1. Alaveteli Release 0.26

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.26! Here are some of the highlights.

    Request page design update

    After some research in to where people enter the site we decided to revamp the request pages to give a better first impression.

    Alaveteli 0.26 request page redesign

    We’ve used the “action bar” pattern from the authority pages to move the request actions to a neater drop-down menu. We’ve also promoted the “follow” button to help other types of users interact with the site.

    Alaveteli release 0.26 request page action menu

    Since lots of users are entering an Alaveteli on the request pages, it might not be obvious that they too can ask for information. We’ve now made an obvious link to the new request flow from the sidebar of the request pages to emphasise this.

    The correspondence bubbles have had a bit of a makeover too. Its now a lot more obvious how to link to a particular piece of correspondence, and we’ve tidied the header so that its a little clearer who’s saying what.

    The listing of similar requests in the request page sidebar has been improved after observing they were useful to users.

    Also in design-world we’ve added the more modern request status icons, made the search interfaces more consistent and helped prevent blank searches on the “Find an authority” page.

    Admin UI Improvements

    As an Alaveteli grows it can get trickier to keep an eye on everything that’s happening on the site.

    We’ve now added a new comments list so that admins can catch offensive or spam comments sooner.

    Alaveteli Release 0.26 admin comments page

    For the same reasons, we’ve added sorting to the users list and made banned users more obvious.

    Alaveteli Release 0.26 admin users list

    The CSV import page layout and inline documentation has also been updated.

    More stats!

    The wonderful team at the OpenAustralia Foundation contributed an epic pull request to revamp the statistics page.

    The new statistics page adds contributor leaderboards to help admins identify users as potential volunteers, as well as a graph showing when site admins hide things to improve the transparency of the site.

    Alaveteli Release 0.26 leaderboard stats Alaveteli Release 0.26 hide events

    Extra search powers

    As if that wasn’t enough, the the OpenAustralia Foundation team also added a new advanced search term to be able to find requests to public authorities with a given tag.

    Conversion tracking improvements

    We’re constantly asking how we can improve Alaveteli. In order to answer that question meaningfully, we need good tracking of what happens when people make requests on the site. When we tried to track down whether people coming from social media sites were more likely to make a request than those coming from other sources, we found a problem with the way we tracked ‘conversions’ – the process of getting all the way through making a request. We were using a particular URL to mark the end of that process in Google Analytics. The issue was that sometimes, requesters would share that URL with other people, causing us to record the same request being made multiple times. We’re now using a little bit of javascript to make sure we only record the conversion when a new request is actually being made.

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

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

  2. Standing up for erectile dysfunction care: a digital empowerment tool

    What’s the best way to get your supporters to campaign, when the finer details of what they’re pressing for may vary from place to place? That’s the issue that faced Prostate Cancer UK as they call for better provision for men across the country with erectile dysfunction as a result of prostate cancer.

    There are five core treatments for tackling erectile dysfunction, but whether all of them will be offered to you depends on your postcode. In some areas, all are offered as standard, while in others there may be none.

    The tool we built for Prostate Cancer UK used several of mySociety’s areas of expertise, from mapping to user testing — we even used Freedom of Information. And putting it all together, we have a powerful campaigning platform that responds to users’ location, while raising awareness and pushing for improvement.

    Prostate Cancer UK’s Erectile Dysfunction campaign site informs people about what care should be available to those who experience the condition as a result of prostate cancer treatment, and urges them to write to their local health commissioner if provision is poor in their area.

     

    Prostate Cancer tool, built by mySociety

    Educating, campaigning, sharing

    The user is first informed: they are shown the five factors which constitute good treatment of erectile dysfunction. After that, they are prompted to input their postcode to see how many of those measures are provided by the NHS body responsible for their region.

    If provision is poor, they are encouraged to help campaign: users can opt to write to their Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Health Board or Health and Social Care Board to ask them to improve what’s available. They are given the choice between writing a letter from scratch, or using a pre-composed template which also contains a section for the writer to add a paragraph of their own words — a pragmatic balance that avoids an influx of identical form letters, while still addressing fact that when users are faced with a completely blank page, many will drop out of the process.

    When you’ve done that, for those in England there’s also an opportunity to contact Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health to highlight the variation in treatment for erectile dysfunction and establish which organisation is responsible for the national commissioning guidelines.

