Researching in an unstable environment
It’s been nearly two years since the InfoLib Liberia project with iLab Liberia started. In that time the project has faced many hurdles, some predicted, and some completely unforeseen.
The iLab team have seen their country devastated by Ebola, only 11 years after the end of their second civil war, bringing tragedy and instability along with it. As you can probably imagine, the impact of curfews, fear and death in communities has made it difficult for people to continue with their daily lives. The social impact of such a disease is wide-reaching. Distrust, marginalisation and exclusion can be directed at those who show symptoms, or even who suffered and survived.
These are challenges that our local partners have had to contend with every day, both when holding training sessions and more crucially when researching the impact of the project on people’s lives.
However, by far the largest hurdle for this particular project has been a mixture of low internet penetration and lack of government will to release information. The team on the ground have been working tirelessly to create an ecosystem of requesting and training Public Information Officers (PIOs) to reply – even providing them with tablets to scan documents without needing electricity, let alone a computer. But if those officers have no access to the information that has been requested, their jobs become virtually impossible.
The project is now drawing to a close and we’re undertaking our final research survey. It seemed like a good time to take a look at what we’ve learnt about the impact of our joint Freedom of Information project in Liberia.
When designing the project we decided that impact could best be measured in terms of whether or not the project increased confidence in government transparency.
We carried out surveys in January 2016 and April 2016, to provide a baseline picture and then an assessment of impact at midline. The final survey is being conducted in August 2016 just as the project ends.
The first survey – the baseline – was carried out mainly in the rural areas. iLab Liberia teamed up with LFIC to survey 152 participants who had been involved in the FOI workshops that LFIC had held in the counties.
We had to attempt the second survey twice, as it turned out to be more challenging than we’d expected. We needed the participants from the first questionnaire to answer the same questions we’d asked them initially, in order to measure change — but it proved hard to locate all of them.
There were many factors which caused this, but the main one was economic drivers, forcing people to move to where the opportunities are. It’s a problem many researchers must run into working in the field.
Carter, the project lead at iLab Liberia told us:
“There are several reasons why this happens […]. People migrate a lot between markets, farms. Several persons who participated in the baseline could not be reached as they [had] travelled to other cities/counties. [Or] the job that allowed them to reside in that city/county is no longer available so they might have left seeking after another job.”
Our second attempt was more successful. We managed to contact a large percentage of the original participants in the survey: 112 of the 152.
We’ve found out some interesting things from doing this research. We saw that 74% of people who use the internet daily say it’s their main source of information, though it is still only a small percentage of the population who have access to the internet.
So the next biggest source of information? Radio! 85% of people with with no access to the internet give radio as their main source of information. Thinking of the migration of workers between cities and counties – you suddenly appreciate why Radio is such an important medium for getting hold of information. Thankfully, as you’ll remember from our original blog post, we’re covering both of these media in the InfoLib project.
In the months since we began studying the impact of this project we also learned that fear of making a request has dropped by 5% in the individuals surveyed . The amount of people who reported that they didn’t know how to ask for information dropped from 24% to 21%. This is pretty great news to us as it shows that our training and our encouragement is working – albeit slowly.
Finally we saw the percentage of people who believe government would be more transparent if citizens could see the information they hold rise by 3% to 93% of the surveyed respondents. Even if this figure hadn’t risen, this demonstrates a clear existing demand from the citizens of Liberia for the Government to release more information about its activities which is great news overall!
No project is without its challenges, and as you’ve seen above one of the big ones is ensuring that the same people respond from survey to survey. Not being able to pin down precisely the same set of people means that we can’t say with 100% certainty that we have a true measure in the difference in attitude.
As a result of the economic and social drivers mentioned above, the workforce in Liberia is very transient. This makes disseminating information through radio and internet mediums even more important. This research has shown that these are the primary sources of news and official information for the majority of Liberians, and continuing to improve knowledge about, and access to, information via these sources will empower the population further.
