1. Something in the middle: how Bristol connects

    This year, Bristol Council did something unusual and admirable. As far as we’re aware, they’re the first UK council to have taken such a step.

    Working with mySociety on custom Open311 ‘middleware’ while adopting FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, they now enjoy full flexibility, no matter what the future holds.

    Thanks to this open approach, Bristol will extract more value from their existing systems and lower operating costs. With integrated, open solutions, and the raised quality of report formatting that Open311 brings, everyone will benefit.

    Improving flexibility

    Councils are increasingly understanding the value of flexibility when it comes to service providers.

    Contracts that lock them into a single provider for many years mean that, often, there’s no opportunity to benefit when technology advances, and disproportionate costs can be charged for implementing the slightest changes.

    This desire for flexibility was a strong factor in Bristol City Council’s decision to adopt FixMyStreet for Councils — and that opened the door for a conversation about Open311.

    We’ve always advocated integration via Open311, to the extent that we offer free hook-up with FixMyStreet to any councils who support it.

    Because Open311 is an open standard, it supports the entire landscape of providers like FixMyStreet. Right now, Bristol can accept street fault reports not just from us, but from a full range of services — in other words, any site or app that cares to connect with them can do so. No-one knows what the future will hold: if a game-changing system emerges in the future, it makes sense that you’d be able to accept its reports.

    All well and good: but when Bristol City Council implemented FixMyStreet as their fault-reporting system, the concept was taken a little bit further. With our collaboration, Bristol created their own Open311 ‘middleware’, sitting between the two systems and talking to both.

    Via this method, their existing CMS, Confirm, can hook up to reports coming through from FixMyStreet. That all works smoothly — but, just as importantly, if Bristol ever decide to replace their CRM provider, they’ll be able to do so with no knock-on effect to FixMyStreet reports. And if they ever decide to replace FixMyStreet with a different provider, or indeed to accept reports from a range of providers, they can do that too.

    Bristol found us via the GCloud procurement system, and are the first metropolitan unitary authority to install FixMyStreet.

    Future plans

    Bristol launched its FixMyStreet service to the public in the summer of 2016.

    This autumn, they added asset-based reporting, meaning that known council properties such as streetlights, grit bins and gullies are all marked on FixMyStreet’s maps. Residents can pinpoint and report the location of faults with these assets far more accurately as a result.

    There’ll be a phased rollout across departments, starting with Highways and moving across departments as Bristol extend their own middleware. We’ll be watching with great interest.

    Find out more about FixMyStreet for Councils.

    Image: Adam Heath (CC by-sa/2.0)

  2. Catching up with Collideoscope

    It’s been a while since we looked in on Collideoscope, our project for reporting and collating data on cycling collisions and near misses, developed in collaboration with ITP. But what better time than now, when days are short and accidents have unfortunately, as always at this time of year, taken a sharp upturn.

    So, let’s have a catch-up, and a reminder that you should use the service. Of course, we hope you won’t experience any problems, but remember that Collideoscope is there if you do.

    Previously on Collideoscope…

    As you may recall, Collideoscope is a site for reporting cycling incidents, collisions and near misses. Because it’s built on the FixMyStreet platform, it offers all the same functionality for the user: it’ll help you to pinpoint the precise location of the incident you’re reporting, and then send the details off to the relevant authorities.

    When cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.

    While FixMyStreet sends reports off to councils, Collideoscope sends reports to local authorities’ highways departments, with the aim of highlighting potential accident blackspots.

    The data, after going through an anonymisation process, is also shared with campaign groups.

    Finally, the anonymised data is also available for anyone to download via Socrata, to be used for any purpose. One potential project we’d love to see, for example, would be route-planning applications to help cyclists avoid going through areas with a high density of incidents.

    Image by Rob. A road sign showing a cyclist being thrown off his bike because of an uneven road surfaceThe data is also available to researchers, town planners and the police: when cyclists make a report, they’re contributing to an open dataset that improves the quality of the evidence base on cycling incidents.

    So, that’s the model. Let’s have a look at how well it has stood up.

    Data quantity

    Collideoscope launched in October 2014 and users have thus far made a total of 1,195 reports.

