1. Introducing TICTeC’s keynote speakers: Guy Grossman

    Guy GrossmanTICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies.

    This year, we’ll be in Barcelona, Spain, with a diverse programme of speakers from all over the world.

    Guy Grossman, assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s political science department, will deliver one of two keynotes. See details of our other keynote speaker, Helen Milner OBE, here.

    Guy has had a long history in civic tech research, with a special focus on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa, and we are delighted that he will be sharing his insights to our audience of practitioners and researchers.

    Hi Guy! Tell us what you’ll be covering in your TICTeC keynote.

    The state of academic knowledge about the promises and pitfalls of ICT applications designed to increase voice and accountability in low-income countries. Specifically:

    • Under what conditions are citizens more likely to communicate with government officials using mobile-platforms? If we “build them – will they come”?
    • Do mobile platforms exacerbate inequalities in political access, privileging groups (men, urban, better-off) that are heavier users of ICTs?
    • What can be done to help increase the participation rates of marginalised populations (such as women and the poor)?

    Low-income countries have leapfrogged past the landline era and directly into the mobile era. Citizens can now connect with each other and with their public officials in unprecedented ways.

    Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited.

    The massive penetration of mobile technology, even to remote areas of the least developed countries, has great potential to reshape both the social and political landscapes.

    Even though mobile technology is so pervasive, our collective understanding of many first-order questions in this area is surprisingly limited. My goal at TICTeC is to help take stock of what we know and don’t know in this emerging field.

    What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?

    I’m hoping to interact with practitioners, policy makers, technologists and fellow academics to figure out where the overlap is between practical needs and academic research.

    I’m also hoping to get exposed to promising and innovative applications that I am unaware of.

    Your civic tech research focuses especially on Uganda and Sub-Saharan Africa. What led you down this path?

    I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries.

    I care deeply about poverty and social and gender inequality, so working and studying in Africa has been a natural choice.

    How did I get involved with civic tech? In the past decade I have witnessed an increasing number of mobile-based applications designed to enhance such things as agriculture productivity and financial transactions or match between buyers and sellers.

    On the other hand, I found very few applications and platforms, if any, designed to improve governance and accountability in low-income countries. I came to believe that this was a great void that needed to be filled.

    In fact, unfortunately, we are still quite far from saturation in the development of governance-related ICT applications.

    What do you think are the big unanswered questions when it comes to civic tech?

    Does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?

    Here’s a very partial list of some of the answered questions when it comes to civic tech in the global south:

    Can simple innovations in mobile technology be used to facilitate new meaningful forms of political participation?

    If so, what types of mobile-based political communication are most likely to be adopted by voters?

    What is the potential of ICTs to flatten political access to marginalised populations?

    What are some of the ways to increase the usage of mobile-based political communication in the face of clear collective action problems?

    How can ICT be used to overcome political economy constraints to growth (e.g. by resolving monitoring challenges in government bureaucracies, reducing the cost for citizens of tracking bureaucratic performance, or making it easier to detect corrupt practices in public-sector salary distribution)?

    And, does participation in mobile communication spill into more traditional forms of political participation?

    If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?

    Adopt a user perspective — make sure that the suggested application/platform addresses a real need that could not be addressed using a low-tech solution.

    You won’t want to miss what Guy has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now.

     

  2. WhatDoTheyKnow as fact-checker

    These past few weeks, one of the most-viewed pages on our Freedom of Information site WhatDoTheyKnow has been this one, which asks the Department of Work and Pensions:

    A post has been circulating on Facebook, alleging that people are eligible to receive £26 a day/£182 a week in Tesco vouchers on the basis of being immigrants present in the UK. This is alleged to be in addition to the free housing and benefits for clothes, shoes, etc. Can you confirm whether the UK government does indeed provide vouchers of this amount to immigrants in the UK? 

    The DWP helpfully reply that, in fact, it’s the Home Office who deal with asylum support, while linking to the relevant page on their website which sets the true sum at a far more modest £36.95 per week.

    We all know how rumours like these can proliferate on social media such as Facebook, fueling indignation and spreading misinformation. We’re pretty sure that a large proportion of the visits to this page have come from people Googling to check the facts, before commenting on their friends’ Facebook posts, ‘Actually, no – here’s the truth’.

