1. Why we believe a digital FOI tool can improve Kenyan journalism, and empower citizens at the same time

    Back in December we told you about our application to innovateAFRICA, for funding to launch our Alaveteli Professional project in Kenya.

    Well, we’re delighted to say we’ve been shortlisted for a grant. innovateAFRICA judges will take a few weeks to consider shortlisted applications, and winners will be announced on 30th January.

    In the meantime, we thought we’d ask the project’s coordinators, Henry Maina from ARTICLE 19 East Africa and Louise Crow from mySociety, to describe the project in a bit more detail and explain why they think it’s so important.

    What is the Alaveteli Professional project?

    Louise: Alaveteli Professional is a new toolset that we are currently building as a companion service to our existing Alaveteli software. Alaveteli is mySociety’s open-source platform for making public freedom of information (FOI) requests to public bodies.

    Alaveteli Professional will provide journalists and those who use FOI in their work with extra functionality and training to ease the process of raising, managing and interpreting FOI requests, which can be a very time consuming and overwhelming task. This is so that they can spend their valuable time on creating more high-impact journalism and research that holds public authorities to account.

    Why bring the Alaveteli Professional project to Kenya?

    Henry: The project will enable more Kenyan journalists to utilise one critical tool in their armoury: namely the Freedom of Information law enacted on 31st August 2016. It will also complement our earlier training of 25 journalists on the FOI law.

    Louise: innovateAFRICA funding will allow us to bring our newly developed toolset to the Kenyan context. The toolset will have already been tried and tested by journalists in the UK and Czech Republic, so we’ll use examples of how these European journalists have successfully used the platform to generate stories in our trainings with Kenyan media. Simply building these tools is not, on its own, enough. For this reason, the Alaveteli Professional project in Kenya will also involve refining the tools for the Kenyan context, the training of journalists, the creation of support materials and the provision of direct assistance in making and analysing requests.

    From ARTICLE 19’s experience of training Kenyan journalists on the new FOI law, how will the Alaveteli Professional project help them with their work?

    Henry: ARTICLE 19 has trained journalists on the Freedom of Information laws in Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan. In all our past training, we created manual request protocols and follow-up required making telephone calls. The Alaveteli Professional project will help most journalists to easily file, track and share information about information requests in an easy to engage, review platform.

    Why is it so important for journalists and citizens alike to hold authorities to account in Kenya?

    Henry: First, journalists and citizens are keen to understand why and how their public servants and officials take decisions. Second, citizens have a right to participate in the management of public affairs and effective engagement is only possible if the citizens are well informed.

    Will the project also benefit Kenyan citizens who aren’t journalists?

    Louise: Yes. Providing journalists with the extra toolset requires us to first install a standard version of Alaveteli. Therefore, alongside citizens in 25 other countries in the world, Kenyan citizens will be able to use the platform to easily send requests to public authorities, or, as all responses to requests are published on the site, browse already-released information.

    Citizens will also benefit even if they don’t use the site at all: they’ll benefit from news stories that expose corruption and mismanagement or missing funds and so on, and thus hold those in power to account.

    What impact will the project have on Kenyan information officers/civil servants?

    Henry: The project is likely to have great impact on Kenyan information officers and public officials. First, it will offer an objective platform to recognise and reward civil servants that enhance access to information as they will be able to manage requests more efficiently. Second, given the trend in questions, officers will be aware of the information that they can and should proactively disclose to lessen individual requests. Third, it will bolster ARTICLE 19’s ongoing work of training information officers that seeks to help them better understand the law and their obligations under it. Four, most of the government decisions will gain traction with citizens as there will be publicly available information on why and how such decisions were arrived at.

    What lasting impact do you hope the project will achieve?

    Henry: The Kenyan government will be more transparent and accountable, journalists will be more professional and their stories more credible and factual, allowing the country to entrench democratic values.

    Louise: As with all our Alaveteli projects, we hope the project will amplify the power of Freedom of Information and open government, by giving a broad swathe of citizens the information they need to hold those in power to account, and to improve their own lives.

    How you can help

    So there you are — a little more detail on why we hope to bring Alaveteli Professional to Kenya. We hope you can see the value as much as we can! If so, and you’d like to help support the project, please do tweet with the hashtag #innovateAFRICA: every such public show of support brings us a little closer to winning the grant.

    Image: The iHub (CC)

  2. OGRX: sharing the best in Civic Tech research

    At the Impacts of Civic Technologies conference TICTeC last year, we were treated to a presentation on a resource for the Civic Tech research world. OGRX, the Open Government Research Exchange is a repository of digital, eGov and Civic Tech peer-reviewed and stand-out articles, out of GovLab NYU — you can see the in-depth presentation here.

    As one of the featured Editors of OGRX, mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul was recently invited to make her top five picks from the collection. As she explains, her selection runs from the “paper that should be read by all newcomers to the Civic Tech world” to the “important piece of literature that I take inspiration from when designing my own research projects”.

    Rebecca has this to say about the value of sharing other people’s research in the sector, and the benefits of OGRX:

    Rebecca Rumbul“The mySociety research team spends lots of time asking interesting questions about Civic Tech, and dreaming up ways to answer those questions, but one of the main things we do that is not so obvious is read about other people’s research. A LOT!

