1. ATOS, Capita, PIP… and some persistent FOI requests

    An article in the current Private Eye Magazine has drawn our attention to the use that disability campaigner John Slater is making of our Freedom of Information service WhatDoTheyKnow.com.

    In December 2016, Mr Slater asked the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to release the monthly “management information reports” received from contractors ATOS and Capita in relation to their work assessing eligibility for Personal Independence Payment benefits.

    Mr Slater has pursued his request for over a year, and wasn’t put off by an initial response which stated that the information requested wasn’t held, nor a subsequent response refusing to release the material citing the contractors’ “commercial interests”.

    In December 2017, a year after Mr Slater made his request, the Information Commissioner ordered the DWP to release the material, stating “The Commissioner has not been satisfied that disclosing the withheld information would be likely to damage the commercial standing of ATOS and Capita”. The Information Commissioner dismissed the DWP’s concerns that the information requested could be “misinterpreted in ways that could lead to reputational damage to both the Department and the PIP Providers as well as prejudice the efficient conduct of public affairs”.

    The Information Commissioner’s decision notice was highly critical of the way the DWP had handled the case, noting the use of “standard paragraphs” rather than a discussion of the public interest tailored to the material in question, and DWP failing to engage promptly with the Information Commissioner, thus causing further delay.

    The DWP have not yet complied with the Information Commissioner’s decision; they have appealed and a tribunal hearing is scheduled for April 2018.

    This request is far from the only one showing Mr Slater’s persistence in pursuing the release of information held by the Department for Work and Pensions.

    A request for Project Assessment Review Reports for the Universal Credit Programme that Mr Slater made in April 2016 was initially accepted and the department said they were considering it. Mr Slater chased up the lack of a response in June, and again in August and September, but when, six months after his original request, Mr Slater chased them again in October they deemed his persistence to be vexatious and rejected the request.

    That request has now been further rejected by the DWP, who say that the information “if released would, or would be likely to, prejudice the free and frank provision of advice or which would otherwise, or would be likely otherwise to, prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.”

    Mr Slater has referred that decision to the Information Commissioner too.

    On the 5th of December 2017, Debbie Abrahams MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, deployed the Parliamentary procedure of a motion for “an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty” to seek the release of the documents to the Work and Pensions Committee. MPs agreed the motion unanimously.

    The committee are currently in correspondence with the Government over redaction, and arrangements for access to the material.

    The committee chair, Frank Field MP, has suggested that:

    A couple of copies would be made. These copies will be kept securely and members would be invited to come to the Committee office to read them. No-one else, other than the committee members, will be invited to make this journey to our Committee office and members will not be able to make copies, or take notes, about the documents.

    – so despite the decision by the House of Commons the public still might not get to see the material via that route.

    Mr Slater has been in touch with us and told us he finds the service provided by WhatDoTheyKnow extremely helpful when submitting and managing FOI requests.

    He said that the ease of submitting requests and built in workflow that keeps track of time, reminding users that a response should have been issued, is invaluable. He also likes that a single platform exists where information obtained by its users is made available for everyone, as that embodies the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act.


    Image: John-Mark Kuznietsov (Unsplash)

  2. Where there’s muck there’s brass

    We created FixMyStreet Pro to help councils and city governments better manage inbound street reports and issues from their residents.

    In the past few months we’ve rolled out the FixMyStreet Pro service to new customers including Bath & North East Somerset, Buckinghamshire and Rutland councils; each of whom are taking the opportunity to get rid of legacy software, simplify their operations and make use of a much simpler and intuitive way for their residents and staff to make and manage reports.

    We’re now looking for input from councils to help us guide the next phase of our service development on FixMyStreet Pro.

    Having spoken to dozens of councils we think we can help them save more money by extending FixMyStreet Pro to other areas like waste and environment services and we would like to explore how much development work that might entail.

    Not just for streets

    As FixMyStreet’s name would suggest our focus so far has been on handling issues related to highways like potholes, lighting and gullies (drains to me and you), but FixMyStreet Pro already handles reports for a whole range of issues beyond streets.