    Finally, the user is invited to share what they’ve learned, via Facebook, Twitter or email. Our user testing revealed that, contrary to our worries, people were happy to do this without embarrassment.

    How it works

    Like most of mySociety’s own sites, the ‘Better Care’ site uses MapIt to match the user’s postcode with a boundary, in this case the boundaries of the CCGs, Health Boards and Health & Social Care Boards. That’s how we deliver the information about what’s available in their local area.

    When you input your postcode to see how your local provisioners are doing, MapIt also delivers information for other areas, including a couple of close neighbouring ones. This allows us to provide a nice comparison, along with the statistic that shows whether your provisioner is better, worse, or within the same range as the average.

    PCUK comparison screen

    But how did we gather the data to tell you how well each CCG, Health Board or Health and Social Care Board is catering for erectile dysfunction patients? Well, fortunately, thanks to our own WhatDoTheyKnow website, it was relatively easy to send a Freedom of Information request to every one in the country — 235 of them in total. The WhatDoTheyKnow volunteer admin team were able to help with this large batch request.

    Once we had all the data and a general idea of how the tool would work, we took an early version out to test it with users. The insights we gained from this process were, as always, extremely useful, and led to us altering page layouts and other elements that made the whole process as clear as it could be.

    Finally, we incorporated quite a bit of statistics-gathering into the whole tool, so that Prostate Cancer UK would be able to see where their campaign might benefit from further optimising in the future.

    All in all, we’re very glad to have been part of this important campaign to help men understand what’s available to them, and where they might need to push for more.

     

    Image: Brad Hagan (CC-by/2.0)

  3. Detention Logs: using FOI to reveal the truth about immigration detention in Australia

    Australia: land of sand, surf and koalas. Renowned for its laid-back attitude and a friendly welcome for all… or so those up here in the northern hemisphere might believe, spoon-fed our preconceptions via the squeaky-clean medium of Aussie soaps.

    What’s not so well-known is Australia’s decades-long resistance to people seeking asylum. Since the early 1990s, Australian Prime Ministers have implemented, upheld and strengthened laws to hold refugees in mandatory, indefinite detention, and to forcibly turn boats away from their shores. Australia has been repeatedly condemned by the UN for inhumane treatment of people in its immigration detention system, and people held inside have maintained continuous protest for years.

    Once you learn all this, it seems perhaps unsurprising that immigration detention is, as website Detention Logs puts it, one of the most “hotly debated, contested and emotional topics in Australia”.

    Getting it out in the open

    Detention Logs is among the most purposeful and systematic uses of Freedom of Information we’ve seen yet.

    It’s not a mySociety-affiliated project (although one of its founders is also a member of Open Australia, who use our Alaveteli software to run the RightToKnow site), but it is one that’s very much in our sphere of interest. We wanted to write about it because it’s a great example of putting FOI to work in order to get truth out into the open, and make societal change.

    At the time the project was set up, Australia’s detention centres were run by the British companies Serco and G4S; access is, as you might expect, limited. However, contractors to the government must report to them, and the report documents fall under the citizens’ Right To Know via Australia’s Freedom of Information Act.

    Reports are made whenever an ‘incident’ of note occurs in one of the nation’s detention centres; that covers assault, accidents, escapes, riots, the discovery of weapons and several other categories — including births and deaths.

    Detention Logs have, at the time of writing, obtained 7,632 incident reports which cover the period between 3 Oct 2009 and 26 May 2011. These may be explored on their site via a data browser, allowing readers to filter by date, incident type and detention centre.

    Finding the stories

    Like many official documents, these reports were composed for internal eyes only. They can be difficult to decipher, or heavily redacted. Often, they suggest more questions than they answer.

    Users are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a report, then submit a further FOI request for more information: a ‘reporting recipe’ guides beginners in how to do this, and how to pull out stories both for the ‘far view’ (looking at all the data in aggregate) and the ‘near view’ (investigating individuals’ stories).

    For researchers and the technically-minded, there’s also the option to download the data in bulk.

    The result is that the public are gaining an unprecedented understanding of what life is like for detainees — and staff — inside Australia’s detention centres.

    Open data brings change

    The resulting stories are published on their Investigations page, but the data has also been used by national press and beyond.