    In order to provide a more complete dataset with the clearest possible indicators of accident hotspots, we also imported STATS19 data from the annually-updated open police database of accidents, meaning that Collideoscope now contains data points on over 20,000 incidents across the UK.

    Here’s what we’ve learned

    Steering a project from concept to reality is always a learning process. Here are some of the key lessons that emerged:

    • Collideoscope sends each report to authorities as it is submitted. It became clear that a bulk dataset would be easier for highways authorities to handle and to draw conclusions from, and this is now available.
    • Originally, we’d believed that it would be useful if Collideoscope could forward reports to local police forces, so that they could be actioned where suitable. However, this proved impractical, because the Road Traffic Act states that collisions must be reported to a police officer in person. Collideoscope’s data would not be sufficient for police to take action on those cases which merited it.
    • There was some concern that reports made via Collideoscope would replicate, rather than complement, the police force’s official STATS19 data. Happily, once enough reports had come into Collideoscope, a comparison was run and found that there is very little overlap between the two datasets.

    While STATS19 data tends to cover serious incidents, it doesn’t hold much on the near miss or minor incidents that Collideoscope encourages users to also report  — and which make up 90% of the Collideoscope database. One of the underlying beliefs behind Collideoscope has always been that near miss data can tell us a lot about accident prevention.

    Changes afoot

    ITP have now stepped away from Collideoscope: we’re extremely grateful for their collaboration and support with the development and running of Collideoscope in its first couple of years. This move will mean that we can pursue funding from charitable grant foundations.

    As you may recall from prior updates, the site was also supported by the Barts Bespoke campaign, a multi-pronged initiative to reduce accidents for cyclists. This support, and a further research grant from the Department for Transport, came to an end last month. As a result, we’ll no longer be asking people about injuries sustained when they file a Collideoscope report.

    Collideoscope will keep on rolling: we’re open to potential partners and have plenty of ideas for further development, including the possibility of a public API, or incident-reporting forms that could be placed on any website.

    If you’re from a local government, third sector or private company, and you’re interested in using Collideoscope data to enable better decision making on cycle safety, this’d be a great time to get in touch.


    Images:
    This hill is dangerous by John Kennedy (CC by-nc/2.0)
    Falling off bike sign by Rob (CC by-nc-sa/2.0)

  3. FixMyStreet version 2.0

    bureau of street traffic

    The FixMyStreet codebase is used all over the world by people running versions of the site for their own country or jurisdiction. This week, we’re proud to announce the release of FixMyStreet version 2.0.

    This version contains a wide array of new features that benefit FixMyStreet sites’ users, administrators, and the officials who receive reports. They include elements that the UK FixMyStreet was the first to trial, such as nicer-looking HTML emails for users and authorities, the ability to filter reports by multiple states and categories, a new admin user system with graduated permissions, and various bugfixes and development improvements.

    Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing a series of blog posts over on fixmystreet.org/blog/, examining the changes in detail. If you run a FixMyStreet site, or you’re just interested in coding and technical issues, you may find them of interest. Meanwhile, here’s the broad overview.

    New front-end features

    • HTML email: There is now the option for all emails sent by FixMyStreet to be HTML formatted where previously they were plain text only. This includes confirmation and questionnaire emails to the user, and report emails to the public body. These emails include any image added to the report, plus a small static map of the problem’s location.

    • State/category filtering and sorting of list pages: When viewing a list of reports, you can now filter and sort them in pretty much any way you choose, including sorting by most- or least-recently updated, newest or oldest, or most commented. You can also select multiple categories or states (e.g. “fixed”).

    • Pretty area highlighting on body pages: The highlighting of areas on a body page has been inverted, so that the unimportant parts of the map are shaded and you can interact more easily with reports on the page.

    • Users can now update their own email address This was a frequent request from users and we’re glad to report that they can now do it themselves on their account page.

    • Performance improvements: When looking at reports from a list page, the other report pins stay visible so that it is easier to switch between them. The report itself is being pulled in behind the scenes, meaning the whole page does not need to reload. The map no longer extends underneath the sidebar and header, which makes things easier, and a scroll wheel can now zoom the map in and out.