    Typically council users of FixMyStreet Pro have around 13 to 15 different self-selected categories that they accept reports on – each of which can be directed to different teams or departments. Tree reports can be sent directly to the parks department, graffiti or abandoned cars can be passed along to the just the right team in street cleansing.

    These ‘front end reports’ all have one thing in common: all we need to make the report is a location and description, plus a contact for the reporter, which could be as simple as an email address or phone number.

    But once you get deeper into the glamorous world of bins and waste services for individual residents the situation gets a little more complicated.

    Missed bin collections, requests for recycling bags, bulky waste collection – these all require the resident to be identified, the particular property to be checked with the UPRN (Unique Property Reference Number), and in some cases payments levied and collected.

    FixMyStreet Pro doesn’t currently offer these additional waste services, although it doesn’t require a huge leap of imagination to see how we could add these adjacent features to the service, not least because we already do a lot of the pieces across our other commercial services.

    Fortunately there has already been a lot of work done to define common standards, such as the Local Waste Service Standards Project from 2016 and more recent work by individual councils to apply some of this work – we also have a lot of our own research and experience to draw upon with numerous specific feature requests from our current local authority clients.

    Let’s talk

    To make this happen we’d like to recruit at least two or three friendly councils available for interviews and possibly a workshop or two, to help us determine specific requirements and test out some of our early prototypes and hypotheses. From here we’d aim to develop these features into fully working aspects of FixMyStreet Pro over the summer.

    If this is of interest to you, if you’re already grappling with this in your own council, or you’d just like to find out more, please get in touch with enquiries@fixmystreet.com and we can have a chat.

    In the meantime you can always find out more about what FixMyStreet Pro can do on one of our regular Friday Webinars.

    Image: Smabs Sputzer CC BY 2.0

  3. Making better FOI requests in Hackney

    We’re in the process of conducting a discovery and prototyping exercise to understand how Hackney Council currently respond to FOI requests — and also Subject Access Requests (SAR) — ahead of the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), coming into force in May 2018.

    The aim is to explore how we can help members of the public find the information they are looking for when attempting to submit an FOI or SAR request and subsequently, when a request is complete, making it easier to publish the non-personal responses to requests through a searchable public disclosure log.

    Information should be free

    When someone makes a Freedom of Information request to a public body, we like to think that the information provided, often at a not insignificant cost, should be available freely to everyone, in public.

    That’s the basis of our Alaveteli software which runs in at least 28 countries, and WhatDoTheyKnow in the UK which has grown to become a vast database approaching half a million FOI requests and responses over the last 10 years, from almost 19,000 public bodies.

    From our own research we know that at least 15% of all FOI requests made in the UK pass through WhatDoTheyKnow, and that rises to over 30% of all requests to some central government departments. That still leaves somewhere over 70% of all requests that feasibly could be made available to the public.

    What usually happens instead is that these individual requests remain hidden away in private mailboxes and probably won’t ever see the light of day.

    Our FOI strategy

    In response to this we’re on a mission to expand the share of FOI requests that are catalogued and released in public through WhatDoTheyKnow. This requires us to have an understanding of the nature and source of these other requests.

    Broadly speaking around one third of these remaining requests are made by commercial businesses seeking contractual information from councils, NHS trusts and the like. About a fifth are from journalists researching for stories, another slice come from students or academics, and the remainder from individuals who are often making just a single request.

    Our overall strategy is pretty simple: expand the scope of WhatDoTheyKnow where we can to capture more requests directly, and create new services to cater to specific user needs.

    This thinking is what led to our service for journalists and campaigners, WhatDoTheyKnow Pro. (So far we’ve been reluctant to directly cater to FOI requests made by commercial businesses, although on balance it would be better if these requests did eventually make it into the public domain.)

    Working with Hackney

    Through WhatDoTheyKnow we’ve been pretty firmly focused on helping citizens make good FOI requests. Some readers may remember our previous forays into this area, with WhatDoTheyKnow for Councils (since retired). We found issues with that: specifically, the assumption of immediate publication in particular placed us in position as both poacher and gamekeeper, creating a conflict of interest we weren’t comfortable with.