    That’s a great use of WhatDoTheyKnow and another reason why the publication of FOI responses can be so useful. We won’t be taking over from Snopes any time soon, but we’re glad to have helped in this particular case.

     

    Image: __andrew (CC)

     

  3. Our latest research: citizen engagement in New Zealand and Australia

    The latest paper from our Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, is available for download.

    Drawing on interviews with 40 individuals in government and civil society, this research strives to answer the question: how do government and civil society initiatives and innovations in New Zealand and Australia attempt to reduce digital exclusion amongst digitally under-represented user-groups?

    Rebecca pulls out the best practices from these two countries, and looks at how they could be replicated here. The result is four strong recommendations for the UK’s policymakers.

    Download the research now.

     

    Image: Queensland University of Technology (CC)

  4. TICTeC Earlybird tickets: last chance to buy

    If you’re hoping to join us in Barcelona for TICTeC, the Impact of Civic Technologies conference, then hurry: early bird pricing ends tomorrow.

    You can save £100 on your ticket by registering before midnight GMT on Friday.

    Join us to hear a variety of inspiring speakers from around the world as they share their experiences in civic technology, headed up by keynote speakers Guy Grossman (University of Pennsylvania) and Helen Milner OBE (the Tinder Foundation).

    There will also be ample time for socialising and enjoying Barcelona’s unique atmosphere. TICTeC is the world’s only conference focusing purely on the impacts of civic technology, and represents an excellent chance to meet, share, and learn from others in the sector.

    Book your tickets now

     

     

    Image: Greg Westfall (CC)

  5. Designing for wordy languages at mySociety

    When someone uses mySociety software to report a street problem, or make a Freedom of Information request, it’s often in a language other than English, because our code is used to power sites all over the world.

    That’s fine: we include a facility for people to add translations to the sites they deploy, so, job done, right?

    Except, unfortunately, there’s more to it than that. However much we complain about the idiosyncrasies of our language, there’s one thing English has got going for it, and that’s conciseness. And that means that words and phrases which fit quite nicely into our designs suddenly become problematic.

    A recent front-end design ticket in Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform, centred around improving the display of various standard elements (the navigation bar, language switcher, logged-in user links) when the Alaveteli site in question is displaying in a language other than English.

    Here’s a picture which shows exactly why that was an issue:

    messy-alaveteli-headerIt was enough to make a designer sob.

    To put it bluntly: As soon as those carefully-crafted navigation bar links get translated, all bets are off as to whether they’ll continue to fit in the space provided. It’s an issue that’s faced by anyone creating software designed for international reuse.

    So I figured I’d share a few things the mySociety design team has learned about internationalisation, and one quick trick that I recently started using to test international language lengths on our own websites.

    The problem

    Not only are some languages more verbose than others (ie: they use more words to convey the same concept), but many use more characters per word.

    Then there are other languages which use fewer—but more complex—characters that need to be displayed larger to still remain legible.

    The W3C (which sets standards for the web) suggests that front-end developers can expect the following ratio of increase/decrease in visual text width when translating from English into this handful of common languages:

    Language Translation Ratio
    Korean 조회 0.8
    English views 1
    Chinese 次檢視 1.2
    Portuguese visualizações 2.6
    French consultations 2.6
    German -mal angesehen 2.8
    Italian visualizzazioni 3

    That’s a 150–200% increase in space required to display words in the European / South American languages that we deal with quite a lot here at mySociety.

    Often, you’re lucky, and the layout includes enough space to absorb the extra words. Headings and paragraphs of text are really good at this. Indeed, as the amount of text to be translated gets bigger, you notice that the translation has less effect on space, as the W3C, again, notes:

    No. of characters in English source Average expansion
    Up to 10 characters 200–300%
    11–20 characters 180–200%
    21–30 characters 160–180%
    31–50 characters 140–160%
    51–70 characters 151-170%
    Over 70 characters 130%

    So—no need to worry—it’s just short little bits of text that hurt the most. Phew.