Finally, it can be challenging to demonstrate impact in projects like these, simply because research is not the main focus for our local partners. We partner with local groups because they are passionate, capable, and able to engage and mobilise citizens around a certain issue. We cannot expect small grassroots groups to have the resources or experience to conduct academic surveying, sampling or interviewing that could detect and definitively isolate the short term impact of a small project. This piece of research has provided some encouraging interim results, but most of all, it has provided valuable lessons to us at mySociety in trying to conduct this kind of impact research remotely and in partnership.
While we wait for the outcome of the final survey we can feel cautiously hopeful that this project has caused a small change in the way access to information operates in Liberia. infoLib will continue to run after the project officially ends, and mySociety will continue to support the work that iLab does in this area . However it may take longer than we had expected or hoped, to see the governmental shift towards releasing information.
Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been unveiled thanks to FOI requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two and part three.
Emissions test cheating: European Commission warned five years before VW scandal
Responses to FOI requests on AsktheEU reveal that back in 2010 the Commission’s own experts told it that they suspected a car maker was cheating emissions tests. This was five years before last year’s scandal that revealed Volkswagen had cheated in emission tests by using ‘defeat devices’, which made its cars appear far less polluting than they are.
The documents revealed on AsktheEU were shared with the Guardian, which has published this article.
This new information contradicts the Commission’s claim that no concrete evidence on the use of defeat devices was ever brought to their attention.
It is yet to be seen how these latest revelations will affect Commission officials involved.
What’s 10,000 euros between friends?
FragDenStaat is the FOI platform run by Open Knowledge Foundation Germany. It doesn’t run with Alaveteli code, but was originally inspired by WhatDoTheyKnow.
One response received via FragDenStaat revealed that Joachim Sauer, the husband of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been paid 10,000 euros annually since 2011 to sit on the board of billionaire Friede Springer’s charitable Foundation. Merkel and Springer are close friends.
This raised eyebrows in the German media (see this Spiegel article). Merkel has been criticised for her close relationship with Springer, whose company, Axel Springer AG, controls the largest share of Germany’s market for daily newspapers and runs Europe’s highest-circulation newspaper.
This has sparked allegations of cronyism. Does Sauer’s position grant Springer unfair influence on German governmental affairs? Some would say so.
Say it with flowers
Flowers certainly are lovely, but with poverty rates nearly doubling in the last year, it can be argued that they really aren’t a high priority right now.
61 agencies want Australians’ personal data
In 2015 the Australian government passed controversial laws that vastly increased the amount of citizens’ personal phone and web data that telecommunications companies were required to hold.
The government also restricted the number of agencies who could freely access this data, but allowed rejected agencies to re-apply for access. An FOI request on RightToKnow revealed that over 60 have done just that. This discovery was reported by most major news organisations in Australia, including the Guardian.
You can read the full story, as told by RightToKnow, here.
The above examples show the diversity of information that is revealed thanks to Freedom of Information around the world, and the types of information that get picked up by mainstream media organisations.
So next time you have a question about a public body that you can’t find the answer to publicly already, why not consider using an Alaveteli site to ask – and that way, the response you get will then be publicly available for others to see too. You may even unearth the latest political scandal too.
If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.
The Universal Credits system is replacing many other welfare benefits… but slowly. Its roll-out won’t be complete until 2022, meaning that many are, understandably, confused about just what applies within their own local area.
Now Lasa, in collaboration with the Low Incomes Tax Reform Group (LITRG), have launched a tool to help with that problem. Just input a postcode, and it displays information about which benefits apply — and, crucially, where to go for advice in your area.
It’s part of a suite of offerings, also available as widgets that can be placed onto any website. All fall within Lasa’s remit to support organisations in the delivery of social welfare law advice to the disadvantaged communities they serve.
We’re always glad to see MapIt used in other people’s projects, especially those that make a complex system easier to understand.
Apparently advice workers are already expressing their gratitude for the fact that they can have this information at their fingertips — so hats off to Lasa.