    However when we consider the full lifecycle of creating a response to an FOI request we still believe that we can use our experience of FOI to help public bodies support better drafting of initial requests and aid the management of responding to these requests.

    Which brings us back to our new collaboration with Hackney.

    More specifically, we are working with Hackney to explore how we can:

    • help users better submit clear and valid requests
    • integrate this request form with other sources of information (including with a disclosure log) to try and help users find what they need more quickly and conveniently
    • integrate with case management services so that queries are answered quickly and information published openly wherever possible
    • use information from previous requests to speed the allocation of a particular request to a specific council service
    • support compliance with current legislation, and pre-empt forthcoming changes (GDPR).

    We’re just at the beginning of this process but we’ll be blogging and sharing more updates over the next couple of months. We will also be speaking to other public sector bodies, councils in particular, about how they manage the process of responding to FOI requests, the challenges they face, and the opportunities this offers them to proactively release more publicly available data.

    Hackney are a great partner to work with. As you might be already aware they have been very active in adopting user-centred, agile methods to develop new services, they are comfortable and vocal talking about their work in public (check out the HackIT blog here) and they are especially focused on bringing their staff along with them as they evolve their approach.

    We’ve got a lot to learn from them, and hopefully they can benefit from some of our experience representing the needs of citizens.

    Get involved

    If you’re responsible for managing FOI requests or data protection in your own public sector body and you’d like to follow this project in more detail — or if you’d like to participate in some of the discovery work — then please get in touch at hello@mysociety.org.

    Update: See part 2 of this blog post here.

    Image: Simon Blackley CC BY-ND 2.0

  4. Consultation response: Revised Freedom of Information Code of Practice

    The Freedom of Information Code of Practice is a set of guidelines for the public authorities that are liable to respond to requests for information under the FOI Act. It advises these bodies on how to adhere to the law and what counts as best practice.

    The Cabinet Office recently ran a consultation on proposed revisions to the Code of Practice. Since this Code directly relates to the activities of the website WhatDoTheyKnow, and the services it provides for our users, we put in a response, which you can view here.

    The response was submitted under the joint names of WhatDoTheyKnow, our FOI codebase project Alaveteli, and mySociety itself, having been worked on by the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer team, those working on the Alaveteli project, and mySociety’s researchers. Between them there is a substantial amount of experience and knowledge on FOI in the UK: much of our response is based on our experience in helping users to obtain information from public bodies.

    Indeed, our response commented on points which we felt particularly affect our users; among other issues, we responded on:

    • Timeliness of responses, including the introduction of time limits for internal review and public interest test extensions, and the importance of prompt responses to requests which inform current public debate.
    • The use of pseudonyms by those making requests: what counts as a pseudonym; whether this should be one of the indications that can be used to label a request as vexatious, and whether authorities might, at their own discretion, process a request even if pseudonymous.
    • Proactive publication, including the point that routine publishing of data may be more efficient and cheaper than responding to individual repeated requests. One suggestion is that every Freedom of Information request should prompt a consideration by the public body of whether the kind of information requested could practically be routinely published.
    • The application of fees to a request: the desirability of pointing out that most FOI requests do not incur a charge and that the requester will never be charged without notice. People can be deterred by the prospect of fees, and bodies’ responses often contain worrying notices about them in their emails and on Freedom of Information web-pages, when in reality they are rarely applied.
    • The means of communication: that requests made by email, unless the requester specifies otherwise, should be taken as a preference for a response by email; the ease of making FOI requests; and the ease of using data in the format provided in any response.

    We replied on several other points too, including the status of the Code of Practice itself. It was issued in 2004, and has not been updated since, and in fact it’s not a document that we use regularly when we’re advising users or corresponding with public bodies about the application of Freedom of Information law.