    Hang on, short little bits of text… like all those buttons and links all over every single website mySociety makes?

    romg

    Don’t panic!

    That’s what mySociety has designers for :-)

    There are lots of tricks we can use to reinforce our layouts to better handle long strings. For instance, where possible, we avoid creating horizontally-constrained navigation bars.

    And in some cases, we can use modern styling techniques like Flexbox to better handle overflowing text without harming legibility or the overall layout of the page.

    But testing the effectiveness of these techniques can take time and, while we have a fantastic network of volunteers and international partners who translate our open source projects, we’re often working on the initial layout and styling before that has a chance to happen.

    While I was working out fixes for the Alaveteli user links and language picker dropdown, I threw together a quick “pseudolocalize” function that temporarily makes the text longer, so we could preview how it’ll look once it gets translated.

    pseudolocalization-code-snippet

    Only later did I discover that “Pseudolocalization” is, apparently, a real thing, originating from the Windows developer community.

    Typically existing Pseudolocalization functions would do all sorts of orthographic substitutions to test how weird characters are displayed, as well as padding the strings to make them longer. So, something like Account Settings would be transformed into [!!! Àççôûñţ Šéţţîñĝš !!!].

    My little function skips the weird character substitutions, and instead just doubles the text content of any elements you tell it to.

    So you can run…

    pseudolocalize('.navigation a')

    …in your browser console, to turn this…

    before

    …into this!

    after

    Yep, it’s useful and it’s ridiculous — our favourite combination.

    Plus, it’s super fast, and it works with nested elements, so if you were totally crazy, you could just run it on the entire 'body' and be done with it!

    pseudolocalize('body')
    psuedolocalized

    Now, we’re not saying we’ll be able to cope with, say, the longest word in Sanskrit, which is 431 letters long, but this approach does make us pretty confident that we’ve got a great basis for whatever most languages can throw at us.

    If you’re a web developer with similarly ingenious tricks for improving the internationalization of your sites, share them in the comments box!

    Photo of Nepalese prayer wheels by Greg WillisCC BY-SA 2.0

  6. Unpicking code, for the good of the project

    Last year, when we were helping to develop YourNextMP, the candidate-crowdsourcing platform for the General Election, we made what seemed like an obvious decision.

    We decided to use PopIt as the site’s datastore — the place from which it could draw information about representatives: their names, positions, et cetera. We’d been developing PopIt as a solution for parliamentary monitoring sites, but we reckoned it would also be a good fit for YourNextMP.

    That turned out to be the wrong choice.

    YourNextMP was up and running in time for the election, but at the cost of many hours of intensive development as we tried to make PopIt do what was needed for the site.

    Once you’ve got an established site in production, changing the database it uses isn’t something you do lightly. But on returning to the codebase to develop it for international reuse, we had to admit that, in the words of mySociety developer Mark Longair, PopIt was “actually causing more problems than it was solving”. It was time to unpick the code and take a different approach.

    Mark explains just what it took to decide to change course in this way, over on his own blog.

    The post contains quite a bit of technical detail, but it’s also an interesting read for anyone who’s interested in when, and why, it’s sometimes best to question the decisions you’ve made.

     

    Image: Michelle (CC)

  7. Commission on Freedom of Information oral evidence: making a case for public disclosure

    As you may remember, the government recently set up an independent commission to examine whether this country’s Freedom of Information laws should be made more restrictive.

    Back in November, we explained the changes, showed how similar legislation had had undesirable effects in other countries, and urged you to tell the commission how you felt.

    It seems that almost 30,000 people and organisations responded to the consultation — a tremendous number, and testament to the strength of feeling around the matter. The commission announced that it would invite some of the respondents to provide oral evidence, in sessions that happened at the end of January.

    Transcripts and videos from those sessions are now available on the gov.uk website. They make for fascinating, if somewhat lengthy, perusal. Attendees are from a variety of organisations, including bodies who deal with incoming FOI requests, and those who campaign for our rights under the Act.

    If you don’t fancy trawling through all 286 pages, here are a few of our own highlights — the points which really vindicate a service like WhatDoTheyKnow, with its system of publishing responses in public.

