So we’re pleased to announce the (quiet) beta launch of our latest little site, Keep It In The Community, which we hope will become an England-wide register of Assets of Community Value (ACVs).
The Localism Act 2011 was introduced with a great hope. Its provision for giving groups the right to bid on buildings or land that contribute to community life would allow the protection these assets, potentially taking them into direct community control should they come up for sale.
Sadly, as currently implemented, the law hasn’t yet delivered on that promise.
In Scotland, the legislation comes with an actual right to buy, but in England, that’s not the case, and with developers finding ways around the legislation more often than not, often the best the Act can bring about is the delay of an inevitable change of control. For the moment we’re not expecting the legislation to be given any more teeth.
With Keep It In The Community we intend to at least help support a greater takeup of registration by local communities.
In yet another project built on the flexible FixMyStreet Platform, Keep It In The Community has three main roles:
1. We’re gathering together existing asset listings from the 300+ English councils who hold them, to provide a single synchronised and complete record of all listed and nominated ACVs.
2. We’re providing a straightforward route for established community groups to nominate new ACVs in their community.
3. We’ll allow community members to provide more details, photographs, and useful anecdotes about each registered asset, beyond that required by the legal listing process.
Plans for the summer
So far we have data from around 20 local authorities on the live service, with another 50 or so due to be added over the next few weeks. The remaining councils will be added over the summer. All the data is drawn directly from each local authority and as new assets are nominated or their status changes we’ll update their status on Keep It In The Community.
Whilst we complete final testing we’re restricting the ability of community groups to nominate assets, but hope to fully switch that on shortly, once more of the existing assets are displayed on the site.
The initial process for connecting each council listing is fairly low tech, relying on the scraping of a commonly formatted spreadsheet hosted on each council website.
So for the moment. there will still be a fair amount of manual tweaking to keep things in sync. This is one of those important elements that will be fine to manage when the service is starting out, but may start to creak further down the line if it becomes well used – a classic ‘known known’ issue we’ll need to keep on top of.
Over the summer we’ll be working with a representative set of community groups to extend the features of Keep It In The Community to improve how to submit assets for nomination, and how best to celebrate the listed assets by adding all sorts of local detail and background.
Have a look and let us know what you think so far.
In addition to the initial grant from Power To Change, this project has been implemented with the support of the Plunkett Foundation and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.
A big welcome to Rutland, the latest local authority to adopt FixMyStreet Pro as their street fault reporting platform. If you’re a resident of what has been described as the UK’s prettiest county, we hope that you’ll enjoy using FixMyStreet to keep it that way.
You can make your reports on the council’s site here, or if you’re already used to the main FixMyStreet. com website or via our mobile app, you’ll find that all reports go into the same central database, and can be seen in all three places.
As a resident, all you need to know is that it all works, but councils — especially those using the Salesforce CRM — will be interested to know that behind the scenes there have been some interesting tweaks.
How it looks in Salesforce
Salesforce is a very common CRM, in use across many councils as well as countless other businesses and organisations, so this integration stands as a useful proof of concept when it comes to FixMyStreet integration.
For Rutland, FixMyStreet reports now drop directly into Salesforce, from where they can be allocated to the Highways team. Click on any of the images below to see them at a larger size.
Staff now have the choice of updating reports within Salesforce, or, if they prefer (as many do), through the FixMyStreet admin interface.
This is our first Salesforce integration, and it was made possible through the use of an API, developed by Rutland’s own tech team. At our end, all we had to do was write the code to integrate with it, and boom, two-way communication.
Even better, any reports made through other means can be pulled from Salesforce and into the FixMyStreet system: so a council staff member inputting reports from, say, an email report or phone call can input it into the interface they’ve always used.
We’re delighted to add Salesforce to the list of CRMs FixMyStreet Pro has integrated with. If you’re from a council and would like to find out more, pop over to the FixMyStreet Pro website where you’ll find case studies, pricing, an interactive demo and the chance to join one of our regular online chats.