    The high quality guidance which we, and our users, do use on a day-to-day basis comes from the Information Commissioner, so we suggested the Government consider whether, and if so how, the Code of Practice could incorporate, or endorse that documentation.

    One other important point is that the Code of Practice constitutes guidance rather than law, so any welcome shifts in policy that it endorses should ideally be reflected in the law too.

    As a case in point, while the Freedom of Information Act has always covered information “held on behalf” of a public body, the proposed Code of Practice sought to make information held by contractors working for public bodies more accessible in practice: we welcome this but we do caution that issuing a new Code of Practice is not a substitute for amending the law, if that’s what’s required.

    If you are interested, do read our submitted document in full.

    You may also like to see responses from the Campaign for Freedom of Information and the Open Government Network: as we three organisations’ submissions share several common themes (without our having consulted one another), we hope that there’s a good chance of the Government taking them into account.


    Image: Nick Youngson (CC by-sa/3.0)

  5. Further thoughts on TheyWorkForYou and parental leave

    Last week TheyWorkForYou received criticism from some MPs following requests from Emma Reynolds MP to include a note on her voting record that acknowledged time she spent off on parental leave. Our initial response was not sufficient and we’re sorry.

    You can see our more nuanced follow up response on Twitter here:

    In summary we’ve committed to doing two things:

    1. We’ll speak to Parliament to see if a feed of absences could be made available to update the relevant section of TheyWorkForYou.com
    2. In the meantime we have made some changes so we can manually append a note on long-term absences due to paternal leave or ill-health on request from MPs offices

    TheyWorkForYou.com allows citizens to understand how their MPs are voting on issues on their behalf. We’re able to do this because we take the official record of what’s been discussed in Parliament, Hansard, and we represent it in a more ordered form that gathers together all of the votes from a particular issue together in one place.

    We can only work with what is provided via the official feeds from Parliament – we don’t actively try to gather additional data; we do however manually categorise each vote to allow them to be grouped together, but everything else is automated.

    So whilst we are reliant on what we’re able to source from the official Parliament feed, there is an extent to which we are re-presenting the original data in a more transparent way. Arguably that will change how people see it. As such we want to ensure that we properly represent as true a picture as possible.

    MPs, like anyone else, often have to spend time away from their jobs for extended periods, either on parental leave, or due to illness. As this is not reflected in voting records from Parliament and thus not displayed on TheyWorkForYou it can paint an inaccurate picture of an individual MP’s commitment – this is an issue that we have been aware of for a couple of years.

    This is particularly relevant in the case of women who take time off after having a child; the current practice in Parliament is that there is no provision for parental leave or ability for MPs to appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf, and that’s the issue that MPs were debating on Thursday when Emma Reynolds made her observation about TheyWorkForYou.

    It’s a situation we agree is unfair and in need of urgent reform. We completely support any initiatives to stamp out practices that disproportionately discriminate against women in Parliament.

    The list of things that Parliament needs to address in order to improve its working conditions is long and and deep-seated, that’s not something that mySociety can fix – the only people who can do that are MPs and staff in Parliament themselves and we’ll continue to support these changes where we can.

    We know that records of attendance aren’t kept for MPs and we blogged about it previously. We also know that this should in principle be possible as they do publish absences of leave for Lords.

    So what we have at least done in the meantime is put in place a workaround for TheyWorkforYou.

    If we can get the aforementioned list of absences from an official Parliament feed then we’ll look to include that alongside relevant sections of voting records on TheyWorkForYou. This would be our preferred solution.

    If, as we suspect, this just is not available or may be some time in coming, then for the moment we will manually append a note to an MPs voting record on request from their office.

    This will at least allow us take care of the most clear cut cases.

    However as a solution this is far from ideal as it will mean that we are entirely reliant on being notified when an MP is away and when they return, which leaves a lot of opportunity for inaccurate record keeping.

    With the best will in the world, we all know that human error can creep in to manual systems — of course we’d never suggest that an MP would lie about taking a leave of absence, that’d be ridiculous; but it would be easy for those about to go on maternity leave to forget to engage in a piece of admin that isn’t even required by Parliament. TheyWorkForYou is familiar to a lesser or greater extent by different MPs and they regard it as significant to a greater or lesser degree. This being so, we’d never be entirely confident that we were presenting a completely consistent and accurate record.