    Luke Bacon, one of Detention Logs’ founders, told us of a few outcomes:

    • The Detention Logs project was a precursor to the Guardian’s publication of the Nauru Files —  more than 2,000 leaked incident reports from a detention camp on the Pacific island of Nauru. These have been presented in an online exploratory browser tool: the project was led by reporter Paul Farrell who is also a Detention Logs founder.
    • In turn, this has prompted a parliamentary inquiry into the treatment of people in the immigration detention system.
    • The data from Detention Logs has been used in research to show that the detention system is causing people to self-harm and attempt suicide.
    • The immigration department started releasing better information about how many people were in detention.

    So — while the issue of detention continues to be an inflammatory topic for the people of Australia, the project has been at least something of a success for transparency.

    It all goes to show what can be achieved when information is shared – and when the work of trawling through it is shared too.

    If you found this project interesting, you might also like to read about Muckrock’s FOI work on private prisons in the USA.

    Image: Kate Ausburn (CC-by/2.0)

  4. A new year, a new Better Cities team

    A couple of months ago we started a search to find three new team members for our Better Cities practice: a Product Manager, Web Developer and Sales & Partnership Manager.

    We’ve now signed up our new colleagues and I’m excited to say that Matt Jukes will be joining as Product Manager. He’ll be leading the development and expansion of our Better Cities services and building upon our recent work to launch FixMyStreet 2.0.

    Matt is a familiar name to many people in the UK Civic and Gov Tech sphere — most notably for the transformation work he led over the past couple of years at the ONS (Office of National Statistics). Matt brings with him an excellent pedigree of building and leading teams. What was of particular interest to us was the way that he talks openly and publicly about the projects he’s working on, which sits very well with our approach.

    Stuart Harrison will be joining us in January from the ODI (Open Data Institute) as a new Web Developer on our commercial and Better Cities work. Stuart brings a wealth of public sector experience and is already an avid user of mySociety’s services. We’re very lucky to have snagged him, not least as he brings masses of insight and experience into how Open Data meets the commercial world.

    Finally our new Sales & Partnership Manager Rachel Baker will start in early January (we’ll let you know who they are once we’ve got that all wrapped up shortly). She comes with valuable entrepreneurial and marketing experience from previous startups and will also be working from our growing base around Bristol and Bath.

    Rachel will work with our Local Authority partners in the UK and around the world, on FixMyStreet for Councils which has undergone a substantial revamp over the last few months. And will help us better connect with like-minded partners who might benefit from making use of our services — if this is of interest please get in touch.

    And one departure

    Finally and sadly we also say goodbye to our dear friend and colleague Ben Nickolls.

    Ben has been with us as Head of Services for the past four years, working with me and the commercial team. He has been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of our services team over the past 18 months, giving us a firm basis for the public sector product and service business we are seeking to grow over the next couple of years.

    Now with the groundwork done, Ben is off to pursue his startup ambitions with the wonderful Libraries.io project, which aims to document and provide access to all of the Open Source libraries in the world. This is a hugely ambitious project. We’re very excited for Ben and wish him all the luck — we’ll be watching his progress closely.

    So all change for the new year in our Better Cities practice. There will be lots more to share on our progress in the coming months.


    Image: Helen Alfvegren (CC-by/2.0).

    Post updated 20th December with news that Rachel is joining as our Sales & Partnership Manager.

  5. Adding translated subtitles on YouTube

    Almost all the videos on our YouTube channel now have subtitles in English. You can tell which ones do, by the small CC symbol beneath each one:

    mySociety YouTube channel

    Watching our videos with subtitles

    To switch subtitles on or off, you click the CC sign at the bottom right of every video:

    Where to find the CC button on youtube videos

    If we’ve already provided subtitles for the video you’re watching, that’s what you’ll see. If you’ve picked one of the few we still haven’t got round to, you get YouTube’s automatically-generated subtitles which — while they do obviously represent great strides in voice recognition technology, compared to how things were only a few years ago — can still be a bit hit and miss.

    Subtitles make videos more useful for all sorts of people, from the hearing impaired to those who just want to watch without disturbing others. But of course, English subtitles aren’t necessarily useful for people who speak other languages.