Two weeks after you write to a representative on WriteToThem we send you a survey asking if they wrote back. We’ve traditionally used the data from these surveys to compare the responsiveness of individual MPs – but something we’re interested in at the moment is understanding more about systematic drivers of responsiveness. What features of a representative’s position or background makes them more or less likely to respond to messages?
The first fruit of that research is a paper in Parliamentary Affairs talking about using WriteToThem data to explore differences in responsiveness between representatives elected from constituencies and those elected from party lists in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, and the London Assembly.
We understand that most readers will not have journal access, so we’ve also written a summary for Democratic Audit that everyone can read here.
We’re actively investigating other factors that affect responsiveness (especially at the Westminster Parliament) and will write more in the coming months. If you’d like to make sure you don’t miss our findings, you can sign up to the research mailing list here.
Against conventional wisdom, we’ve just published the staff manual for FixMyStreet Pro online, where it’s easy for anyone to access.
When we were putting this manual together, we thought we’d have a quick google round for other council SAAS documentation, to see if anyone was doing it particularly well.
We didn’t get very far, though — it seems there’s a culture of corporate secrecy amongst other suppliers, and a fear of publishing such materials in case of imitation.
Why so open?
We’ve gone our own way on this one for a few reasons.
First, because it helps our clients. We know that it’s far easier for customers to look online for materials than it is to remember where they’ve put a physical handbook.
We know we could have put it behind a password, but that just adds an impediment for our existing customers, as well as for anyone hoping to understand the service a little better before making a purchasing decision. Plus, who remembers passwords for something they might only be accessing a couple of times a year? It’s just extra faff.
This way, staff only need bookmark the documentation page, and they’ll always be able to find the most up to date version of the manual.
There’s another reason as well, though. Most mySociety codebases — including FixMyStreet — are Open Source, meaning that anyone who wants to can inspect or use the code for their own purposes. If anyone really wanted to know our ‘secrets’… well, they’re already out in the public domain.
We reckon there’s more to gain by publishing our instruction manual than there is to lose. Sure, competitors might see what features we offer, and they might even copy them. We’re confident, though, that our customer service, company culture, and our insistence on making our products as user friendly as possible, all give us an advantage that imitators are unlikely to be able to match.
So, if you’re from a council yourself (or if you’re just curious) please do go ahead and read the manual. We hope you’ll find it of interest, and that it might cast some light on what makes FixMyStreet Pro different from other offerings in the field.
Back in April, we hosted the fourth edition of our research conference The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Lisbon, Portugal.
We were thrilled to bring together 150 leaders in the field from 29 countries to take stock of the civic technology research landscape and to discuss what works and what doesn’t when it comes to using technology for social good.
62 speakers from 19 countries covered topics such as: responsible technology; accountability keywords; blockchain; fact-checking; service delivery; bridging the civic tech research divide; working with governments; impact measurement; open contracting; amongst many, many others. Thank you to everyone involved for sharing your experiences and research.
If you weren’t able to attend (or indeed if you’d like to experience it all again), do check out the TICTeC website to see videos of all conference sessions, interviews with delegates, photos, and slides where available.
As a taster, here’s an overview of the whole event… in just two minutes:
It’s been a few months since we first announced our Democratic Commons project under the banner of “shared code, data and resources where anyone can contribute, and anyone can benefit” — but if we’ve been silent since then, it’s certainly not for a lack of activity.
Quite the reverse, in fact: we’ve been busy bringing new team members on board and getting stuck in with the time-consuming and often fiddly process of data gathering and sharing.
When we’re in the midst of all this hard work, it’s sometimes hard to remember to talk about how everything’s going; but it’s always interesting, so here’s a snapshot of where we are now.
Those of us working on Democratic Commons are only a small team within the smallish organisation mySociety. Gathering in-depth data on politicians all around the world takes more time and more local knowledge than we have ourselves, so we’re working with partners located within our target countries.
Distintas Latitudes have been handling Latin America – they’ve been great at gathering data and explaining the various differences between the political systems in each country we’ve worked together on.
In India, Factly and Gender And Politics have done the most amazing job in gathering a full national and state level dataset for politicians right across the country. We were astounded, as that is a LOT of data (over 3,500 records and counting so far).
