Work for a council? Tell us what you need
We’re making some pretty big improvements to the FixMyStreet for Councils service at the moment: improvements that will save councils both time and money, while giving them flexibility and insights into their fault report handling.
This has been our core focus over the last six months, working with our customers to design a new category of case management system, for local government, and by local government.
We’ve been working together with local authority insiders because they’re the people who know best what they require from a piece of software they will use every day. If you also fall into that category, we’d love to hear from you.
We’ll be sharing early iterations of the improved service as we make progress. Your feedback will be part of that process, helping shape a service that does everything you need it to do.
As we add these new case management features, we’ve set three core principles:
- To lower the operating cost of highways, parks and streets management by improving the user experience for all involved, from residents to council staff
- To change the relationship between local government and providers like Skanska, Veolia et al from direct management and instruction, to one of monitoring and oversight
- To treat the asset management system as a data repository for asset information, not a case, customer or works management solution
If you are from a local council and you would like to find out more, or you would like to provide feedback on early prototypes, help with user testing and become a part of our development process, we would love to hear from you.
Those who want to find out more about obtaining FixMyStreet for Councils can do so by checking out our page on the Digital Marketplace.
In May of this year we began our search for new Trustees and Directors to join our charitable and commercial boards at mySociety.
I’m very glad to say that we’ve now completed our search and today we can announce the appointment of three new Trustees to the board of our parent charity UK Citizens Online Democracy (UKCOD) and three new independent non-executive Directors to mySociety Ltd.
Our three Trustee appointments are Rachel Rank, Tony Burton and Nanjira Sambuli who join our Chair, James Cronin and fellow long-standing trustees Manar Hussain, Owen Blacker and Stephen King of the Omidyar Network on the UKCOD board.
Rachel Rank is Chief Executive of 360Giving where she is aiming to make grant funding in the UK much more transparent. Previously she was Deputy Director of Publish What You Fund, leading the organisation’s research and monitoring work, including the development of an annual transparency index.
Rachel has previously held positions with the Commonwealth Secretariat, DFID, DAI, Transparency International and the Overseas Development Institute. She has researched and written several publications on transparency, good governance and accountability.
Tony Burton founded Civic Voice – the national charity for the civic movement; he is Vice Chair of the Big Lottery Fund (chairing its Audit and Risk Committee), Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth, Executive Chair of Sustainable Homes, Vice Chair of HS2’s Independent Design Panel and a trustee of TCV (The Conservation Volunteers).
With 25 years’ executive experience on the boards of national charities working with communities on environment, heritage and land use, he has a strong track record in strategy, campaigning, volunteer development and external affairs for conservation, community, regeneration, planning and the environment.
Nanjira Sambuli was until recently Research Lead at iHub, in Nairobi Kenya, providing strategic guidance for the growth of technology research in East Africa and has just taken on a new role as Digital Equality Advocacy Manager at the Web Foundation. She focuses on the unfolding impacts of ICT adoption to governance, innovation, entrepreneurship and societal culture in Kenya, and across Africa, with a particular passion for the gendered aspects to technology access and adoption.
Nanjira is on the Advisory Board (Africa) for Sum of Us, board member at Kenya’s Media Policy Research Centre, and sits on the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment where she works with panel members to demonstrate high-level leadership and renewed commitment and action towards making women’s economic empowerment a reality in our lifetime.
At the same time we are enlarging our commercial board with three new non-executive Directors joining mySociety Ltd. Tim Hunt, Jonathan Flowers and Anno Mitchell join our Chair James Cronin, trustee representative Owen Blacker and myself Mark Cridge, Chief Executive of mySociety.
Tim Hunt is Marketing Director of The Guardian, leading the expansion of the global audience into the US and Australia whilst driving increased newspaper revenue of £64m last year.
Tim began his career in advertising – where he was Managing Partner of St. Lukes; he also founded his own successful consultancy practice and launched Sky Italia as Marketing Director.