    The National Democratic Institute (NDI) recently asked whether we’d mind them translating some of our subtitles into Arabic. Mind? We were positively delighted.

    Video with Arabic subtitles

    It turns out that YouTube has really upped its game on subtitles, making it much easier to add them to our own videos, and providing the means for others to contribute too.

    Here’s how to view subtitles in another language:

    Click on the ‘settings’ cogwheel at the bottom right of the video:

    settings cogwheel on youtube videos

    You’ll see a short menu pop up. Click on ‘subtitles/CC’:

    settings menu on youtube videos

    Then select the language you require: in this case, you have the choice between Arabic, our own English subtitles, or, for potential comic value, the auto-generated version.

    language menu for subtitles on youtube

    Incredibly, you can also select ‘auto-translate’, which takes the English transcript and gives you what appears to be a fairly reasonable version (presumably run through Google Translate) in any one of more than 100 different languages.

    Here’s how to contribute subtitles in another language

    If you think our videos might be useful for organisations, researchers or students, but that they would benefit from being able to read the subtitles in their own language, you are more than welcome to contribute a translation.

    Begin by clicking on the three dots next to the word ‘More’, and then selecting ‘transcript’ from the drop-down menu:

    youtube where to find the 'add transcript' menu

    This will show you the existing transcript in written form. At the top you’ll see a dropdown menu with options for the transcripts which are already in place, and at the bottom, ‘Add subtitles/CC’:

    where to find the 'add transcript' menu on youtube

    Again, you’ll be shown a list of the translations that we already have, and invited to search for the language that you wish to add — in this case, let’s say Greek:

    select a language to translate into on youtubeClick on the name of the language, and you get this simple translation interface, with a box below each section of the existing transcript for you to type your translation into. And as you type, you’ll see how the subtitles will look on the video.

    translation interface youtubeOnce you’re done, you just click ‘submit for review’ on the top right, and that sends us an email to tell us there’s a translation waiting.

    And that’s it! You’ve benefited everyone who speaks your language… and of course we here at mySociety will also be very grateful.


    Image:
    © European Union 2012 EP/Pietro Naj-Oleari (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  6. Forward into alpha: what we’ve learned about Alaveteli Professional

    As we recently mentioned, one of mySociety’s current big projects is Alaveteli Professional, a Freedom of Information toolset for journalists.

    It’s something we wanted to build, and something we believed there was a need for: but wanting and believing do not make a sound business case, and that’s why we spent the first few weeks of the project in a ‘discovery’ phase.

    Our plan was to find out as much as we could about journalists, our prospective users — and particularly just how they go about using FOI in their work. Ultimately, though, we were seeking to understand whether journalists really would want, or need, the product as we were imagining it.

    So we went and talked to people at both ends of the FOI process: on the one hand, journalists who make requests, and on the other, the information officers who respond to them.

    Since we’re planning on making Alaveteli Professional available to partners around the world, it also made sense to conduct similar interviews outside the UK. Thanks to links with our Czech partner, running Informace Pro Všechny on Alaveteli, that was a simple matter. A recent event at the Times building in London also allowed us to present and discuss our findings, and listen to a couple of interesting expert presentations: Matt Burgess of Buzzfeed talked about some brilliant use of FOI to expose criminal landlords, and listed FOI officers’ biggest complaints about journalists. Josh Boswell of the Sunday Times was equally insightful as he ran through the ways that he uses FOI when developing stories.

    These conversations have all helped.

    The life of an investigative journalist is never simple

    Alaveteli Professional process diagram drawn by Mike Thompson

    The insights our interviewees gave us were turned by Mike Thompson (formerly of mySociety, and brought back in for this phase) into a simple process model showing how journalists work when they’re pursuing an investigation using FOI.

    After conceiving of a story that requires input from one or more FOI request, every journalist will go through three broad phases: research; request and response; and the final data analysis and writing. The more complicated cases can also involve refused requests and the appeals process.

    For a busy working journalist, there are challenges at every step. Each of these adds time and complexity to the process of writing a story, which is an anathema to the normal daily news cycle. FOI-based stories can be slow, and timing unpredictable — editors do not particularly like being told that you’re working on a story, but can’t say when it will be ready, or how much value it will have.