    • Making privacy options clearer: The reporting form has been separated into public and private sections, to make it clearer which parts of what you provide will be made visible on the site.

      Showing the relevant recipient: If you live in an area where there’s more than one body, the category you pick normally dictates which body we send your report to. Now, when you select the category we update the name of the body given at the top of the report page, if we know that the report will be sent there.

    New admin user system

    Admin users can now use the same log-in right across the site – whether they’re making a report like a standard user, or logging in to make edits and moderate the site.

    In the past, the distinction between admin and other users was black and white. As an admin user, you had access to every part of the site, but users can now be given individual permissions for various layers of access. These include:

    • Proxy users This layer grants the ability to create a report or update on behalf of a body, or as another user. We envisage this being useful in a body’s contact centre, where they receive a report over a phone and enter it into FixMyStreet as that user;
    • Report editors Giving the power to edit a report’s category, state, or location. If the admin user changes the category, and that change means that a different body is now responsible for the report, it will be re-sent;
    • List makers, who can compile their own shortlist of reports they wish to go and inspect. This may be useful for a contractor or team who wishes to compile the day’s tasks;
    • Quick responders These users have access to response templates, allowing them to edit and publish templated updates;
    • Prioritisers These users may set different priorities on reports;
    • Trusted users A simple reputation system, which e.g. potentially lets reports from trusted users be actioned more quickly.

    The admin report edit form has also been greatly improved, including a map to update a report’s location (and re-sending the report if the body changes), and much tidier layout.

    Bugfixes and development changes

    Bugfixes include updating the top-level domain (TLD) list for email validation, hiding authorities which don’t exist any more on the all reports page, and fixing the previously-broken photo preview display after form submission. We have dropped support for Internet Explorer 6.

    If you’re a re-user of the codebase, there are a number of changes that will hopefully help you out. See the extended version of this blog post on fixmystreet.org for more details.

    If you have any questions, or problems installing the code, please do get in touch, or post on our mailing list.

  4. Spam attack!

    What happens when your site is the target of a major spam attack? That wasn’t something we were particularly keen to find out —  but it’s a scenario we’re now fully acquainted with. That’s all thanks to a recent concerted assault on our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    All is calm again now, and hopefully, as a user of the site, you’ll have noticed very little. Yes, you’ll now have to complete a recaptcha when creating a new request*, and you might have discovered that the site was inaccessible for a couple of hours. Beyond that, everything is pretty much as it was.

    From our point of view, though, it was an emergency situation that meant that several of us had to put down what we were doing and join in with some quick decision-making.

    Alert, alert!

    It was around 12:30 on a Wednesday afternoon when Richard, one of the volunteers who helps to run WhatDoTheyKnow, noticed unusual activity on the site.

    WhatDoTheyKnow was created to help people send requests for information to public authorities — a service for the wider good. Unfortunately, at this point, it was also doing something quite the opposite of good: it was providing the means for unknown sources to send those same authorities hundreds of spam messages.

    We’d like to apologise to those who were on the receiving end: clearly, spam is a nuisance for everyone who receives it and we’re unhappy to have played any part in its perpetuation.

    We also had a secondary concern. It seemed likely that recipients would mark these incoming emails as spam. When enough people had done that, email providers would see us as an insecure source, and block all our messages, valid or otherwise, potentially preventing the WhatDoTheyKnow system from running efficiently.

    A little fire-fighting? That’s actually situation normal

    Spam is an obvious example of the site being abused, but it’s perhaps worth mentioning that we work hard on many levels to ensure that WhatDoTheyKnow is only used for its core purpose: the requesting of information under the FOI Act.

    And note that we’ve always been careful to protect against abuse. WhatDoTheyKnow does already have several measures in place as standard: we only allow one account per email address; we verify that email addresses are genuine; and we cap the number of requests that users can make each day (a restriction that we only override for users who are demonstrably making acceptable use of our service). We reckon that these measures very much helped to reduce the impact of the attacks.

    Action

    After a quick discussion between the volunteer team, trustees and mySociety staff, we took the site offline to give us time to work on a solution while stopping any more spam from being sent.

