can recruit, of course, the less the workload will be for everyone.

    We’ve identified three general areas in which volunteer help would be very welcome, and if you think you’d fit in to any of these, we’d love to hear from you.

    General volunteers

    Are you:

    • interested in FOI and transparency
    • happy to work remotely but as part of a team, communicating mainly via email
    • able to dedicate a minimum of a few hours per week to helping run the site

    Each of our volunteer administrators give their time freely and are the only reason we can run the service day to day at all.

    Being a volunteer is both rewarding but also challenging, as each juggles their day jobs and home lives. So the more volunteers we have, the more we can spread the workload between them.

    If you have a specific interest in FOI or transparency, or indeed you’d just like to help support a well used civic tech service then we’d love to hear from you. There is always a diverse range of jobs and tasks needing to be done, even if you can only help a couple of hours a week. We all work from home and communicate via email and other online tools.

    If you can help us a volunteer the first thing to do is to write to the team introducing yourself and letting us know about your relevant skills, experience and interests.

    Legal support

    Are you:

    • a law student or professional who can offer expertise in the day-to-day running of the site; or
    • a legal firm or chambers who could offer legal advice on an ad hoc, pro bono basis

    Volunteers with legal backgrounds We take our legal and moral responsibilities in running WhatDoTheyKnow very seriously and we always welcome volunteers with experience of legal matters. Some of the legal aspects of running the site are handled routinely on a day to day basis by the admin team.

    They may, for example, remove correspondence which could give rise to claims of defamation, or where personal data is disclosed by an authority mistakenly and they consider continued publication to be unwarranted.

    The legal challenges thrown up by operating our service are varied and interesting. Joining us could be an opportunity for someone to get some hands on experience of modern media law, or for a more experienced individual, to provide some occasional advice and guidance on more challenging matters.

    We often find ourselves balancing claims that material published on our site could aid criminals or terrorists, or could cause harm in other ways, and we do our best to weigh, and balance, such claims against the public interest in making the material available.

    As material published on our website may have been used to support news articles, academic research, questions from elected representatives, and actions by campaign groups or individuals it’s important we don’t remove correspondence lightly and that we’re in a position to stand up, where necessary, to powerful people and institutions.

    Legal firms that can offer advice As from time to time there are cases which are more complicated, we would like to build a relationship with a legal firm or chambers that can advise us on an ad hoc basis on defamation, privacy (misuse of private information) and data protection.

    The ability to advise on copyright law and harassment law would also be an advantage. And we also on very rare occasions may need help as to how to respond to the threat of litigation.

    Could you offer help in this area? Please do get in touch to discuss getting involved.

    Administrative support

    Are you:

    • a committed, organised, empathetic person who could volunteer a few hours (working from home) a week

    In our previous post we mentioned that we’d ideally secure funding for an administrator who could handle our user support mail and deal with routine but potentially complex and time-sensitive tasks such as GDPR-based requests.

    While we seek funding for this role, would you be willing to fill it on a voluntary basis? Please get in touch.

    Lots to help with

    So in summary, what we need to keep WhatDoTheyKnow running is money, volunteer help, and legal support. If you can help with any of these, or have some ideas of leads we might be able to follow, please do get in touch. It also helps to share this post with your networks!


    Alternatively, you can help out with a donation large or small — every little helps.
    Donate now

    Image: CC0 Public Domain

  9. Ensuring WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next half a million requests

    If you appreciate our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow, then you’d probably like to know that it’ll be around for the foreseeable future.

    That will only be a certainty if we can secure new volunteers across a broad range of areas; or new sources of funding for the site — or ideally, both! WhatDoTheyKnow is a free service, run on a charitable basis by a currently very thinly-stretched team of volunteers.

    We’ve identified four areas in which we need help:

    • Funding
    • Legal support
    • Admin support
    • Additional volunteers

    In this post we’ll be looking at the first of those; and in our next post we’ll talk more about various volunteer roles and ways of helping the site to operate. If you think you might be able to assist in any of these categories, please do read on.