    During the research phase diligent journalists will make a time-consuming trawl through resources like authorities’ own disclosure logs and our own site WhatDoTheyKnow (or its equivalents in other countries), to see if the data they need has already been released.

    Where a ‘round robin’ request is planned, asking for information from multiple authorities — sometimes hundreds — for information, further research is needed to ensure that only relevant bodies are included. In our two-tired council system, where different levels of authority deal with different responsibilities, and not always according to a consistent pattern, that can be a real challenge.

    Wording a request also takes some expertise: get that wrong and the authorities will be coming back for clarification, which adds even more time to the process.

    Once the request has been made it’s hard to keep on top of correspondence, especially for a large round robin request. Imagine sending a request to every council in the country, as might well be done for a UK-wide story, and then dealing with each body’s acknowledgements, requests for clarifications and refusals.

    When the responses are in journalists often find that interpretation is a challenge. Different authorities might store data or measure metrics differently from one another; and pulling out a meaningful story means having the insight to, for example, adjust figures to account for the fact that different authorities are different sizes and cater for differently-dispersed populations.

    Sadly, it’s often at this stage that journalists realise that they’ve asked the wrong question to start with, or wish that they’d included an additional dimension to the data they’ve requested.

    What journalists need

    As we talked through all these difficulties with journalists, we gained a pretty good understanding of their needs. Some of these had been on our list from the start, and others were a surprise, showing the value of this kind of exploration before you sit down to write a single line of code.

    Here’s what our final list of the most desirable features looks like:

    An embargo We already knew, anecdotally, that journalists tend not to use WhatDoTheyKnow to make requests, because of its public nature. It was slightly sobering to have this confirmed via first person accounts from journalists who had had their stories ‘stolen’… and those who admitted to having appropriated stories themselves! Every journalist we spoke to agreed that any FOI tool for their profession would need to include a way of keeping requests hidden until after publication of their story.

    However, this adds a slight dilemma. Using Alaveteli Professional and going through the embargo-setting process introduces an extra hurdle into the journalist’s process, when our aim is, of course, to make the FOI procedure quicker and smoother. Can we ensure that everything else is so beneficial that this one additional task is worthwhile for the user?

    Talking to journalists, we discovered that almost all are keen to share their data once their story has gone live. Not only does it give concrete corroboration of the piece, but it was felt that an active profile on an Alaveteli site, bursting with successful investigations, could add to a journalist’s reputation — a very important consideration in the industry.

    Request management tools Any service that could put order into the myriad responses that can quickly descend into chaos would be welcome for journalists who typically have several FOI requests on the go at any one time.

    Alaveteli Professional’s dashboard interface would allow for a snapshot view of request statuses. Related requests could be bundled together, and there would be the ability to quickly tag and classify new correspondence.

    Round-robin tools Rather than send a notification every time a body responds (often with no more than an acknowledgement), the system could hold back, alerting you only when a request appears to need attention, or send you status updates for the entire project at predefined intervals.

    Refusal advice Many journalists abandon a request once it’s been refused, whether from a lack of time or a lack of knowledge about the appeals process. WhatDoTheyKnow Professional would be able to offer in-context advice on refusals, helping journalists take the next step.

    Insight tools Can we save journalists’ time in the research phase, by giving an easy representation of what sort of information is already available on Alaveteli sites, and by breaking down what kind of information each authority holds? That could help with terminology, too: if a request refers to data in the same language that is used internally within the council, then their understanding of the request and their response is likely to be quicker and easier.

    Onwards to Alpha

    We’re currently working on the next part of the build — the alpha phase.

    In this, we’re building quick, minimally-functional prototypes that will clearly show how Alaveteli Professional will work, but without investing time into a fully-refined product. After all, what we discover may mean that we change our plans, and it’s better not to have gone too far down the line at that point.

    If you are a journalist and you would like to get involved with testing during this stage and the next — beta — then please do get in touch at alaveteli-professional@mysociety.org.


    Image: Goodwines (CC by-nc-nd/2.0)

  7. Tweet if you’d like to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya

    We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.

    So with Article 19 East Africa, we’ve applied to innovateAFRICA, which is seeking disruptive digital ideas to improve the way that news is collected and disseminated.

    As of this year, Kenyan citizens are enjoying a new right to know, thanks to their Freedom Of Information Act, pending since 2007 and finally passed this year.