    Of course, we then removed all the spam requests and comments from the site and banned the accounts that had made them. We also contacted the affected bodies to let them know what had happened and to assure them that we were taking steps to deal with it.

    When we brought the site back up, a couple of hours later, we did so cautiously and with new restrictions and safeguards in place.

    Spam ‘requests’ had been sent over a period of about 13 hours. There were in the region of 800 made, though only about 500 actually got sent to authorities. Additionally, around 368 spam comments were left on existing requests. These relatively small numbers lead us to believe that they were being made manually.

    Time to breathe… or nearly

    Once we’d discovered the issue, dealing with it and getting the site back up and running took us 2.5 hours.

    Job done — so now we could sit back and relax, eh? But no: the next day we discovered that a couple of other sites running on the Alaveteli platform,  AskTheEu and New Zealand’s FYI, were being subjected to the same attacks.

    So we rolled out the changes we’d made on WhatDoTheyKnow to make them available to all Alaveteli users. And then, finally, we could get back to the everyday work we’d been doing before — making our sites better for you, and the other nice non-spamming people who use them.

    * We’ll be looking at removing it as soon as we can, though, as recaptcha doesn’t offer a very accessible experience for many disabled people. Meanwhile, we can manually remove the recaptcha for specific accounts, so if you’re struggling with it, contact the team to implement this exemption.


    Image: Mark Granitz (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  5. Making a difference in Norbury

    When we talk to the users of our sites, sometimes there’s no remarkable tale to tell — just a day-to-day story of how someone is making a small but persistent positive change in their community.

    Every month, around 7,500 people use FixMyStreet to help improve their neighbourhoods: getting potholes fixed, making dangerous pavements safer, or — as in the case of Van Tri Nguyen from Norbury, requesting the removal of unsightly rubbish and fly-tipping.

    As Mr Nguyen told us, he first heard about FixMyStreet at a local association meeting.

    “In front of my house there is a big park. It’s frequented by a lot of people, and particularly at night a lot of things happen there — and mountains of litter are left behind.

    “Rubbish accumulates, not inside the park but on the road in front of it — just opposite my house! People just dump stuff from their car windows. There are three lime trees which I often find decorated around their base with rubbish, on average once a fortnight, but sometimes as many as three or four times a week.

    “Once fly-tippers came and left an entire truckload of stuff. This road really is just a dumping ground, and while Croydon Council are aware of the problem, no-one has been brave enough to take a grip and get it sorted out.

    “I reported the eyesore, both on FixMyStreet and to Croydon Council. I believe that when reports are published online, the council may feel some kind of pressure and ashamed.

    “The results have been good. Right now, the road is reasonably clean.”

    We’re sure that Mr Nguyen will continue to be the good citizen who takes action and reports rubbish as it reoccurs. He’s telling others, too:

    “I’ve already spread the word to people who seem to care about the environment where they live.”

    Some before shots

    rubbish 515877.0.full 537977.0.full DSCF0400

    And after

    DSCF0473 DSCF0474

    All images: Van Tri Nguyen

  6. Transparencia: bringing transparency to Belgium

    “Every citizen has the right to consult every administrative document and make a copy of it”

    That’s article 32 of the Belgian constitution. Pretty clear, isn’t it?

    But until the process is put into the public arena, it’s not that easy to see whether it’s actually being upheld.

    Thanks to the latest Alaveteli launch, that’s about to happen. Anti-corruption NGO Anticor Belgium have just launched a Freedom of Information website Transparencia.be, running on our Alaveteli platform, with our hosting and development support.

    Not only should it make any lapses in authorities’ responses highly visible (acting as a “transparency barometer” is how AntiCor put it), but, as with every Alaveteli website, it will also make the whole process of submitting and tracking a response super-easy for citizens.

    AntiCor strongly believe that increasing transparency of public authority documents will benefit Belgian society as a whole.

    In their experience, most Belgian authorities haven’t respected the country’s access to information laws and often ignore their obligations. AntiCor hope that by exposing these bodies through the new site (and via their extensive network of media contacts) they will improve transparency across the board.

