1. Informing ourselves: what we learned at AlaveteliCon 2015

    AlaveteliCon – the conference about online Freedom of Information technologies – took place in Madrid last week.

    It was an opportunity for people who run sites based on our FOI software Alaveteli (as well as other FOI platforms such as Frag Den Staat and MuckRock) to come together and share experiences, frustrations, solutions—and the kind of anecdotes that only FOI site implementers can truly understand.

    It was also a fascinating snapshot of FOI laws around the world, and how digital tech is enabling the shoots of FOI to germinate in a variety of places, many of them previously closeted. It was inspiring, helpful and a refreshing reboot for practitioners, many of whom are fighting against quite considerable difficulties in their attempts to provide access to information.

    We heard from delegates from countries as diverse as Rwanda, Australia, Uganda, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Spain, and many more. As we heard of each country’s specific problems, we also learned, conversely, that many of our challenges are much the same everywhere.

    Resources

    Over the next few weeks we will be sharing videos, photos and further blog posts, but for now you can get a taste of AlaveteliCon 2015 for yourself in the following places:

    • The conference agenda shows which sessions ran and who was speaking
    • A Storify gathers together tweets and photos to trace the conference’s main themes
    • Some photos (we hope to have more soon) are on Flickr and Instagram
    • The Twitter hashtag, #Alaveteli15 lets you see how things unfolded in real time
    • We’ve put together a Twitter list of Alaveteli deployments around the world: should be a great follow if you’re one of them
    • There’s now also an Alaveteli Slack channel for those who would like to continue the conversations begun at AlaveteliCon: ping @HenareDegan if you’d like access
    • Join an Alaveteli Google Group: There’s one for sharing experiences of running online FOI platforms, and another for developers using Alaveteli.

    We co-hosted Alavetelicon with Access Info, and the event was made possible with support from Open Society Foundations. Many thanks to all our speakers and delegates, whose insights and generous sharing of experiences ensured that everyone went home with plenty to work on!

    We hope to summarise several of the themes that emerged in a series of upcoming blog posts.

    Finally

    There were so many discussions, offers of help, ideas, and plans for the future that it’s hard to pick out just one benefit that came from the conference.

    But to my mind, the overarching mood is expressed in the following two tweets:

    It’s the idea of Alaveteli as not just a piece of software, but a genuine community, with the ability to support its members. The idea that, working together, we can identify and overcome difficulties.

    Putting faces to names, listening to stories—and yes, sharing a cerveza or two over the two days of AlaveteliCon—really helped to consolidate that idea.

    A lot of enthusiasm was born in Madrid: long may it last.

  2. Join us in Madrid for AlaveteliCon 2015

    MadridAlaveteliCon 2015, 19-20 May, Madrid

    The second international Alaveteli conference

    Venue: Impact Hub Next, C/ Alameda 22, Madrid 28014

     

    There’s no other conference like it. If you’re involved with Freedom of Information technologies, you’ll want to be at AlaveteliCon, the only event with a specific focus on FOI in the internet age.

    AlaveteliCon brings together civic society organisations and individuals from around the world. All have one thing in common: an interest in online Right To Know tools.

    Interested? Keep reading and apply below!

    (more…)

  3. Alaveteli release 0.21

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.21!

    The highlights

    Smoother

    One of the most important things Alaveteli does is to make filing a new Freedom of Information request less daunting for members of the general public. So we’ve taken another look at the process of making a request in Alaveteli, and knocked off a few of the rough edges in the user interface. Hopefully it’s now even easier than before.

    Safer

    We’ve also improved security in a few places, making sure that actions taken on the site are secure against cross-site request forgery, adding sensible security headers and enforcing an expiry time on session cookies.

    More accurate

    There’s a new interface for administrators that lets them easily add public holidays to the database for the place where the Alaveteli site is running. This is really important in calculating correctly when requests are due for a response, according to the law.

    Less spammable

    Finally, in the eternal fight against spam, we’ve removed the ability of banned users to update their “About me” text. So no more spammy profiles.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed (we now have code from nearly 40 different people!)

  4. We Know A Lot More: a quarter of a million pieces of information since 2008

    Back in January 2012, I wrote a blog post to mark a milestone: WhatDoTheyKnow, our Freedom of Information site, had processed 100,000 requests.