When you send a Freedom of Information request, a clock starts ticking. Here in the UK, public authorities are bound by law to answer a request “promptly, and in any case within 20 working days” — but of course they can only respond if they’ve received the request.
And, while email is generally reliable, we’re all familiar with the occasional mishaps it can bring: mailboxes that are full, accounts that have been closed down, or messages being returned because they look too much like spam.
Sign here please
Email works a bit like signed-for physical mail. When a letter is delivered to a recipient they either sign to say they’ve received the letter, or the mail company records that there was no-one available to accept the delivery. This lets the mail company keep the sender up to date with where their letter is. Mail servers do the same — the recipient server sends a confirmation that a particular email has been received, or an error code is reported by your mail server if there’s a problem delivering the email.
Like physical mail, we can only verify that the message has been accepted at the destination address. It’s then under the recipient’s control to get it to the right person at that address, a bit like a receptionist receiving a letter for an employee 10 floors above. We think that if an authority’s mail server confirms that one of our emails has been delivered, it’s their responsibility to ensure it reaches the correct people to be able to answer your FOI request.
Proof of receipt
Look at the header of any request on WhatDoTheyKnow, and within 24 hours, in most cases you’ll now see a small green ‘delivered’ confirmation:
Most users can click on this to see further confirmation:
But if you’re the owner of the request, when you click on the green ‘delivered’ link, you’ll see information from the mail logs as the message passed through our server. If there’s ever a query about whether or not a message was delivered, you can hand these on to the authority to help them analyse any issues.
On the rare occasions that something goes wrong, here’s what users will see instead:
– and if it’s your own request, again, you’ll have access to the mail logs.
Small but mighty
This feature might look small, but there’s a lot of thinking behind it — just check the length of the trail on Github, our ticketing system. Anyone will be able to understand the amount of discussion and problem-solving that went into the addition of this small green tick, while the more technically-minded may also find it interesting to see the coding solutions as they unfolded.
This small green tick also gives users something rather powerful: proof that their request was received by the authority’s mail server at a specific time, should that be disputed.
The suggestion for this feature came initially from one of the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers. It took some time to implement, but we’re pleased to say that it has now been made available for all Alaveteli sites in release 0.25.0.0.
We’ve released Alaveteli 0.25! Here are some of the highlights.
Visible delivery status
Gareth and Zarino have added a delivery status feature that shows whether a message has been received by the authority’s mailserver. This should provide reassurance for site users that messages are getting through and makes it difficult for an authority to successfully claim that they didn’t receive the request.
Clicking on the delivery status indicator reveals a bit more detail about the status itself. Admins are shown more detail here including relevant mail logs to diagnose problems or provide proof to the authority if required.
We’ve upgraded from the so-called “Legacy” (ga.js) version of Google Analytics to Universal Analytics. For most Google Analytics users there’s nothing to do here except sit back and enjoy continued technical support and new feature rollouts from Google but if your Alaveteli theme has custom analytics scripting, you should check Google’s upgrade guide as well as our upgrade notes to see if you need to make changes. If you’re not ready to move to this release yet, don’t panic – you may not get any shiny new features from Google but they haven’t published an end date for support yet.
In addition to spam email, there’s been an increase in the number of accounts that create profiles containing spam links – presumably to boost their search engine ranking score rather than to trick people into clicking through from the site. Having spent some time going through accounts on WhatDoTheyKnow to look for patterns, we’ve added some tools to this release to try to discourage this use of Alaveteli and to make it easier for admins to discover and ban offending user accounts.
(We also looked at extending our reCAPTCHA use for new account signups but this didn’t seem to help so we are not offering it to reusers.)
Martin has been working away on improving page load times and accessibility compliance to make the pages faster to load and easier to navigate. (A process we’re continuing into the next release.) We’ve also updated the help template code so that the examples are in the example theme rather than the core code and added a rake task to help check whether your theme implements the help pages correctly.