And in South East Asia we’re working with OCF, with whom we’ve had a long association (you may remember TICTeC Taiwan, for example). OCF have helped us with data for Taiwan and South Korea so far, and are set to work with us on seven more countries before December 2018.
Finally, a special mention goes to OpenLeb of Lebanon, who are working hard to start finding data in a country where data is not usually open. We genuinely could not do this work without our partners and we are eternally grateful for their help.
As is probably clear from the above, we often select which countries to work on by our ability to find a community or organisation that will extend help. A nice side effect of this is that we’re strengthening the connections and bonds between mySociety and organisations with similar missions in many different places.
Growing the community of such organisations across the world is going to be the primary focus of our new Community Manager Georgie, whom you will no doubt hear a lot from over the next few months.
She’s going to be finding out who’s already using data like this, who’s maintaining it, who’s interested in running projects with it or doing research — and seeing if there’s also an appetite there to keep the data up to date. This is because the data will really only be useful to people if it’s well maintained and current!
Working with Wikidata
Early on, we recognised that improving the political data available in Wikidata, rather than ringfencing it all within EveryPolitician, was going to be an efficient way to maximise the benefits of the Democratic Commons project.
What does this mean in practice? Well, in our first phase we’ve targeted 13 places in which to locate the data and load it into Wikidata: Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay, Chile, Canada, Italy, Estonia, Lebanon, India, S Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Ultimately, we want to help make any and all information about politicians at every level freely and openly available via the Commons; but for now, our initial scope looks at representatives at national, regional, and city legislatures.
Now that a lot of this work is being done on or in Wikidata, we’re creating tools to make processes smoother and faster. The main ones of these are around verifying data and creating statements in Wikidata; we hope that when we’ve completed these they’ll be valuable to the whole Wikidata community beyond just the Democratic Commons project.
Step by step
We’re focusing on getting what we’re terming ‘Outline Data’ for each place loaded into Wikidata first. This type of data helps us model the political system, as it tells us what the legislature looks like — for example, whether it is unicameral, bicameral or different to those; what it calls members of the legislature; what term the legislature is on and how long that lasts; and often how many seats that legislature contains.
Once we have that outline data, we then need some information about people holding seats in those legislatures. We try and start with five examples of each type of role at each level, then we can send this ‘Seed Data’ off to hopefully crowdsource the rest of the data: more on that in a bit!
Meanwhile, our GIS expert Will is working on boundaries. Boundary data is hard — like, really hard! This is one of the most challenging areas of the project but it’s also one of the most important. Without electoral boundaries we don’t know what area a politician is representing and a lot of the tools we think this data would be useful for just won’t work.
However, boundaries aren’t always released openly or completely, especially when it comes to local level constituencies, and even when we do find them, understanding whether we have all the data we need to represent politicians correctly can be really tricky.
Because we like to keep really busy, we’ve also been starting to collaborate with other organisations such as Open Knowledge and CLEA on how to raise the visibility of the availability (or lack, more likely) of open sources of official boundary data.
Working with Facebook
You may remember our ongoing work to connect Facebook users with their politicians after an election, in countries around the world.
We’re also working with Facebook to run some crowdsourcing experiments that will gather more data on politicians. I mentioned ‘Seed Data’ above. For each country, this gets fed to Facebook, and allows them to create questions which they can send to users to ask them who their representatives are at different levels of government.
We then get this data back and our partners help us verify it and put it into Wikidata so it becomes open and available for anyone to use. Facebook has a reach we would never be able to manage on our own.
So that’s where we are
As I’ve hopefully demonstrated in this post, the work is extremely challenging. That’s why we’re sometimes a little slow in updating where we’ve got to — but we genuinely believe that that having this data out there in the open will pave the way for so many exciting new political data-based projects and research. And so, onwards!
Image: Ben White (Unsplash)
Our recent research interests have taken myself and mySociety’s Head of Research Rebecca to four Sub-Saharan countries over the last two months, where we’ve spoken to 65 individuals from 45 fascinating organisations.