    Just three years later, that number now stands at 250,000.

    That represents a quarter of a million requests for information that have been processed through the site, and published for anyone to access.

    Everything we said in that previous blog post still stands:

    WhatDoTheyKnow was set up to give everyone, not just experts, access to information.

    By publishing the requests and responses, it strives to create efficiencies for all.

    And none of it would have been possible were it not for our wonderful, dedicated team of volunteers, who manage the site admin, help users with their queries, and diligently discuss and process any legal challenges that arise. Thank you, Ganesh, Alex, Alistair, Helen, John, Richard and Ben, and thank you, Francis for your legal advice.

    As well as performing a service for the people of the UK, WhatDoTheyKnow also stands as an example of what’s possible. Much of our international activity focuses on helping partners use Alaveteli, our FOI software, to get Right To Know sites up and running in jurisdictions all over the world. It is great to be able to show them that an Alaveteli-based FOI site can thrive.


    Image: Peaceful-jp-scenery (CC)

  5. 12 exciting projects mySociety was hired to deliver last year

    Image by Craig Sunter

    Not many people realise that we fund a proportion of our charitable work by carrying our commercial development and consultancy work for a wide range of clients.

    Last year, we scoped, developed and delivered a real variety of digital tools and projects. Some of the projects were surprising. Some of them made us gnash our teeth, a bit, as we grappled with new problems. But all of them (and call us geeks if you like) got us very excited.

    Here are just twelve of our personal high points from last year. If you have a project that you think we might be able to help you with in 2015, we’d love to hear from you!

    1. We Changed the Way in Which Parliament Does Digital

    Palace of Westminster by Greg DunlapThis time last year, a small team from mySociety was poring over analytics, interview content and assorted evidence from Parliament projects dating back last 2-3 years, to help us put together a simple set of recommendations to conclude our review.

    11 months later, Parliament have announced their first Head of Digital, fulfilling one of our key recommendations.

    2. We helped the MAS and the FCA protect financial consumers

    Bubble Car by Allen WatkinTwo of our projects helped people financially.

    We built the Money Advice Service’s (MAS) first responsive web application, the Car Cost Calculator.

    This tool takes one simple thing you know (the car you wish to buy) and tells you roughly how much it’ll cost to run that car against any others you might be interested in. It has been one of MAS’ most successful online tools in terms of traffic and conversion.

    We also built the Financial Conduct Authority’s Scam Smart tool, aiming to prevent financial scams.

    This tool helps users considering a financial investment to check a potential investment. Users enter information about the type of investment, how they heard about it and the details of the company offering it to them and get back tailored guidance and suggested next steps to help them ensure the investment is bona fide.

    3. We Gave Power to the People of Panama (soon)

    Alaveteli homepageWorking with the The National Authority for Transparency & Access to Information (ANTAI) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO), we set up our first government-backed instance of our Freedom of Information platform, Alaveteli, in Panama.

    This project will ensure that Panama’s FOI legislation is promoted and used, but it will also shine a light on ANTAI, who are responsible for ensuring ministries and organisations publish their information, and handling case appeals.

    4. We Mapped All the Public Services in Wales

    Bws Ysgol - Image by Aqwis via Wikimedia, CCAfter we extended the Mapumental API to produce data output suitable for GIS (geographical information systems), the Welsh Government were able to map public services in Wales for their Index of Multiple Deprivation calculations.

    Over the course of the year they have calculated travel times for over seventy thousand points of interest.

    5. We Launched a New Organisation in Four Weeks

    Simply SecureSimply Secure approached us in dire need of a brand, an identity and a website to accompany the launch of their new organisation to help the world build user-friendly security tools and technologies.

    Cue four weeks of very intense work for mySociety’s designer, supported by members of the commercial team. And we did it.

    6. We Printed Stuff BIG (and found people jobs)

    Public transport travel times to Birmingham meet-up, from Mapumental by mySocietymySociety developer Dave Arter figured out how to generate A1 sized maps from Mapumental for every job centre in the UK – all 716 of them.

    Xerox will be using these with the DWP to help job seekers find work that is within reach by public transport. As a byproduct, Mapumental now handles high-fidelity print based outputs: get in touch if that is of interest.