    Volunteer lawyers are on hand to help with tricky cases. This initial launch covers all public authorities in the Brussels region, but AntiCor hope to include all Belgian bodies eventually, too. They also plan to translate the site into Dutch.

    Launching with a splash – and some serious questions

    AntiCor are marking the launch with six requests for information which, they think, ought to be in the public domain, ranging from the release of safety registers for social housing and schools (“Has asbestos been found in your child’s school? By law you are entitled to see the inspection documents”), to analyses of bids for public contracts. You can read more (in French) here.

    Belgian media has been eager to give the new site publicity, an indication of the collective desire for more transparency in the country.

    “It’s a good day for democracy” begins Le Vif, while public broadcasting authority RTBF quotes AntiCor: “Transparency is a basic instrument for improving society – and sometimes the only defence against corruption, the abuse or misuse of public resources”

    La Capitale note that “governments themselves are sometimes unaware of their obligation to transparency to citizens”.

    News outlet Bruzz also underlines AntiCor’s stance on authorities who neglect their duty towards transparency: “In some cases it’s due to careless negligence, but in many cases, it’s down to willful default. [By refusing to disclose documents, authorities can] keep things like a poor use of public money away from public attention, and politicians can go about their business without sufficient democratic control”.

    Let’s hope that Transparencia is the first step towards implementing some of that democratic control. We wish Anticor all the best.

  7. What Do We Know about the EU Referendum?

    Just in case you missed it: a little while ago we had an itty bitty referendum on whether the UK should stay as a part of the EU.

    Given that this has had a small, barely worth talking about really, hardly noticed it impact on British politics, we wondered whether there would be any visible changes in the way that people are using our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow.

    Did people suddenly find themselves wanting to know more about Europe-related matters in the run-up to the referendum? What about afterwards?

    Short answer: Yes they did! To both questions!

    Long answer: Same as the short answer…but with graphs!

    What we did

    First we drew up a list of twenty-three keywords which might indicate that the request was at least partly related to either Europe, the EU, or the topics that became part of the debate leading up to the vote: keywords like EU, European Parliament, Schengen, refugee, and, that brave little neologism that could, Brexit*.

    Then we pulled all requests where the requester had used one or more of those phrases** and started number-crunching.

    What we found

    In the period between the May 2015 general election and the June 2016 EU referendum WhatDoTheyKnow sent 1,022 FOI requests that matched our EU keywords. These were generated by 641 unique requesters.

    Looking at these requesters: 79% of them made just a single request, and 96% made four or less. The remaining 25 users made 25% of all EU requests — with three users making more than 20 requests each.

    For the year leading up the election there was an average of 55 users making 75.6 EU-related requests between them each month.

    If we split this into two halves (the last half of 2015 and the first half of 2016), the average number of users per month had increased by 20 in 2016 compared to the second half of 2015 — with a peak in both users and requests in the month before the referendum and a decline in the immediate run-up.

    run-up-eu-requests

    So people had more questions to ask once the referendum was more in the public eye. But maybe that’s just reflecting wider trends across the board. Can we state with certainty that this change was referendum-related?

    Let’s move on to the second question: What happened after the referendum?

    After the referendum

    Comparing the three months before the referendum with the three months after it, we see users and requests are up in the post referendum period.

    EU-related requests Users making EU-related requests
    Pre-referendum 310 216
    Post-referendum 332 252

    Looking month-by-month, we can see this is mostly an immediate spike followed by a drop-off:

    eu ref - either side

    In fact when we looked week-by-week, we could see the largest spike was in the week following the vote. This gives us some definite hints that it was the referendum that was driving this.

    But to make extra sure that this increase really was referendum-related, we compared these changes to the overall WhatDoTheyKnow trends at the time.

    The number of requests made across the platform increased between the two periods (17,246 increased to 19,120) — but there was also a decrease in the number of unique users making requests (4,850 decreased to 4,721).

    This means the post-referendum increase in EU requests was counter to the general flow – and we can use a statistical test (chi-square) to confirm that the difference in users making EU requests is sufficiently different from the overall direction of users to reject the idea they are being driven by the same trend (p < 0.01 for those that want to know) .