    Alaveteli Professional will provide Kenyan journalists with a toolset and training to help them make full use of FOI legislation, so they can raise, manage and interpret requests more easily, in order to generate high-impact public interest stories.

    But the project will also bring benefits to all Kenyans. By helping journalists and citizen reporters to make full use of the Act, it will ultimately make it easier for everyone to hold power to account.

    How you can help

    Now here’s the bit you need to know about: please tweet using the hashtag #innovateAFRICA explaining why you think Alaveteli Professional in Kenya is an important digital solution.

    This will demonstrate that you agree that Alaveteli Professional is worthy of innovateAFRICA’s support — every tweet helps to give our application more traction.

    Tweets from everyone are welcome, but yours will have extra leverage if you’re a mySociety partner, a Kenyan journalist or activist who would use the project, a funder or a digital innovator yourself.

    Please use your 140 characters to help us bring better FOI capabilities to Kenya! And don’t forget that hashtag: #innovateAFRICA.

    Thank you.

     

    Image: Innovate Africa

     

  8. Freedom of Information and asbestos in schools

    Lucie Stephens has sent Freedom of Information requests to every Local Education Authority in the country — over 200 of them.

    She’s requesting information about asbestos in schools, and for a reason that’s very close to her heart. Earlier this year, Lucie’s mother, a teacher, died of mesothelioma, a cancer that is almost exclusively caused by exposure to that substance.

    Now Lucie is acting on the promise she made before her mum passed away: “To do my best to make sure no-one else has to suffer like she has.”

    We were really interested to hear how Lucie came to use Freedom of Information as tool in her campaign, so we got in touch to ask her a few questions.

    Your WhatDoTheyKnow profile page and your petition make the reason for your campaign clear – at what point did you realise that Freedom of Information would be a useful tool?

    After Mum’s diagnosis I wanted to know how safe my daughter’s school was. I wrote to them and got a positive response: her school does contain asbestos and they were willing to share this information with me.

    I then wrote to my local council to request the same information for my borough. This took a lot longer, and involved frequently having to chase and remind them of deadlines missed.

    I thought all parents and teachers should know if their school contains asbestos. I didn’t want them to have to struggle to access the information from their local council in the way that I did.

    A friend suggested that FOI would be a good way of getting hold of consistent information, and at this point it also became clear that it would be a useful way to analyse how well asbestos is being managed in our schools.

    Had you heard of the Freedom of Information Act, or used it previously?

    I had heard about FOI before but hadn’t used it. It had always seemed a complicated and challenging process, so I was nervous of it. I knew what questions to ask but was still worried about getting the format right.

    I had made contact with the National Union of Teachers (NUT), as they are also campaigning to get asbestos removed from schools. I asked them to advise on the best wording to use in order to get the information that I required, and they were really helpful.

    Once you have all the data for every school in the country, what will you do with it?

    Every parent and teacher should know if their school contains asbestos.

    I am planning to use the data collected to produce an easy-to-access national map that parents and teachers can use to find out if their school is affected. By telling parents which schools have asbestos we are enabling them to hold their school, local education authority and ultimately (we hope) the Department for Education to account. The map will also be useful for campaigners and journalists concerned with the issue of asbestos in schools.

    What would be the ideal outcome of your campaign?

    I want policy on asbestos in schools to change.

    Each school should be expected to produce an annual report on the extent of asbestos and how it is being managed. This will increase transparency and accountability until we get to the point where all asbestos in schools has been removed.

    At the same time the Department for Education needs to change its approach. It needs to commit to the phased removal from all schools by 2028.

    To achieve this they need to earmark funds specifically for asbestos removal and set annual targets for the number of schools that will be asbestos free. The phased removal should start with the most dangerous schools first but seek to remove all asbestos by 2028.

    By revealing which schools contain asbestos, the campaign will make it easier for parents to hold the DFE to account over their plans for the removal of asbestos.  

    Have any of your FOI requests been turned down?

    I made my requests to local authorities, asking them to provide the figures for every school in their jurisdiction. Most have not provided information for academies and free schools as they do not have a statutory responsibility for them.