    7. We Opened Up Planning Applications

    open-planning-shotWith Hampshire County Council we had the opportunity to build a new application to help assist members of the public and business better understand what was happening around them. For us, it was also the first application in which we worked closely with a provider of a linked data store, in this case Swirrl.

    When Open Planning goes live, it will look to help improve social engagement and the economy of Hampshire through better understanding and transparency of planning data.

    8. We Proved (Again) That FixMyStreet Isn’t All About Potholes

    CollideoscopeAfter a spate of cyclists’ deaths in London last year, we felt that the moment was right to build something that would support cycle safety in the UK.

    We launched Collideoscope on October the 7th with our first sponsor—Barts Charity, with the aim of generating data both on incidents involving cycles, and near misses.

    9. We Helped Launch a Film

    A map of old Norse place namesWe built a tool for the British Museum, to go alongside the general release of Vikings Live. The Norse Names project brought a sense of context and personalisation to a dataset gathered by the University of Nottingham.

    10. We Made Data More Exciting

    To the Trains by Nic McPheeIn 2013, we built an interface to help people explore the data in the National Rail Passenger Survey (NRPS) data explorer  for Passenger Focus.

    This year, they asked us to build something similar for bus users. We’re entering the final week of development now, and the finished product should be launched in March.

    The main aim of this site? To take data that could be considered pretty dry, and make it a lot more engaging.

    11. We Fixed Yet More Potholes

    Fixed, by Tup WandersThis year Warwickshire, East Sussex, Hart & Harrogate joined the list of councils using FixMyStreet as their main street fault reporting platform.

    That means that residents of those places can now make their reports direct from their council’s website, or via FixMyStreet, and either way they’ll have all the benefits of FixMyStreet’s smooth report-making interface.

    12. We Showed Parliament the Way

    Parliament Square by Duncan HarrisAnd so, we end where we began. While Parliament were busy interviewing candidates for their new ‘Head of Digital’ position, we were commissioned to demonstrate what Hansard might look like were a platform like SayIt used instead of the largely print-based publishing mechanisms used today.

    The result was shared internally. While SayIt may not be the end solution for Parliament, it’s great to have had some input into what that solution might be.

    And in 2015…?

    Got a project that you’d like us to be involved in?

    Get in touch and tell us about it.

    Image credits:

    Eggs: Craig Sunter; Parliament: Greg Dunlap; Bubble car: Allen Watkin; To the Trains: Nic McPhee; Potholes: Tup Wanders; Parliament Duncan Harris. All Creative Commons.

     

  6. Release 0.20

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.20!

    The highlights

    This release includes several additions and improvements to the admin interface for Alaveteli.

    Here’s a summary of the highlights:

    • We’ve added an admin user interface for managing the categories and headings that are used to distinguish different types of authority. Updates are now a lot easier.
    • An admin can now close an authority change request without sending an email to the person who requested it. Good for handling spammy requests!
    • CSV Import fields for authorities are now configurable. This is useful for themes that add additional attributes to authorities.

    As for general improvements, there are plenty of those, too. For example:

    • We added a fix to ensure attachments are rendered for emails sent with Apple Mail
    • We removed a confusing authority preview from the process of choosing who to write to. Clicking an authority now goes straight to the authority page.
    • We added filtering by request status to the requests displayed on the user profile page.
    • There’s now a Health Check page, so you can tell if everything seems to be running smoothly.
    • Sensible default values have been added to some configuration parameters.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks again to everyone who’s contributed!

  7. Research: Assessing the Impact of Alaveteli

    Image by  Véronique Debord-LazaroToday, we’re sharing research conducted on the impact of online Freedom of Information technology, including our own platform Alaveteli.

    Researchers Savita Bailur and Tom Longley spent three months gathering first-person experiences, analysing data and assessing existing literature to answer this question:

    In what circumstances, if any, can the Freedom of Information tools mySociety builds be shown to have measurable impacts on the ability of citizens to exert power over underperforming institutions?

    You can read their findings here:

    1. Literature review [PDF]

    2. Main report, based on qualitative research into FOI sites around the world [PDF]

    3. Critical success factors and recommendations [PDF]

    The methodology

    The research was conducted in three parts: first, Tom and Savita reviewed existing literature on the impact of FOI, particularly FOI online, to form a baseline of existing knowledge in the area.