    Requesting and responding in public saves money

    A number of different respondents made the case for the savings that can be made through transparency in FOI. First there was Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner:

    If you’ve actually concluded that, under the Freedom of Information Act, you ought to make something available, it makes common sense to make it generally available because then that gives you a reason for not having to publish it a second time, you just refer people to the lot.

    Peter Clifton from the Press Association:
    Some time that is spent answering these responses would be addressed if there was just a much more open approach to data that is often not particularly controversial, it just adds to people’s understanding about the organisations that help to run their lives and I think we should have a more consistent approach.

    Ian Redhead, from the National Police Chief’s Council did have a different opinion:

    I always try to convince my colleagues […] that the more we put on a publication scheme, the less questions we’d receive and that’s proved to be absolutely not correct. In year one, we had 15,000 requests. Last year, we had just under 50,000 and we put a huge amount of information into the public environment. So it doesn’t in any way reduce the level of applications we receive.
    But Maurice Frankel from the Campaign for Freedom of Information had this to say in response:
    I suspect they are publishing the wrong information. I don’t think they are looking what the requests are. They are getting requests for what software they are using and when the contracts come up for renewal, that is what they should publish.

    Requesting and responding in public increases accountability

    The benefits of Freedom of Information can’t always be counted in pounds and pence. What price tag can you put on accountability? Lord McNally had a great example from last night’s paper:

    Last night in the Evening Standard it’s revealed that Westminster City Council have spent £90,000 on a new Rolls Royce for their Lord Mayor.

    It might be embarrassing for Westminster City Council but why shouldn’t the good burghers of Westminster know how much Westminster City Council is spending on their Rolls Royce.

    Well, when you talk about cost and benefit, it’s very difficult to get the full cost benefit, but I suspect, both at national level and at local government level, there’s many a pound being saved by people saying, well, if we do this, it will be FoIed and we’ll have hell to pay.

    There were some objections to commercial usage of the FOI Act, where a company, for example, requests information about existing contracts from every council in the country. But here was the counter-argument, put a couple of times by the Right Honourable Lord Howard:

    After all, if that information enables the service to be provided more economically or more effectively, isn’t that a public interest?
    That wasn’t disputed — and in fact, often the information is available online. Councils already publish all expenditure over £500: the problem arises when requesters want it given in a specific format, meaning it has to be gathered anew.

    Requesting and responding in public exposes vexatious requests

    There were many mentions of ‘vexatious’ requests — that is, requests which have been submitted with ill intent, whether that be malicious or mischievous.

    When requests and responses are published online, one person’s activities become very easy to see, and vexatious behaviour is much more easily proven.

    We were interested to see the Police Chief’s Council put a rough figure on the proportion of this kind of request:

    IAN READHEAD: Oh, I would think vexatious requests are easily less [than] 3 percent of all requests.
    LORD CARLILE: So it’s a very smart [sic] proportion?
    MARK WISE: It’s very small.

    Several witnesses mentioned the types of vexatious requests they receive, and the ways in which a requester may make requests within the letter, but not spirit of the law.

    Councillor David Simmonds from the Local Government Authority:
    It is the vexatious questioner who sends in a request saying: how many members of staff do you have whose first name begins with A, how many whose first name begins with B?, and when challenged says “I am entitled to ask this information under the Act”.
    As I understand it, it refers to the individual request and not to requests, so the authority would not be entitled to refuse the request on the basis that the person had submitted many hundreds of like requests for no obvious purpose in recent times.
    Cllr Simmonds did say that he wasn’t absolutely sure about that last point and would follow up with some research.

    A final word

    When this commission was first announced, the government emphasised their commitment to open data, with the implication that there’s less need for FOI when information is proactively published. But Lord McNally had a different take on it:

    Just always remember that data, open data, is what government wants to tell you, Freedom of Information is what we want to know.

     

    There’s no word yet as to when the commission’s findings will be released, but we’ll be sure to let you know when they are.

    Image: Scott McLeod (CC)

  8. Lewisham council switches to Open311

    Lewisham is the latest council to make the switch over to Open311 — with our help.