    It puts us in a position where we are inadvertently going to be held responsible for keeping track of each MP’s attendance without the means of actually carrying out this role to an acceptable standard. It also raises the issue of where we draw the line – there are many reasons an MP may not be able to attend Parliament other than long-term illness or parental leave; having received such requests over the years from MPs, we can be sure this is going to come up again and again, so we suspect that this won’t be the end of the discussion.

    That being said we agree that applying a short term patch to support the cause of parental leave in Parliament is a price worth paying and we’ll deal with the follow ups as best we can in the meantime.

    Image: Andrew Bowden CC BY-SA 2.0

  6. TheyWorkForYou and leaves of absence: it’s all about priorities

     

    TheyWorkForYou refusing to note that an MP was on maternity leave? Wait, that doesn’t sound like us…

    TheyWorkForYou has one main aim: to make it extremely easy to see what’s going on in Parliament. To that end, we publish debates, voting records, and all sorts of details about MPs such as their job titles, expenses, and even which words they use most often.

    Sometimes, interpreting all of these facts needs a little context. Case in point: when an MP is off on extended sickness or maternity leave, the number of speeches and votes they make will, of course, go down. There are many little exceptions like this, in fact: for example, my own MP was, for a while, a teller, meaning that he counted votes and was not normally allowed to vote himself. As you’d expect, this had quite an effect on his voting tally.

    Now, the trouble with these exceptions is that they’re not easy to code. Most of TheyWorkForYou’s data actually comes from Parliament itself: they provide all the day’s debates, for example, as XML code, which our automated scripts pick up and publish out in the nice, readable format you see each morning on TheyWorkForYou. That’s how we’re able to publish such a large quantity of content on so many MPs: if TheyWorkForYou was compiled editorially, it’d require a far larger staff than we have.

    So in fact, when Emma Reynolds got in touch to ask that we note her maternity leave on TheyWorkForYou, we didn’t refuse. Rather, we told her the truth: that it was a tricky issue that would require a manual bit of coding, but we’d add it to our development list and hopefully get to it.

    And that’s what we did. The trouble is, our development list is long, and we’re constantly having to make decisions about what to prioritise. This ticket is now a few years old (Ms Reynolds was not the first to ask for a note on her record to explain special circumstances) and it hasn’t yet risen to the top of the list above bug fixes and other more urgent additions. TheyWorkForYou is currently unfunded, so of course, projects which have funding and expectations/deadlines attached to that funding take priority.

    You can see just how long we’ve had this issue open, and that it has had some thought, in our development ticket here (related tickets are also here and here).

    Note: In retrospect, we recognise that the advice below is not strictly relevant to this post. While we do very much need funding, and also do very much encourage anyone with coding skills to come and help out with our backlog, these two solutions would not alleviate the main obstacle to the issue above, which is that the required data isn’t output by Parliament. So, feel free to read on if you like, but with that in mind. mySociety CEO Mark Cridge put out a series on tweets on Friday which clarify our thinking; you can see those here.

    Until we’re able to prioritise this piece of work (or any other that our users/MPs would like to see), there are a couple of solutions.

    Ask for Parliament to add such information to their output

    As mentioned above, most of TheyWorkForYou’s content is automated, so if there were a data source to show that an MP was on a leave of absence, we could easily pick it up and include it on their page. We’ve asked an MP’s office about this but they replied:

    We are not aware of any official source of information about an MP taking leave of absence.

    From our point of view, this would be far preferable to a manual solution, which would rely on MPs getting in touch themselves to let us know when exceptions applied. This would almost certainly lead to a situation where some did, and some didn’t, meaning the information could look more accurate than it really was. Many researchers use our outputs, so we wouldn’t want this to become the foundation of a study on MPs’ leaves of absence!