    Some background

    WhatDoTheyKnow.com is a Freedom of Information service used by millions of people each year, from journalists and campaigners to ordinary people trying to navigate bureaucracy.

    We recently celebrated the 500,000th request made via WhatDoTheyKnow, and also the site’s tenth anniversary. Each month, it’s visited by over half a million people and over 2,500 requests are made via the site. It’s a success story — an example of civic tech that runs at scale, has lasted, and has had an impact to match.

    One of the ways that mySociety has always tried to make change in the world is by building things on the web that show how the world could be better. In the case of WhatDoTheyKnow, we asked ‘What would it be like if everyone felt able to ask questions of those with power, and get answers?’.

    Our position as a small digital charity allows us to be bold in the things we build, to act as critical friends to institutions of power, and to design for the citizen. In practical terms, it also allows us to ask forgiveness, not permission — without that freedom, many of our sites and ideas would never have seen the light of day. That we have had success with WhatDoTheyKnow is wonderful, but leads us to ask a new question: how can we, again as a small digital charity, ensure its future?

    It’s always been a necessary engineering principle for us as software developers, trying to build sites that have impact, to require as little ongoing intervention as possible. However, technology isn’t and shouldn’t be everything — a site that runs on the scale of WhatDoTheyKnow can’t run without different kinds of support. In running WhatDoTheyKnow, we’ve learned that digital institutions, like other institutions, are shaped by people. The people who originally designed them, for certain, but also those who pick up the torch, who continue to make the day-to-day decisions that keep the institution relevant, humane, responsive and responsible. It’s this support that distinguishes brilliant technical ideas that flame out from those that grow and become so embedded in our culture that they start to fundamentally change the way the world works.

    A vital part of that support for WhatDoTheyKnow comes from a handful of volunteers who run the service day to day. These volunteers handle everything from simple user support to advising on complex points of law and policy.

    Now the success of the site means that they need help on the front line. We’re always on the lookout for new volunteers — but there are also other things we need to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is around for the next ten years and another half a million requests.

    We need funding for admin

    It’s becoming increasingly urgent that we recruit a part-time assistant, responding to our users’ queries via email. This person would help our amazing team of volunteers support people in all walks of life as they go through the process of requesting information from public authorities.

    They’d help to deal with the diverse day to day user enquiries, make sure we meet important deadlines in handling time-sensitive issues like GDPR-based requests, and share feedback to improve our user and volunteer experience over time. The cost of a paid part-time support role would be at least £15k per year.

    We don’t currently have any funding for this increasingly essential role, nor indeed any direct funding for WhatDoTheyKnow itself.

    We need funding for development

    Although WhatDoTheyKnow hasn’t changed fundamentally over the years, there are always ways in which we could improve it — a recent example is our work to start developing features for journalists and other professional users.

    The site does also require a certain amount of ongoing development work in order to keep it running at the scale it does. That includes making sure it gets the latest security updates, and dealing with new problems that arise as it grows, such as the fact that the more popular it becomes, the more rewarding a target it becomes for spammers.

    Work to maintain Alaveteli, the code that runs WhatDoTheyKnow, also supports the community of Freedom of Information campaigners, journalists and citizens around the world that use Alaveteli-based services to exercise their right to know in 26 countries.

    We don’t currently have any financial support for developers to support and maintain WhatDoTheyKnow and it’s important we find at least project funding of £30,000 to £40,000 a year, if not general unrestricted financial support from new funders.

    Funding to date

    We should acknowledge the funding which has allowed us to run thus far, and for which we are of course very grateful. A grant from the Joseph Rowntree Trust originally got WhatDoTheyKnow off the ground; Google’s Digital News Initiative supported the development of Alaveteli Professional, and unrestricted support from a number of funders ensured that mySociety has been able to continue paying their developers to work on the project. It’s perhaps worth noting that this support has, to date, always sustained development rather than administration.

    We do have a revenue stream through WhatDoTheyKnow Pro, our FOI service for professionals such as journalists, but as yet this is very modest. As the service develops, we hope that this may one day become part of the framework that helps sustain WhatDoTheyKnow, but we’re some way from that at this point in time.