    If Open311 doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry: all you need to know is that it’s a protocol which allows services like FixMyStreet to drop your reports directly into the council’s workflow systems. No-one has to do the tedious and time-consuming job of re-typing the details from an email into fields that the system will accept — it just slots everything in the right place.

    Open means innovation

    But the most important aspect of Open311 is the word ‘open’.

    Open standards, like open data or open source code, are free for anyone to use. And we believe they are the key to both enterprise and economy within the sector.

    Anyone can use them to create an app or a web tool. The result is a fertile environment where government can pick applications from a variety of sources. Great ideas can blossom anywhere, and this allows the freedom to find them in internal teams, external providers, or even independent developers who produce stuff for free because they want to.

    There are further benefits for councils, too. Standards are (of course) standardised — so any tool built for Open311 can connect with any system adapted to accept compliant inputs. This allows for a pick-and-mix approach where multiple systems can be put together, and for councils to swap suppliers in and out as required, without longterm tie-ins.

    Nigel Tyrell is the driver behind the big switchover at Lewisham. From April, their LoveLewisham app will take reports from any Open311-compliant application that sends it reports — including FixMyStreet.

    By adopting Open311 we can hook into the fantastic FixMyStreet site and apps while developing our in-house LoveLewisham Peer2Peer app to provide a much more effective response.

    Open standards bring savings

    Going down this route has also brought substantial cost savings for Lewisham, and will continue to do so: Nigel forecasts a benefit of around £118,000.

    We have saved £13k a year by ending our contract with the previous supplier. We’ve developed our LoveLewisham P2P app in-house and used the first year of savings to buy our operatives decent smartphones.

    It’s not just the contract, though — the new approach has allowed for a restructuring of the team.

    In part, savings will be made by staff who are already out and about on various duties being able to put their own reports directly into the system, thanks to those smartphones.

    The strength of LoveLewisham has always been the implementation of mobile technology by our front-line workers.

    This in turn means that customer services staff time will be freed up. Overall, Nigel reckons he’s looking at a saving of around £105,000 in staffing costs.

    We’ll help you do the same

    We helped Lewisham in this shift to Open311. And, if you’re a council whose systems support the Open311 GeoReport v2 spec, then we’ll happily hook you up to receive reports from FixMyStreet, and provide access to a test site to perform your own end-to-end testing.

    There are further options for deeper integration, too — like enabling two-way updates, so that when a citizen marks a problem as fixed, that’s also transmitted to council systems. If you’re from a council and you’d like to know more, just get in touch here.

    Image: Adam Tinworth (CC)

     

  9. Introducing the first of TICTeC’s keynote speakers: Helen Milner OBE

    Helen MillnerTICTeC is our annual conference on the impacts of civic technologies. It’s a great chance to hear from researchers and practitioners right across the sector, from many different countries and with many different approaches.

    Not least among these will be our keynote speakers. Today, we’re delighted to announce the first of these: Helen Milner OBE, CEO of Tinder Foundation.

    Helen has had a long history in delivering training around the internet and particularly, as a means of addressing social exclusion.

    Hi Helen. Give us the elevator pitch: what will you be talking about at TICTeC, in a nutshell?

    Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes?

    I’ll be putting a series of questions: is digital trying to fix outdated modes of democracy?

    Are people getting increasingly detached from politics and do they feel that democratic structures are impenetrable no matter how much politicians tweet?

    Is civic tech an amusing pastime of the middle-classes? Or can communities co-design a better future for everyone using tech?

    There are lots of clever people developing democratic and civic tools and apps to help people have a voice—but unless people have the skills to get online, and to use these apps, they will remain the preserve of the digitally confident.

    I will be trying to answer some of these questions and discuss how our efforts can make maximum impact for most people most of the time – and leaving no-one behind.

    And why should people be excited by this?

    As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.

    As the world becomes increasingly digitised, we cannot allow the chasm between the digital ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ to get any wider.

    At Tinder Foundation, we’re committed to helping the 12.6 million people in the UK—and the next 3 billion around the world—who don’t have basic digital skills, and so who aren’t realising all of the benefits of the digital world.

    My work as a Commissioner for the UK Parliament’s Digital Democracy Commission brought me up close to the barriers of history and culture looking from the inside out.