Our aim with this research is to investigate how political information around legislatures and government is produced and consumed in Sub-Saharan Africa.
This information is of course particularly important for us to know as a lot of our work is helping organisations set up digital solutions to allow citizens to connect to their representatives and monitor/ask what they’re doing, as well as trying to simplify and display complex political information.
Through this research we want to better understand political landscapes in the countries we work in to make sure the digital solutions we provide are actually of use. We hope the research will inform us, and others, about what does and doesn’t work when creating parliamentary monitoring and Right To Information websites and other Civic Technology solutions.
We’re aiming to publish the full research report at the end of this year, but read on to hear about the research process, who we met along the way and some interesting highlights.
So back in March Rebecca and I headed off to Abuja in Nigeria to commence the project. With help from our friends at EnoughisEnough Nigeria (EiE) (who we’ve worked with on ShineYourEye) and through our existing contacts with the MacArthur Foundation’s On Nigeria programme we were lucky enough to meet with 20 individuals from a variety of different organisations.
We met and interviewed representatives from: the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD), The Public and Private Development Centre (PPDC), The Freedom for Life Initiative, BudgIT, Women’s Advocates Research and Documentation Centre (WARDC), Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, Right To Know Nigeria (R2K), Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) and Connected Development (CODE).
A particular highlight was meeting one of the members of the Nigerian House of Representatives at the National Assembly building, which for us politics nerds was very exciting (see said nerds here to the left)!
From Abuja off we went to Kampala, Uganda. This time our friends at The Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC) generously helped us set up interviews with NGOs and media organisations. We work with AFIC on FOI request site AskYourGov (which uses our Alaveteli software).
We interviewed representatives from: Parliament Watch, Galaxy FM, Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), New Vision and HiveCoLab.
One of the most interesting highlights was the discovery of the prevalence of WhatsApp Twitter Facebook (also known as WTF), or Snapchat WhatsApp Instagram Facebook Twitter (SWIFT) data bundles. These only allow users access to these social media channels, and don’t allow web browsing. These data bundles can be purchased for as little as £1 per month, and this is primarily the way that normal citizens experience the internet. Obviously this is highly relevant when we think about our partners’ sites, which might not be accessible to as wide an audience as intended.
After a brief interlude which included organising and hosting our annual research conference TICTeC (phew!), we were back on the road again. This time to Nairobi.
We were lucky enough to have very interesting conversations with representatives from the following organisations: Kictanet, iHub, Sovereign Oversight, World Wide Web Foundation, Africa’s Voice Foundation, International Budget Partnership (IBP), National Democratic Institute (NDI), Mzalendo Trust, Katiba Institute, Local Development Research Institute (LDRI), The Elephant and The Institute for Social Accountability (TISA).
A particular highlight was speaking to one of the lawyers who wrote Kenya’s 2010 constitution (again, hugely exciting for politics geeks!). And who knew that the maximum number of participants in a WhatsApp group is 256? Not us, but everyone we spoke to did! WhatsApp is a huge vector of information in Kenya, including news content and political discussions.
Our final destination was Cape Town in South Africa. Our amazing partners at Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) very generously arranged a great mixture of interviews for us and even took us on a tour of the South African parliament.
During our time in Cape Town we interviewed: a parliamentary researcher, journalists from The Daily Maverick, the Goedgedacht Forum, My Vote Counts, PMG, Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), the Land and Accountability Research Centre (LARC), OpenUp, Black Sash, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), Dullah Omar Institute and Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC).
A few of the most interesting things we discovered: mobile data is super expensive in South Africa; the proportional party list system to select representatives makes it difficult to hold politicians to account; and Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are not used anywhere near as much as they are in the rest of the African countries we’ve looked at.
We are incredibly grateful to all of the above organisations for helping us with this field work, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk to us and helping us with arrangements.
So now we’re back at our desks the real work putting the report together begins. If you have any recommendations of who else Rebecca and I should talk to as part of this research then please do get in touch.
We look forward to sharing our full research findings in our report at the end of the year!