    Sourcing funding

    Can you help identify a fund or donor who might be willing to cover the costs we’ve identified above for the next year or two? Please get in touch.

    Or perhaps we can be more imaginative. One model we’ve seen used to good effect by other sites run on our FOI platform Alaveteli has inspired us to conceive of a similar (but not identical) set-up for WhatDoTheyKnow. This would involve sponsorship from one or more reputable media organisations who could make use of WhatDoTheyKnow for their own journalistic investigations, while also gaining the benefit of recognition across the site.

    Of course, that’s just one idea — there must be many other possible models for supporting the site and we’d love to hear any ideas you have in the comments below.

    Now you might like to read our second post, in which we’ll be talking about ways you might be able to help with time, rather than money.


    You can help out, with a donation large or small — every little helps.
    Donate now

    Image: CC0 Public Domain

  10. Alaveteli Release 0.32

    We’ve just released version 0.32 of Alaveteli, our open source platform for running Freedom Of Information sites. Here are some of the highlights.

    Making correspondence threads easier to navigate

    Thanks to our designers, it’s now possible to collapse individual messages in a correspondence thread in order to focus on just the parts you’re trying to read. Plus you can quickly collapse (or expand) all the messages in the thread using the “Collapse all” and “Expand all” links from the “Actions” menu.

    Alaveteli Pro users gain the additional benefit of a redesigned sidebar which allows for easier navigation of lengthy correspondence and avoids having to scroll to the top of the request thread to update its status. See Martin’s full explanation here.

    Better password security

    We’ve started enforcing stricter password length constraints wherever a password is set or updated to help users keep their accounts secure. And we’re also using a stronger encryption method for storing password data, using bcrypt rather than the older SHA1 algorithm to obscure the actual password. (Be sure to run the rake task documented in the release upgrade notes to upgrade secure password storage for all existing users.)

    You can read more about what this does and why it’s important if you’re interested in the technical details behind this upgrade.

    Authorities not subject to FOI law

    We’ve adopted WhatDoTheyKnow’s foi_no tag for authorities to indicate that although the authority is listed on the site, it is not legally subject to FOI law. This could be for advocacy purposes – if it’s felt an authority should be covered by legislation – or where the authority has agreed to respond on a voluntary basis.

    Adding the foi_no tag now causes an extra message to appear under the authority’s name on their page and on all related requests, and removes language about legal responsibilities to reply from the messages sent to users.

    To improve the UI, we’ve made a similar change for authorities with the eir_only tag to make it clearer that such authorities are only accepting requests about the environment.

    (Don’t worry admins, you don’t need to remember all this – we’ve updated the documentation on the edit page to reflect the new functionality!)

    Improvements for site admins

    We’ve made it easier for admins to ban users who sign up to post spam links in their profile. There’s now a “Ban for spamming” button which is available on the user edit page or as soon as you expand the user’s details in the listing rather than having to manually edit user metadata.

    We’ve also made it harder to leave requests flagged as vexatious (or “not_foi”) in an inconsistent state. Previously the site just assumed that vexatious requests would always be hidden. Now the admin interface enforces the hiding of vexatious requests by showing warnings when a request is set as vexatious while it’s visible on the site, and prevents the updated request from being saved until a valid state is selected.

    Announcements

    And last but not least – introducing the new Announcements feature!

    Easier popup banner management

    Site admins will be relieved to hear that they can now update the popup banner message on the site without needing to schedule developer time.

    This feature supports multi-language sites so if you set the announcement for your main (default) language, it will appear across all language versions that you have not added a specific translation for.

    Admin-only announcements

    You can set announcements that will only be seen by fellow administrators when they visit the summary page. (If you’re running a Pro site, you can also have announcements that will only be seen by your Pro admins.)

    Pro announcements

    Announcements for Pro users appear as a carousel at the top of their dashboard. So far we’ve used it on WhatDoTheyKnow Pro to publicise new features, offer discount codes, and encourage people to share their published stories with us.


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

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!