Over the past 15 years he has held senior digital and tech marketing roles including board roles at YouView, Freeview and launch Marketing Director of Project Kangaroo, the internet joint venture between BBC Worldwide, ITV and Channel 4.
Jonathan Flowers is a portfolio non-executive Director, strategic advisor for three companies and Coach, with deep experience in Local Government.
He was formerly a member of the independent service transformation challenge panel appointed by Treasury and DCLG, Managing Director of a consulting business, Commercial Development Director for a major Financial Services company, Deputy Chief Executive of a County Council, Local Government Executive headhunter and advisor, and local government sector strategist for a FTSE-50 company.
Jonathan is an alumnus of the Cabinet Office Top Management Programme, Fellow of the OR Society, Chartered Management Institute, Institute of Directors and the RSA.
Anno Mitchell is a specialist in digital organisational change. Over the past twenty years she has helped a diverse range of organisations to clarify their vision and purpose; helping them understand how this drives product and capability development and marketing. She was recently Chief Strategy Officer at the agency We Are Friday, where she created new digital strategies and services for international clients such as HSBC and Barnardo’s.
Previously she has worked with government and third sector organisations, as Strategic Lead for Digital Engagement in the Department of Health, Product Strategist for iCan / Action Network at the BBC, and Innovation Consultant to Horsesmouth, a peer to peer mentoring platform for younger people funded by the Edge Foundation.
Together these new Trustees and Directors bring a formidable range of important experience to our boards; drawn from fundraising, communications, marketing, product development, local government, finance, governance and international development. They also bring much needed balance in gender and our first non-UK board member.
We all look forward to working with each of them over the next few years and we’re excited about the new connections, critique and possibilities these appointments bring.
And to the single departure
We are also saying thank you and goodbye to James Crabtree, Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy and Contributing Editor at the Financial Times, who is stepping down from the UKCOD board after 13 years.
James pretty much coined the idea for mySociety in his 2003 Open Democracy article which called for the UK Government to establish a civic hacking fund. This in turn prompted original founder Tom Steinberg and others to start mySociety.
For that we are incredibly grateful and extend many thanks to James for his long and distinguished service.
Image courtesy of Bart Heird
Here’s the latest in a series of blog posts to highlight the kind of information that has been opened up to the public thanks to Freedom of Information requests on Alaveteli sites across the world. Here is part one, part two, part three and part four.
Auckland residents can now visualise future development in their community
Sometimes data released via FOI requests can be pretty incomprehensible, and frankly quite dull. That is, until someone makes a handy visualisation tool that makes the data come alive and easier to understand.
That’s exactly what happened with this request made on the New Zealand Alaveteli fyi.org.nz. The data released was picked up by the New Zealand Herald, who have used it to make an interactive map (see screenshot below) of Auckland Council’s proposed neighbourhood development plan.
Now Auckland residents can see at a glance how their council plans to change their local neighbourhood.
A similar use of data released via FOI laws occurred a few years ago in the UK after this request on WhatDoTheyKnow. The request asked for the location of every post box in the UK. The data released has been used to create useful tools like this one (developed by our very own Matthew Somerville), which helps citizens easily locate the nearest place to post their letters:
Hungarian utility provider consciously allows pollution of major river
Another great way to help people visualise the real-life effects of the data they see in an FOI response is to video it, like investigative journalists at Atlatszo did. Their short clip graphically shows a river clogged up with four times as much sewage as the treatment plant has the capability to process.
Atlatszo used KiMiTud to obtain local government audit reports of a sewage works company.
The documents reveal that five audits have been carried out in the last few years, and serious deficiencies were found each time: harmful untreated sewage was being pumped into the nearby river Tisza.
These findings led to the company being fined by the regulator. It is claimed that the company would rather pay these fines than spend the money updating their equipment.
