Last time we updated you about Alaveteli professional, the Freedom of Information toolset for journalists that we’re building, we were just coming out of our discovery phase.
Since then, we’ve made strides through the alpha and early beta part of our development process. In alpha, the idea is to build dummy versions of the tool that work in the minimum way possible — no bells and whistles — to test concepts, and our assumptions. Having thought hard about the potential problems of Alaveteli Professional, now is the time for us to try the approaches that we believe will solve them, by making prototypes of how the tool might work and testing them with a very small group of users.
In the early stages of beta, our priority has been to get to the point where a Freedom of Information request can go through all its various processes, from composition to response, with the features that a journalist user would need. Once that’s in place, it allows us to add other features on top and see how they would integrate.
This pattern — discovery, alpha, beta, release — is a well-tested method by which to produce a final product that works as it should, while avoiding costly mistakes.
Alpha and beta testing, perhaps unexcitingly, are all about the reduction of risk: in the words of the startup mantra, it’s good to ‘fail fast’— or rather, it’s better to know early on if something doesn’t work, rather than spend time and money on something that doesn’t fit the bill.
So, for Alaveteli Professional, what are the risks that have been keeping us awake at night?
We think the biggest priority is to ensure that there’s actually added value for journalists in using a service like this. Clearly, the Freedom of Information process is already available to all, whether via our own site WhatDoTheyKnow, or directly.
We need to be able to demonstrate tangible benefits: that Alaveteli Professional can save journalists time; help them be more efficient in managing their requests; maybe help them get information that otherwise wouldn’t be released; and give them access to rich data they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access.
For all we said about failing fast, the alpha phase also meant committing to some fairly big technical decisions that, ideally, we wouldn’t like to reverse.
Decisions like, do we build the service into the existing Alaveteli codebase, or go for a new standalone one (we went for the former)? From the user’s point of view, should Alaveteli Professional look like a totally different site, or like a registration-only part of WhatDoTheyKnow (we chose the latter)?
And onto beta
As we move from alpha to beta, we’re finding out what happens when real users make real requests through the service, and making adjustments based on their feedback.
What do they think of the way we’ve implemented the ability to embargo requests – does it make sense to them? Do they trust us to keep embargoed requests private? Are they able to navigate between different interfaces in a way that seems intuitive? mySociety designer Martin has been figuring out how to take the cognitive load off the user and give them just the information they need, when they need it.
We’re also returning to prototyping mode to work out how to implement new features, like the ability to send round robin requests to multiple authorities, in an effective and responsible way. The other half of our design team, Zarino, has been showing us that a slideshow in presentation mode can be an effective tool for demonstrating how users might interact with an interface.
As we continue to round out the feature set in the UK, we’re also cooking up plans in the Czech Republic so that later in the year we can present the tools to a new audience of journalists there and again, use their feedback to make the tools more flexible so that they can be used in different jurisdictions.
As you can see, there’s lots going on, and we’re all really excited to be finally getting some real life users in front of the tools that we’ve been thinking about, and working on, for so many weeks. Don’t forget to sign up to the mailing list if you’d like to keep up with Alaveteli Professional as it develops.
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.
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
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 email@example.com.
We’d love to bring our Alaveteli Professional project to Kenyan journalism.
As of this year, Kenyan citizens are enjoying a new right to know, thanks to their Freedom Of Information Act, pending since 2007 and finally passed this year.
Alaveteli Professional will provide Kenyan journalists with a toolset and training to help them make full use of FOI legislation, so they can raise, manage and interpret requests more easily, in order to generate high-impact public interest stories.
But the project will also bring benefits to all Kenyans. By helping journalists and citizen reporters to make full use of the Act, it will ultimately make it easier for everyone to hold power to account.
How you can help
Now here’s the bit you need to know about: please tweet using the hashtag #innovateAFRICA explaining why you think Alaveteli Professional in Kenya is an important digital solution.
This will demonstrate that you agree that Alaveteli Professional is worthy of innovateAFRICA’s support — every tweet helps to give our application more traction.
Tweets from everyone are welcome, but yours will have extra leverage if you’re a mySociety partner, a Kenyan journalist or activist who would use the project, a funder or a digital innovator yourself.
Please use your 140 characters to help us bring better FOI capabilities to Kenya! And don’t forget that hashtag: #innovateAFRICA.
Image: Innovate Africa
In the last few weeks, we’ve started conducting background research interviews for our new project, Alaveteli Professional. Alaveteli Professional will be a companion service to Alaveteli, our Freedom of Information platform – initially it will be aimed specifically at journalists, but it should be of interest to anyone who uses Freedom of Information in their work.
Why are we doing this project?
Alaveteli Professional is an unusual project for mySociety. Our mission is to create digital tools that empower citizens in their interactions with the state, and people in power. Usually that means that we create tools which we intend to be used by as broad a range of people as possible – we think a lot about how to design and build for people in their role as citizens, which is a role we all experience. But with Alaveteli Professional, we’re focusing on journalists, a specific professional group. Why is that?