    Be the change you want to see

    OK, that’s a bit of a hippy-esque maxim, but in this case it’s quite apt.

    A small job like this would not take very long or cost very much — the reason we haven’t yet managed it isn’t because it’s a massive piece of work, but because there are so many other pressing tasks.

    An MP (or anyone) who wanted to see a new feature could help by making a donation. If you specify that it is for a particular addition to the site, we’ll get back to you to discuss how viable that is, and how we can make it happen.

    Or do it yourself! Like most mySociety projects, TheyWorkForYou runs on Open Source code. That means that, if you have development skills, you are very welcome to fork the code and make a pull request for whatever improvements or additions you like. We’ll gratefully merge in any that fit with the site (have a chat with us first to make sure everyone’s on the same page).

    If you’re not a developer (say, for example, you’re an MP), you could even contract one to do this for you.

    We hope that’s cleared things up a bit. We’re not out to demonise MPs who take maternity leave, honest. And we’ve lodged an official request for a correction from the Times.


    Image: Erik Lundqvist

  7. Open Data Day’s coming – let’s help out!

    March 3 is Open Data Day, and groups all around the world will be using Open Data in their communities, to show its benefits and to encourage the sharing of more data from government, business and civil society.

    Obviously, that depends on their having some good-quality data to work with — and we’d like to help make that happen. Or, more accurately, help you to help make that happen.

    Just as with Global Legislative Open Week last October, we’ll support groups who would like to run a workshop, getting together with other like-minded people to improve the open political data available for your country in Wikidata.

    Funding and support available

    Thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation, we’re able to offer some support to individuals/groups who are interested in running Wikidata workshops during February. If you’d like to hold an event like this, it’s pretty simple: all you need is a space, and someone with some existing Wikidata skills who can show others how to add or improve data. Then you just have to pick a date, and put out the word for people to join you.

    We can help with a few things, so let us know once you’ve decided to take part, and we’ll chat with you about what might be useful. Here’s what we can offer:

    • A small amount of funding to help cover event costs
    • In-person support during your event – we may be able to send one of our EveryPolitician/Wikidata team to your event to present, participate and advise
    • A review of your country’s existing political information in Wikidata and some pointers about possible next steps
    • Ideas for how you and your attendees can:
      a) Use the data for interesting research and projects, and
      b) Improve the data for future research queries/projects

    Workshops can take place at any time until the end of February.

    So, if you’d like to be part of this push to improve and use political information in Wikidata in order to contribute to the Democratic Commons, we’d be thrilled to hear from you. Please do get in touch: gemma@mysociety.org

  8. A look at Participatory Budgeting

    Every now and then, we in the mySociety research team are fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to explore specific themes in civic participation, in partnership with some of the leading philanthropic bodies in our field. Last year, we worked with the Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network to examine Participatory Budgeting. These organisations were keen to explore where there might be opportunities for the Participatory Budgeting field to be supported or developed, and alongside academic experts Brian Wampler, Stephanie McNulty and Michael Touchton, the mySociety research team conducted a wide-ranging review of some of the key questions surrounding Participatory Budgeting, and interviewed a number of practitioners and global experts.

    You can read the full report here.

    One of the truly fascinating things about the spread of Participatory Budgeting over the last 30 years is how it has evolved, mutated and emerged in almost all corners of the world. The model conceived in Porto Alegre 30 years ago is very different from the implementations of Participatory Budgeting operational today in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australasia and North and South America. That is not necessarily a bad thing of course. Projects and frameworks for participation must evolve with changing attitudes, must be culturally appropriate, and must work within the resources available. However, the very reasons that implementing bodies have for doing Participatory Budgeting have also changed.

    While many practitioners view Participatory Budgeting as a very process based activity, there are many differing opinions on what it is actually structured to achieve. In Brazil, this model was developed as a new political offering to build a fundamentally redistributive programme, allowing citizens with the greatest need to input into real-world budgeting solutions to leverage funding into the poorest neighbourhoods. This concept of redistribution has, based on our research, appeared to have waned in the majority of places, with the focus of Participatory Budgeting now firmly upon the commonly accepted ideal of broad citizen participation, with the merit assigned to the act and volume of participation by the general populace in local budgeting.