The full list of highlights and upgrade notes for this release is in the changelog.
Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!
We were shocked and saddened to learn that Peter Williams, one of our WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers passed away earlier this week.
Peter only joined WhatDoTheyKnow as a volunteer in March of this year, however in that short time he had become a valued member of the team.
No stranger to Freedom of Information, he had been using the rights provided for in the FOI Act since shortly after it came into force here in the UK, and had been a user of WhatDoTheyKnow since 2012.
Education and senior executive pay and benefits were some of his particular areas of interest, and Peter was researching the reasons why some public bodies sometimes fail to respond to requests.
As a consequence, Peter had helpfully been collecting information on specialist colleges and schools, and proposing additions and edits to the site. Following the same route that has led to several of our keenest users becoming volunteer administrators, he was invited to join the team so that he could make the changes he was proposing himself.
By all accounts he made a strong impression during his short time on the team, both with his fellow volunteers and across the mySociety team.
“Many aspects of the site’s operation, including dealing with correspondence from users, considering requests to remove material from the site, and discussing our policies and the future development of the service, benefited from Peter’s input”, says one.
Others say: “He was a valued volunteer and a great person”; and “he was a funny, thoughtful and committed guy”.
We were saddened to learn of death of someone who shared our beliefs in the value of making information held by public bodies accessible, and who shared our passion for activism.
All are feeling the loss of a colleague who approached his role with such enthusiasm and diligence, and our team will be the poorer for his absence. On behalf of mySociety, our Trustees and the WhatDoTheyKnow volunteers our thoughts are with Peter’s family and friends.
Even official records aren’t as safe as you might think they are. The archive of a country’s political history might be wiped out in a single conflagration.
Take the example of Burkina Faso, a beautiful West African country that is, sadly, perhaps best known to the rest of the world for its troubled political past.
The uprising in Burkina Faso in 2014 led to a fire in the National Assembly building and archives office. Nearly 90% of the documents were lost. Now the National Assembly is working to reconstruct the list of its parliament’s members before 1992.
This means that the data EveryPolitician has on Burkina Faso has nothing from terms before 1992. We’ve got some data for six of the seven most recent terms from the National Assembly so far, of which five are live on the site. Even though that data is not very rich (there’s little more than names in many cases; and the 6th term was transitional so data on that one’s membership might remain elusive) it’s a beginning.
We know from experience that data-gathering often proceeds piecemeal, and names are always a good place to start.
As Tinto finds new data, whether that’s more information about the politicians already collected or membership lists of the missing terms before 1992, we’ll be adding that to EveryPolitician too.
A vast collection
When people ask what EveryPolitician is, we often say, ‘The clue’s in the name’. EveryPolitician aims to provide data about, well … every politician. In the world.
(We’ve limited our scope — for the time being — to politicians in national-level legislatures).
The project is growing. Since our launch last year, we’ve got data for legislatures in 233 countries. The amount of data we’ve collected currently comprises well over three million items. The number of politicians in our datafiles is now in excess of 70,000.
Seventy thousand is an awful lot of politicians.
In fact, if you think that might be more politicians than the world needs right now, you’re right: as the Burkina Faso example shows, EveryPolitician collects historic data too.
So as well as the people serving in today’s parliaments, our data includes increasing numbers of those from the past. (Obviously, if you have such data for your country’s legislature, we’d love to hear from you!)
More than just today’s data
The Burkina Faso fire is an illustration of the value of collecting and preserving this historic data.
Of course, we’re fully aware of the usefulness of current data, because we believe that by providing it we can seed many other projects — including, but in no way limited to, parliamentary monitoring sites around the world (sites like our own TheyWorkForYou in the UK, or Mzalendo in Kenya, for example).
Nonetheless, we never intended to limit ourselves to the present. By sharing and collating historic records too, we hope to enable researchers, journalists, historians and who-knows-who-else to investigate, model, or reveal connections and trends over time that we haven’t even begun to imagine. We know this data has value; we look forward to discovering just how much value.