Citizen empowerment doesn’t always happen by direct interaction with institutions. Feeling empowered and capable of affecting what happens in your community requires knowing what’s going on in your community. Although models of journalism are changing, whether you’re getting your news from The Times, or from Buzzfeed, whether it’s funded by a paywall or by crowdsourcing, it’s hard to imagine a future in which ordinary people can be well-informed, without specialists doggedly asking questions of power, putting information from different sources together, and helping make sense of what’s going on.
Alaveteli-powered sites like WhatDoTheyKnow have been successful in giving ordinary people a simple way to ask questions of government and to share the responses with everyone automatically online. But we know that the way the sites work doesn’t always match the needs of someone who’s working on assembling a bigger story that they may want to break elsewhere. We’d love to see the work put into Alaveteli so far also go to serve the goal of informing people through high quality public interest stories in media platforms with a long reach.
That’s why we were delighted to get funding for the project from the Google Digital News Initiative, which aims ‘to support high quality journalism and encourage a more sustainable news ecosystem through technology and innovation’.
What we’re doing
The initial research for the project has been an interesting and exciting process, and not just because it has meant actually ‘leaving for work’ in the morning, rather than spending the day entirely in the virtual world of remote working. For me, one of the real joys of working on digital tools is the opportunity to spend some time in different domains of life and think about how they work.
We’ve been talking to media professionals who use Freedom of Information requests in their jobs, trying to understand what parts of the process are painful or unnecessarily time consuming. We’re also talking to FOI officers, and other people who’ve thought deeply about journalistic use of FOI, in an effort to understand the ecosystem of people and motivations – and answer questions of who is doing what and why. It’s been a real pleasure to explore these questions with people who’ve been incredibly generous with their time and ideas.
The process of making a Freedom of Information request can sometimes seem quite similar to an adversarial legal system – with the requester pitted against an institution that’s reluctant to release information, and FOI law defining the obligations, exemptions, and public interest tests that set the landscape in which the two sides are in conflict. But as with any other domain, the more you dig into it, the more interesting complexity you find in both sides, and in the interaction between the two.
There are freelance journalists working against the clock to turn around a story they can sell, but also data journalism groups in larger institutions making frequent requests as part of ‘business as usual’, and pushing out stories to their regional colleagues. As you would expect, there’s competition between journalists and media institutions, but also surprising opportunities for collaboration and shared resources. There’s a significant amount of collaboration between requesters and authorities – in some cases producing nuanced national public-interest data sets that neither could generate alone. There’s a lot of diversity in the authorities that are subject to Freedom of Information law – from tiny schools and parish councils to huge central government departments, police and health authorities. There’s also still variation in how different authorities store similar data and how they respond to FOI requests.
At this point, we’re trying to get the best sense we can of both the details and the big picture. We’re also starting to ask where we could reduce friction, encourage responsible practices, save time in such a way that it benefits the system as a whole, and increase the chance of ordinary people becoming better informed about what is being done with their money and in their name by institutions. It’s an exciting part of the project, as we start to discard some of the preconceptions we had about what might be useful, and get more confident in the value of others. I’m looking forward to starting to put those ideas into practice in the form of simple prototypes that we can put back in front of people.
Undertaking client work through our commercial subsidiary mySociety Services has been a vital part of our identity, and it provides an important source of additional revenue to complement our core grant funding.
We’ve worked with numerous organisations that share our principles and focus on impact such as Médecins Sans Frontières, The Financial Conduct Authority, the NHS, and notably we produced the UK Parliamentary Digital Report which led to the establishment of the Parliamentary Digital Service.
This is good work, but it’s meant we’ve had to support two teams, two marketing efforts and often had to juggle priorities with our charitable work.
Our overall aim is to create impactful services that benefit as many people as possible. So rather than continue to spread ourselves too thinly, from now on we’re going to concentrate primarily on appropriate commercial services that sit alongside our three thematic areas of focus: Freedom of Information, Democracy and Better Cities.
We’re taking the first step today with the announcement of a new grant from the Google Digital News Initiative, for which we’re extremely grateful. We’ll be making use of the grant to develop a new toolset for journalists using Freedom of Information.
In the next few weeks we’ll share more details on what for the moment we’ve codenamed Alaveteli Professional. Our intention is that this toolset will sit alongside as a companion service to our free FOI platform Alaveteli.org, and should it become viable we may offer a version as a commercial service through mySociety Ltd.
In the interim we’ll be speaking to lots of users, especially journalists and campaigning organisations on their use of FOI. If you’re are interested in helping us shape this product, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll keep you up to date.
This new approach will mean we can better develop complementary commercial services that fully realise their potential and better support our charitable aims and objectives.