    So we can say there is a real difference before and after the referendum: people were asking government for more for more EU-related information after the referendum than before it.

     Notes

    *First appearance in an FOI request: May 2015!

    **Obvious Complaint: But Alex! Aren’t some of those a bit broad? And the answer is yes! In fact we discarded ‘immigration’ and ‘migration’ as keywords because when separated from other keywords, these were mostly requests for information about immigration rules relevant to the requester (although that said, a similar post-referendum peak appears when we looked at these ‘immigration’ requests in isolation. There were just too few to make as big a deal out of the change).

    ‘EU’ as a keyword will similarly be catching requests that have nothing to do with the EU, as EU law is so integrated that appeals to directives or other obligations can make an appearance in requests to just about any public body on just about every topic.

    While the global count of ‘EU related requests’ might be inflated by this, a change relative to the population of all requests (like the one we found) should be robust — assuming that non EU-related requests that mention the EU are not distributed differently to non EU-related requests that don’t. This seems reasonable and so for the sake of this blog post — let’s say that’s so.

    Keywords used

    Here are the words we used (note on why we didn’t include ‘immigration’ or ‘migration’ above); one request often matched multiple keywords:

    Term

    Matches

    European Union

    112

    EU

    780

    European Commission

    22

    EU Law

    44

    European Law

    9

    European Parliament

    18

    EEA

    446

    European Economic Area

    30

    European regulations

    1

    EU regulations

    9

    European directive

    1

    EU directive

    7

    Asylum Seeker

    25

    Refugee

    79

    Resettled

    7

    EU migrants

    5

    European migrants

    2

    EU nationals

    16

    European nationals

    3

    Schengen

    9

    Calais

    9

    Brexit

    46

    EU Referendum

    75


    Image: Speedpropertybuyers.co.uk (CC by/2.0)

  8. Three great jobs for our Better Cities projects

    Earlier this year we tweaked our strategy to better align our commercial work with our charitable projects. We’re now looking to hire a couple of experienced and motivated individuals to help us really turn up the heat on this approach.

    Our work at mySociety covers three practice areas; Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities. Each in their own way use different methods to give citizens more influence over those with power. Making it easy to access public information, or easier to understand what decisions mean and their implications for all of us.

    Most of our work to date has been funded through grants and donations, but we believe that we can often make greater impact on a longer term basis where we work on a commercial footing, especially if we can bring in appropriate revenue which would complement our charitable income and help provide a more sustainable future for our organisation.

    To boost the commercial skills we have within our team we are looking for an experienced Product Manager who can help set the strategy for how we position our products, develop the wider markets we operate in, bring in more public sector clients, help serve our current clients and create an environment in which our products can thrive.

    To aid them in this quest we’re looking for a Sales and Partnership Manager to help us identify and engage with community groups, citizen engagement services, local authorities, technology providers and end users who would benefit from working with us to help more citizens to demand better.

    To top it off we urgently need to hire at least one additional Web Developer to our commercial team with at least three years of programming experience in Ruby, Python, and/or Perl.

    For each of these roles we’re looking for experience of working with or within local authorities or the wider public sector and civil society. They’ll be comfortable speaking with a broad range of people within local and central government, and their service providers, and will understand the needs of their end users – generally local residents. Importantly they’ll be comfortable working within a geographically distributed development team.

    Help us learn and improve

    The aim our Better Cities practice is to help people exert a little more control within their local communities – especially people who have never previously tried to make any such difference,  or members of marginalised groups who might believe they have little chance of success in getting things changed. In particular we want to learn more about how best to deliver local community level services and to understand the complex needs of those currently under-represented by local government and public services.

    Whilst we have over 10 years experience of delivering local services via FixMyStreet.com, we want to understand if such services actually give agency to those who lack it most to affect and impact their local communities, and if so in what way? Does this lead to further civic engagement and participation, if so how? If not can we adapt our approach to make this more likely? And where we currently fall short of representing these needs within our current services, what measures can we take to adapt existing services, or what new services might we create in their place?