Header image: Flying over Mount Kilimanjaro (author’s own photo)
In 2014, along with Integrated Transport Planning (ITP), we created Collideoscope — a service based on our FixMyStreet Platform to map collisions and near misses between motor vehicles and cyclists.
Since the launch of Collideoscope, cycling has seen even more of an increase in popularity, and we suspect that there have been numerous new initiatives and campaigns developed to highlight and tackle the dangers faced by cyclists through insufficient provision of safe cycling infrastructure and dangerous driving.
So a recent approach from the Merseyside Road Safety Partnership (MRSP) was of great interest: they wanted to explore how we might revisit this task and determine if Collideoscope still has a role to play — or whether some other approach might be more beneficial.
Over the next three months, with the help of funding from MRSP, we plan to carry out a fresh discovery exercise to identify up to date user needs around collision prevention, and also determine how well served these issues are already by other similar initiatives around the country.
In addition to speaking to cyclists, campaign groups and safety experts, we’ll also be working with MRSP and in particular the Cycling Safety team within Merseyside Police to better understand how submission of reports can actually contribute to the development of actionable policy.
We’d also like to better understand the process of evidence submission, especially video evidence, in cases of near misses and collisions, and improve how that might lead to appropriate enforcement action.
For the moment we’re approaching all of this with a very open mind. We’re not going to assume that Collideoscope as it currently exists is necessarily the correct approach, and even if it does have a role to play we suspect it may need to be substantially altered to cater to any newly identified user needs.
Whilst this exploratory part of the project is going to be centred on Merseyside, we’re keen to hear from groups across the country and if you’d like to be consulted or participate in the research we would be keen to hear from you.
In the meantime, ride safe and we’ll update with progress reports over the next few weeks.
Nothing gives us greater pleasure than to learn that one of our websites has been of help in uncovering an injustice or righting a wrong. So when WhatDoTheyKnow user Jason Evans mentioned how he’d been using the site in campaigning for victims of the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 1980s, we were eager to hear the whole story — which he told us in fascinating detail.
Read on to find out how Jason learned the ropes of submitting an FOI request, and how one thing led to another… until he was looking at a group legal action against the government.
I’m Jason Evans, founder of Factor 8 – The Independent Haemophilia Group.
In short, I’ve spent the last few years trying to achieve truth and justice for haemophiliacs and their families affected by the contaminated blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s. My father, Jonathan Evans, was a victim of the scandal. It’s not my goal to go into the ins and outs of all that here, but instead to explain how WhatDoTheyKnow has been an essential tool for our campaign (if you wish to learn more about the scandal itself, you can visit our website).
It was early 2016 when I decided to start hunting down evidence relating to the contaminated blood scandal for myself. At this time there was already some evidence in the National Archives. It was a good start, but I felt there must be more. Government ministers were maintaining the same line in Parliament… that all the evidence had been transferred to the National Archive or it had been destroyed. This was widely accepted as true.
To this day I don’t exactly know why, but where many had accepted this situation (and understandably so), I simply refused to — or, at least, if it was true I was going to make sure of it.
After a quick search I found WhatDoTheyKnow. I instantly saw that this was going to be a must-have tool for what I wanted to do. I made my first FOI request on the site in April 2016, which in terms of the site’s functionality was super easy, but I definitely had a lot to learn.
In hindsight, my first FOI requests were badly framed, too broad and lacking in specifics: the vast majority were coming back as either “Information not held” or with any number of exemptions which was all very frustrating. It felt like I was getting nowhere.
Over time however, I began to refine my requests and learn best practice by reviewing the successful requests made by others, even those that had no connection at all with what I was doing. I read the Freedom of Information Act and familiarised myself with the exemptions, costs and what my rights were.
Things began to change: some of my requests were becoming partially or completely successful and all the while I was reviewing more evidence from the National Archives and other sources.
Things really began to snowball in 2017 when one day I began to cross-reference the government’s own filing system in my own spreadsheet. Noticing certain markings they had used allowed me to identify specifically what files were missing and FOI them using the government’s own internal reference system.