    What are you hoping to get out of TICTeC?

    Tinder Foundation’s ethos is very much about taking collaborative approach to extend our reach and ensure that our models of delivery are co-designed for social challenges, rather than assuming a one-size fits all approach.

    I’m excited about being part of the conversation so that together we can ensure that democratic and civic technology is accessible to everybody in society.

    Where does your passion for digital and social inclusion come from?

    In the UK there are still a shocking 12 million people—and 3 billion worldwide—who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.

    I went to school in south London where I was educated alongside people from all different backgrounds and have always believed in equality of opportunity. In the UK however, there are still a shocking 12 million people – and 3 billion worldwide – who lack the basic skills to use the internet and benefit.

    By not helping these millions and billions of people gain we are further marginalising the most disadvantaged people in society as well as making it less easy for them to have a voice.

    My role on the Digital Democracy Commission presented recommendations about how everybody in society could engage with the democratic process via digital channels, for example the potential for online voting and a website to help make politics more accessible to those who aren’t currently engaging with politics (such as young people).

    The commission also made a strong case for investing in digital skills training in order to ensure that people can participate with a more digitised political system in future, and the same goes for civic tech.

    If you could make one recommendation to those developing new civic tech, and wanting to see real impact from it, what would it be?

    Civic tech is about more than just technology—its evolution should be driven by a desire to include everyone and empowering everyone to participate in decision-making about matters that impact on them: community, housing, education, transport, the environment, budgets, et al.

    Unless there is a shared commitment towards ensuring everyone can engage with democratic and civic tech, the power to influence change in society will continue to be held in the hands of a committed few.

    You won’t want to miss what Helen has to say at TICTeC, so make sure you book your tickets now. Earlybird pricing runs until February 19.

  10. Crowd-sourcing candidate data in Costa Rica: TusRepresentantesLocales

    Costa Rica will soon be holding elections, voting in mayors and local representatives for each canton — the equivalent of county level. Traditionally these elections have a low turnout  — around 20% of the population — and very few people know who the candidates are.

    Indeed, voters tend not to be very informed about the differences in role between councillors, representatives and mayors. As a result, many simply vote for family members, friends or people they know who are standing, rather than the issues the parties are campaigning about.

    Technology to the rescue

    Can technology help? You may remember YourNextMP, the crowdsourcing software which gathered details of every single candidate in the UK, prior to our own General Election last year.

    That’s now been made available, as YourNextRepresentative, for international usage. Costa Rican version TusRepresentantesLocales launched a couple of weeks ago as a joint initiative between Accesa and mySociety.

    5243818933_a399f4fb40_zCanton elections are a relatively recent institution in Costa Rica; the first Mayor was elected in 1998 and the February 2016 election will be the first time that all three positions go to ballot on the same day!

    Accesa’s goal is to share knowledge about these elections to improve the turnout and have a more informed voter population.

    As you may remember from YourNextMP, the data is mainly gathered via crowdsourcing — asking the general public to add verified information from news stories, political parties’ websites, etc. YourNextRepresentative works the same way.

    Accesa will work with students from the Political Sciences school, community youth groups and in harder to reach cantons, such as the ones bordering Nicaragua, local government members.

    Accesa also want provide something for the candidates that no one else provides: candidates are looking for more coverage of their work around the election —  especially the representative candidates because there is generally more focus on the mayoral ones. TusRepresentantesLocales will give them a platform.

    Manfred Vargas from Accesa says:

    “One of the main challenges that Costa Rican democracy currently faces has to do with how to strengthen public interest in local elections and local governments.

    The abstention rates in past local elections have been incredibly high and most citizens don’t even know who their mayors or councillors are. This year, for the first time, elections for all local positions will be consolidated in one single electoral process that will take place on February 7th, and there’s been a big push to make sure that citizens realise that their municipalities really do matter and their vote counts.

    This site is our contribution to this effort and we believe strongly in it because it accomplishes two very important goals: it lets citizens know who their candidates are, and, by virtue of being a collective effort, it encourages citizen engagement and participation in the electoral process”.

    We wish them luck for the elections and can’t wait to see the outcome!

     

    Images: Ingmar Zahorsky (CC)