    They went on to interview people who run, or ran, FOI sites in 27 different countries. They used the resulting transcripts for qualitative research, pulling out common themes to help them draw conclusions.

    Finally,  they were able to use these insights to create a list of critical success factors for those implementing FOI (especially Alaveteli) websites.

    The motivation

    Why did we conduct this research, and why now?

    Alaveteli has had a period of intense growth over the last three years – but it would be irresponsible of us to continue its promotion without assessing its true worth and impact.

    This is best learned from the people who are at the coalface – the implementers (as Tom and Savita mention in the final research, a fuller study would have allowed them to include government workers and the sites’ end users, too, but that’s perhaps something for the future).

    Alaveteli was created with the best intentions – to allow anyone, anywhere to put questions to the people and institutions in power – but it is important to assess whether those intentions have been realised.

    We need to ensure that we have spent our efforts and our funders’ money responsibly, and that we are not wasting resources by making poor decisions.

    mySociety’s Head of Research, Dr Rebecca Rumbul, says, “This report confirms that the basic model does work, with the UK site WhatDoTheyKnow.com operating as a well-used civic resource with thousands of users per month.

    “Whilst the research shows that our partners implementing Alaveteli in their own countries are demonstrably up to the technical challenge of running these sites, it identifies the importance of governmental relations and receiving the right support in the early stages of implementation.

    “We now hope to build on this research to better understand how to maximise the use and effectiveness of our platforms around the world in empowering citizens to engage with governments and decision-makers.”

    The research was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.

    As the literature review confirms, this type of study has never been done before – and with practitioners speaking to the researchers from within many different cultural backgrounds and political regimes (they interviewed implementers of 20 Alaveteli instances, from Australia to Uruguay), we are in a unique position to take a global view on the subject. For a fully-rounded picture, the study also spoke to implementers of seven sites running non-Alaveteli FOI software.

    Of the experience, Savita and Tom say “We were so impressed by the dedication and determination of all the implementers in wanting to raise awareness of FOI and seeing Alaveteli as the platform to do this (even taking into account constructive criticism). The research experience was also great.”

    The end result? Take a look for yourself – if you have the slightest interest in online democratic technologies or government-to-citizen information sharing on an international basis, it’s compelling reading.

    What we’ll take away

    There are learnings for us here, although it was great to hear such consistent praise for the Alaveteli platform and the community that has been created around it.

    mySociety’s Director Tom Steinberg said, “We will certainly be looking carefully at the recommendations that have come from this report.

    “This will include decisions about how to share best practice across the Alaveteli community, and not just in the technical areas.

    “We’ll also be looking hard at the issue of how to ensure consistency in the analytics that are collected by different sites. And we very much hope to return to the subject in a couple of years’ time, when today’s new sites have become established, in order to conduct a follow-up piece of research.”

     

    Image credit: Véronique Debord-Lazaro (CC)

  8. An invite to our Evening of Research

    eveningAs mentioned in a recent blog post, we’ve commissioned lots of research recently to find out what impact our sites have.

    So, we thought, why not have an event to talk about some of the projects we’ve been working on, and consider future research.

    Next Wednesday 19th November, we’ll be chatting about the following research projects in particular:

    Can online freedom of information tools like Alaveteli help citizens to exert power over under-performing institutions?

    Earlier this year mySociety instigated a research project to look at the place that Alaveteli and other FOI online technologies might have in creating cultures of transparency and accountability.

    We want to address this top level question: “In what circumstances, if any, can tools like Alaveteli be shown to have measurable impacts on the ability of citizens to exert power over underperforming institutions?”

    Researcher Dr. Savita Bailur will present the findings and methodologies of this project. Find out more about this research here.

    Examining the power of social information within website copy

    With Professor Peter John from University College London we undertook a research project to examine the power of social information within website copy. For example, do more people write to their politician if they are shown how many other people have done the same?

    Peter will talk about the methodologies behind this research and share some of its key findings. (more…)

  9. More on design thinking and why we’re using it

    About 6 weeks ago we arrived back from Monrovia, having just undertaken our first design exercise out there. Paul wrote about our experience in this blog as a broad overview. After further long distance design calls we wanted to delve a little more deeply into the process we’re following and what we’re learning about it.20140723_120014

    To begin with, I should mention is that this is the first project where mySociety International will be leading on the implementation of a project using Design Thinking (the South African was a trial using a cut-down version of the approach and furthermore the implementation is being carried out solely by a local team).