    There is nothing inherently wrong about this shift in focus, but it does raise questions around scale, legitimacy and programme outcomes. What are institutions really trying to achieve when implementing Participatory Budgeting? Is it redistribution, is it genuine participation, or is it the appearance of genuine participation? And is there any desired outcome beyond having citizens participate? Is the high cost of engaging the most disadvantaged citizens offset by the educational benefits of small-scale Participatory Budgeting exercises? Do implementers want these programmes to be large scale but relatively ‘light touch’? And if so, does that devalue the process of participation or exclude disadvantaged citizens or minorities? Is it right that those citizens able to mobilise support and votes for specific projects are most likely to be from comparatively wealthy and educated sections of society? Does the scaling potential of digital Participatory Budgeting platforms gentrify the process? And what is the point of investing in exercises such as Participatory Budgeting when the political and bureaucratic institutions overseeing them are evidently corrupting or subverting the process?

    This research project was incredibly compelling, and while we reluctantly concluded the project with more questions than answers, we hope that these points will focus the international Participatory Budgeting community towards genuine development that will benefit all of the many hard-working and dedicated practitioners around the world.


    Image: Chris Slupski

  9. Meet TICTeC2018 keynote: Professor Jonathan Fox

    TICTeC2018 in Lisbon is going to be amazing, and we can say that with confidence.

    Not just because we know that it’ll feature the usual blend of insights from all sorts of people at the cutting edge of Civic Technology; and not just because it will afford the usual opportunities for swapping stories with others in your field, all against the backdrop of Portugal’s lovely capital.

    Giving us even more assurance that TICTeC2018 will be one of the most memorable yet, are our two must-hear keynote speakers. As Gemma has already announced, Professor Jonathan Fox and Martha Lane Fox will be kicking off the proceedings each day — and they have more than their vulpine names in common: you can be sure that they’ll each be delivering some truly thought-provoking insights for those in the field of Civic Tech.

    To give you a small taste of that, we had a chat with Jonathan about his keynote, which will be on the topic of the political construction of accountability keywords.

    Not to ‘spoiler’ your keynote, but could you give an example of the kind of keywords you’ll be focusing on?

    Our words inform messaging, which is key to building broad constituencies for change.

    Key terms in the field of accountability practice are both politically constructed — and contested.

    For example, sometimes pro-public accountability forces lose the battle for what keywords mean. Consider the term “fake news” — during the 2016 US presidential campaign, this term was used to push back against the political use of disinformation.

    Not only was this effort unsuccessful, the term itself was then appropriated and twisted by its original targets. Now the dominant use of the term “fake news” (not only in the US) is to undermine the credibility of independent investigative reporting.

    The idea of analysing keywords to shed light on contested meanings draws on a long tradition in cultural studies, most notably a 1976 book by Raymond Williams. In this approach, a keyword is “a socially prominent word (e.g. art, industry, media or society) that is capable of bearing interlocking, yet sometimes contradictory and commonly contested contemporary meaning.” You can see more about this on the University of Pittsburgh’s Keywords Project.

    Why do words matter so much, when some people might feel that action is a priority?

    The real question about the viability of any term is whether it effectively communicates its meaning to its intended audience.

    Accountability keywords have different meanings, to different actors, in different contexts — and in different languages.

    The resulting ambiguity can either constrain or enable diverse strategies for promoting public accountability. This is relevant for action because our words inform messaging, which is key to building broad constituencies for change.

    What led you to this precise area of research?

    I have long been curious about the most appropriate way to communicate ideas about accountability across languages and cultures.

    It is easy to become frustrated when literal translations sound awkward or fail to communicate. This led me to explore alternative communication strategies, looking to learn from examples of invented terms that manage to take off and enter everyday discourse (like “whistleblower”), or terms that come from popular cultures than can be relevant.

    We’re delighted that you’ll be one of our two keynotes at TICTeC. What are you most looking forward to about the event?