According to Atlatszo’s investigation, the company could not and did not refute that the quality of water leaving their plant is often more polluted than legally allowed, and admitted that their equipment is not up to date. Let’s hope Atlatszo’s pressure on them will make them change their practices.
In a recent similar case in Australia, the use of FOI revealed evidence of neglect at a landfill site, with the potential for environmental harm and drinking water contamination.
The above examples yet again show the real diversity of information you can obtain via FOI requests, and highlight what an amazing tool FOI is for both data journalists, and investigative journalists.
In fact, we’re so passionate about journalists taking full advantage of FOI laws, that we’re about to launch a project that will develop a set of tools to help journalists (and others) to use FOI more easily in their work.
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.
Gavin Chait hates walking past empty shops.
We’re talking about shops where the only person inside is a bored cashier, waiting for customers. Gavin sees it as a sign that the business should never have been set up in that location, and, more importantly, as something that’s completely avoidable.
With his company Whythawk, he’s on a mission to get that changed — and he’s using Freedom of Information to do so. It’s a very interesting case study that shows just how WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information platform, can be used for the social good.
So, if you have a few minutes, sit back and watch Gavin explain what led him to make 350 FOI requests, one to each local authority in England and Wales — and what he did when many of them were turned down.
You can read more about the whole project at Pikhaya.com.
Thanks very much to Gavin for taking the time to talk to us.
Do you have a story to tell about how you’ve used one of mySociety’s sites? We’d love to hear from you: just drop us a line on email@example.com.
If you’ve visited the MapIt site this week, you might have noticed a change: we’ve introduced key-based authentication for API users.
This enables us to be more flexible about how we provide our service, which means you can be more flexible about how you serve your users.
MapIt is both an open source application and, via https://mapit.mysociety.org, a web service. Use of the API is free for low-volume, charitable use, while all other uses require a licence.
For the moment API keys are optional. We’ll always offer a free level of service to support independent developers and charities.
We’ll have more details soon about the increased flexibility this change will bring.
Today we’ve added twelve new topics to the voting pages for every MP on TheyWorkForYou. Covering important areas such as membership of the EU, mass surveillance of data, and military action against Daesh/ISIL, these voting lines will help give an even better at-a-glance picture of what your MP stands for, and how that was reflected in Parliament.
Check your own MP’s votes on these topics by inputting your postcode on the TheyWorkForYou homepage:
and then clicking on the ‘voting record’ tab:
You’ll see all your MP’s voting lines laid out in several topic areas on a single page:
From there, it’s easier to explore further by clicking ‘show votes’, which will take you to a page listing every vote taken into consideration when calculating the MP’s stance.
For a full explanation on the methodology behind these pages — a combination of manual and automated inputs — see our previous blog post.
How do we choose which topics to include? It’s all driven by what MPs have voted on in Parliament, and consequently how much data there is to draw from in any specific subject area (there are also a few ‘topics in waiting’: areas we know we want to cover, but where there need to be some more votes before we have sufficient data to present meaningful stances).
New topics in full
The new voting lines we’ve added are:
- In Constitutional Reform
- Reducing the voting age
- In Home Affairs
- Mass surveillance of people’s communications and activities
- Merging police and fire services under Police and Crime Commissioners
- In Transport (a new topic area)
- High speed rail network
- Greater public control of bus services
- Publicly-owned railways
- In Foreign Policy & Defence
- UK membership of the EU
- The right to remain for EU nationals
- Military action against the group known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh
- In Taxation & Employment
- The reduction of Capital Gains Tax
- In Housing (a new topic area)
- Secure tenancies for life
- Charging a market rent to high earners renting a council home
We hope this helps you see, even more clearly, the effect your MP has had on a broad range of national and international issues.
Don’t forget that we also offer the chance to discuss these votes (or any other issue) with your MP. Just click the ‘send a message’ button at the top of the page to go to WriteToThem.com, where you can compose a message to your representatives quickly and easily.
- In Constitutional Reform
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.