    As we continue to learn we’ll further build upon the FixMyStreet principles of issue reporting and resolution to cater for a variety of interesting and practical new use cases,targeting hot button policy areas around housing provision, health, education quality, work and benefits.

    Importantly we’ll succeed if we ensure that our services are well used by a wider diversity of people in a wider spread of regions.

    So if you think you can help us in these goals, have ample experience in creating and leading on the development of digital products and are motivated and energised by working with local communities, government and the public sector we’d very much like to hear from you.

    You can apply here;

    Product Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November

    Sales and Partnership Manager – Closing date, 10am Friday 11th November

    Web Developer – Closing date, 10am on Wednesday 26th October

    Image courtesy of barynz on Flickr

  9. Ask Your Government Uganda

    Once a country has a Freedom of Information act in place, the battle for citizens’ Right To Know is pretty much over, right?

    Er… that would be nice, wouldn’t it? But in fact, as those who have read our previous blog posts will know, all sorts of factors can stand between citizens and information about their public authorities — here in the UK, and all around the world. Factors like complex legislation, reluctant officialdom, bureaucracy… and a host of other impediments.

    In Uganda, FOI has made a tangible difference to the level of corruption from officials, but a lack of resources and their politicians’ reluctance to perform the duties requested of them by the act mean that access to information is still a struggle.

    Find out more about the people running Uganda’s Alaveteli site, Ask Your Government, and how they’re tackling these issues, in our latest case study.

  10. Asking questions in public: the Alaveteli experiments

    Suppose we sent an automated tweet every time someone made a successful Freedom of Information request on WhatDotheyKnow — would it bring more visitors to the site?

    And, if you get a response to your first FOI request, does it mean you are more likely to make a second one?

    These, and many more, are the kind of questions that emerge as we refine the advice that we’re offering partner organisations.

    Our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli underpins Freedom of Information sites all around the world. When we first launched it, our only priorities were to make the code work, and to make that code as easy as possible to implement. But, as a community emerged around Alaveteli, we realised that we’d all be better off if we shared advice, successes and ideas.

    And that’s where we began to encounter questions.

    Some of them, like how to get more users, or how to understand where users come from, are common to anyone running a website.

    Others are unique to our partner structure, in which effectively anyone in any part of the world may pick up the Alaveteli code and start their own site. In theory, we might know very little more than that a site is running, although we’ll always try to make contact and let the implementers know what help we can offer them.

    There were so many questions that we soon saw the need to keep them all in one place. At mySociety, we’re accustomed to using Github for anything resembling a to-do list (as well as for its primary purposes; Github was designed to store code, allow multiple people to work on that code, and to suggest or review issues with it), and so we created a slightly unusual repo, Alaveteli-experiments.

    Screenshot of the Alaveteli Experiments repo, showing a table of experiments and summaries of their results

    This approach also gives us the benefit of transparency. Anyone can visit that repo and see what questions we are asking, how we intend to find the answers, and the results as they come in. What’s more, anyone who has (or opens) a Github account will also be able to add their own comments.

    Have a browse and you’ll come across experiments like this one and this one, which attempt to answer the questions with which we opened this post.

    Some of the experiments, like this one to analyse whether people click the ‘similar requests’ links in the sidebar, we’re running on our own site, WhatDoTheyKnow. Others, such as this one about the successful requests listed on every Alaveteli site’s homepage, are being conducted on our partners’ sites.

    Our aims are to find out more about how to bring more users to all Alaveteli sites, how to encourage browsing visitors to become people who make requests, and how to turn one-off requesters into people who come back and make another — and then pass all that on to our partners.

    We hope you’ll find plenty of interest on there. We reckon it’s all relevant, especially to anyone running an FOI website, but in many cases to anyone wondering how best to improve a site’s effectiveness. And we’re very happy to hear your ideas, too: if we’ve missed some obvious experiment, or you’ve thought of something that would be really interesting to know through the application of this kind of research, you’re  welcome to let us know.

    You can open your own ticket on the repo, suggest it in the Alaveteli community mailing list, or email Alaveteli Partnerships Manager Gemma.

     


    Image: Sandia Labs (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)