    I very much look forward to catching up on cutting edge research, learning from TICTeC participants.

    I very much look forward to catching up on cutting edge research, learning from TICTeC participants — and finding out whether and how the ideas that I am working with might resonate.

    For example, I am trying out an invented term that is intended to question the researcher-practitioner dichotomy in which researchers are assumed to be the knowledge producers and practitioners are cast as the knowledge consumers… In an effort to recognise more explicitly how practitioners can also be knowledge producers, I am proposing the term “action strategist.”

    TICTeC is attended by activists, funders, academics, government organisations and representatives from the private sector — all working within the field that we label as Civic Tech. First: since you’ve given so much thought to terminology: would you say ‘Civic Tech’ is a satisfactory term for what we do? And second, what one piece of advice would you give us all when it comes to naming and talking about our work?

    Yes, I think the term does work. My first reaction was to think that it has the advantage of being fairly self-explanatory — though a quick search finds some important differences in interpretation.

    But the real question about the viability of any term is whether it effectively communicates its meaning to its intended audience.

    Thanks to Jonathan for this preview of his keynote presentation. If you’d like to hear more on this topic, make sure to book your tickets soon, while the early bird price still applies.

    Or perhaps you’d like to present your own research into the impacts of a Civic Technology that you’ve been studying? Our Call For Papers is still open, but hurry: there’s just over a week to get your proposal in.

  10. Hello, is it me you’re searching for?

    There’s a common theme to a lot of mySociety sites: enter your postcode, see something that relates to you.

    From FaxYourMP—the mySociety project so old it predates mySociety itself (paradox!)—through to TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet, and WriteToThem, as well as a few of our commercial projects like Mapumental and Better Care, we’ve discovered that asking for a visitor’s location is a super effective way of unlocking clear, relevant information for them to act on.

    So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that, while doing some regular monitoring of traffic on this website, we noticed a fairly significant number of people attempting to search for things like postcodes, MP names, and the topics of recent debates.

    Random sample of search terms, July–December 2017
    animal sentience corbyn
    germany CR0 2RH
    theresa may facebook
    EN3 5PB fire
    ruth davidson HG5 0UH
    eu withdrawal bill diane abbott

    By default, the search box on this site delivered results from our blog post archive (it goes all the way back to 2004 don’t you know!)… which is pretty much what you’d expect if you know how we do things here at mySociety. We have this centralised website to talk about ourselves as an organisation; then each of our projects such as TheyWorkForYou or FixMyStreet is its own separate site.

    But, looking at these search terms, it was pretty clear that an awful lot of people don’t know that… and, when you think about it, why should they?

    The most obvious solution would just have been to direct visitors towards the individual sites, so they could repeat their searches there. Job done.

    But we figured, why inconvenience you? If you’ve made it this far, we owe it to you to get you the information you need as quickly as possible.

    Handily, we’ve got rather good at detecting valid postcodes when our users enter them, so programmatically noticing when a user was searching for a location wasn’t hard. And equally handily, TheyWorkForYou offers a powerful API that lets developers exchange a user’s postcode for detailed data about the boundaries and representatives at that location.

    What do you get when you combine the two? Automatic search suggestions for TheyWorkForYou, FixMyStreet, and WriteToThem, when you enter your postcode on www.mysociety.org.

    The search page is also aware of the most frequently searched-for MPs on our site, and will offer a direct link to their TheyWorkForYou profile if you search for their names.

    And finally, if you search for something other than a postcode, we give you a single-click way to repeat your search, automatically, on TheyWorkForYou, opening up decades of parliamentary transcripts to you, with a single tap of your finger.

    It’s not a big, glamorous feature. But it’s something we know will come in useful for the few hundred people who search our site every week—possibly without their ever noticing this little bit of hand-holding as we steer them across to the site they didn’t even know they wanted. And most importantly, it should introduce a few more people to the wealth of data we hold about the decision-makers in their lives.

    Header image, Flickr user Plenuntje, CC BY-SA 2.0