    There were various refusals and partial responses, from authorities which just issued generic statements that ‘all local schools built before 2000 contain asbestos’ with a link to their online schools directory, to those claiming that the information sought would take too long to collect, and so refusing to issue it, or requesting payment before the information could be released.* 

    Some areas withheld data on the number of claims that they had received from teachers, school staff and ex-pupils, stating that the figures were low enough to make it possible to identify the individuals concerned. Some areas refused to release details of the amount of money paid out in claims, stating that this would breach data protection. This rule was not applied consistently, though, as some areas did release figures relating to only one claim and settlement.

    I was very irritated to find some authorities who, because they claimed to be unable to answer one of my seven questions, then refused to answer any of them. To date we only have data from 135 local councils of 152 approached. Some are very overdue in providing the data.

    In gathering the data it was clear that there is huge variety in the ways in which asbestos is being managed in schools. It was also apparent that there is a wide range of ways in which FOI requests are handled.

    What benefits did you get from using WhatDoTheyKnow?

    Without WhatDoTheyKnow I wouldn’t have been able to collect the data.

    The site was really easy to use. It was very helpful in managing the data as it appeared, and in reminding me when authorities were overdue in providing information.

    In some cases I used my right to a review to challenge the handling of a request, and this led to further information being released. I definitely wouldn’t have made a challenge without the site making the process straightforward in the way it does. 

    It has also been great to have the data held on a public site like this, so that I’ve been able to direct journalists and campaigners to the source of the data directly.

    The only challenge with the site was that the number of requests was capped. I can totally appreciate why this was, and in fact when I did contact the team and ask for this cap to be removed so that I could complete the requests in a shorter timeframe, they were very helpful. Having ascertained that I was sending bulk requests for a valid reason, they acted quickly to remove the cap.

     

    You can read more about Lucie’s campaign, and lend your support, on her petition page.

    * Note: Making an FOI request is almost always free, but authorities can charge under certain circumstances, and they can refuse to respond to a request outright if it will cost more than a certain amount — currently £450 — to do so.

    Image: Webercw (CC by-nc/2.0)

  9. mySociety at OGP in Paris

    This week, the 2016 Open Government Partnership summit is being held in Paris, France.

    The OGP was launched in 2011 to provide an international platform for domestic reformers committed to making their governments more open, accountable, and responsive to citizens. Its goals are, therefore, pretty much in line with the objectives of civic tech — the field we at mySociety been ploughing in for over a decade. So we’ve been supporters of the OGP since it started, as have many of our partners and collaborators.

    Today, there are 70 participating countries. Inevitably, some member countries have governments whose enthusiasm for the OGP goals is, perhaps, greater than their willingness to actually implement the changes that attaining such goals require. But even where that is the case, the OGP is a catalyst for getting accountability and transparency onto their agenda, and we’re all for that.

    All of mySociety’s projects fall somewhere within the remit of the OGP. For example, our Freedom of Information platform Alaveteli encourages citizens to make requests, and our work with parliamentary monitoring organisations is all about opening up the activity of parliaments in a way that OGP very much promotes.

    This year, mySociety will be represented at OGP by Bec (from our research team), Jen (who manages our international partners) and Dave (who works on the EveryPolitician project). If you’re in Paris for the OGP, please do seek us out. We’re around for the main events, but also:

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  10. Multi-selectin’ fun on FixMyStreet

    You might already be enjoying one of the usability improvements that FixMyStreet version 2.0 has brought, though it’s possible that you haven’t given it much thought.

    multi-selectIn these days of eBay and department store shopping, we’re all quite used to refining results through the use of multiple checkboxes.

    But for FixMyStreet, we hadn’t given much thought to letting you filter reports by more than one dimension, until Oxfordshire County Council suggested that it would be a useful feature.

    For quite some time, you’d been able to filter by category and status (“Show me all pothole reports” or “Show me all ‘unfixed’ reports”), but this new functionality is more flexible.

    You can now select multiple categories and multiple statuses simultaneously (“show me all pothole and graffiti reports that are unfixed or in progress”) — and all through the power of tickboxes.

    If you’re a non-technical person, that’s all you need to know: just enjoy the additional flexibility next time you visit FixMyStreet. But if you are a coder, you might like to read more about how we achieved this feature: for you, Matthew has written about it over on the FixMyStreet Platform blog.