But it turns out we’re providing a simpler potential benefit too. EveryPolitician’s core datafiles are an excellent distributed archive.
What Burkina Faso’s misfortune goes to show is that, as historians know only too well, data sources can be surprisingly fragile.
In this case the specific situation involves paper records being destroyed by fire. That is a simple analogue warning to the digital world. Websites and their underlying databases are considerably more volatile than the most flammable of paper archives.
Database-backed sites are often poor catalogues of their pasts. Links, servers and domain registrations all expire. Access to data may be revoked, firewalls can appear.
Digital data doesn’t fade; instead it is so transient that it can simply disappear.
Of course, we cannot ourselves guarantee that our servers will be here forever (we’re not planning on going anywhere, but projects like this have to be realistic about the longer view).
There is an intriguing consequence of us using GitHub as our datastore. The fact is, the EveryPolitician data you can download isn’t coming off our servers at all. Instead, we benefit from GitHub’s industrial-scale infrastructure, as well as the distributed nature of the version control system, git, on which it is based. By its nature, every time someone clones the repository (which is easy to do), they’re securing for themselves a complete copy of all the data.
But the point is not necessarily about data persisting far into the next millennium — that’s a bit presumptuous even for us, frankly — so much as its robustness over the shorter cycles of world events. So, should any nation’s data become inaccessible (who knows? for the length of an interregnum or civil war, a natural disaster, or maybe just a work crew accidentally cutting through the wrong cable outside parliament), we want to know the core data will remain publicly available until it’s back.
Naturally there are other aspects to the EveryPolitician project which are more — as modern language would have it — compelling than collecting old data about old politicians. But the usefulness of the EveryPolitician project as a persistent archive of historical data is one that we have not overlooked.
This is Part three in a blog post series highlighting information that has been disclosed thanks to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here are part one and part two.
Australian police use banned restraint technique on asylum seekers
Detention Logs is a project that publishes data, documents and investigations that reveal information on conditions and events inside Australia’s immigration detention network.
As part of the project, Detention Logs used Alaveteli site RightToKnow to ask the Australian Department of Immigration to disclose incident reports from detention facilities.
One such incident report revealed that the Department of Immigration approved the use of a controversial body lock technique on an asylum seeker.
The incident report describes the restraint as follows:
“The seat belt was fastened. The client and the escort staff were the first passengers to board the plane. As the client continued screaming and resisting, DIAC staff issued instruction to the escort staff to ‘lock the client down’ by pushing her chest towards her knees. However, the client still continued screaming loudly and attracting attention of the cabin crew.”
According to New Matilda and Detention Logs, the account of the restraint strongly resembles the “seated double embrace” technique banned by police in Victoria and New South Wales in Australia, and some government agencies in the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom Ministry of Justice banned this technique in juvenile detention facilities, following the death of 15-year-old Gareth Myatt in 2004.
Why the EU’s taking its time on restricting harmful chemicals
Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals that are present in everyday products – from plastics and cosmetics to pesticides. Because of their ability to interact with the hormonal (endocrine) systems of living organisms, they are suspected of having serious health and environmental impacts.
The European Union is supposed to regulate EDCs, in order to protect citizens from harmful effects. Both the EU’s 2009 pesticide regulation and the European chemicals package (REACH) demand that the EU take action on these chemicals.
However, several years later, the European Commission is still no closer to taking concrete action.
The documents have helped journalist Stéphane Horel and research and campaigning group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) to piece together why the process has stalled, and what has been said behind closed Commission doors.
To communicate their findings, they produced a book and documentary, which explains how corporations, and even actors within the Commission, are stalling the process of this key public health and environment legislation.
Now Rwandans can find out when their parliament is in session
The Rwandan parliament now publish the Chamber of Deputies’ schedule of debates/activities for each day on the homepage of their official website (under ‘Today in Parliament’).