    “Before we start any new research project, we carefully review what others have done before us, thinking about what worked for them, what kind of experimental design they used, what other writers inspired their research, and what insights they were able to draw from their work. Learning about others’ research is one of the main parts of the job of researching the impacts of Civic Tech.

    “This is one of the reasons that we began the annual TICTeC conference: to give practitioners and researchers interested in the impacts of Civic Technology a genuine opportunity to learn, share and challenge each other in a safe space.

    “Alas, TICTeC only happens once a year, and outside of that, it can be tough to know where to go to find interesting, current and relevant research, especially if you don’t have university access to online journal articles.

    “That’s where OGRX really fills the gap. If you are thinking of submitting something for TICTeC and want some inspiration, or if you are just interested in accessing good quality and relevant content, why don’t you have a look around? You can also submit your own research!”

  3. Don’t miss your chance to attend TICTeC 2017! All the important dates

    Now the new year’s begun, we’re allowing ourselves to get excited about The Impacts of Civic Technology conference in April. This will be the 3rd annual TICTeC, bringing researchers, practitioners and activists together in Florence, Italy.

    TICTeC was a sell-out last year, so if you’re hoping to participate, make sure you don’t miss the boat! Here are the important dates for your diary:

    10 February

    For those who would like to run a workshop or give a presentation: please ensure you have submitted your abstract by this date.

    10 March

    Earlybird registration ends, so if you want to take advantage of the better price for snappy booking, better get to it!

    As soon as possible

    Once you’re certain that you’ll be joining us, please do book your travel and accommodation as soon as possible. Florence is a popular destination at this time of year — so the longer you leave it, the harder it will be to find well-priced flights and rooms.

    25 – 26 April

    The conference itself. Keep an eye on the TICTeC website for full details of proceedings as they are announced.

    Looking forward to seeing you there!

    Image:  Marco (CC by-nc/2.0)

  4. Alaveteli for campaigners: How to create pre-written requests for your supporters

    If you are using Freedom of Information for a campaign, and you need to request the same information from several different bodies, or a variety of information from one body, it can be useful to put your supporters to work for you.

    We recently profiled the Detention Logs project, which is using Freedom of Information requests to uncover conditions in Australia’s detention centres. Anyone can use the information already uncovered to request further documents or clarify ambiguous facts.

    One aspect we didn’t mention is that, in order to make this process as quick and simple as possible, Detention Logs provides users with a pre-written FOI request which they can tweak as necessary before sending off to the relevant authority. This is linked to from a button on the Detention Logs website

    This nifty bit of functionality could be useful for all kinds of campaigns. If yours is one of them, read on to discover how to set it up.

    Instructions

    This method will work on any Alaveteli site that is running a recent version of the code: for our example, we’re using RightToKnow but you could substitute WhatDoTheyKnow.com or any of these.

    Here’s an example of a pre-filled request — follow the link to see what it looks like on the page:

    As you can see, this unwieldy web address contains all the information that RightToKnow, Australia’s Freedom of Information site, needs in order to create a pre-filled request.The URL tells it who the request should go to, what the title of the request is, and what should go in the main body.

    It’s quite simple to create these yourself. Just build the URL up in steps:

    1. Begin by telling the site that this is a new request: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/
    2. Add a forward slash (/) and then the body you want the request to be sent to (exactly as it is written in the url of the body’s page of the website): https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force
    3. Add a question mark: This tells the website that we are going to introduce a ‘parameter string’. Now our URL looks like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?
    4. Input a title: we need to indicate that the next part should go into the ‘title’ field, like this: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title= and then dictate what the title should be: https://www.righttoknow.org.au/new/nsw_police_force?title=Police%20brutality Notice that if there is a space between words, it should be shown as %20. To make the process of encoding the URLs easier, you can use an encoder tool like this one: http://meyerweb.com/eric/tools/dencoder/
    5. Input the body of the request, again using ‘%20’ between each word. This is where your URL can become very long! We use the parameter default_letter and the salutation (Dear…) and signoff (Yours…) are automatically wrapped around this by the site, so there’s no need to include them:

    Remember to include a ‘=’ after each parameter name (e.g. title=) and to separate parameters with an ‘&’.

    So, there you have it. A customised URL that you can set up if you need supporters to send a pre-written request to a specified body or bodies.

    As mentioned above, the Detention Logs project used this method to help their supporters request detention centre incident reports, attaching a different URL to each report so that the title would contain the relevant report number. To see the technical details of how they set this up, visit their GitHub page.

    More parameters

    Here are some other parameters that can be used in addition to the ones above:

    • body – This is an alternative to default_letter which lets you specify the entire body of the request including the salutation and signoff.
    • tags – This allows you to add a space-separated list of tags, so for example you can identify any requests made through your campaign or which refer to the same topic. For example, the Detention Logs project used tags like this: &tags=detentionlogs%20incident-number%3A1-2PQQH5

    A tag can have a ‘name’ and an optional ‘value’ (created in the form “name:value”). The first tag in the above example is ‘detentionlogs’ (‘name’) and the second tag is ‘incident-number:A1-2PQQH5’ (‘name:value’). The encoder tool above changes the colon to ‘%3’.

    If you use this pre-written request tool we’d love to hear about it, so please get in touch if you do.

    Image: Gabriel Saldana (CC 2.0)

  5. 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!

  6. 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)

  7. 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)

  8. 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.

  9. 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)

  10. 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)