    Another important point for us is that the Design Thinking approach encompasses far more than just thinking about software development. The aim of the process is to develop an understanding what is required to ensure that the users’ need is addressed. Some of the solution might be technical, but much is likely to be about the processes and people that are required to ensure that needs are met.

    20140725_090407For example, in the case of the Liberian FOI project where the internet penetration is low and the day to day obstacles people need to overcome are significantly more difficult than in the global north, a large proportion of the project time and resources will be dedicated to delivering offline services.

    These provision of these services will tend to take a shape that fits into citizens’ current experiences.  An example might be setting up an SMS short-code that allows people to contact a support team to call them back, in order to draft an FOI request on their behalf. They will then physically deliver hard copies of those FOI requests to the relevant ministries in Monrovia.  This type of solution could be particularly beneficial for people who live outside the capital and do not have the time or resources to travel there to submit requests directly themselves.

    There are two critical differences between the Design Thinking approach and other projects we have run with groups in the past. The first is that, with non-design centred partnerships, most groups start the process with a firm sense of the “type” of thing that they want from the outset – for example an instance of our Pombola platform that is used to power Mzalendo.com.

    This is totally understandable, and in many cases what the funders of these projects are looking for, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the users will get the most impactful solution.

    Where we have sufficient funding to undertake this process available we intend for all of our new international projects to be starting with no expectations about the ultimate product – the outcome might even be that we don’t end up producing any software at all, because the best solution might consist of a desk, a phone and some radio advertising.

    The second difference is that we have usually relied upon the local implementing partner to provide the insight and define the specification.

    For our Design Thinking based projects we’ll have a closer relationship with the local partner and together we’ll identify potential end user groups we can talk to about their needs.

    20140723_111135After doing a first round of in-depth interviews, the team then synthesise the information – essentially sharing what we’ve learnt with the rest of the group to pick out the most important points. The next stage is empathy mapping, where we figure out what people have said, thought, felt and done. This is a key stage in helping to identify the needs of the users.

    It might seem simpler to ask them what they need, and often we did say something like “What would make this process easier for you?”. Yet actually analysing what they’re saying about the process and at what points they seemed frustrated or blocked – that tells us a lot more about points where we could change and hopefully improve the process than a straight up “What do you need?” question.

    This is the stage we’re in at the moment with the Liberian project, though we have done some brief forays into Ideation – coming up with ideas for how to address the needs, and we are now starting to thinking about prototyping these ideas.

    Of course, this method doesn’t mean we’ll completely stop using software solutions, or looking at A/B testing and Analytics as measures of the success of website. However we will also be looking at other measures of success or failure based on the product we’re building and the change we’re trying to achieve.

    In the case of the Liberia FOI project, many of the users are likely to have no direct contact with the software themselves so we’ll need to design a monitoring system that measures the effect the changes have on their experience of making FOI requests.

    One thing we’ve learnt is that a Design Thinking approach doesn’t only affect the first iteration of a solution. This may seem obvious, but from our brief work with this process we’ve seen that uses/users can be hard to predict at the outset – though in the case of the latter group we worked hard to spread the net widely in order to find potential users in Liberia.

    So we’re interested to see, when we get to that point, what the prototype testing brings back and what new changes, improvements and tweaks need to be made.

    More about our experiences with this process will be shared the lifetime of the project, as we learn, change and iterate ourselves.

  10. Release 0.19

    We’ve just released Alaveteli 0.19!

    The highlights

    This release we’ve been working on making Alaveteli easier to install.

    We’ve also made some great improvements to the framework.

    • Added responsive stylesheets! We’ve made this the default, but you can configure whether they’re used or not in config/general.yml.
    • Support for the Portuguese locale.
    • Improved search term highlighting.
    • The Public Body Stats page can now be made available to your users.
    • Added a Rake task for cleaning up holding pen events (rake cleanup:holding_pen).
    • Added searching of bodies by their short name.

    You can see the full list of highlights and upgrade notes in the changelog.

    Thanks to everyone who’s contributed!