This follows an FOI request on Rwandan Alaveteli site Sobanukirwa, which urges the parliament to do just that. The Sobanukirwa team don’t know for sure if their request influenced parliament’s decision to publish this information, but we are pretty sure it had an impact.
The Australian and EU examples above show the power of making a lot of FOI requests, across authorities, and then grouping them together to create/support a project or investigation about a wider issue of public concern.
The Rwandan example shows that perhaps, just perhaps, a single request can cause a big impact.
So, what do you want to investigate? What have you always wanted to know? Start your own investigation to unearth truths that may just surprise you, and use an Alaveteli site to help you.
If you know of any interesting requests made on Alaveteli sites (or other online FOI portals) that you’d like featured in this blog post series, then please do get in touch.
— mysociety (@mysociety) June 27, 2016
That’s the tweet we put out on Monday, after a few days of the fastest-moving politics the UK had seen in years. Little did we know that there was plenty more to come.
And it’s true. Everyone is talking politics — in the street, in the pub, on Facebook. Everyone wants information; everyone wants to express their opinions: which means that TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem are pretty useful right now.
This has been an interesting week for us here at mySociety. As well as engaging in the same scrolling through fast-changing news stories as the rest of the nation, we’ve been dashing to make a few changes to our sites.
In general, our working methods favour considered actions. We ticket ideas, we discuss them, we prioritise and schedule them, we peer review them, and then they go live. It’s an excellent system for ensuring that work is both necessary and robust. It’s not quite so ideal for working on a new feature you need, like, yesterday, so this has been a change of pace for us.
Information is key
Here’s our first significant addition. Before you email your MP on matters concerning Brexit, it’s useful to know where they stand, so we quickly created an infobox for MPs’ pages on TheyWorkForYou (based on data from the BBC):
Neither of our parliamentary sites needed structural changes: fortunately, they are built robustly and hosted on servers which cope with increased visitor numbers when they occur.
And they are occurring. In a week that has seen the referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister, mass shadow cabinet resignations, and Conservative leadership nominees, you have had plenty to research and plenty to write to your representatives about.
Here’s what visitor numbers for TheyWorkForYou look like — five times the usual traffic:
And six times as much as usual for WriteToThem:
Increased traffic is no problem (quite the contrary; we love it!), but there were some things that needed our attention. More users means more user support, so we’ve spent more time than usual answering questions about who we are, how we generate our data, what to do if a confirmation email doesn’t arrive, and so on.
Oh, and about that data:
All these resignations- will nobody think of the people who maintain parliamentary monitoring websites?
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) June 27, 2016
Lots of what’s published on TheyWorkForYou updates automatically, but not necessarily immediately. Parliamentary roles, for example, are only scheduled to update weekly.
That doesn’t allow for the rate of resignations and replacements that we’ve seen in the shadow cabinet this week, so our developers have had to go in and manually set the update code running.
We wanted to remind people that TheyWorkForYou is a great place to research the facts about those standing in a leadership contest. In particular, our voting record pages set out clearly and simply what each MP’s stance is on key issues.
So we’ve been tweeting and Facebooking reminders like this:
At times, the news moved too fast for us to keep up:
Oops! Meanwhile, we also have another useful source of information: the Conservative party speeches that were removed from the internet in 2013 and which we republished on our SayIt platform:
We’re working on improving the way that TheyWorkForYou pages look when you share them on Facebook and Twitter, which seems sensible given that they are being shared so much right now.
Videos from TICTeC — our Impacts of Civic Technologies Conference — are now available for viewing.
So, whether you were there and you want to experience it all over again, or you just want to see what you missed out on, settle down and enjoy accounts from some of the most interesting civic tech projects around the world right now.
What is TICTeC?
Here’s mySociety CEO Mark Cridge explaining what TICTeC is, and why we run it:
And if that’s left you hungry for more, make sure you visit our YouTube channel to watch the other TICTeC videos.
You might also enjoy the slides, photos and other media that have all been collected together on the TICTeC 2016 page.