This strategy was almost flawless and has revealed tens of thousands of documents which have as yet never seen the light of day, and this work remains ongoing.
In May 2017 I brought a legal action against the government based on the evidence I had seen; shortly after this became a Group Legal Action which presently involves up to 1,000 claimants.
Just one week after the Group Litigation Order was lodged at the High Court in July 2017, the Prime Minister Theresa May announced that a full UK-wide public inquiry would be held into the contaminated blood scandal.
When I reflect back on that time, I don’t think there was any single person or action that got us there: it was a culmination of momentum. We always say “the stars aligned” when talking about it within the community and I think that’s pretty much what happened.
It would be nice to say that this was all some master plan but it wasn’t really; it was a venture taken out of a mixture of curiosity, determination and the simplest sense of wanting to find out the truth. WhatDoTheyKnow helped me to do just that, to get that bit closer to the truth.
In November 2017 Sky News ran an exclusive story regarding a Cabinet Office memo I unearthed, in no short part thanks to WhatDoTheyKnow.
The journey to that Cabinet Office memo began with this FOI request.
Eventually, the file I was requesting was made available in the National Archive as a result of that request. Upon checking the file in person there was a piece of paper inside with a note written in pencil saying that one of the memos had been removed, and it gave a reference number. I recorded this information, then FOI’d the Cabinet Office for it. They digitised the file and indeed it was there. Less than ten days after the FOI response we had the story on Sky News (and here’s a summary video).
I had help from a lot of people, in particular Des Collins and Danielle Holliday at Collins Solicitors, my friend Andrew March for his encouragement, assistance and ideas, as well as others who may not wish to be named.
I always remain aware that I’m doing the work others might have done, if it were not for the fact that they died far too young as a result of the scandal — or have been driven into secrecy for fear of the stigma associated with it.
The public inquiry is due to begin shortly and the legal case remain ongoing. I would like to thank WhatDoTheyKnow again for providing such an excellent platform with endless possibilities.
Thanks so much to Jason for sharing this remarkable story. We wish him the best of luck as the case progresses.
Last year, we highlighted a bureaucratic loophole that allows taxi drivers to discriminate against passengers in wheelchairs.
As WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer Doug Paulley discovered through multiple Freedom of Information requests at the time, the lack of a simple piece of administration meant that taxi drivers could refuse to take wheelchair users, or charge them extra, with complete impunity.
New legislation set a fine of up to £1,000 for such behaviour, but it can only be applied if the local council has a list of designated list of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Back in April 2017, Doug’s research indicated that 59% of authorities had no such list, nor a plan to create one.
A year later, Doug has revisited the research, and while that figure has gone down slightly, there is still cause for concern. Doug explains:
As it is now more than one year since sections 165-167 of the Equality Act 2010 were commenced (the provisions designed to combat taxi drivers’ discrimination against wheelchair users) I have updated my research into its implementation and efficacy.
No driver has faced any enforcement action under S165 of the Act, anywhere in the country. I find it difficult to believe that there haven’t been any offences committed under S165 of the Act. I have experienced several myself. I think that the fact that there have been no such enforcement actions suggests a fundamental problem with the (frankly) clunky implementation of the provisions of the Act.
As of October / November when I submitted my follow-up Freedom of Information requests, only 35% of local authorities had implemented the new provisions in their area, and only a further 16% (total 51%) of authorities intended to do so by now. Given that the Department for Transport’s statutory guidance on such recommended that all authorities implement the provisions by October 2017, this is concerning.
Many of the authorities that have attempted to implement the legislation have failed to comply with the fine print, likely making the provisions unenforceable in their area. As for the government’s good practice recommendations that councils e.g. publish the size of wheelchair each taxi can take — no councils are doing that.
I am sure that when Baroness Deech told the Secretary of State that he was defying Parliament’s will by failing to commence these provisions, she expected to have a much greater impact on discrimination. I’m really disappointed that this has sadly not been borne out in reality.
You can find lots more information about this issue, along with all the facts and figures, on Doug’s website. There’s also an invitation to contact your local councillors if you’d like to draw their attention to this issue.